The crisis of our age has many facets. All of them have their roots in the basic fact of our time, the head-on collision between the limitless economic growth our civilization demands and the hard limits of a finite planet. From that collision, in turn, come the drawdown of irreplaceable resources and the disruption of the biosphere, and from these unfold a cascade of disastrous consequences that can be read in today’s headlines, and promise to make an even larger and less welcome contribution to tomorrow’s.
I’ve talked at length in my previous blogs about how those consequences can be expected to play out in the years ahead, and no doubt I’ll discuss them at length in posts to come. Just at the moment, though, the facets of our time of crisis that fascinate me most are those that reach down past the realm of visible symptoms into the deep places of the human mind, where unspoken fears and unacknowledged desires rub elbows with one another, and the future takes on a ghostly reality long before it appears in the form of human actions and their consequences.
I’m reminded, as I watch the turbulence of the present, of Carl Jung’s prescient essay “Wotan,” published in 1934—at a time, that is, when most sensible observers dismissed Hitler as an inept Mussolini wannabe and his National Socialist movement as an oddball fringe party that would soon either be thrown out of power or forced to come to terms with reality. Jung rejected that easy dismissal. What was going on in Germany, he argued, couldn’t be understood so long as it was forced into the mental straitjacket of politics as usual. The paired languages of myth on the one hand, and psychopathology on the other, alone made adequate sense of what amounted to an impending psychotic break that would affect not individuals but continents.
Deep below the surface of the mind, Jung argued, in the crawlspaces of consciousness where the oh-so-rational thinkers of early twentieth century Europe never deigned to look, the same forms and presences that shape ancient myths and legends remain a living presence in every human being. Jung argued that these patterns—the archetypes, to use his name for them—were the subjective dimension of human instinct. Newborn goslings look for the nearest large moving object and identify it as Mom, an instinctive mechanism demonstrated amusingly by the famous biologist Konrad Lorenz, who used it to get himself adopted as surrogate parent by newly hatched geese. In exactly the same way, if on a somewhat more complex level, infant humans look for a person who corresponds to an inborn mother-image and identify that person as Mom. The inborn mother-image, in Jung’s terminology, is the mother archetype.
What makes these images potent in human experience is that they don’t go away when their immediate biological usefulness is finished. We all carry around in the deep places of our minds a mother-image, a father-image, a lover-image, an enemy-image, and many others beside these. These images get projected onto actual human beings, in the same way that the Mom-image got projected onto Konrad Lorenz by a flock of goslings—and very often with no better logic. Watch two people fall in love, or talk to somebody who’s in the grip of a fanatic hatred of some group of people he’s never met, and it’s clear that the processes we’re talking about have nothing to do with reasoning or ordinary thinking.
Much of Jung’s work as a psychologist involved listening carefully to the dreams, fantasies, and reflections of his patients, trying to figure out what instinct-images were shaping their thinking and behavior willy-nilly. Thus (for example) he sought to help a patient with a mother-fixation to detach the ordinary human being who happened to be his mother from the overwhelming emotional power of the inborn mother-image, so as to replace the obsessive emotional patterns with an ordinary relationship between two adult human beings. It was a subtle process, and like most things in human life it wasn’t always successful, but it taught Jung to watch carefully when an archetypal image took on a life of its own.
That’s the thing about archetypes: they aren’t passive. They don’t just sit there at the bottom of the psyche waiting for someone to notice them. Pay close attention to your dreams and fantasies, and you can learn to see archetypes stirring into motion long before they project themselves on the people around you. Pay close attention to the dreams and fantasies of a nation, and the same principle applies. That’s what Jung did in “Wotan,” the essay previously mentioned; he noticed that a particular set of archetypal images linked with the old German god Wotan—the Wild Huntsman, the Lord of the Slain, the Glutter of the Crows, the god of magic, madness, and death—had stirred to new life in the German psyche, with consequences that Jung guessed at dimly, and the rest of Europe learned about in a much less pleasant way shortly thereafter.
Watch the dreams and fantasies of a society and you can catch the foreshadowings of its future—sometimes. There’s another side to the autonomy of the archetypes, though. Just as they don’t wait passively for us to act upon them, they also don’t show up on cue. Jung could write what he did, when he did, because the storm was about to break and it took merely a keen eye to catch the flickerings of the lightning on the horizon. Friedrich Nietzsche, half a century before him, recognized that Europe would plunge into a nightmare vortex of ideological warfare after the twentieth century dawned, but he misjudged completely what the ruling ideologies would be; and Heinrich Heine, another half century further back, could only catch a dim sense that the gods of Germanic antiquity were stirring and that war would follow them.
