With the fast approaching movie release of “A Wrinkle in Time,” based on Madeline L’Engle’s children’s book, I decided to reread one of my childhood favorites before March 9th. Distinct in my memory from when I had first read it over ten years ago, was the powerful ending of love conquering evil, making L’Engle’s classic the first book that made me cry. Looking back, I doubt I fully comprehended why it elicited this emotional reaction. But now as an adult, I have encountered in new and thoughtful ways how love can overcome brokenness and why a nine year old would cry from catching a glimpse of something so powerful.
As I started rereading the book, I read the introduction with new intrigue, paying closer attention to the context that L’Engle was responding to in 1962 when the book was first published. At the time, communism was a real and growing threat to liberal democracies, whose citizens often responded by embracing an extreme form of individualism. In response to Western fear, she offers an alternative to the juxtaposition frequently made between fierce individualism and individuality-erasing collectivism. The alternative: individuals contributing a unique set of gifts to form distinct relationships, adding to the strength of the entire community.
The “dark” planet Camazotz that the protagonists Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin must journey through to save Meg’s and Charles’ father is ruled by IT. What they encounter is a society where IT regulates all thoughts and actions into a single rhythmic pattern. Any deviation from the norm results in “CENTRAL Central Intelligence” conditioning people back into the rhythm. Individuality is extinguished.
IT’s legitimacy rests on the claim that conforming to a singular will provides relief from having to make decisions for oneself and an escape from the anxiety of being different. When Meg is trying to counter the lies of IT, she realizes why Camazotz’s understanding of equality is debased: “like” and “equal” are not the same.
On Camazotz and in other totalitarian projects of modernity, idolizing social equality can result in perversely attempting to make everyone “alike,” whether by enforced uniform religious belief or universal membership in a single socioeconomic class. The opposite political temptation is to embrace an ardent commitment to individualism, seen in the objectivism of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” where the isolated, individual self is elevated at the exclusion of any care to a community or social body.
L’Engle’s reconciliation of this dichotomy is illustrated in two profound ways. Before Meg, Charles, and Calvin arrive on Camazotz, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which each bestow gifts to assist them in their fight against the darkness. Each gift is different, according to the natural capabilities of each child. For Calvin, Mrs. Whatsit says: “‘Calvin, your great gift is your ability to communicate [with] all kinds of people. So, for you, I will strengthen this gift.’” She does not give him something he does not already have. Instead, she magnifies his God-given, inherent talent. Likewise, Mrs. Whatsit gives Meg her faults—stubbornness, temper, and impatience, because with any fault, there lies a strength. And for Charles, she gives the resilience of his childhood. Mrs. Whatsit calls forth the individual gifts of each child and it is these differences that contribute to their strength as a group.
L’Engle’s second insightful solution to conquering political evil is that Meg, through her special bond with Charles, is the only one capable of saving Charles from being held captive by IT. Calvin and Mr. Murray are disqualified as candidates to rescue Charles because neither of them have known him long enough. Charles’ exceptional understanding of Meg and her individual needs, ultimately his love, is the only way that he will be pulled out of the grasp of IT.
Love conquers because it is the one thing that IT, or any powerful state however well-intentioned or well-run, cannot ever possibly give its citizens. This is because love requires knowing the distinct characteristics of each individual and freely choosing to care for them and associate oneself with them. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in “Democracy in America,” the robust participation in non-government institutions and small communities are what keep the fabric of fragile democracies from tearing into autonomous individual pieces. A failing democratic society often results in a call for an authoritarian, dominating state. Love, which is only possible through genuine participation in community, cannot be administered by a distant federal capital.
With 52 percent of Americans saying they are unsatisfied with how democracy is working in the United States, are we at risk of asking our government to become IT? Let us remind one another that the conglomerate sum of our individual strengths and weaknesses is what adds to the strength of our civil society, not what the federal government can provide or regulate. Rather than falling prey to the tendencies of isolated individualism or government-sponsored collectivism, let’s take a lesson from L’Engle and continue forming our own meaningful, dynamic communities. Some ways to get started? Join a bowling league with your friends or go to watch the premiere of “A Wrinkle in Time.”
If you would like to learn more about how to recover the common good in a divided, pluralistic society, consider applying for this summer’s Values & Capitalism seminar with Dr. John Inazu on “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference.” Or, take a course with Dr. Anne Bradley on how Christian morality informs our participation in a capitalist economic system. Learn more about the other courses offered this summer at AEI and apply online before the deadline on March 5th. Faculty letters of recommendation may be submitted after the deadline.