I first learned about the 1953 novel Limbo sometime in 2003 after reading an account of the book in a history of science fiction. The short description of Limbo’s bizarre plot was enough to ignite my curiosity, and when I finally did obtain a used and tattered copy of this 400 plus page novel, I was immediately and totally absorbed.
I just finished rereading Limbo, and my original impressions have been reconfirmed. Hilarious, terrifying, and profound, Limbo is a political allegory that is still chillingly relevant to our current world conditions.
The plot of Limbo is unique and bizarre. After the Third World War much of the population of both the US and the Soviet Union has been destroyed by nuclear bombs. As a reaction against the horrors of the war, a philosophy of pacifism sweeps the globe. Called “Immob” – short for “immobilization – this philosophy holds that all of the world’s problems result from aggressive human activity. The solution, according to Immob, is passivity and non-action. To accomplish this change in human life, people are encouraged literally to disarm themselves through voluntary amputation of their arms and legs; a practice called “volamp.” The greater the number of limbs a person removes, the higher their status in society rises. Amputeeism thus becomes a visual marker of prestige.
A schism develops among the proponents of Immob. On one side there are the “anti-pros” and on the other the “pro-pros.” The anti-pros reject the development of prosthetic limbs to replace removed arms and legs while the pro-pros argue for the use of prosthetics. Because of the heroic sacrifice of amputees, pro-pros hold that they should be honored with state-of-the-art artificial arms and legs that give them the ability to become more physically dexterous than ever. The amputees adhering to this interpretation of Immob range from uni- to full quadro-amps who strut around in fashionable short sleeved shirts and short legged trousers in order better to show off their high-tech replacement limbs. The anti-pros remain fully immobile, lying passively in baskets while being catered to by attendants and displayed like babies in store windows. In this, they see themselves as morally pure exemplars of absolute passivity.
The pro-pro position is adopted by the new governments of the US and the Soviet Union, who compete in yearly Olympic games, demonstrating their aptitude with newly designed and engineered prosthetics. Little do the citizens of either country realize, however, that secretly both governments have been developing weaponized “arms” just in case another conflict between nations erupts. Among their arsenals are flame-thrower arms, rifle arms, and helicopter arms, all of which can be mounted on the stumps of amputees, making them into super-cybernetic warriors; the very opposite of pacifists. Despite the removal of limbs, it appears, the aggressive death drive remains just as strong as ever and human nature is unchanged despite Immob philosophy.
The story begins in Africa, where the narrator, Dr. Martine, has fled in order to escape western civilization. He is a deserter from the US military, having stolen an airplane at the very beginning of World War III, escaping the cataclysm and landing in a small, primitive island village where he has taken a wife and fathered a child. Here he acts as the village’s medical doctor, conducting lobotomies on those who are overly aggressive or violent; a procedure called “Mandunga,” one of the traditional practices of this African culture. An unintended side effect of Mandunga is that in addition to making people passive, it also eradicates the sex drive. Sex and aggression, it turns out, are intimately connected with one another in the very structures of the brain. Remove one and the other is also affected.
The entire culture of this African village revolves around being passive and nonaggressive. Anyone who exhibits any form of belligerence or hostility is considered insane. In fact, the history of this people is rooted in their migrations from the mainland in order to flee, rather than fight, against oppression and victimization by other tribes. These migrations have landed them on an isolated island where they have settled into a comfortable and docile way of life. Villagers drink “rota,” which drugs them into a passive state, and they eat smooth, soft tapioca; another symbol of their blandness. The surgical procedure of Mandunga has been developed in order to correct any reisidual signs of aggression in the inhabitants.
Martine becomes increasingly troubled by his own participation in all of this, and so he finally decides to leave, going back to the US in order to see what has become of his home. Back in the US, he is shocked to discover that his own notebook, left behind when he deserted the military years before, has become a sort of Bible to both the Americans and the Soviets. In this notebook he had offered the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the amputation of people’s limbs was the solution to war. Without limbs, people could no longer fight one another. They would become passive and do no more damage to the world. All of this was intended as a joke. However, in his absence a man by the name of Helder – who was once Martine’s team mate in the military and is now the leader of the US – has interpreted Martine’s notebook literally and unironically, footnoting and annotating it in order to develop the philosophy of Immob, which has replaced all other ideologies. Martine, in returning to the US, finds that his own words have been the twisted inspiration for a new totalitarian philosophy of pacifism.
