Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 165-174
I finally figured out what this scene reminds me of, and it’s given me a new sense of how the Antichrist’s supposed mind-control mojo works.
It reminds me of Improv Everywhere — the “New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” Specifically, it reminds me of what Improv Everywhere often does to its “audience” — to the unsuspecting members of the public on the street who are initially unaware that they’re witnessing an act of guerrilla theater.
Think of it: It’s January and you’re riding the subway on your way to work in the morning. A dozen people enter the car at the next stop. One of them appears to be a businessman, a stock-broker maybe. He carries a briefcase and has a newspaper tucked under his arm. He’s wearing a suit jacket and tie, and an overcoat because, again, it’s January.
That’s bonkers. Pants are not an option in public or in January, and particularly not in public and in January. The social mores requiring pants are firmly established. We all know this. We all know that one cannot just walk out the door, get on the subway and head to work without putting on pants.
But what we’re less sure about is what we’re supposed to do when someone else seems unaware of this rule. It seems like we ought to do … something. But we have no clear idea what that would be.
It would be one thing if this otherwise unremarkable commuter seemed drunk or high, or if he seemed to be having some kind of mental breakdown. We would be able to explain and accept this sight if it seemed this was just some college student dropping trou for some kind of “wacky” hijinks. But this guy isn’t acting wacky or drunk. He seems utterly nonchalant and perfectly normal — except for the bonkers fact that he’s not wearing pants.
This being New York, someone says something. The man looks down, as though he hadn’t realized. “Dammit,” he says, “I was in such a rush this morning I must’ve forgot.” Like he’d left his cell phone on the nightstand. Or like he’d left a window open and the forecast calls for rain.
This man is on the train without pants. Bonkers. But exponentially more bonkers is his apparent inability to acknowledge how bonkers it is.
This is not a thing that happens. This is not something that actual people actually do. Yet here is an actual person actually doing it. And he’s so calm and nonchalant about the whole thing that you can’t help but start to second-guess yourself.
Well, he doesn’t seem to think this is weird, so maybe … You start involuntarily grasping for some correspondingly casual and matter-of-fact, sensible explanation for this very strange thing — some way of reinterpreting it as some kind of normal you hadn’t previously realized could be normal. Maybe it’s like he said. Maybe he just was in a rush and he somehow forgot …
A dozen more people get on at the next stop. Two of them aren’t wearing pants. They seem like otherwise normal people, yet neither of them seems aware that they’re not wearing pants, or that three people riding the subway without pants is a full-gonzo bonkers thing that never happens.
On the one hand, the pants-less newcomers just made the situation three times more strange. But on the other hand, the nonchalance of the first guy now has social support. You’re now faced with three people whose demeanor quietly insists that your bewilderment is uncalled for. The number of witnesses silently testifying that this is all perfectly normal is increasing, and thus so is the pressure to consider that view. Plus, what you’re seeing now is no longer unprecedented. Some part of your brain says, “Oh, look, more people who forgot their pants. I’ve seen this before. This is something that sometimes happens. …”
Another bare-legged commuter gets on at the next stop, and the next. Both ideas get a little bit louder. “Something very, very strange is happening” vs. “How is it I’d never noticed people doing this before?”
Finally, at the eighth stop, a street vendor enters the car with a big duffle bag filled with pants he’s selling for $1 and at last it becomes clear that this was all some kind of joke — a show. The audience laughs and cheers and applauds.
They’re laughing because it’s a funny joke, but they’re also laughing because they’re relieved. They’re relieved to finally have the explanation they’d been trying to figure out, and they’re even more relieved to have that explanation confirmed as Possibility No. 1 rather than Possibility No. 2. Possibility No. 1 was “this is not normal.” Possibility No. 2 was “If this is normal, then I must not be normal.” If their nonchalance is correct and this is not bonkers, then I must be bonkers.
As with many good pranks, there’s an element of something like cruelty involved. It’s a bit like gaslighting, this trick of causing people to second-guess themselves. That initial tension enhances the delight that follows, so in the end it’s all good (although I do worry a little about anyone who got off the train before the big reveal).
