Last week, in Part One of this post, we explored the strange way that many people these days seem to have lost the ability to think clearly, or at all, about certain political questions. Insights from philosopher Alan Jacobs and a thoughtful blogger who goes by “Jane” helped us close in on the mental dysfunction behind this odd and self-defeating habit. Our senses of meaning and value comes from personal participation in shared narratives we may as well call myths, but the mentally healthy among us balance those narratives against pragmatic concerns, and pay close attention when the world we encounter tells us our preferred narratives no longer work.
It’s that habit of balancing the mythic and pragmatic modes of experience against each other that has given way among far too many people these days. For them, the narrative is all, and if the world fails to do what the narrative demands, too bad for the world. In the musical Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote airily proclaims, “Facts are the enemies of truth;” it was unnerving, to use no stronger word, to hear Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden saying practically the same thing—and not as a joke or a reference to the musical—not that long ago.
Don Quixote offers us a remarkably good portrayal of the kind of failure we’re discussing here. As anyone who’s read Miguel de Cervantes’ brilliant satire will recall, what caused the mild-mannered country squire Alonzo Quijana to go riding forth as the most errant of all knights-errant was too much brooding on the overblown knightly romances of his day. Those of my readers who think that wallowing in pop fiction is purely a modern habit clearly haven’t made the acquaintance of Amadis of Gaul, the fifteenth century’s answer to The Lord of the Rings. Like Tolkien’s opus, it was a runaway fantasy bestseller that spawned an immense and mostly dismal industry of imitations and knock-offs; and in Cervantes’ novel, it was Quijana’s obsessive immersion in that mighty torrent of faux-heroic pop culture that caused him to lose track of the world he actually inhabited, and go boldly forth to battle giants that didn’t happen to exist.
That is to say, Don Quixote de la Mancha is one of the first, and certainly the most brilliantly described, of what are now termed “fictionkin.”
I probably need to unpack that term for those of my readers who don’t spend enough time in the stranger corners of today’s online pop culture. I suspect everyone these days is more or less aware of the phenomenon of gender dysphoria, the condition of those people who believe they have been born into bodies of the wrong gender. (To be fair, their condition seems in at least some cases to be linked with measurable biological factors.) Further along the same vector, and without the biological justifications, you find ethnic dysphoria and thus the controversial phenomenon of transracialism, in which people believe they are members of ethnic groups to which, according to every objective measure, they do not belong—Rachel Dolezal and presidential contender Elizabeth Warren are well-known examples of this. There’s also the equally controversial phenomenon of transablism, in which people believe that they ought to have been born with specific physical disabilities, and in some cases have been known to pay for surgeons to give them the disabilities they believe they should have.
Quite a bit further out along the same trajectory you find the otherkin. These are people who believe they have been born into bodies of the wrong species. In some cases the species actually exist—a while back I corresponded at quite some length with a young man who was convinced he was really a draft horse, and who had a great deal to say about the possibilities of horse-drawn agriculture in a future of fossil fuel shortages—while in other cases the species in question are as elusive as the giants and dragons Don Quixote hoped to fight. If you frequent the right corners of the internet these days, you can find obsessively detailed lists of pronouns suitable for otherkin, divided up taxonomically: “chir/chirs/chirpself” for someone who identifies as a bird, and so on.
At the far end of the trajectory—well, at least for the moment—you get fictionkin. These are people who believe they are fictional characters from books, television, anime, or what have you. By this I don’t mean the ordinary imaginative participation that’s central to the mythic mode of experience, the sort of thing everyone who’s ever been caught up in a story knows well. Nor do I mean mere roleplaying. Au contraire, fictionkin believe they actually are some specific fictional character, and take on the identity of that character 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They aren’t playacting; something considerably more troubling is going on.
Earlier this year a young woman posted an account of her boyfriend’s journey into this state to the Reddit sub r/relationshipadvice. It ended up being removed by the site moderators, but went viral well before that happened; here’s a copy from one of the websites that still has it posted. The short form is that the boyfriend, who was a typically boisterous, nerdy young man, went through a dramatic personality change after binge watching the anime series Loveless. He spent some weeks being very quiet and withdrawn, reading the book version of Loveless, and then snapped all at once into a soft, smiling, happy, weirdly artificial state. When the girlfriend confronted him about this, he told her that he’d realized that he was actually Soubi, one of the main characters from the anime series.
It didn’t stop there. The young man began to insist that the girlfriend call him Soubi whenever they weren’t in public. He started calling her Ritsuka, the name of Soubi’s 12-year-old girlfriend, and insisting that she roleplay Ritsuka in bed. He grew his hair out so he could copy Soubi’s hairstyle, got rid of his wardrobe so he could replace it with clothes identical to those that Soubi wore in the anime and the books, and picked up a set of fake glasses that looked like Soubi’s. All his old habits, behaviors, and personality traits went away, replaced by a set borrowed wholesale from an anime character. The girlfriend tried to cope, and tried to cope, and tried to cope—and then the faux-Soubi tried to arrange a threesome between them and a transgendered person who was under the age of consent, not something the boyfriend would have done in his right mind, and the girlfriend finally realized she’d had enough and walked.
