‘Earth’s Holocaust,’ a Global Bonfire to Reckon With
“Earth’s Holocaust” is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) that delivers enough déjà vu to make one say loudly “what else is new”? This is not another “I told you so” tale but a deep look into the heart of human life. Reading like a catalog of everything that’s wrong with the world, it shows (in an allegorical way) how deadly the attempt to correct the negatives of life may be when passion overtakes wisdom.
Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind contains a synopsis of “Earth’s Holocaust” that beats anything I may offer here, but I thought it would be a good idea to “dust off” this revealing story and summarize it by threading highlights together, using Hawthorne’s own words (within quotation marks):
It was agreed among the smartest of the smart that since the world had become overwhelmed by an accumulation of rubbish from the past it was necessary to toss everything no longer needed into a huge bonfire, a decisive step in straightening out the crooked world. For “the truth was that the human race had now reached a stage of progress so far beyond what the wisest and wittiest men of former ages had ever dreamed of, that it would have been a manifest absurdity to allow the earth to be any longer encumbered with their poor achievements.” And so tons of worthless items were tossed into the great bonfire, fueling it to a whelming blaze.
An onlooker cried out: “ ‘People, what have you done? This fire is consuming all that marked your advance from barbarism, or that could have prevented your relapse thither. We, the men of the privileged orders, were those who kept alive from age to age the old chivalrous spirit; the gentle and generous thought; the higher, the purer, the more refined and delicate life. With the nobles, too, you cast off the poet, the painter, the sculptor – all the beautiful arts; for we were their patrons, and created the atmosphere in which they flourish.’...”
“ ‘Let him thank his stars that we have not flung him into the same fire!’ shouted a rude figure.... ‘If he have strength of arm, well and good; it is one species of superiority. If he have wit, wisdom, courage, force of character, let these attributes do for him what they may; but from this day forward no mortal must hope for place and consideration by reckoning up the mouldy bones of his ancestors. That nonsense is done away.’...”
“ ‘Wines, liquors, and brews were tossed into the bonfire, all the tea and coffee and tobacco; one witness lamented: ‘What is this world coming to?... All the spice of life is to be condemned as useless...If these nonsensical reformers would fling themselves into it, all would be well enough!’ ”
“ ‘Be patient,’ responded a conservative; ‘it will come to that in the end. They will first fling us in, and finally themselves.’...”
“A little boy of five years old...threw in his playthings; a college graduate, his diploma; an apothecary...his whole stock of drugs and medicines; a physician, his library; a parson, his old sermons; and a fine gentleman of the old school, his code of manners, which he had formerly written down for the benefit of the next generation...”
It was startling “to overhear a number of ladies, highly respectable in appearance, proposing to fling their gowns and petticoats into the flames, and assume the garb, together with the manners, duties, offices, and responsibilities, of the opposite sex...”
“A poor, deceived, and half-delirious girl, who, exclaiming that she was the most worthless thing alive or dead, attempted to cast herself into the fire amid all that wrecked and broken trumpery of the world. A good man, however, ran to her rescue. ‘Patience, my poor girl!’ said he, as he drew her back from the fierce embrace of the destroying angel. ‘Be patient, and abide Heaven’s will. So long as you possess a living soul, all may be restored to its first freshness.’...”
Next to be thrown into the fire were “all the ordnance of battle, save for the world’s stock of gunpowder, which, as the safest mode of disposing of it, had already been drowned in the sea....”
A veteran commander grumbled: “ ‘Let them proclaim what they please; but, in the end, we shall find that all this foolery has only made more work for the armorers and cannon-founders.’ ”
Someone protested: “ ‘Why, sir, do you imagine that the human race will ever so far return on the steps of its past madness as to weld another sword or cast another cannon?...You forget, general...that, in this advanced stage of civilization, Reason and Philanthropy combined will constitute just such a tribunal as is requisite.’...”
Next into the roaring fire came the implements of death used for punishment – machinery of cruelty that demanded “something worse than man’s natural heart to contrive [from which] even the flames seemed at first to shrink away... [The increased intensity of the blaze was] sufficient to convince mankind of the long and deadly error of human law...”
As the people grew more “enlightened” by the minute, “some threw their marriage certificates into the flames, and declared themselves candidates for a higher, holier, and more comprehensive union than that which had subsisted from the birth of time....”
And into the great conflagration went “thick, heavy folios, containing the labors of lexicographers, commentators, and encyclopedists...[the writings of Voltaire, Milton, Shakespeare and every previous author to be included.]”
Intoxicated by the consuming spirit of total reform, the people now demanded the destruction of “all written constitutions, set forms of government, legislative acts, statute-books, and everything else [connected with governance]….”
“ ‘Well,’ [someone now asked,] ‘and does anything remain to be done?...Unless we set fire to the earth itself, and then leap boldly off into infinite space, I know not that we can carry reform to any farther point.’ ”
I leave to Russell Kirk the story’s ending, in which a witness calls for a final offering for the fire:
“There is one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and without which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all; yes, though they had burned the earth itself to a cinder.”
“And what may that be?” [demanded someone to know].
“What but the human heart itself?... And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery – the same old shapes or worse ones – which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. O, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!”
Author Anthony responds by saying that he finds it impossible to ignore the similarity of the activism employed in this story to the activism of today’s cancel culture – oh, not just the cancellation of people but the cancellation of everything that makes life worth living and worth fighting for.
Anthony J. DeBlasi is a military and culture war veteran.