We instinctively fear the unknown and the alien. The ancient way of coping with the world’s palpable indifference to our hopes and dreams was to personalize natural forces, to think of the world as a society of spirits who are only hidden from view, like dear friends who have gone off to foreign lands but with whom we can still keep in touch (with prayer or animal sacrifices). The world became one big family and no one was left homeless, kicked to the curb as an alienated and demoralized outsider. Instead of having to be horrified by the world’s strangeness, we extended our delusions about our personhood onto the manifestly impersonal world, and so instead of looking natural reality in the face, we surrounded ourselves with distorting funhouse mirrors. There were no more alien forces, because fellow people were everywhere! See that lightning strike? That was a sign of Zeus’s fury. Here that volcano? That was bubbling from the underground abode of the dead.
Modern science came along and shattered those mirrors. Descartes captured the urgency of the moment when he distinguished between the outer and the inner worlds, and thus between the horrifying impersonality of matter and the comforting familiarity of the ego. Modern egoism itself, though, has come undone in our postmodern limbo, and so now we’re unknown even to ourselves. Our spirits have fled us in our unbelief. Not only is the universe far too large and alien to be anyone’s home (not even a sociopathic plutocrat’s), but we’re no longer even like snails with their portable shelters. We’re alienated from our bodies, as scientists naturalize more and more of us. We too are just mammals, evolved machines obeying natural laws, which are really not laws at all, but alien rhythms of the undead god’s decay.
When cognitive scientists come to master the brain within the next few decades, the disenchantment will be complete and our homunculi will be banished from our carapaces. The world will be only a monstrosity of interlocking shells, of former homes of shiny, happy spirits holding hands, now known to be undead machines, some of which have control mechanisms and even the capacity for false hope for escape from the grotesque corpse of nature. We cynical and selfish dupes replace the theist’s longing for the spirit world to show itself in the afterlife, with the technoscientific civilization’s re-engineering of the wilderness. We wield our second-order machines to infuse our values and other delusions into the original skeletons that dance all around us to the Halloween doom metal which is the music of the spheres, recreating natural processes in our hallucinated image. Thus are we sophisticated postmodernists still arcane animators of the undead.
Here, then, are three Western portrayals of this relationship between the self and the terrifying impersonality of the disenchanted world. These portrayals aren’t exhaustive, but perhaps they’re instructive.
The Lovecraftian Scientist and Cultist
The classic interpretation of the postmodern apocalypse, whose flames rise even as you read these words, is found in H.P. Lovecraft’s weird short stories, which express his cosmicist nihilism. These stories typically feature a scientist, who represents modern, scientistic optimism, and whose curiosity takes him out of his depth, into mysterious corners of the world in which superhuman powers slumber. Our pitiful means of reassuring ourselves with our families, friends, and work succeed only as long as they’re not juxtaposed before our eyes with the unfathomable but still clearly superior worldview of godlike beings. The ant doesn’t know what a person thinks, nor does the ant understand its relative weakness and insignificance, but if it could, would it still dive into its absurd work with such gusto? The scientist’s pride goes before his fall, but ironically, that is, contrary to Saint Paul, there’s no moral order that condemns him. The scientist commits no sin of satanically scheming to rival God. The most compelling, naturalistic gods of Lovecraft’s world are extraterrestrial creatures with superhuman power and knowledge, whose projects are so transcendent that we don’t figure in them at all. We’re negligible, whereas we used to think the universe literally revolves around us. The modern scientist is the busy little ant, hard at work discovering the natural truth, trusting in human reason and proudly expanding our technoscientific empire. But when the scientist encounters the aliens, who represent the universe’s inevitable humiliation and dehumanization of us, he loses not just his faith in modern myths, but his sanity.
Psychologically, the stories pick up with the cultist, who chooses to worship the alien gods, to lose himself in an ecstasy that can mitigate insanity. The cultist revels in his smallness, because that weakness is the flipside of something else’s sublime vastness. Allying himself with the alien force, the cultist is freed from human delusions of good and evil. The cultist becomes an appendage of the alien god. When the latter’s inscrutable will reveals a mere hint of the awesome, divine intention, the cultist is flung into action on the god’s behalf. Even if the pseudo-deity only exploits the cultist, destroying him rather than honouring any pledge of loyalty, the mad cultist has still found a way of being blessed by his limited vision of the transhuman, whereas the rabble are wholly ignorant and lack even that minor grace before they’re annihilated for no humanly knowable reason.
In the end, madness may be our refuge. When our myths become untenable, our delusions of grandeur sad and empty boasts, and our strategies for happiness and success tedious mammalian plots serving that other monstrous puppet master, the genetic code, maybe we’ll rationalize our doom with a culture of madness, a pantheistic cult in which we celebrate our smallness, relishing the delirium brought on by morbid fascination with cosmic inhumanity.
