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Reactionary Themes in Zardoz

At a recent media event, Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, after a talk focused on social media, offered up the following observations:

"Because I'm a billionaire, I'm going to have access to better health care so . . . I'm going to be like 160 and I'm going to be part of this, like, class of immortal overlords. [Laughter] Because, you know the [Warren Buffett] expression about compound interest. . . . [G]ive us billionaires an extra hundred years and you'll know what . . . wealth disparity looks like."1

“Class of immortal overlords”? Upon reading this, my mind immediately flashed back to John Boorman’s film Zardoz (1974). With a budget and a box office both less than $2 million, over the years it has become a science fiction cult classic. It is a morality tale on the failure of all utopian schemes and a parable of the collapse of the modern order.

Zardoz contains a number of reactionary themes. No literary or dramatic genre is so characteristic of late modernity as science fiction. When narrating a story about human society in another place and time, the narrator may start thinking along lines of: what does human society look like outside a Whig conception of history as “progress”? What are the essential features of culture, politics, and the relationship between men and women? It is not a flawless procedure but can yield some interesting answers.

Zardoz is typical of a genre 1970s dystopian science fiction that explores the relationship between the individual and a bureaucratic collectivist society. However, this individual is not an everyman but is instead a superior specimen, a leader capable of reconstituting sovereignty within his person and becoming the King. Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975) is another example of a film that works on these lines.

Zardoz is set in the year 2293, following the collapse of modern civilization into a new Dark Age, a true Kali Yuga. After a spoken introduction evocative of Shakespeare, we see an army of men on horseback assembling before a flying stone head, which they worship as a god. Zardoz has commissioned these “Exterminators” first to kill and then to enslave the denizens of the benighted Outlands, called the Brutals. The first scene includes some of the most unexpected lines in cinematic history, delivered in a booming voice from the stone head of Zardoz:

“The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds and makes new life to poison the Earth with the plague of Men as once it was.”

Zed, an Exterminator leader, stows away aboard the stone head and travels from the Outlands to Zardoz’s home in the Vortex, which is situated by a lake in a protected valley. Upon landing, he explores this oasis of civilization, but is eventually subdued by two women, May and Consuella, using psychokinesis. They are leaders of the denizens of the Vortex, known as the Eternals. They have adopted this name because of their mastery of a technology of indefinite life extension, while the Brutals outside the Vortex continue to be born and to die in the normal human manner. While traveling in the head, Zed killed an Eternal, Arthur Frayn, who had been given charged over the Outlands, but Zed is careful to conceal this. But this murder is temporary. Even upon accidental or violent death, the Eternals’ bodies and memories are reconstructed from data banks within the Tabernacle, a human-level artificial intelligence that supervises all aspects of the Vortex.

May believes Zed, as the first Brutal to penetrate the Vortex, should be studied, but Consuella lobbies for his extermination. When these proposals are put to a vote, the Eternals are swayed by images of Zed’s years of pillage and murder, not repulsed, but self-confessedly excited and entertained by the images. An Eternal named Friend is given charge over Zed, who Friend calls “Monster.”

Most of the denizens of the Vortex appear to be women. The few men are highly effeminate, suggesting the Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. We eventually learn that the transition to immortality has rendered the men unable to have erections. Given that the population of the Vortex has been stabilized at its current levels with no birth occurring in almost 300 years, this impotence has both functional and symbolic components. The parallels with the West’s deathbed demographics are obvious, but interesting in a film made during early 1970s “population bomb” hysterics.

While undergoing scientific testing, Zed is exposed to various pornographic images to test his erectile function. Only the physical presence of the Vortex leader Consuella causes the appropriate reaction, not images on film. While the extensive female nudity in Zardoz was likely intended to exploit new mores in film and the collapse of the old standard of censorship, in practice the nudity turns out not to be gratuitous but reflection of the reality that the film is fundamentally about fertility and its absence.

The Vortex is governed as a direct democracy by multiple plebiscites conducted throughout the day and moderated by the Tabernacle, whose initial programming functions as an unamendable written constitution, allowing the denizens of the Vortex no exit, especially from the grant of immortality. Large numbers of Eternals have become the Apathetics, living in a permanent state of catatonia.

However, the Vortex is not a Popplerian “open society.” While the basic activity of the Vortex, at least initially, is open scientific inquiry, all of the elements we might describe as “political” or “superstructural” are fixed and cannot be changed or debated, having been hard coded in the programming of the Tabernacle. Eternals who seek to provide “constructive criticism” are instead prosecuted for thought crime, called “psychic violence.” Given their immortality, the punishment is certainly not death or even confinement for a space of years. It is to be aged by a certain number of years. Friend suffers this fate when he can no longer hide his dissident views. In fact, a large number of Vortex dwellers have been aged to the point of senescence, including all of the initial Founders of the Vortex.

