Dreams of a Better World

As it launched the modern worldview on its trajectory, the intellectual revolution of the 18th century – the Enlightenment, as it’s usually called – passed on a legacy with profoundly mixed consequences for the future. Central to the Enlightenment ethos was the claim that myths were simply inaccurate claims about fact, and should be replaced by more accurate claims founded on reason and experiment. This seems like common sense to most people nowadays, but like most things labeled “common sense,” it begs more questions and conceals richer ironies than a casual glance is likely to reveal.

One of those ironies became central to a discussion sparked by last week’s Archdruid Report post, when a reader took issue with my characterization of progress as a myth. Like most people nowadays, he assumed that “myth” meant a story that isn’t true, and drew the usual distinction between myth and science – that is, between the cosmological narratives of other cultures, which don’t usually make experimentally testable claims about the natural world, and the cosmological narratives of ours, which does. It took, as it usually does, several exchanges before he realized that the popular definition of myth he was using is not the only game in town.

What makes this ironic is that the definition of myth he was using is itself part of a myth: the very one I mentioned in the earlier post. Only from within the myth of progress – the belief that all human existence follows a single line of advance leading straight from the caves to today’s industrial societies, and beyond them to the stars – does it make sense to treat the belief systems of the past as inadequate attempts to do what we do better. The notion that other mythologies might have other purposes, and accomplish them better than ours does, is practically unthinkable these days. Yet many traditional belief systems have done a fine job of enabling the people who hold them to live their lives in harmony with their environment for millennia, while modern industrial cultures have proven hopelessly inept at this basic and necessary task.

Now of course there are plenty of people nowadays who use arguments such as this last to stand the myth of progress on its head, and insist that these traditional cultures are more advanced than ours. As I see it, though, the predicament we are facing demands something subtler. Rather than swapping one narrative for its mirror image, it may be time to step back and look at our mythic narratives as narratives, rather than imposing them by force on the world around us.

This backward step has a useful if uncomfortable effect: it reveals the awkward fact that the cultural narratives we use to make sense of the world today, however new they look, are generally rehashes of myths that have been around for a very long time. The anthropologist Misia Landau pointed out some years ago, for example, that contemporary scientific accounts of the rise of Homo sapiens from its prehuman ancestors are simply rehashed hero myths that follow Joseph Campbell’s famous typology of the hero’s journey, point for point. In the same way, those like Ray Kurzweil who argue that the perfect human society is to be found in a hypertechnological future, just as much as those who argue that the perfect human society is to be found in a return to the hunter-gatherer past, are simply projecting the myth of paradise onto one or another of the very few locations a secular worldview offers for it.

All this has to be kept in mind when considering an odd phenomenon that has become steadily more prominent in recent months, and seems likely to become even more so in the near future.

Well over a dozen times in the last six months, I’ve found myself in conversations with people who believe that the imminent crash of industrial society will inevitably lead to the birth of the sort of society they themselves most want to live in. What I find most interesting is that no two of them agree on exactly what sort of society that will be. Some of them come to the discussion with detailed plans for their perfect future, backed up figuratively – and now and again literally – with a backpack stuffed with supporting documentation laboriously cherrypicked from their favorite authors and the media; on the other end of the spectrum are those who have no idea what the world of the future will look like, but cling to an unshakable faith that it must be better than the world of today.

This astigmatism of the imagination is remarkably common. A good friend of mine once recounted a conversation he’d had in the last days of 1999 with someone who confessed she was deeply worried about the imminent Y2K problem. He assumed that she meant she was worried about the struggle for survival in the aftermath of the massive systems collapse some people were still predicting at that point, but she quickly set him right. Her job was unsatisfying, her marriage was on the rocks, and her life was at a standstill; what worried her was the possibility that she might wake up on January 1, 2000 to find that nothing had changed.

