Yesterday I was reading a James Lileks blog post about the legendary 1956 Roger Corman sci-fi movie It Conquered the World. If you haven't seen it, you probably should — because effects, locations, and extras were expensive, Corman reduced an alien invasion of Earth to a character piece, focusing on Lee Van Cleef (of all people) as a scientist collaborating with the villainous Venusian carrot trying to Take Over the World. Ultimately (of course) Van Cleef sees the error of his ways and sacrifices himself to destroy the googly-eyed giant alien vegetable, thereby Saving the World. We get a final encomium by his pal Peter Graves before the fade-out.
What struck me was the moral of the story so clunkily stated by Graves: that Van Cleef forgot that people are feeling creatures, so that the idea of an emotionless, perfectly rational world is impossible, or at least nightmarish.
It caught my attention because I've seen it before. It's a constant trope in Fifties SF. There's an example in Famous Science-Fiction Stories, for instance. It turns up on Star Trek quite a bit, as well — most notably, of course, in the character of Mr. Spock, who is a "logical" and emotionless Vulcan.
But . . . where does it come from? No Utopian thinkers ever imagined a world without emotions. Thomas More, who invented the whole idea, certainly never proposed that his Utopians should be emotionless. Naturally he thought that they should ensure that their emotions did not overwhelm their reason, but that was as far as he went. No one since More ever proposed that a world without emotions would be a Good Thing. So where does the idea of a Horrid Emotionless Society come from?
I blame the French Revolution. Its leaders — particularly the Jacobins — loved to wrap themselves in the mantle of Reason, overturning centuries of ignorance and ridiculous superstition. And, oh by the way, murdering tens of thousands of Frenchmen and plunging Europe into a titanic series of wars for the next thirty years. And then their self-proclaimed ideological heirs in Russia a century later managed to beat their body count by a couple of orders of magnitude. But of course, neither gang of bloody-handed revolutionaries thought of themselves as emotionless, or desired an emotionless society.
Complicating matters is the fact that America was also founded by a pack of Enlightenment-era thinkers keen on Reason. They also wanted a rational society, but were pragmatic enough to realize it could not be imposed from above, as the Jacobins and Bolsheviks attempted. (Plus the geography and internal politics of America made it impossible for at least a century.) Still, it has left Americans with a decidedly split personality regarding rationalism. Across the entire modern political spectrum you will find people priding themselves on their rationality, untainted by superstition and unclouded by emotion — yet simultaneously deriding their opponents as being heartless and devoid of compassion.
The big secret that everyone keeps missing is that there is no opposition between reason and emotion. We are always motivated by emotion — even a desire to be ruled entirely by reason is an emotional motivation. Reason serves the emotions, and always has. An "emotionless" society is not just undesirable, it's impossible, and I hope we can come up with a better straw man to demolish in fiction.