The cultural history of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Central Europe maps out, with remarkable clarity, the process by which one archetype loses its grip on a society and another rises with glacial slowness to replace it. The archetype that was fading out in those years was embodied in the old Ghibelline ideal of the Holy Roman Empire—aristocratic, Christian, shaped by the legacies of classical culture, centered on a vision of human community that balanced intense local loyalties with a commitment to an imperial institution that transcended nations, creeds, and languages.
One of the most striking symptoms of that ideal’s twilight was the number of voices raised in increasingly shrill tones to insist that it was still vital. The Austro-Hungarian Empire claimed, with no shortage of historical precedent, to embody that ideal; after its founding in 1871, the German Empire did its level best to hijack the ideal’s prestige; when crisis hit in 1914, the former quietly imploded, while the latter metastasized into something that had no connection with the Ghibelline ideal at all—so drastically so that the German aristocracy, which clung to the old vision with a fierceness that was only sharpened by its futility, became the spawning ground for the most effective resistance movement Hitler’s regime faced.
Yet the old ideal was as dead as the proverbial doornail long before the First World War pushed it into an unmarked grave. The cause of death was the same thing that normally dooms such ideals, the immense gap that had opened up over time between the archetype and the increasingly sordid and pedestrian realities on which it was projected. In a certain ironic sense, history was doing for central Europe what Carl Jung did for his patients—drawing a distinction between the emotionally powerful image and the underwhelming reality—but of course there was a catch, for the departure of one archetype doesn’t mean the end of the projection mechanism, nor does it guarantee that the one that rises in its place will be an improvement.
All this seems relevant to me just now, because whatever future is stirring in the deep places of the American psyche just now is apparently still far off. As I watch the fantasies and restless dreams of my own culture, what I see looks far more like a death than a birth.
Here again, as in nineteeth-century Germany, among the clearest markers of that death is the crowd of public figures insisting that it just ain’t so. I’m thinking here especially of blog posts by science fiction writer David Brin, forwarded by one of my longtime readers—tip of the hat to Pat Mathews. I’d encourage readers to take in one of his posts in particular, from March of this year. It ran through a list of mildly interesting astronomical discoveries over the last year or so in an attempt to prove that progress is still on track, and then wound up with a peroration that, in its passionate befuddlement, invites comparison with the finest sort of tub-thumping tent revival rhetoric: “If you have any notions of progress, of wanting your descendants to bestride the stars, then reject the blithering-dopey ‘cycles of history’ and ‘The Fourth Turning’ and ‘we’re all doomed’ rants of those who would turn away from science and wonder.”
Try to follow the logic here; I promise you it’ll lead you a merry chase. The Fourth Turning, as I suspect most of my readers know, is the title of a book by William Strauss and Neil Howe that argues, on the basis of a fair amount of evidence, that certain patterns in US political and cultural history repeat over a period of eighty to ninety years. Theories of historical cycles go back long before Strauss and Howe, of course, and here again there’s a great deal of evidence to back them. The notion that cyclic theories of history somehow amount to a claim that “we’re all doomed” is quite an impressive non sequitur, which makes what little sense it can muster only from within a narrow ideological stance—we’ll get to that latter in a moment—and the claim that people who accept the possibility of historical cycles are deliberately turning away from science and wonder is pure ad hominem handwaving. (We can ignore such clumsy outbursts as “blithering-dopey,” which are just embarrassing; Brin used to be a better writer than that.)
The telltale line in all this is Brin’s invocation of “wanting your descendants to bestride the stars.” Behind that line lies one of the great archetypal narratives of the recent past, the dream of infinite expansion into outer space. That’s the narrow ideological stance I mentioned a moment ago. As we’ll see in an upcoming post, the recognition that civilizations have a life cycle—they rise, and then fall, and then new ones rise in their places—is far from a prophecy of doom, and it leaves at least as much room for science and wonder as the rigidly linear notion of history Brin evidently prefers. The one thing it doesn’t permit is the claim that humanity is on a one-way track that leads straight from the caves to the stars.
That’s an issue, in turn, because interstellar travel plays the same role in the secular religion of progress—the established faith of our age—that the Second Coming of Christ plays in Christian theology. It’s the point at which all the unfulfilled promises come true, and all the conflicts between the world portrayed by doctrine and the world encountered in experience are resolved at last. Since the unfulfilled promises of progress have been mounting up dramatically in recent years, and the conflicts between the world we were promised and the one we actually got have become fairly hard to ignore, Brin’s attempt to call backsliders to return to the one true faith in the teeth of the evidence makes a familiar kind of sense.