For my part, I knew quite a few people who became profoundly depressed when the world still worked after Y2K came and went, and there are many more people placing similar hopes on the potential catastrophes of the present and near future. It might seem that coping with a boring job, a troubled marriage, and a midlife crisis would still be preferable to starving to death in a burned-out basement in the aftermath of a cataclysmic social unraveling. The fact that many people in America today see things differently is one of the least noted and most troubling indicators of the temper of our times.

History has a good deal to do with the popularity of the belief in utopia through apocalypse these days. Over the course of the 20th century, the dizzying range of political-economic ideologies that once jostled for position in the western world narrowed gradually down to two – free market capitalism and Marxism – and then to one, which combines most of the objectionable features of both. The collapse of the New Left in the aftermath of the Sixties, and the abandonment of traditional conservatism by the pragmatist Right of the Reagan era, left a political vacuum that has yet to be filled. For some years now, as a result, most radicals of left and right alike have pictured their task in the purely reactive language of resistance and opposition, while the mainstream parties abandoned their old commitments in favor of the pursuit of business as usual for its own sake.

This has spared all sides the daunting challenge of coming up with constructive proposals for the future, but the downside is that those who sense the necessity for change are left with nothing but fantasies of a perfect world after an apocalyptic collapse to feed their hopes. In the process, it has been all too easy for many people to forget that in every other example in history, the decline and fall of a civilization leads not to utopia, but to a long and difficult age of warfare, mass migration, population decline, impoverishment, and the loss of priceless cultural treasures. Just as revolutionaries who insist that nothing can be worse than the status quo are often unpleasantly surprised to find just how much worse things can get, those who insist that today’s industrial societies comprise the worst of all possible worlds may find themselves pining for the good old days of suburbs and freeways if they get the collapse they think they want.

Furthermore, especially but not only in America, the last few decades has seen the emergence of a culture of political demonology in which the slight differences between competing political parties get redefined in terms of absolute good and evil. Vigorous debate over the relative merits of candidates for office is the lifeblood of a republic, but when opponents of a public official don’t seem to be able to walk past his picture without screaming obscenities at it – and I have seen this on both sides of the widening political chasm in America today – something has gone seriously wrong. Carl Jung’s useful concept of “projecting the shadow” is more than a little relevant here; too many Americans nowadays have fallen into the seductive but disastrous habit of blaming their political adversaries for their own feelings of shame and resentment. Even the briefest glance at history shows where that sort of scapegoat logic leads, and it’s no place any sane human being would want to go.

Still, sanity may be in short supply as the crisis of industrial society deepens around us. Lacking a clear sense of the logic of myth – and the legacy of the Enlightenment has made such a sense uncommonly hard to gain these days – it’s far too easy for people in crisis to get so deeply entangled in mythic narratives that they lose track of the direction those narratives are leading them. A good deal of what happened during Germany’s “few years in the absolute elsewhere” between 1933 and 1945, as Jung pointed out in a prescient essay, can best be understood as this type of entrapment in a myth, with a grand Wagnerian Götterdammerung as finale. It’s entirely possible that some similar madness could grip America in the years to come.

Whether or not anything so ghastly happens, the unfolding crisis of industrial society is likely to bring in a bumper crop of misplaced myths and self-defeating ideologies unless we can manage to gain a wider recognition of the role of myth in public life, even – or, rather, especially – in those modern societies that pride themselves on their hard-headed rationality. When claims that an imminent catastrophe will inevitably result in the coming of a desired new world are seen for what they are – religious myths of apocalypse decked out awkwardly in secular drag – it’s easier to see through them, and also to notice that the same claims have failed catastrophically every time in recorded history that they have been projected onto the inkblot patterns of current events.

If we can regain a certain degree of mythic literacy, and apply it to the myths that shape our public life, we might even be able to stop thinking of modern industrial society as either the best or the worst of human cultures, and recognize it as the ramshackle product of a long process of evolution, containing much that is worth saving alongside much that belongs in history’s compost bin. We might also find ourselves realizing in time that catastrophe is no guarantee of Utopia, and a better society will emerge out of the wreckage of this one only if a very sizable number of us are willing to muster the courage, forbearance, and capacity for hard work needed to make that happen.