The Circle: Theological undertones in "The Circle"

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The Circle: Theological undertones in "The Circle"

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nov 25, 2013, 11:28am

Disclaimer: Not out to start a religious war here, folks, but there are some theological themes that might bear discussing.

Eggers rejects Bailey's glib notions of the perfectability of humanity, and Eggers identifies the roots of Bailey's notions as a blend of Midwestern Protestantism, some vaguely communitarian ideas, and self-help bromides ("Sharing is Caring."). Bailey delivers his ideas with a kind of "aw shucks" humility that belies his fervor.

Later, Mae encounters a drunken ex-seminarian who gave up the idea of becoming a priest to join the social media revolution and is embittered when that revolution does not result in the salvation he expects.

While I think there is a clear Catholic tinge to all this that speaks to me personally, I don't think you have to be Catholic or religious to see the basic message: Humans are endlessly inventive, but they are unable to invent their way to salvation.

It works if you view salvation in a traditionally Christian way. Or if you view salvation as a more secular idea, the betterment of mankind.

Redigeret: nov 25, 2013, 11:44am

I didn't find much of religious interest in the novel.

Certainly the only direct references to it are very slight--Bailey claims he comes from old-fashioned church folks, and there's the drunk seminarian. Eggers doesn't seem very interested in taking it seriously. Also, as discussed in other threads, it's a dystopic fantasy--a world without "push back." In the real world, various religious movements would push back against what they're doing as would, of course, secular privacy advocates, free-data types, good-government types, etc. So he needed to put religion and much else to the side.

I'd argue what you saw was just sane morality, which is by necessity anti-utopian and anti-perfectability, and concerned with real people. That overlaps fully with particularly Catholic morality, as you noticed. But I don't think he particularly cares either way.

nov 25, 2013, 12:18pm

The metaphors may be scanty because Eggers is be interested in philosophical ramifications of social media, in all walks of life. Whether or not it was a catalyst for his social media dystopia, religious views of all denominations have been leveled-off by the importance of the whole -- the drunken man an example of this development.

I found it worthwhile to investigate philosophical underlying other analogous metaphors that aren't explicitly religious, but inscribe a degree of plantonism. Bailey is a kind a neo-platonist with his nonchalant radicalism in favor of total visibility, completeness, and inclusiveness. Metaphor of light and dark, transparency and not opaqueness, are rife in the novel (take, for instance, when Mae paddles through choppy waters and fog, outside the circle's watching eye). I think it is highly ironic too that Ty lives in dark cave-like dwelling on the campus, hidden from the rest of the community. I immediately wrote in the margins of my page "allegory of the cave."

nov 25, 2013, 1:48pm

Those who don't find much of religious interest in the work may simply not be interested in religion. That's not a criticism, just a suggestion.

Many of Graham Greene's novels are not overtly religious ("The Human Factor"), but they "read" Catholic, nevertheless. So do the stories of George Saunders (particularly the title story in the "Tenth of December").

On one level, the novel can be read as the story of the struggle of a soul. Mae has no real moral compass to begin with, and she quite easily gives up her free will for material perks and acceptance of the group. She means well, but she makes so many concessions to what is empty and meaningless (evil, if you will), that she betrays the people who mean the most to her. Mercer tries to reason with her, but he can be easily waved off as insufferable, not very attractive, and certainly not an entrepreneurial go-getter. But he tells the truth, and the truth sometimes comes in very humble forms. I don't think it is an accident that Mercer is misunderstood and destroyed by the masses. It's an old story.

This is not a reading I'm trying to ram down anyone else's throat, but I'd be interested if anyone else sees it in a similar way.

nov 25, 2013, 1:51pm

#3, the "cave allegory" idea is very intriguing!

Redigeret: nov 25, 2013, 2:47pm

>4 nohrt4me2:

Well, that's the first time I've been accused of not being interested in religion! Check out my library, or come to the Catholic or Christian group, my friend!

FWIW, I think you're wrong on the point. Some thoughts:

* As you say, a novel can be suffused with a certain world view despite its contents. Greene's, or say O'Connor's, novels are Catholic even when they aren't, because the world they invoke has a Catholic sensibility, what's been called the "Catholic sacramental imagination." I think the world of The Circle is pretty far from that. It's not a world with unexpected grace, grace lurking, grace in all things, etc. It's much more Protestant--or secular--in it's more cut-and-dried approach.

FWIW, I'm not sure anyone can write a thoroughgoing Catholic dystopia. God and his grace would be operating whatever happened. A secular or Protestant dystopia is easier to imagine--it's when the anti-religious guys win.

* Good fiction is almost always moral in a certain way, not because it's trying to be moral but because it takes other people seriously. Indeed, it takes reality seriously.

To that degree, a Catholic can see something that chimes deeply with his worldview in the work of some of the church's harshest critics, as for example George Eliot. To adapt Nosta Aetate, he should "reject nothing that is true and holy" in these works. Indeed, in keeping with our sacramental imagination, the Catholic is apt to think that God also works through the anti-religious author, where a Protestant would more easily focus on just what the book seems to be saying about religion.