“Dodge the Steamroller!” This is the slogan of the new world order. The steamroller symbolizes all things that threaten to flatten and destroy the individual, such as war and exploitative governments. A statue prominently displayed in front of one of the main government offices depicts an enormous steamroller crushing a man beneath its wheel, his arms frantically raised skyward. This image replaces the cross or the flag as a reminder to citizens of what their cultural values are. Violence, aggression and belligerence crush the individual. Yet, in the very process of trying to avoid the steamrolling effects of external, violent forces, society has produced yet another form of oppression. The emphasis on pacifism taken to an extreme has ironically come to crush and distort the natural, aggessive part of human nature. By pushing down the urge for violence, this urge has popped back up in perverse and distorted ways. Over the course of the story, Martine endeavors to expose and subvert the misrepresentation of his writings, ultimately fleeing back to Africa, where his own son is also engaged in a rebellion against the passivity of the village culture.
The main theme that permeates Limbo has to do with the ambiguity of human existence. Referencing Nietzsche, Freud, James and many others throughout the story, Berhard Wolfe consistently emphasizes how any attempt to eradicate this ambiguity is doomed to pervert and distort human life. It is the struggle between the animal and the spiritual that makes us who we are; or as Wolfe puts it, the battle between “dog” and “God.” The juxtaposition of these palindromes highlights how the beastly and the elevated are just different sides of the same human coin. We are both dog and God rolled into one, and whenever we try to cleave off one or the other side of this contradiction, we become deformed and disfigured. What is perhaps most perverse is that we take pride in our own disfigurement, and like the characters in the world of Limbo, we trumpet it as an improvement on nature. Early on in the story, before leaving the African island, Martine sums up the book’s main point:
Rule: every blob of protoplasm teems with ambivalence, yearns at one and the same time to freeze and to blow up. A community committed to stupor might decree all excitants to be illegal, drive them underground and force feed their devotees with sedatives and anesthetics, but riot will out. In a sense these two loggerheadstrong plants were only symbols of the two linked psychic poles: the Dionysian, the blowtop, the oceanic, headed for abandon and the ultimate in sensation and all-engulfing consciousness: and the Apollonian, bedded down in mildness and limit and order and even-tempered restraint and a certain programmatic heavy-liddedness. (p. 33)
Humans are a contradiction. The Dionysian side wants wild abandon, disorder, activity and passion. The Apollonian side wants restraint, order and control. Without Apollo, all becomes chaos, and we destroy ourselves. Without Dionysus, all becomes static boredom, and we likewise destroy ourselves. Apollo and Dionysus, Eros and Thanatos, pull us in different directions: toward oneness and connection, on the one hand, and toward separation and disconnection, on the other. This is the human struggle. We are who we are because of a tension between opposing forces inside of us, and as Wolfe writes, “Short of the final achievement of inertness there was to be no real inertness, no untainted ease, no indivisible peace.” (p. 257) The mistake of all forms of utopianism is that they seek to perfect humankind; but in perfection humankind ceases to exist.
It is thus fitting that Limbo ends with with the conclusion that we should not seek to resolve human contradiction, but that we should embrace it and live within its confines. The book begins with an emphatic “NO,” printed in letters large enough to take up a whole page, but it ends with an equally emphatic “YES” that also takes up an entire page. The attempt to unite “no” and “yes” is the task of the narrator as he tries to accept that humans are both no-sayers and yeah-sayers: “I am the original no-yesman. Name should have been NOYES.” (p. 388)
In the end, Martine decides that the only appropriate way to honor the absurdity of human nature is to laugh at it. In laughter, Martine tells another character, there “is a sort of short-circuited sob” (p. 384) that at once recognizes the irresolvably incongruous nature of the human condition while also demanding joy from it. It is a response that is both passive and active all at once: saying “yes” to the absurdity of life, accepting it for what it is, while also saying “no” to false promises and final solutions.
Today the media is filled with an enormous number of shrill voices claiming to possess final solutions to the world’s problems. This is nothing new. In every generation, there are arrogant demagogues and know-it-all leaders, and there are always masses of people willing to put their faith in them. One of the pernicious dangers that humankind constantly faces is the delusion that we are so much more advanced than those who came before us, and that we are are no longer prone to the same faults of past civilizations; that we are on the verge of some major breakthrough that will finally, once and for all bring about heaven on earth. This is the sort of nonsense that Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo warns against. It is a hilariously frightening parody of extremist thinking and our attraction to it.