Silver Surfer and Galactus
The Silver Surfer is a superhero in the Marvel comic book universe and his origin story makes for an intriguing comparison with the Lovecraftian cultist. The Surfer began as an alien scientist, Norrin Radd. In fact, Radd was the modern optimistic adventurer, much like the Lovecraftian scientist. Radd’s planet was threatened by Galactus, who is a godlike being that serves the same role as Cthulhu, the Old Ones, and the other alien gods of Lovecraft’s pantheon. Galactus is a devourer of worlds, beyond good and evil, a remnant of the former universe that existed prior to the Big Bang. Radd convinces Galactus not to destroy his home world, by promising to be the god’s herald, to find other worlds to feed his cosmic appetite. Galactus turns Radd into a powerful being in his own right, the Silver Surfer, and the Surfer serves Galactus until he eventually wins his freedom when he chooses to defend Earth against his godlike master, having been impressed with a certain woman’s life-affirming arguments.
What interests me most about this tale is that its handling of the cosmicist themes reveals much about the superhero mythos. In place of the modern human scientist, the mad cultist, and the unspeakably monstrous alien god, you have Radd, the Silver Surfer, and Galactus. In Lovecraft’s world, the cultist is maddened by the mystical truth and he serves the god with no vestige of morality. In the Marvel Comics world, morality wins in the end: like Jesus, Radd sacrifices his freedom to save his planet, becoming an agent of a superbeing who transcends our morality, and yet the Surfer helps Earth defeat Galactus, defying the god, like Job, out of faith that human life is precious. Precisely the same form of argument supports vegetarianism, since livestock are to humans as humans would be to Galactus.
In any case, instead of losing their sanity when they confront Galactus and the cosmicist implications of his existence, the humans are lucky to have an incorruptible, superhuman champion on their side. And this is the key point: the superhero mythos combines a veneer of science fiction with premodern morality that no longer applies. In the real world, superbeings are inevitably corrupted, to some extent or other. Thus, there can be no superheroes in nature. Superpowers are indeed possible; indeed, our species is already superpowerful compared to the other animals. But that power corrupts all of us to some degree, depending mostly on the extent of our power. So in reality, the Silver Surfer would become a mini Galactus, which was indeed his role as Galactus’s herald. In the comic books, though, great power can coexist with moral standards. In fact, in the comic book world, superheroes are both the most powerful and the most virtuous. Of course, there are also the supervillains, but in the real world there would be no clear difference between the two sides, since all of the superpowerful people would become villains.
Moreover, in the real world, people attain great power usually by performing a litany of misdeeds, thereby honing the vices needed to ascend dominance hierarchies, to beat down competitors in a struggle for control over limited resources. In the end, you have the pharaohs, emperors, tsars, kings, and plutocrats familiar from history, together with their typically monstrous lives that don’t shock us only because we merely read about them as opposed to having to live with the inhuman acts a Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, or George W. Bush is forced to commit. To be sure, powerful people aren’t all purely evil, but neither are any of them particularly heroic, morally speaking. Marcus Aurelius, for example, was a Stoic philosopher with a cosmicist perspective, but although he wasn’t a tyrant he was still a military conqueror. And so the Buddhist lesson applies here, which is that a truly moral person with great power would surrender that power, knowing that the real world is amoral and doesn’t respect our ideals, that it thus punishes do-gooders with unintended consequences of their actions. Even in the exceptional cases in which great power doesn’t completely corrupt the person, those with total control over many people’s lives will usually think like Machiavelli, meaning that they’ll be pragmatic rather than moralistic. Indeed, the zealous ideologues who have the power to carry out their vision are often the most brutal oppressors, since they think any means are justified to bring about some absolute end.
But in the world of comic book superheroes, the heroes usually gain their superpowers by accident, and so they don’t have to lose their moral sense as they’re forced to compete to earn their supremacy. The Surfer is somewhat exceptional in this regard, but he’s transformed into a superbeing as a result of his altruistic decision. Spiderman, the Hulk, Thor, and others become superheroes by accident, and so the stories skip over the unsavoury means by which actual power is usually acquired, and the heroes can retain their moral sense along with their superhuman abilities.
Also, in the real world, power corrupts not just by tempting the dominant person to ignore morality, but by making him or her decadent and thus lazy, incompetent, and arrogant. This is the problem explained by Chris Hayes in Twilight of the Elites. The more power is concentrated, the more unequal society becomes, and thus the fewer democratic checks there are on the doings of the immortals; thus those superbeings are infantilized by their dominance. Whereas necessity is the mother of invention, those who want for nothing have no incentive to continue to excel, which is why celebrity artists, for example, including painters, musicians, novelists, and filmmakers tend to produce their best work when they’re young, before their success goes to their heads. Again, though, in the comic book world, superheroes aren’t just supremely moral and powerful; they’re also exceptionally competent. They hardly ever fail, because unlike the supervillains they use their power altruistically and so they don’t carve out a fiefdom in which they can live in luxury and so succumb to decadence.
