The bludgeoning conclusion of Paul Thomas Anderson's much-lauded, Oscar-nominated film "There Will Be Blood," which has recently been released on DVD, features a preacher forced to renounce his faith in God and admit charlatanry.
Offering a mythic vision of California as a land of egotistical excess, Anderson's movie is, ultimately, about megalomaniacal manipulators battling each other for pride, social standing, and wealth.
Loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! but lacking the nuance and depth of the treatment of religion found there, the movie nonetheless provides us with an opportunity to turn our sights back to an important if undervalued American literary figure.
Most famous for fictionalized exposés of unjust labor practices such as his 1906 novel The Jungle, about the Chicago meat-packing industry, Sinclair approached literature as a practical tool for political activism. Conceiving of his work as primarily educational, Sinclair showed his readers the problems of capitalism and introduced them to the ethical values of socialism, necessary first steps in the process of revolution.
Oil! is a textbook example of this pedagogical project. Its plot follows an oilman's son, Bunny, as he heads to college and is slowly educated about the plight of the worker. Labor organization and the Russian Revolution figure centrally (two themes entirely absent from the film, which starts much earlier and in which the figure of the son, renamed H.W. to impart a sense of contemporary political significance, is a more tangential figure).
The work is aimed at expanding the reader's mind beyond "the little narrow circle of your own consciousness" and diagnosing the problems of American society as rooted in capitalist practice and logic.
Religion is one of these problems, an aspect of life rendered "grotesque" by the economy of human relations, wherein the oppression of the many equals power for the few. Thus religion is inevitably corrupted, as Sinclair argues in The Profits of Religion: An Essay in Economic Interpretation (1917): "The prophet becomes a charlatan; or, if he refuses, he becomes a martyr, and founds a church which becomes a church of charlatans."
Oil! illustrates this process. To prevent the father of an apostolic family from beating his daughter, the oilman decides "to elaborate the True Word," making "one of the cardinal points of this Word that girls were never to be beaten by men."
The "jest" of this "special revelation" bears profound ramifications, however, when seized by the family's son, Eli Watkins, whose rhetorical skills transform him into a self-pronounced "prophet of the Lord" quickly made rich through tent meetings and the technology of radio.
Eli co-opts the oilman's mission – to speak out in favor of freethinking and respect for others – into a system "to plague the poor and ignorant," which placates the masses and offers only the distraction of false hope to those most urgently in need of altered material conditions.
Anderson's film suggests that the problem of religion is one of sense versus superstition, but in fact it goes deeper for Sinclair. Bluntly, it's the economy, stupid.
Sinclair writes, "I care not how sincere, how passionately proletarian a religious prophet may be… the fate which sooner or later befalls him in a competitive society [is] to be the founder of an organization of fools, conducted by knaves, for the benefit of wolves."
For Sinclair, "fellow-worker Jesus" was a radical, proto-socialist thinker, firmly rooted in material practice: feeding the hungry, aiding the poor. But Christianity, as he makes clear in his 1922 satire of the Second Coming, They Call Me Carpenter, has morphed into a institution whose members don't even recognize "the spirit of Jesus," reducing this radical message to so much lubricant for the man-devouring gears of commercial society.
Locating his own muckraking work of social critique in "the same tradition, possessed by the same dream as the ancient Hebrew Prophets," Sinclair should perhaps also have been worried at the seizure and subversion of his own radical message by the economy of the world.
As it is, he is best known for certain titillating if nauseating passages on slaughterhouses and sausage-making, exiled to the far edges of the canon, taught in high schools as an example of a bygone period whose social problems are happily solved. Nothing could be farther from Sinclair's message.
Perhaps this recent film, by treating Sinclair's text obliquely – both referencing and marginalizing it, pursuing distinct but related interests and attempting to link Sinclair's tale with the current political situation – may lead to a resurgence of interest in Sinclair's writing, and, more importantly, Sinclair's prophetic project of education for social change.
(c) Spencer Dew is a doctoral candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School, USA, and a Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow there.
**With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.**