The No Pants Subway Ride seems to draw its inspiration from the classic Hans Christian Andersen story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” That’s such a familiar story that it’s gotten reduced to something of a fable about the perils of flattery and pompous hypocrisy. We thus sometimes lose sight of what it reminds us about the incredible power of social pressure to align ourselves with whatever it is we’re told to understand as normal. Improv Everywhere’s subway stunt highlights that part of the story. In their version, the emperor is in on the joke — making that pressure all the more powerful.
It’s not surprising that a bunch of unsuspecting commuters can be semi-convinced to accept pants-less subway riders as somehow normal — as a thing that apparently just happens. What’s more alarmingly strange? The sight of a businessman who casually forgets to put on pants? Or the sight of a human being, addicted or traumatized or both, sleeping on the sidewalk unaided and unnoticed? Once you’ve been taught to overlook the latter, overlooking the former isn’t that big a stretch.*
This is my new theory, then, about the source of the Antichrist’s “mind-control” mojo. This is a feature of the power of antichrists in the biblical sense (as opposed to the pop-culture idea of “The Antichrist,” embraced and read back into the Bible by “prophecy scholars” like Tim LaHaye). Antichrists — in the Bible itself, the word is always plural — seduce us into being “conformed to this world,” as St. Paul said.
By “this world” Paul wasn’t referring to the Other — to those nasty unbelievers, Ninevites, humanists and liberals with their rock music, R-rated movies, two-piece bathing suits and other degenerate symbols of their “worldliness.” For Paul, as for Jesus, “this world” refers to a system — to the oppressive, unjust status quo of The Powers That be, which compels and cajoles us all to participate in its oppression and injustice.
In this system, any nail that sticks up will get hammered down. But, as Andersen’s story reminds us, the real power isn’t in the hammer. The real power lies in the ability to convince us that we don’t want to stick up. That power is so effective that very little hammering is ever required.
We can imagine an evil tyrant –a The Antichrist — who was able to re-enact the parade in TENC as a demonstration of his unchallenged power. He would be able to parade down the street naked with all the people marveling over the splendor of his imaginary finery. And they wouldn’t entirely be pretending — in a sense, they would actually see the new clothes that weren’t there. Such power would be indistinguishable from supernatural “mind control.”
(In this version of the story, of course, the little child who exposes the emperor’s nakedness would be quickly and efficiently silenced and permanently disappeared. That’s how emperors do things — employing the hammer when necessary so as not to need it most of the time. This is why if you’re denouncing the emperor it’s prudent to do so in coded symbolism — writing of multi-headed beasts and dragons and the like.)
I’ve now strayed rather far afield from my initial point, and from the scene in Nicolae that we’re supposed to be discussing this week. So let’s get back to that.
Rayford Steele and Hattie Durham are sitting in a restaurant discussing the sorry state of her relationship with Nicolae Carpathia. That’s what’s going on here — a conversation about a woman’s relationship with her boyfriend/fiancé.
On that level, the scene doesn’t work very well. Hattie is such a straw-woman caricature of the authors’ idea of women that she seems wholly unreal and unbelievable. They portray her with such condescending contempt and then, through Rayford, treat her with such condescending contempt that this whole scene winds up repulsive and unreadable. Hattie isn’t recognizably human, yet we’re instinctively forced to side with her due to the abuse she’s suffering from Nicolae, Rayford and the authors, so we wind up, as readers, pulling for the one character against whom the deck is obviously stacked. That makes for an unpleasant reading experience.
We could delve into more of the specific reasons that this scene fails as an attempt to portray a conversation about the state of one woman’s relationship. We could highlight the hilariously unnatural dialogue, or the hideousness of Rayford’s narcissism.
“Rayford was biding his time,” Jerry Jenkins writes, after Hattie complains that she’s just become “a piece of furniture” to her boyfriend. It’s a telling description of Rayford’s role in every conversation he ever has. The man never listens, he just “bides his time” until he has a chance to say whatever it was he was going to say anyway.