So the comic book world presents a heroic alternative to fear of the unknowable: when faced with a transcendent power, we can stand up for morality and the value of human life; in other words, we can be drearily old-fashioned and everything will work out in the end. This alternative is fantastic in the technical literary sense. In the fantasy genre, the characters’ powers are typically magical, whereas in comic books these powers are more science fictional, and yet the superheroes’ characters themselves are magical. The comic book writers provide a quasi-scientific account of how the hero’s powers work, but there’s no explanation of how anyone with such powers could be morally heroic. That requires a leap of faith.
Finally, there are the real-life versions of the Lovecraftian cultist, such as the prophet or the madman who in medieval times could become the court jester. Isaac Asimov explains the latter well in his Guide to Shakespeare, focusing on King Lear:
In pagan times the madman was felt to be touched by the divine and was treated with awe and respect…To the early Christians, on the other hand, thanks in part to the tales of possession in the New Testament, madmen were felt to be infested with demons as a result of their sins. In that case, where mad antics were not extreme enough to inspire fear or disgust, they merely amused…If a madman were sufficiently harmless and amusing--if, for instance, he could make ‘witless’ remarks that were nevertheless humorous--he might be kept for the purpose by a family that was sufficiently well off to afford to feed a useless mouth. Naturally, a shrewd but poor fellow could see that if he but pretended to be slightly mad and took care to be pungently clever, he might get a good job.The court fool became a standard part of the palace scene, then, and was the analogue of the modern television set, for ideally, he could do comic songs and dances, make witty comments, do sight gags, and so on….Naturally, such a fool could say and do things an ordinary man could not possibly get away with…Behind the protection of his own madness and the amusement of his royal patron, he could mock arrogant lords and stately bishops and cast aspersions on all the sacred cows. (vol.2, p.16)
Thus, in the ancient world, mentally ill persons who heard voices or who were impoverished, marginalized, and thus alienated and liable to have an outsider’s perspective on society were sometimes regarded as prophets or shamans, and although Christians demonized the ill and infantilized the poor, the tradition of revering the subversive omega person survived in the ambiguous character of the court jester. And so here we have a third scenario in which fear of the world’s indifference to us may play out. The fool is scapegoated so that the masses can have their cake and eat it too, benefitting from his insights without themselves having to suffer for them; on the contrary, the fool could be mocked and his cutting remarks belittled.
Arguably, this is still the function of comedy, to restore the naïve, anthropocentric view of the world, which allows us to be happy, and to displace the horror that arises when the real world shatters our illusions. As Asimov explains, “Licensed fools had standardized costumes, of which one noticeable item was the hat, which had sewn to it a piece of serrated red cloth to represent a cockscomb. The cock, after all, is a stupid creature filled with a foolish pride and given to making senseless sounds, so that there seems a resemblance between cock and fool” (17). Thus, medieval Christians allowed subversive social critics in their midst only on the condition that they be brought low and ridiculed, so that the elites could shake off the social critique. This was the imperial Christian way, to co-opt foreign traditions and symbols, as in Christmas, the Roman myth of the demigod, and so forth.
The fool survives in postmodern times. You can see him in such characters as Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory, in Abed Nadir in Community, and in the Hollywood villain whose antisocial arguments the hero never actually refutes, such as Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup character in A Few Good Men or the Joker in The Dark Knight. Turning from fiction to the real world, big cities are still afflicted with deranged persons who stand in the marketplace and berate passersby. A more prominent example is Alex Jones, a would-be truth teller who’s mostly ignored or ridiculed as a demagogue and an irrational conspiracy theorist. The comedians on the Daily Shows are clearly fools in the technical sense, although they’re more respectable than Alex Jones because they’re based in New York rather than Texas, they don’t take themselves as seriously, and they flatter postmodern liberals.
We also have the cyberspace equivalents of fools, such as the social outsiders who write the many millions of blogs that rant and rave on this or that subject. Yours truly is only one such fool. However, the internet doesn’t yet allow for the full range of human interactions, and so we amateur social critics don’t provide the elites with enough material for them to scapegoat and mock us. That is, we’re anonymous or at least we present the world with only our words. The foolish pseudo-celebrities on YouTube are thus more analogous to the court jester, since their omega status can be visually confirmed and so their testimony, social criticism, and the other fruits of their alienation can be reduced to the products of insanity, bitterness, ugliness, poverty, or some other weakness. I submit that in popular culture, YouTube is mostly associated not with a forum for anything like a serious, cosmicist meditation on the disenchantment of nature, but with a medium for vain, frivolous jackassery. If so, the perception is that fools rise to the top of YouTube. (The Amazing Atheist would be an example of such a fool in the technical sense. His thoughtful social criticisms are palatable only because he acts the fool for laughs.)
Perspectives on the Abyss
Three people stare into the abyss, beholding the world’s impersonality and undead creativity. One goes mad and becomes a tool of the hyperpower, a mechanism for furthering the undead god’s decay. Another heroically, albeit fantastically, defends virtue and honour as opposed to shrinking back in horror and humility. The third goes only half-mad, shrewdly speaking esoteric truths in such a way as to preserve exoteric delusions, by expressing the insights in comedic form. Alas, this joke has no punch line.