A yearning for magic and unreason

25Jan10

“People feel they can rely on the irrational. It offers the only guarantee of freedom from all the cant and bullshit and sales commercials fed to us by politicians, bishops and academics. People are deliberately re-primitivising themselves. They yearn for magic and unreason, which served them so well in the past, and might help them again. They’re keen to enter a new Dark Age. The lights are on, but they’re retreating into the inner darkness, into superstition and unreason. The future is going to be a struggle between vast systems of competing psychopathies, all of them willed and deliberate, part of a desperate attempt to escape from a rational world and the boredom of consumerism.” (Dr Tony Maxted in J G Ballard’s Kingdom Come)

d ha rm e sh_surreal Monster

Whilst I think it’s generally dangerous to accept fiction as an absolute truth, the sum and all of what perceive in the world around us, I do also believe that *good* fiction lights on an element of truth and draws it out into the light. What is then exposed may fade, or it may grow into a distortion of itself, or it may become true.

Tony Maxted was a flawed character, and his flaws and obsessions got him into a whole lot of nasty trouble that he could have avoided if he wasn’t so desperate to prove himself right. However, this observation struck a chord with me, sort of framing a lot of thoughts and observations I’ve been collecting recently.

One of the things that annoys me so much about the world I live in is the deliberate pursuit of ignorance – where it is ‘cool’ to know nothing and not care, the ‘whatever, am I bovvered?’ attitude that prevails. I find it hugely frustrating that the idea of interest and enquiry,  knowledge and understanding of ourselves, of the world we live in, and how all these things interact, is no longer something that has common currency amongst those around me, but this statement has kind of helped me put it in some sort of perspective.

If we want ‘freedom from all the cant and bullshit and sales commercials fed to us by politicians, bishops and academics’, then perhaps the best way to achieve that *is* to disassociate ourselves from it and dismiss it as irrelevant and pointless, without context or meaning in day-to-day life. The Enlightenment saw us coming out of the Dark Ages, into an age of reason and exploration, when we actively sought to obtain the keys to the kingdom we inhabited. The pursuit of knowledge, of rational and scientific enquiry, was a desirable activity to be admired and respected., edgy and subversive in itself. The trouble is, now we have unlocked that knowledge, it has, pandora’s box-like, come back to haunt us. By reducing the world and all within it to a series of chemical reaction and minute particles, we have proved that it exists without meaning or purpose (save perhaps that of self-perpetuation) and have reduced ourselves to nothing more than another mindless gene pool. Alongside that, is the utter impossibility of being able to understand “everything” in the way the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought ‘grand unifying theories’ of life, the universe and everything, which means that accepting current scientific thinking becomes as much an article of faith as any religion. We can believe that such a thing as a quark exists, but unless one is a high priest of physics, we’re unlikely to have anything more than a vague notion of what one actually is and does, and even less likely to actually ever see one. A bit like God, really. The only problem is that God gave us a reason for being where we were, whereas a quark demands our belief but offers nothing in return.

In the face of the unknowable, then, is it surprising that people turn away from reason? When it offers us nothing in return for our faith, we might as well depend on our emotions to fill the gap, and as such we become incredibly egocentric, the centre of our own universes around which everything else revolves. And being so, our own needs and wants become more important – more like ‘rights’ – than anyone else’s. Hence the success of consumerism – the emotional satisfaction and adrenaline buzz from making purchases and falling for the lies of the advertisements far outweighs the longer-term consequences of our actions. It’s easy, and it’s like a game. After all, it doesn’t mean anything, because there is no ‘grand scheme of things’. And when we know there’s a strong possibility that the ‘high priests’ – the politicians, bishops and academics – are lying to us, then our own perceptions become more important than the bullshit that they’re trying to spoon into our minds.

