The Wanting Seed: Cyclical History Concept

The Wanting Seed is a dystopian novel by the English author Anthony Burgess, written in 1962.

By Balthazar Malevolent

The Wanting Seed: Cyclical History Concept

The novel was written in 1960, during a difficult period for Anthony Burgess, when after a doctor's verdict predicting his imminent death from a brain tumour, he would be writing novel after novel, hoping to secure a comfortable existence for his wife. According to his autobiography, the dystopia was influenced by a reading of Thomas Malthus while Burgess was preparing an extensive article on him for an American scientific journal; the novel's title came from a folk song whose refrain repeated the words of the promiscuous and desirable seed.

The novel depicts a catastrophic future where faith in God is the preserve of a few old-believer fanatics, and the Bible is seen by most as "an ancient religious book full of obscenities". The world of the three super-powers (the English-speaking, the Russian-speaking and the Chinese Union) is suffering from global overpopulation, and the population control methods of each super-power vary. While in China the death penalty is imposed on a family for having just the second child, the Union of Anglophone Countries initially seems more liberal: it promotes abortion and "unproductive forms of sexual activity" as well as strongly encourages homosexuality. In accordance with government policy, homosexuals have a great advantage and enhanced rights over heterosexuals, and in order to tighten birth control, the government passes a law forbidding women to give birth a second time.

The novel's historiosophic concept, entrusted by the author to the protagonist, teacher Tristram, is based on the ideas of two religious thinkers who influenced the writer's self-understanding: St Augustine and his teaching of the original sinfulness of man and Pelagius, the famous heresiarch, who denied original sin and predestination.

The historical movement follows in a circular pattern through three stages: Pelphase, the Pelagian stage of sufficient freedom and democracy, leads to the destruction of state institutions:

According to Tristram "A government functioning in its Pelagian phase commits itself to the belief that man is perfectible, that perfection can be achieved by his own efforts, and that the journey towards perfection is along a straight road." The novel begins – and ends – in Pelphase.

Pelphase is followed by a transitional stage of chaos and anarchy - Interphase.

"'Brutality!' cried Tristram. ... 'Beatings-up. Secret police. Torture in brightly lighted cellars. Condemnation without trial. Finger-nails pulled out with pincers. The rack. The cold-water treatment. The gouging out of eyes. The firing squad in the cold dawn. And all this because of disappointment. The Interphase.'"

Pelphase is followed by Gusphase. The leaders begin to realise how horrible they have become, and realise that they are being overly harsh. Therefore, the government relaxes its rules and creates havoc. Tristram describes the Gusphase:

"The orthodox view presents man as a sinful creature from whom no good at all may be expected... It eventually appears that human social behaviour is rather better than any Augustinian pessimist has any right to expect, and so a sort of optimism begins to emerge. And so Pelagianism is reinstated."

The cycles follow one after the other and repeat from age to age. This theory was Burgess' answer to Orwell.

The Wanting Seed

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