Yes, of course, this is a topic that I have broached many times before. But this recent — and fantastically brilliant — video from The Onion brought it roaring back to the forefront of my thoughts. (Hat tip to J. F. Martel for alerting me to it.)
And of course that reminded me of — and may well have been partly inspired by — this, which remains one of the quintessential moments in my religious education and one of the most astonishing moments of divine truth ever to erupt into cinema:
Then there’s the essay by Barbara Ehrenreich about this very thing that I just stumbled across today at The Baffler. Like so many other people, I was surprised and fascinated last year by the revelations about Ms. Ehrenreich’s spontaneous mystical experiences and the accompanying shift in her general worldview and philosophical thinking. Now I find that she is actually deeply read in the science fiction and horror literature devoted to speculating about the horror of a monstrous God or gods, as evidenced by an essay in which she takes Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as a springboard to talk about the works of Philip Pullman, H. P. Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick, along with the ideas of the New Atheists and various prominent works of sociology and religious history. Says Ms. Ehrenreich,
[What Prometheus presents] is not atheism. It is a strand of religious dissidence that usually flies well under the radar of both philosophers and cultural critics. . . . Barred from more respectable realms of speculation, the idea of an un-good God has been pretty much left to propagate in the fertile wetlands of science fiction. One of the early sci-fi classics of the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft’s 1931 At the Mountains of Madness, offers a plotline that eerily prefigures Prometheus. . . . The idea of an un-good God, whether indifferent or actively sadistic, flies in the face of at least two thousand years of pro-God PR, much of it irrational and coming from professed “people of faith.”
. . . If God is an alternative life-form or member of an alien species, then we have no reason to believe that It is (or They are), in any humanly recognizable sense of the word, “good.” Human conceptions of morality almost all derive from the intensely social nature of the human species: our young require years of caretaking, and we have, over the course of evolution, depended on each other’s cooperation for mutual defense. Thus we have lived, for most of our existence as a species, in highly interdependent bands that have had good reasons to emphasize the values of loyalty and heroism, even altruism and compassion. But these virtues, if not unique to us, are far from universal in the animal world (or, of course, the human one). Why should a Being whose purview supposedly includes the entire universe share the tribal values of a particular group of terrestrial primates?
. . . [Philip K.] Dick may have been optimistic in suggesting that what the deity hungers for is “interspecies symbiosis.” Symbiosis is not the only possible long-term relationship between different species. Parasitism, as hideously displayed in Ridley Scott’s Alien series, must also be considered, along with its quicker-acting version, predation. In fact, if anything undermines the notion of a benevolent deity, it has to be the ubiquity of predation in the human and non-human animal worlds. Who would a “good” God favor—the antelope or the lion with hungry cubs waiting in its den, the hunter or the fawn? For Charles Darwin, the deal-breaker was the Ichneumon wasp, which stings its prey in order to paralyze them so that they may be eaten alive by the wasp’s larvae. “I cannot persuade myself,” wrote Darwin, “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” Or, as we may ask more generally: What is kindness or love in a biological world shaped by interspecies predation? “Morality is of the highest importance,” Albert Einstein once said, “but for us, not for God.”
. . . [C]ontra so many of the critics, we have learned an important lesson from the magnificent muddle of Prometheus: if you see something that looks like a god — say, something descending from the sky in a flaming chariot, accompanied by celestial choir sounds and trailing great clouds of star dust — do not assume that it is either a friend or a savior. Keep a wary eye on the intruder. By all means, do not fall down on your knees.
MORE: “The Missionary Position” by Barbara Ehrenreich
With my personal religious/spiritual status as a kind of nondual Protestant Christian influenced by equal amounts of Zen, Vedanta, Jungian psychology, Fortean trickster ontology, Robert Anton Wilsonian reality tunnel skepticism, and a few additional factors, all of them infused with and underlaid by intimations of deepest gloom emanating from the likes of Poe, Lovecraft, and Ligotti, I can honestly say that my immediate and heartfelt response to Ehrenreich’s words can be summed up in a single word: amen.
“Greed is good,” Gordon Gekko told us in 1987 (echoing and perhaps parodying Ayn Rand‘s long-running, uber-egoistic economic cant). For all we know, he may be gearing up to deliver us a repackaged version of the same message later this year when Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps hits theaters. But regardless of what Gekko’s message in that forthcoming sequel may turn out to be, there’s another message that is gearing up for a major groundswell right now, and its orientation is not in question. It can be phrased as a modification of Gekko’s famous maxim: Gloom is good.