It’s a harrowing story, of a kind that’s familiar to anyone who’s watched another person descend into mental illness—because that’s what we’re talking about, of course. The process is exactly the one that Cervantes described so crisply in the first chapter of Don Quixote: the gradual loosening of the girders of the mind, followed by the sudden snap as the last connection to the real world gives way, the sudden burst of dazed delight that always seems to accompany the plunge into madness, the attempts to equip the new identity with all its proper accoutrements—there’s Don Quixote frantically polishing his great-grandfather’s suit of armor, right next to faux-Soubi styling his hair and putting on his fake glasses—and then the descent into stranger and stranger behavior once the pragmatic mode went silent forever: it’s all there, a classic account of one of the common ways that people go insane.
I bring a somewhat unusual perspective to narratives of this kind, because I write fiction, and that means I spend a lot of my time in the company of imaginary people. The characters in my novels are vivid, distinct presences in my imagination, and they’re relatively autonomous—that is, they don’t just do what I tell them. When I started writing my novel The Shoggoth Concerto, for example, I knew that Brecken Kendall—the main character in that story, a mixed-race music student at a fictional state university in New Jersey—was going to befriend a small shoggoth; I had no idea where their relationship would end up, and where it did end up was as much of a surprise to me as it was to Brecken and the shoggoth she nicknamed Sho.
That emphatically does not mean that Brecken and Sho are real in the same sense as you and I. To borrow a typically neat phrasing from the Greek philosopher Sallust, characters in a novel, like the myths Sallust was talking about, are things that never happened but always are. Reading a work of fiction can be the same sort of imaginative participation I discussed in last week’s post as the essence of the mythic mode, and it can be a potent source of transformative experiences of meaning and value. That’s one of the things that fiction does, and one of the reasons why it very often functions as the mythology of our time.
A narrative doesn’t have to be great literature to elicit that kind of experience. I recall reading quite some years ago a comment by Hollywood actor Mark Hamill about the role of Batman comics in shaping his personal sense of morality and his approach to life. Dick Grayson aka Robin the Boy Wonder was the figure in whose adventures Hamill participated most vividly, and all through his youth, encountering a moral or personal challenge, his first inward question was “What would Robin do?” If you didn’t grow up with the comics, that sounds laughable, but Hamill’s far from alone in that; Batman and Green Arrow were among the comic-book heroes whose adventures I read just as passionately in my own childhood, with somewhat similar effects. Comics functioned as the folk mythology of several generations of young Americans, and all things considered, I don’t think that was a bad thing.
Notice, though, that Hamill didn’t fall into the trap of believing that he was Dick Grayson. He didn’t outfit himself with a Robin suit so he could wait day after day for Batman to show up and take him away to the Batcave and a life of fighting crime. He kept the mythic and pragmatic modes of experience in balance, and gained the benefits of imaginative participation in a narrative, rather than using the narrative as a replacement for reality—that is, he was sane, not crazy.
The same distinction can be found on a level reaching well beyond purely individual concerns. Whole societies can also fall on one side of that borderline or, if they’re unfortunate enough, on the other. Our society is a poor example here, partly because our history has given us a tangled and unhelpful attitude toward the mythic mode of experience, and partly for reasons I’ll get to in next week’s post. Most other societies are saner about myth. One of the great examples of the thoughtful and creative use of the mythic mode, not to mention one that I’ve been brooding about for some time now, is the set of Lakota customs described in detail in the pages of that classic of Native American spirituality, Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt.
The very short form, for those who haven’t yet read the book in question, is that Black Elk had an intense visionary experience in boyhood, the kind of thing that marked him ever after as a holy man. When he recovered from the shamanic trance and recounted his vision, the elders listened, discussed the vision, considered its implications, and found it worthy of acceptance. Once that process was complete, the whole band enacted it in ritual form, making it part of the oral literature of their people as a resource for spiritual practice and imaginative participation.
Most traditional societies have some version of this same vetting process. That’s why Kobo Daishi and Dengyo Daishi, the monks who brought esoteric Buddhism from China to Japan, had to present their teachings to the emperor on their return to Japan, and receive a favorable judgment from the emperor’s cadre of religious experts, before beginning to teach what they had learned. It’s why any new religious movement that wanted to establish a temple in Rome had to get the permission of the stern and skeptical old men of the Roman Senate before proceeding. The mythic mode of experience can be a source of life and health and meaning, but it can also be a source of madness and disaster. Traditional societies know this, and act accordingly.