We learn that constructive criticism is much needed, as Vortex society has failed. Everyone knows it but most are unwilling to admit it, like characters out of Solzhenitsyn. Late in the film, Friend confides to Zed: “We applied ourselves to the unsolved mysteries of the universe, but even with infinite time and the help of the Tabernacle, our minds were not up to it. We failed.” Friend goes on to observe, “All this technology was for travel to the distant stars.” Zed asks, “Did you go?” Friend’s response: “Yes: another dead end.” Not a popular sentiment with your average science fiction audience to reject the Titanisms and heroic pretentions common to the genre.

The Founders were great scientists in the closing years of the twentieth century who sought to protect human knowledge and achievement through the coming Dark Age, the specific cause of which is never disclosed. May, Consuella, Friend and the other Eternals are literally the children these Founders brought with them into the Vortex who have displaced their parents, not in the normal pattern of birth and death, one generation carrying on the work of the previous one, but rather in a patricidal revolt that leaves the Renegades on the verge of death, in a kind of undeath.

Archetypically, Zed is the King. May discovers from a genetic scan that Zed is physically and mentally superior to the denizens of the Vortex. In fact, he and his lieutenants in the Exterminators are the results of a controlled breeding experiment initiated by Arthur Frayn. Turning to May to learn the secret of death in the Vortex, Zed finally shows her the truth. Zed had “lost his innocence” upon reading the contents of a ruined library and discovering that the name “Zardoz” comes from the children’s story “The Wizard of Oz.” This too is part of Arthur Frayn’s plan. When Zed learns that Zardoz is not a god, but a tool of tyranny, he concocts a scheme to travel to the Vortex to avenge himself on those who deceived him. He is resentful that Zardoz commanded enslaving the Brutals and using them for forced agriculture to raise enough food to feed the Eternals, depriving him of a warrior’s nomadic existence. Now in the Vortex, Zed learns that the Eternals have neglected and destroyed the Brutals, rather than leading and organizing them.

Based on a prophecy that Zed is “the One, the Liberator,” May offers to teach Zed all of human knowledge by “osmotic” learning, in exchange for impregnating her and a handful of other Eternals. There is no hint of Chinese, Japanese or Islamic civilizations in the literature, art and music Zed absorbs. It is entirely Western focused. Zed is profoundly changed by the experience, and leaves behind his life of violence. “I see nothing inside expect my own perplexity. Knowledge is not enough.” In the penultimate scene, the ancient leader of the Renegades and the Founders pronounces the verdict on the society he has created. “The Vortex is an offense against Nature. She [Nature] had to find a way to destroy us.” If they do not acknowledge the living God, they at least acknowledge GNON.

When Zed knocks the Tabernacle offline, the Exterminators are waiting outside the periphery shield to enter the Vortex and slaughter the waiting Eternals, who now seek only death. The orgy of violence at the film’s climax may be seen as just another effort to take advantage of the looser content rules to increase spectacle and titillation, as ultra-violence, led by the films of Sam Peckinpah, was a new feature in the early 1970s. But one would also have to be blind to miss the obvious, if perhaps unintended, connections with Georges Sorel’s Reflections On Violence and parallels to the West’s invasion by barbarians from the outlands.

Consuella begins as the Vortex leader most opposed to Zed’s presence and called for his immediate destruction. Toward the end of the film, approaching Zed to murder him, Zed tells Consuella, “You cannot; you will not.” In the process of hunting him, she has been changed, in a display of an alpha woman seeking to be dominated by an even more powerful man. Zed quotes Nietzsche: “He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself.” He finally concludes, “You have given me what no other gave: love. If I live, we will live together.” Marriage is reborn.

In the aftermath of their attack on the Vortex, the Exterminators acclaim “Zed!,” but Consuella and Zed have gone their own way. In the film’s final peroration, accompanied by the magisterial Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Zed and Consuella consummate their love and we see Consuella giving birth to a baby boy. By giving herself to Zed and giving him an heir, Consuella has become the Queen, a role for which she was destined her entire life and thwarted for centuries by the dead end of Vortex immortality. In the film’s final montage, we watch as their son grows and then heads out on his own. Lastly, we watch Zed and Consuella age and die and see their love takes its place in eternity.

The end of history has ended. And history has begun again.

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