I say this based on just two pieces of evidence, but both of them fascinate me — especially since they hail from diametrically opposite ends of the socio-political ideological continuum — and I have a gut feeling that they will soon be joined by more items pointing in a similar direction.
The first is John Derbyshire’s We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism. I became alerted to Derbyshire‘s existence and writings last September when he mentioned H.P. Lovecraft, whose appearances in public discourse I am always assiduously following, and who, as it turns out, Derbyshire has rightly regarded for some years as a fellow conservative and fellow pessimist who held a cheerfully grim view of the human prospect. Such an attitude and temperament is entirely congenial to Derbyshire’s own, and thus there’s no surprise in the publication of the man’s new book, which is dedicated to the proposition that “the conservative movement has been derailed, by legions of fools and poseurs wearing smiley-face masks.” He argues that “conservatism has been fatally weakened by yielding to infantile temptations: temptations to optimism, to wishful thinking, to happy talk, to cheerily preposterous theories about human beings and the human world,” and it can therefore “no longer provide the backbone of cold realism that every organized society needs.” Obviously, the book is diametrically opposed to the tenor of the interminable Obama campaign — a fact that’s brought home by Derbyshire’s use of exclamations such as “No, we can’t!” and charming terminological reversals such as “The audacity of hopelessness.”
I bought the Kindle edition a few days ago and am positively reveling in the man’s incisive humor and sharp thinking. The book is both laugh-out-loud funny and quite thought-provoking with its heavily researched and serious call to abandon vapid optimism and embrace a serious realism in the form of a fundamental pessimism about human affairs.
Here’s a current favorite passage from chapter three, which is winningly titled “Politics: Show Business for Ugly People.” The topic is the quantifiable devolution of presidential rhetoric toward triviality and idiocy in recent decades:
William Henry Harrison, in his fatal inaugural address, likened liberty to “the sovereign balm for every injury which our institutions may receive.” George H. W. Bush, in his inaugural address, likened it to a kite. “Freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher with the breeze,” he proclaimed. We may be only a president or two away from hearing liberty compared to a chocolate fudge sundae.
Second, there’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, written by one of the most visible champions of progressive social and economic thought in recent years, Barbara Ehrenreich. According to the official description, the book “exposes the downside of America’s penchant for positive thinking: On a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out ‘negative’ thoughts. On a national level, it’s brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster.”
I was alerted to its existence by Kerry Howley’s thoughtful review at Reason.com, titled “It Takes a Village Atheist: Barbara Ehrenreich’s jeremiad against cheerful thinking.” Howley summarizes how Ehrenreich was inspired to write the book when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently found herself ensnared in a Kafka-esque world of enforced optimism among her doctors and fellow cancer sufferers, who rejected any budding expressions of unhappiness or negativity out of hand and tended to condemn and exclude those who persisted in such folly. Ehrenreich traces this attitude through American evangelicalism and economic thought, focusing on the obvious effects of such “irrational exuberance” (I don’t know if she uses that term itself) in, for instance, the financial markets.
And I, to highlight the obvious point, find the near simultaneous arrival of these two books — We Are Doomed hit bookstores in September 2009, Bright-Sided in October — to be more than a little noteworthy. Here’s hoping we’ll see a healthy slew of such writings throughout the new year. (Actually, for all I know this may already be occurring; I didn’t check before composing this post.) For the past couple of years the propaganda about an economic “recovery” has been polluting public discourse, mostly courtesy of mainstream financial and economic voices and, of course, government leaders at both the federal and state levels. The word “recovery” implies the re-attainment of a former state of healthfulness. The United States has been anything but healthy, economically speaking and in all sorts of other ways, for a very long time now. President Obama, as James Howard Kunstler pointed out in his recent forecast for 2010,
speaks incessantly and implausibly of ‘the recovery’ when all the economic vital signs tell a different story except for some obviously manipulated stock market indexes. You hear this enough times and you can’t help but regard it as lying, and even if it is lying ostensibly for the good of the nation, it is still lying about what is actually going on and does much harm to the project of building a coherent consensus. I submit that we would benefit more if we acknowledged what is really happening to us because only that will allow us to respond intelligently. What prior state does Mr. Obama suppose we’re recovering to? A Potemkin housing boom and an endless credit card spending orgy?
It’s time for a new realism. Gloom is good, especially amid current circumstances. The fact that this recognition is erupting on both the right and the left bodes well.