A good reason, then, to say ‘Whatever. Am I bovvered?’ But to retreat into unreason, to actively seek a return to the Dark Ages? Perhaps we can see it coming already – the rash of post-apocalyptic/dystopian tv shows and movies, the sprawling, pointless brawls of binge-drinkers on a Friday night, the lunacy of knife and gun crime in our inner cities – the boredom has reached a peak, and there seems to be only one way out, and that’s down. There is no heaven, so let’s create a hell-on-earth? Do we really think that such a retreat will supply meaning and purpose? If we destroy the edifices of knowledge and understanding, will they cease to be, and will we happily revert to magic and superstition to fill the gap?

I am guilty of it myself, to a certain extent. I write fantasy and science fiction, both of which would come under the category of a ‘retreat from reality’, and certainly in fantasy (to a lesser extent in science fiction) the presence of magic and an intact deity giving the world we’re visiting structure, coherence and meaning is a common theme. Perhaps this preoccupation is to fill the gap left by the current world, where there is no longer any real magic, and the mysteries are all laid bare. Does this constitute a yearning for magic and unreason?

Magic, almost certainly. Unreason? I hope not.

I definitely don’t want to see a return to the Dark Ages. Maybe because I’m a writer and I’ve explored a future in which everything is broken, reduced to nothing, or maybe because I’m a parent and the protective instinct is strong in me, I don’t want all the benefits that science and technology and our understanding of world/universe mechanics taken away. I don’t want to live in a society where we’re utterly dependent on the vagaries of climate and earth-systems for subsistence, nor where becoming pregnant is a life-threatening game of chance, nor where broken limbs, appendicitus and even common infections become serious illnesses. These are neither positive nor desirable outcomes, no matter how glamorous the portrayals in tv and movies might be. To quote Hobbes: “bella omnium contra omnes” (a war of all against all) results in lives that are solitary, poor, brutish and short.

And I definitely don’t think a retreat into deliberate ignorance is the answer to all this. To turn a blind eye and court or feign ignorance of the abuses of power manifesting themselves around us is equal to complicity with them, granting them permission to use us as their tools, powerless pawns in their games. By allowing ourselves to become mindless weapons of mass consumption, unquestioning, uncaring and ignorant, we allow (willingly, deliberately?) these “vast systems of competing psychopathies” to manipulate us for their own gain – and our loss – because no matter what they appear to promise, they will give us neither liberty nor security, nor will the meaning they purport to offer us as alternative to our boredom be anything other than a violent nihilism that makes us nothing more than small cogs in a massive machine.

The age of reason took away our faith and left us with a hole we try to fill with consumerism. Take away consumerism, and all that’s left is a hole, and the ‘magic’ (the sense of meaning and purpose and mystery) of life that sustained the Dark Ages is no longer there to make it bearable. 

Is there a way out? If we have no meaning or power, and we cannot depend on ignorance, is there anything left? I’d like to believe so. I’d like to believe we can find the answers for ourselves, using those skills of reason and logic and knowledge and understanding to empower ourselves, a more mindful way, if you like, to accept that the only meaning our lives have is that which we allocate it. We fulfil only ourselves, not some higher destiny or purpose, by taking that action which benefits us (as an individual, as a family, a community, a nation, a species, a planet) in both the long and short term, and avoiding actions that harm us.  By being aware and knowledgeable about the impact of our actions, and by our refusal to accept harm done for expediency’s sake or to advance/enhance the power of one powerful group over another, we take away power from the systems attempting to manipulate us, asking for our complicity in their abuses. Emotion will always form a part of our decision-making processes, and we should not seek to exclude or suppress it, but we should recognise its influence and seek out its positives – love, compassion, happiness, empathy, sympathy, hope – rather make reflex judgements based on the negatives – hate, anger, fear, sadness – and embrace a more co-operative way of living, abandoning the competitive model. By refusing to allow ourselves to be “re-primitivised” we accept that we are no longer primates and that we can use our rational, problem-solving evolved brains and the knowledge that the world is a single entity that is capable of supporting us all to develop a system that doesn’t need feudal/tribal overlords/high priests meting out privileges to assenting/supporting participants.

But not unless we stop this retreat into unreason and ignorance, and only if we face up to the rational world and stop believing that someone else can find an answer to our boredom.

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