After all, to borrow Brin’s language for a moment, if our descendants will bestride the stars, it would follow that you and I bestride the planet today. How’s that working out for you, dear reader? As you trudge from one part-time, minimum-wage, no-benefits job to another, or fill whatever other role you happen to have in a society that increasingly treats you as a disposable asset for corporations to exploit; as you cope with decaying infrastructure, collapsing public health, a political system caught in permanent gridlock, and mass media that seems to take each new day as a challenge to top the breathtaking dishonesties of the day before; as you watch, one after another, each year’s grandiose predictions of the allegedly inevitable benefits of progress land with a deafening flop—does the thought of your suppositious mastery over the Earth fill you with a sense of meaning, purpose, and grandeur?
That question, of course, traces out the chasm that’s widening right now between the old dream of perpetual progress and the billions of us who live in the world that progress has made. Has the pursuit of technological progress brought benefits? Of course it has, but it’s also brought a bumper crop of burdens, costs, and problems. In a good many cases, the downsides of new technologies outweigh their benefits, and of course neither of these are equally distributed: the well-to-do minority get the lion’s share of the benefits, while the poor majority has to carry nearly all the costs. For the comfortable and the sheltered, who never stray outside the bubble of their privilege, it’s easy to insist that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds; in the increasingly mean streets outside that bubble, that illusion doesn’t last long.
What’s more, as I’ve discussed at some length in my forthcoming book The Retro Future, it’s only in the daydreams of true believers that technological progress is exempt from the law of diminishing returns. Look at the history of any technology, and a familiar pattern reveals itself: after initial fumblings and a breakthrough or two, the low-hanging fruit is harvested first, yielding impressive gains at low cost; as time goes on, the cost for each additional improvement goes up, while the relative benefit provided by that improvement goes down; sooner or later, the benefits no longer pay for the development costs, and the technology settles into its mature form, which is often noticeably simpler than the last round of innovations would suggest.
Look at the history of industrial technology as a whole, from the steam engine forward, and the same pattern shows itself—the total investment needed to pay for James Watt’s epochal redesign of the steam engine, even corrected for inflation, wouldn’t cover more than a few days of the world’s current investment in fusion power technologies that may never work at all. As science writer Charles Seife pointed out in his thoughtful book Sun In A Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking, the history of the quest for fusion power has more in common with the quest for a working perpetual motion machine than today’s enthusiasts would like to admit; it may be that we simply don’t yet know the laws of nature that make the quest for fusion power a fool’s errand.
Here again, though, if you happen to belong to the comfortably well-off minority, it’s easy to insist that nothing’s wrong and the grand march of progress is on track. The economic burdens of a society in decline are no more equally distributed than the costs and benefits of technology. Just as central Europe in the nineteenth century was replete with intellectuals from the privileged classes insisting with various degrees of airy confidence and polemic heat that the grand ideal of the Empire was doing fine, thank you very much, early twenty-first-century America is replete with equally privileged intellectuals insisting, at various points on the same rhetorical spectrum, that of course we’re still on the grand upward journey from the caves to the stars, and anyone who questions that just wants to turn away from science and wonder, not to mention baseball, Mom, apple pie, and any other feel-good abstractions that happen to come to mind.
The point to keep in mind here is that the archetypal patterns that shape history don’t rise among the privileged. Whether it’s true, as the traditional story has it, that Christ was born in a barn and had a bin of livestock feed for his cradle—that’s what a manger is, in case you didn’t know—the image catches an important truth: it’s among the poor, the homeless, the despised, the neglected, that new realities are born. The gospel that Brin preaches, the grand myth of humanity’s destiny out there among the stars, had its origin in pulp magazines that were considered the last word in lowbrow reading when they first saw print; the broader archetypal pattern from which that myth derives its power, the vision of the self-reliant individual striding boldly toward the frontier to carve out a new world for himself and his family from untouched wilderness, first emerged among illiterate backwoods communities, despised by the wealthy coastal enclaves, at a time when the first thirteen United States looked uneasily westward toward the trackless wilderness of the Ohio and Tennessee valleys.
That’s the vision that’s dying today, the way the old Ghibelline ideal died a slow death in nineteenth-century Germany. What replaced the Ghibelline ideal, as already noted, offers an uncomfortable reminder that the departure of one archetype need not open the way to a better option. There’s always the possibility that it could be something much, much worse. More precisely—since archetypes, as the subjective side of instincts, have no innate moral character—it’s always possible that an awakening archetype can interact with a particular historical context in ways that reliably engender monstrosities.
The vision of humanity made omnipotent through technology—Men Like Gods, to borrow the title of one of H.G. Wells’ drearier novels—is on its way out. The question we face is what will rise to replace it. I plan on discussing that, from various angles, as this sequence of posts proceeds.