Thus, according to one account, when a Paiute man named Wovoka announced in the late 1870s that he had received a splendid vision of a better future for the Native peoples of the Great Plains, the first reaction of the Paiute elders was to reject the vision. There was reason for that rejection, too. Wovoka’s vision had taught him that if the Native peoples purified themselves and performed a sacred dance, the white invaders would be annihilated, the buffalo would return, the ancestors would come back to life, and all evil and death would go away forever. We don’t happen to know why the Paiute elders made the decision they did, but the Native peoples of the Great Plains were no fools; they thrived for many centuries in a difficult environment and had subtle and effective ways of dealing constructively with visionary experiences. They knew better than to accept the literal truth of a narrative far more stereotyped and unrealistic than Loveless or Amadis of Gaul.
That level of clarity was difficult to maintain, though, in the years that followed, as the tribes of the plains ended up with their backs to the wall. Facing invasion and conquest by the vastly more populous and technologically advanced society to their east, they had been fighting for more than a generation in a hopeless war in which even the most overwhelming victory simply meant a brief respite before the invaders returned in even greater force. The tacit bargain every society has with the universe—we will live this way, you will maintain the conditions that enable us to live this way—had shattered irrevocably, and many people in the plains tribes were willing to turn to anything that seemed to offer them a way out of an insupportable reality.
January 1, 1889 brought a solar eclipse, and during the eclipse Wovoka had a more elaborate version of his previous vision. This time it found widespread acceptance. Across the Great Plains, Native tribes embraced the Ghost Dance, as it came to be called, following Wovoka’s instructions to purify themselves and dance the sacred dance. Wild rumors spread, elaborating on Wovoka’s original vision, claiming that the elaborate dancing shirts they crafted for the Ghost Dance would make their wearers invulnerable to bullets. From the Paiute country all the way to the Lakota country up against the Canadian border, Native people danced and waited in radiant hope for the invaders to be annihilated and the ancestors and the buffalo to return.
What happened instead was the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 28, 1890, where US soldiers armed with artillery and recently invented Hotchkiss machine guns opened fire on a mostly unarmed band of Lakota Ghost Dancers. The Ghost Dance shirts offered no protection against the hail of bullets and shrapnel, and 153 died, most of them women and children. The last resistance against the invaders collapsed promptly thereafter. When facts become the enemies of truth, in other words, they generally come to the conflict much more heavily armed than their opponent. Don Quixote suffered only bruises and embarrassment when he mistook a windmill for a giant he could fight. The Ghost Dancers were not so lucky.
For a great many years, anthropologists approached the Ghost Dance and other phenomena of the same kind—and there have been a great many of them, especially but not only in response to the European campaigns of global conquest between the 16th and 19th centuries—from within an unhelpful mentality of ethnocentrism or, perhaps, technocentrism: the notion that such things were purely the preserve of “primitive” peoples, whose lack of the kind of technology Europeans consider advanced supposedly made them too simpleminded to recognize that mythically oriented actions such as putting on a sacred shirt and dancing a sacred dance wouldn’t overcome massed firepower. There’s a substantial literature in older anthropological journals on “revitalization movements,” as such things are called in that end of academe; though there are worthy exceptions, most of it has at least a trace of the technocentric arrogance just mentioned.
The cluelessness framing that easy sense of superiority should never have survived the 20th century. We have the bitter examples of Nazism and Communism to demonstrate that classic revitalization movements, dressed up in finery borrowed from the science and pseudoscience of their day, can flourish in the most advanced technological societies on the planet. More recently still, the orgy of wishful thinking surrounding the fake Mayan prophecy of December 21, 2012 had most of the features of a revitalization movement, and the adherents of that frankly crackpot belief system were drawn almost exclusively from the comfortable, well-educated middle and upper middle classes of modern American society.
What drives the collective descent into delusion at the heart of a revitalization movement, in other words, has nothing to do with the presence or absence of modern technology or a modern education. It’s the same dynamic that sent the young man discussed earlier on his plunge into madness. What personal and social factors were responsible for his adoption of a delusional identity as an anime character are impossible to guess for those of us not personally acquainted with him. On the other hand, it’s not difficult to recognize the immense psychological and cultural pressures that are driving the comfortable classes of today’s American society into the flight from reason discussed in the first essay in this sequence—a revitalization movement on the classic scale, in which participants are engaging in a series of increasingly ornate ritual actions meant to bring back their equivalent of the buffalo and the ancestors. We’ll talk about that next week.
The second Wednesday of each month is usually the day for this blog’s monthly book club post, discussing a work of Western esoteric philosophy—at the moment, The Cosmic Doctrine by Dion Fortune. This month, however, that will be delayed until the third Wednesday, so that this sequence of posts can be completed without a break. See you next week!