“There was so much he wanted to tell her,” we’re told, although we’re never told what that might be, because Rayford winds up biding all of his time and never tells Hattie much of anything — not even the things he knows that she really needs to know for her physical and spiritual survival. For most of the conversation, instead, Rayford peppers Hattie with questions about how much Nicolae knows about himself and Buck and Chloe. He learns what he needs to learn from her and that’s all he seems to care about.
We might also step back a bit to explore the punitive function of this scene. Hattie is intended here as an object lesson for all the women and girls reading this book. She is being punished for not being a chaste, submissive “little wife” like Irene Steele. That punishment is clearly intended to warn any women who might be considering any other possibility in life beyond becoming Irene: Faithfully serve your unfaithful husbands without complaint. Cook dinner and collect knick-knacks and wait for the Rapture and never worry that you’re just a thing — a replaceable object wholly interchangeable with Amanda White or any other subservient “little” woman. Otherwise, you’ll end up unloved and pregnant with Satan’s baby.
But all of the many ways we could critique this scene as an ordinary conversation about the state of one woman’s relationship would be beside the point, because the biggest problem with this scene is that it attempts to present an ordinary conversation about the state of one woman’s relationship.
That’s bonkers. Hattie isn’t just dating some random guy. Her “boyfriend” is The Antichrist — the global “potentate” who just spent the previous two days nuking dozens of cities and carrying out the worst mass-murder in the history of the world.
That never comes up in this conversation.
Whatever the merits of analyzing what it means for her marriage prospects that her boyfriend seems a bit stand-offish of late, the fact that he’s just indiscriminately slaughtered tens of millions of people — including everyone in Hattie’s home town — would seem a bit more urgent as a factor in the status of this relationship. Yet Hattie, Rayford and the authors themselves completely ignore that. (I’d think of this as Hattie’s “Don’t Cry for Me Global Community” moment, but Nicolae’s crimes are so much greater in scope than Peron’s atrocities that it almost seems unfair to Evita.)
So we start this scene wondering what Hattie and Rayford will say about this slaughter. Then we’re gradually unnerved as we gradually realize they’re not going to discuss it. Then we’re further unnerved as we realize they are, instead, going to discuss trivialities that it ought to be utterly impossible for them to discuss without in some way accounting for the fact that Chicago and New York and London and a dozen other cities were just obliterated.
It’s bonkers. But Hattie and Rayford are nonchalantly behaving as though it’s not. The authors themselves steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the mind-blowing, delirious bonkerosity of the scene they’re presenting.**
This happens all the time in these books. Reading the Left Behind series means constantly being gaslighted by the authors, constantly second-guessing one’s response to the deeply weird scenes unfolding as though they were completely normal.
That glib presentation of normalcy sometimes half-lulls us into playing along, shrugging off the sense that — “Omigod, none of this makes any sense because all of these people lost all of their children a week ago.”
Either the authors and their characters are completely bonkers or we are. Fortunately, in these books, we’re never seriously forced to consider Possibility No. 2.
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* I’m not trying to lead us into a discussion here of our obligations or best-practices when we encounter the homeless on the street. That’s an important conversation, but a separate matter from my point here, which is that in New York, as in almost any other great city, it would be impossible to function without the ability to see homeless beggars as normal. Or, I guess, to not seem them, and to make not seeing them normal. “This world” is the system of this world, and to live in this world forces us to get with the system. That’s why antichrists are so powerful.
** I have to wonder if Jenkins even realized what’s going on here. Had he planned this conversation and then inserted it here in Chapter 9 without realizing that the events of Chapter 8 had rendered it impossible? Did he even notice the problem with locating this conversation in this context? Or was he just typing so quickly, with so little care, that it never occurred to him?
We should always try to presume incompetence, rather than malice, so I suppose it’s better to suggest that Jenkins is a horrifically shoddy writer rather than an evil huckster deliberately selling a shoddy product that he knows is full of gaping plot holes like this one. But either way, the scope of the incompetence and/or malice is so staggering that I marvel at how he was able to do it.