* Eggers' clearly has a moralizing world view. The worst criticism that can be leveled against The Circle is, I think, that it moralizes in a world of toys--that his moralizing is grounded in characters that aren't fully "real." If morality starts with taking people seriously, satire, parody and purely ideological novels are the opposite. Even so, I think it's moral under the surface, not just ideological.

nov 25, 2013, 2:23pm

It made me think of organised religion (as opposed to faith, but that's not a discussion for here) where it's do as I say, not as I do.

The three wise men are more powerful than most politicians and yet none of them is transparent.

Also the complete dedication to the values of the Circle that's required of it's employees. And the way Mae almost reveres the concepts Bailey comes up with.

Redigeret: nov 25, 2013, 3:08pm

Tim, I'm not trying to pick a fight or accuse anyone. Just testing out my ideas. Clearly, you've found them wanting, but I thank you for your thoughtful response.

nov 25, 2013, 3:12pm

Well, explain them to me more?

nov 25, 2013, 4:27pm

I hadn't thought of there being a religious element here, but I do see the new-age-self-help stuff that Bailey spouts as being similar to the techno-utopianism that Evgeny Morozov lambastes, the idea that technology will be our salvation and will bring about a kind of paradise. In the world of The Circle, benevolent technocracy replaces the state and the church AND the family because it's just so! much! better! More efficient! More fun.

Perhaps the moralizing Eggers is asking us to question why we find fulfillment in these platforms and what's really going on when corporations claim to be building an ideal world. I think you're right that Mae hasn't got much of a built-in moral compass. She's desperate to get a job and an identity (and really hasn't got an identity until her friend connects her to a job at the Circle) and she wants to take care of her family and (this may be the problem) to make her parents proud of her. Then when she has to choose sides, she decides her parents' approval is not that valuable and chooses instead to bask in the warmth of the Circle.

It's interesting to ponder a tie between Protestantism and the American idea of progress and the benevolent technocracy, but as a person with a Catholic education, my knowledge of Protestantism is woefully lacking :)

Redigeret: nov 26, 2013, 10:35am

10: Yes, I think Mae is a "convert" to "The Circle," and "The Circle" is both church and family for her. Sadly, its "theology" is messed up.

I was raised in the Unitarian-Universalist tradition, and converted to Catholicism only after I got married. (Perhaps that explains why timspalding detects problems with my reading "The Circle" as Catholic; Catholicsm isn't in my bones as it might be for born Catholics.)

However, I've seen people like Bailey many times over in UU congregations, where everyone is free to find the truth for himself, often picking and choosing from a smorgasbord of ideas. That sounds good in theory, but it allows people to rationalize and elevate ideas that may merely be self-serving.

Bailey is making a lot of money from "The Circle," and he stands to make a lot more of it as followers and those going transparent increase. I think he's persuaded himself that he really believes his soupy ideas about the betterment of humanity through transparency.

edited for typos

nov 26, 2013, 10:35am

>11 nohrt4me2:

I'm a convert too, from nothing. But I'm an ethnic Unitarian :)

nov 26, 2013, 2:15pm

^^^ love that. I have always considered myself an ethnic Catholic (as in born with an identity that's partly being a member of a group, without the faith that you get if you have to think about it).

So much of the way people choose that thing that was once as ingrained as ethnicity is the retailization of religion. You shop for it, you mix and match, and you can dispose of it when it's not doing it for you anymore. Maybe that's what happens when you hyphenate life with "style."

jan 16, 2014, 6:21pm

I just finished up "The Circle" after getting ahold of it rather late. I didn't see much specifically religious in the book, or at least not a specific religion. It almost felt more cult-like, than religious, to me.

However, I was put in mind of Scientology because of the talk about going transparent and being "clear". I don't know that it's all that significant, but I found it curious. The company that seeks to play a role in every facet of an individual's life, all supposedly for the betterment of that person and society, seems very similar. The three wise men (or maybe the trinity?) does seem more Christian, but the following, taken from the Scientology website, would seem to fit right into The Circle mindset:

Clear is the name of a state achieved through auditing and describes a being who no longer has his own reactive mind, the hidden source of irrational behavior, unreasonable fears, upsets and insecurities. Without a reactive mind, individuals regain their basic personality, self-determinism and, in essence, become much, much more themselves.

The full glory of the state of Clear has no comparable description in any writings existing in our culture. It is a goal Man has dreamed of achieving for more than 2500 years, yet the state of Clear is far above anything anyone even conceived of previously. Indeed, that one could become something far higher and better than a human being, personally and in a single lifetime, is a brand-new concept.

The state of Clear does exist today and is attainable by all. Thousands upon thousands of Scientologists all over the world are Clear and more achieve this state with ever passing day.

jan 10, 2015, 5:23pm

>14 GwenH:. I saw the same thing. Going "clear" absolutely is a scientology reference, and the three wisemen are a christian reference.

But the only connection between The Circle and religion in my mind was simply that it was a Cult like any other. Many of the techniques used to co-opt Mae were very similar to those used by religious cults to indoctrinate their followers.