2020: Our Jekyll/Hyde Year

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We’ve been hearing it for weeks now: 2020 was a terrible year and we all can’t wait to shake its dust from our feet and move on to a better, brighter 2021. Between tense racial eruptions, the Covid stranglehold of fear and “socialist” distancing, and the flagrant fraudulence of our election system, 2020 was a bad year, certainly. 2021 can be a better year, certainly, but we all have a part to play in that potential. In many ways, 2020 was a bad year because we collectively went along with bad things. A strange, sheepish monster of subservience came out of many of us in 2020 and, as the famous Dr. Jekyll would certainly diagnose, we have a choice before us on the threshold of 2021.

Rather than looking at the events of the year past, we should all look at how we reacted to them. Such New Year’s reflections might unmask a particular horror of human existence—a horror that was captured by the ancient Romans, who gave the passage into a new year to Janus (the god of gateways) who bore two faces, one facing forwards and the other backwards, looking both to the future and to the past. G. K. Chesterton adds further poignancy to this two-faced horror as he muses over Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “The real stab of the story is not in the discovery that the one man is two men, but in the discovery that the two men are one man.” So are we all, and it is the person we choose to be on the tumultuous stage set for 2021 that will make or break the New Year.

When R. L. Stevenson scribbled down a nightmare he had in 1885, calling it The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fanny Stevenson did not care for her husband’s story. Mrs. Stevenson’s objection was that the tale relied too much on the gothic style prevalent at the time, which is related to the modern “goth” style insofar as they are both reactions to and rebellions against the same problem—the problem of eradicating mystery for the sake of elevating mastery, which always leaves the world too small to satisfy. This was largely a literary backlash against the Victorian Enlightenment, which stressed reliance on reason, science, and social progress to solve the problems of the human condition. The gothic movement, contrariwise, stressed the unknowable, obscurity, and even criminality to remind us that there are realities at large that are beyond man’s ken or control.

Back then, young ladies wrote shocking novels about ambitious scientists who reasoned they could make men out of corpses, just to discover they could only make monsters. In recent years, young delinquents wore stark eye makeup and studded leather while preaching the nihilistic street slogans of a subculture of death-worship and despair. And who are the new gargoyles of the Gothic movement? Could it be the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers? The science deniers, racism deniers, and election deniers, perhaps? We have come a long way, but the sickness is the same. There are no simple, scientific solutions for social harmony.

Stevenson was sensitive to the gothic principle that man does not live by reason alone, and that attempts to do so would lead to a tragic fall. Consequently, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is constructed according to a classical, tragic pattern in which the hero toils towards his own undoing, yet doesn’t realize it until it is too late. Dr. Jekyll devised to hide within himself in the act of his animal indulgences, and so gave birth to the troglodytic Mr. Hyde. Hyde was the drug-induced liberation of all that was base in Jekyll—everything vile that was lurking beneath his civilized surface—as well as the doctor’s foil to free himself from shame by eliminating his better nature from the equation.

The tragedy came in the discovery that conscience can never be eliminated from the equation. The patient dies on the operating table in an effort to surgically amputate common sense from existence. Dr. Jekyll was made to learn “that the doom and burden of our life is bound forever on man’s shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure.”

We should all bear these words in mind as we make resolutions for the New Year. We should resolve to accept that the doom and burden of our lives is bound forever on our shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it returns with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure. The more we as a nation push away the fear of social stigma, sickness, frailty, and even death, the more we give in to increasingly unfamiliar and pressurized enslavements.

But we went along under the pressure, unfamiliar as it was. We went along, more or less, with racial stereotyping, government overreach, forsaking our freedoms left and right, and even election fraud, giving over more and more control of our lives. We accepted a culture of scientific nonsense, media manipulation, and societal shaming and domination. 2021 may be no brighter than 2020 if this stream is the one we have chosen to drift along in, floating haplessly like dead things. If 2021 is to be a better year, this bizarre submission can’t continue any further than it already has. 2021 will be a better year only if people like you and me choose to think and act for themselves according to right reason, sound morals, and religious duty—and, in so doing, stand up against inappropriate attempts to govern our way of life.

As Dr. Jekyll’s experiment demonstrated, there is no circumvention of the consequences of letting vice run amok while virtue slumbers. There is no security for the soul who keeps his allegiance to truth a secret. There is no immunity and no escape, because there never can be a happy balance between good and evilAs Lucifer betrayed the Father, so Dr. Jekyll’s counterpart betrayed his maker; and so are we betraying our image and likeness when we wear the masks, avert our eyes, stay silent, and become monsters of subservience to the narrative. Societal adaptation, like temptation, is a sly device that takes silent root and grows like a tree, becoming more and more difficult to do away with, until it dominates and defines a landscape.

Dr. Jekyll teaches that those who make deals with the devil are more likely to be his victims than those who make war with him. Shall we continue, then, to countenance Catholics who vote for pro-abortion politicians, as they show their patriotism by masking up, crying “Science is real”, when they aren’t hiding away from their communities? Dr. Jekyll’s professional recommendation would be that America needs a healthy dose of the gothic attitude, which values the dangerous and delightful mysteries of life and love, of religion and death. That’s a prescription we won’t be getting from Dr. Fauci anytime soon.

If you make any New Year’s resolution this year, consider making a resolution to examine The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—and through it, your own strange case. Will you rend the veil of self-deception from head to foot? Will you look on your life as a whole? Will you choose the better part? “The terms of this debate are as old and as commonplace as man,” Dr. Jekyll warns us, and we are well to be warned as we weigh 2021’s reaction to 2020’s soft totalitarian takeover.

[Photo credit: Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com]

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania.

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