Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Genre of Despair

The following was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

The quotation above from H. P. Lovecraft is perhaps symptomatic of a larger trend in the public consciousness. We have seen the horrors of reality, the apocalypse is nigh, so let us sink into forgetting and thoughtlessness before the end. Popular entertainment has always been a way of forgetting one’s troubles, and in the literary world, popular entertainment most often comes under the heading of genre fiction.

It has been lamented for some time that serious literary fiction is on the wane. Whereas just a few generations before, a Hemingway or Fitzgerald were household names even in subliterate households, few with a similar level of education today could tell you who Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace might be. Such a decline is often attributed to literary fiction no longer speaking to ordinary human concerns. This is an odd argument, considering that few of the novels of Hemingway or Fitzgerald would be said to mirror the daily life of the average person. Yet, they still have a semblance to reality. This cannot be said of genre fiction, however, which if anything rebels against the substance of real life.

Lovecraft, whose intent was to emulate anything other than real life, developed a philosophical worldview he termed Cosmic Horror—a worldview in which the centuries-old anthropocentric universe was overturned in light of recent scientific discovery and replaced with the revelation of our collective inconsequence. Humanity, which long saw itself the measure of all things, was uncovered for the less-than-divine thing it is. Mankind, it appears, was but the byproduct or mistake of greater alien forces that had come to this world long before us and would soon return, like the second advent of Christ but with even less pleasant consequences.

But Lovecraft is not a special case, for escapism is at the heart of all genre fiction. Literary fiction is hard, it requires effort to appreciate fully. It does not allow us to disappear passively into a narrative because literature gives us tools with which to deal with life. Genre fiction, on the other hand, is above all an escape from life. It is then no surprise that this medium has always been complementary to conservative thought. We have but to mention Lovecraft again and recall his xenophobia and horrifying racist comments to understand the allure of escaping reality to such individuals. But horror is not alone. Dystopian tales help destroy the notion of progress. Fantasy, a term that says it all, allows readers to return to a postulated golden age, and an idealized human nature. Even science fiction is not immune. One only need examine the social and political views of M. R. James, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, or Orson Scott Card to see a well-established pattern.

Of course, this is not to deny that such fiction cannot be art. If the author creates an entirely new genre such as Lovecraft did, if it shows original elaboration on a theme or presents an intensely personal vision, the limitations of genre can be overcome. The mere imitators who come after—and these make up the bulk of what goes by the name genre fiction today—typically represent a degeneration of the original. Like a copy of a copy, they become merely pastiches of the genuine article they seek to emulate.

It is also important to remember that escapism is not an entirely bad thing. However, it often appears that escapism is the only thing at the present moment that such entertainment is expected to provide. This would appear to indicate a society deeply disinterested, even passionately opposed, to reality. Is it possible such a development is reflective of a deeper despair in the society at large? Perhaps reality has become something too hard to endure without an opiate for the masses.

At the end of the Roman Empire, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus reflected upon the general decline of culture in his age:

"[H]ouses which were formerly celebrated for the serious cultivation of becoming studies, are now filled with … ridiculous amusements … reechoing with the sound of vocal music and the tinkle of flutes and lyres. Lastly, instead of a philosopher, you find a singer … and the libraries closed for ever, like so many graves." [1]

With libraries closing throughout the country and humanities departments losing more of their funding every day, it’s as if Ammianus was talking about us.

The fall of Rome coincided with the rise of Christianity, a religion that put an emphasis upon the life to come when we will shed our material selves for a perfect spiritual self. This idea is echoed in St. Augustine’s City of God, which argued that the spiritual city will inevitably win out over the city of man since man’s city is temporary whereas the city of God is eternal. The desire to escape what seemed to be a hopeless and dying world was the impetus for Christianity's rise. Are we repeating the same pattern again? For the early Christians, a mood of despair gave rise by an accident of history to productive action. Our modern passion for escape and diversion, by contrast, shows no sign of evolving to meet reality. A nascent theology of hope for the dispossessed became the glue of social cohesion for that era we call the dark ages. If we should have another dark age (and there are many who argue that with growing ecological disasters and another economic collapse just around the bend we may live to see one), it seems unlikely that the adventures ofHarry Potter or Game of Thrones will be enough to pull us through to the light.