Anti-Christ. By Joseph Roth. 177 pp. New York.: The Viking Press. $2.25.
The year is young, but already there has been published what is likely to be its strangest book. “Anti-Christ” purports to be an essay on evil in the modern world, but it has none of the demonstrativeness and reasonableness that we usually associate with essays. Instead, it is a dream-like outpouring, a mystical confession, a thundering and a wailing that would suit none too poorly the tongue of a Prophet. Its attitude is not that of any religion; its well-spring is the Hebraio-Christian spirit that is commonly opposed to paganismâ€”the proud heritage of the western world. It is a modern reassertion of the moralism of the Ten Commandments.
This spirit today is on the defensive. Its priests daily witness the turning of the eyes of men toward the things that are Caesar’s: not the meek but the rich, not the righteous but the successful, not the godly but the powerful are held up to the admiration of all men. Roth everywhere finds greed, pride, lust and envy raging unrestrained. He has a particular hatred for the movies, munitions manufacture, oil industry and race prejudice. Behind these and other activities of man he sees lurking “a single force, so rich in evil potentialities, so concentrated in its power of harm to mankind, so subtle in temptation, and so intense in the negation of God, that he can only attribute it to a personality.”
That personality is anti-human, anti-God, Antichrist; and Roth knows that he has often met him face to face!
The book then relates somewhat autobiographically, with the transcendental abstractness of a sixteenth century mystic, Roth’s encounters with Antichrist or his minions. He encountered him in the War, when he gave men chocolate and sent them to their death â€”when he melted down church bells to the tune of patriotic aphorisms and forged cannon. He met him in Russia, where the Communists said that “religion is the opium of the people,” and impiously taught the self-sufficiency of man’s reason and the all-powerfulness of science. He met him in Hollywood, where they make the films which steal the hearts and minds of people throughout the world away from God. He met him in the mines, factories and in Nazi Germany.
Nowhere among the tens of millions is Antichrist absent. And Roth offers no formula for driving him out, except the faint hope that the six and thirty righteous men among the tens of millions will prevail. He writes much about the Jews and anti-Semitism; he shows that there is no difference between Jews and other people, and that anti-Semitism is a focus for that hatred which is the chief tool of Antichrist. A strange, vague book is this indeed, and one in which the reader will find, as in most mystical writings, almost anything he seeks.
Andre Malraux too is a mystic, but his mysticism is pagan. He is in a state of violent reaction against the atrophied moralism and spiritual decay of the western world. Everywhere he sees a slow stagnation that must lead to death. To escape this he is in need of sensation, of ever-renewed sensual stimulation. So he has left France and gone to the jungles of Cambodia, where violence and sudden death lurk around every corner. He opposes sudden death to death by stagnation; only by facing it in its crudest form can he be sure he is defying it. The challenge to #eath, he says, is as imperious as sexual desire. And so “The Royal Way,” on the face an adventure story, is an account of how two men went into the Cambodian jungle to duel with death, and thus to prove to themselves that they were alive.
This book was written in 1930, and I don’t think that M. Malraux himself was satisfied with his formulation of the problem. For he discovered that even in the jungle death can creep up on one in a slow and ugly way. Perken, one of the two adventurers, steps on a bamboo barb during a treasure hunt. The treasure, valuable statuary, is obtained, but during the long and painful journey back to known country, Perken lingers through a slow and horrible poisoning. This book ends with a note of doubt and confusion. It was not until Malraux went to China during the revolution, and gathered the materials for his magnificent “Man’s Fate” that he really came to understand the significance of the death of the individual. It then became the supreme positive act of the individual, in contrast to the blind, brutal continuance of the masses.
“The Royal Way” is a failure as an adventure story and a failure as a demonstration of a thesis. It is the work of a young man feeling his way. It is worthy of some attention, however, because it is a milestone in the career of a French novelist who seems fated for great things. He is grappling with the most difficult problem that confronts thinkers and writers todayâ€”the problem of the individual in the collective or cooperative state. As various states abandon the democratic forms under which individualism thrives, more and more writers, sensitive as human beings no less than as thinkers, will be forced to turn to this problem. The scientists may well formulate the policies of the new state, but only men of imagination such as Malraux will be able to envision the relative degree of human suffering or happiness in such a state. And that, in an era of political and economic tinkering, is something we all want to know.