When I think back to my early youth and to my public school education to recollect those formative experiences that tend to shape one’s outlook, I have to say that my own was shaped by three or four books which produced a great impression on me. One was Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, another was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and a third was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I could add to those three also George Orwell’s 1984 as formative, although I only came to it after graduating from high school.
They were unusual books, I imagine, to introduce to young impressionable minds in terms of their dystopian bleakness and pessimism. That my public school teachers should have selected just those volumes (another memorable one was James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) was understandable given that most of them had witnessed the horrors of imperialism, economic crisis, fascism, and world war, the very things — nay, diseases — to which these novels spoke with such passionate intensity.
If the purpose of my teachers was to show how truly fragile civilisation was, it certainly had that result. And while I can’t speak for the other students, I was already predisposed from an early age to appreciate that fragility, having been raised in the semi-feral bush communities of northern Saskatchewan. By the age of 8, when our family relocated to the city, I had already seen more death at close quarters — death by drowning, freezing, disease, or alcohol — than most people probably see directly in a life-time. I was already predisposed to regard life (all life, and even civilised life) as extremely fragile — as fragile as delicate crystal. When much later, at university, I encountered Nietzsche’s image of man — indeed life itself — as “tight-rope walker over the abyss” in his Zarathustra, it just made sense.
If the word “civilisation” has a distinctly negative ring to it in these cynical and nihilistic times, let’s speak instead, as Rosenstock-Huessy does, of the need for securing “a truly human and humane society” with the understanding that this has been something distinctly rare in human history. And what I learned from the three or four aforementioned novels is that even what we have presently — which we are pleased to call “civilisation” — is something on the brink; something constantly and precariously poised upon the edge of a precipice, and that it wouldn’t take much at all to tip it over the edge.
It reminds me of the Tarot card called “The Fool”, and the yappy little dog at his feet warning him he’s about to go over a cliff is, as William Blake described himself, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”.
The dandy isn’t vigilant. The mutt is trying to pull him back from the brink, to awaken him to his imminent danger. The mutt is Blake’s “Spirit of Prophecy”. The Fool is a precise depiction of “the culture of narcissism”. In this illustration of The Fool I see represented the words of David Ehrenfeld (citing James Lovelock and John Ralston Saul about false security and “the unconscious civilisation”) from his essay “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology“,
A little-noticed event of exceptional importance occurred on the 8th of May, 1998. The conservative, power-oriented champion of science, progress, and reason, Science magazine, published an article by the distinguished British scientist James Lovelock which said:
“We have confidence in our science-based civilization and think it has tenure. In so doing, I think we fail to distinguish between the life-span of civilizations and that of our species. In fact, civilizations are ephemeral compared with species.”
Can the Machine Stop?
Nearly everyone in our society, experts and lay people alike, assumes that the events and trends of the immediate future—the next five to twenty-five years—are going to be much like those of the present. We can do our business as usual. In the world at large, there will be a continued increase in global economic, social, and environmental management; a continued decrease in the importance of national and local governments compared with transnational corporations and trade organizations; more sophisticated processing, transfer, and storage of information; more computerized management systems along with generally decreased employment in most fields; increased corporate consolidation; and a resulting increase in the uniformity of products, lifestyles, and cultures. The future will be manifestly similar to today.
Power carries with it an air of assured permanence that no warnings of history or ecology can dispel. As John Ralston Saul has written, “Nothing seems more permanent than a long-established government about to lose power, nothing more invincible than a grand army on the morning of its annihilation.” The present economic-technical-organizational structure of the industrial and most of the non-industrial world is the most powerful in history. Regardless of one’s political orientation, it’s very difficult to imagine any other system, centralized or decentralized, ever replacing it. Reinforcing this feeling is the fact that our technology-driven economic system has all the trappings of royalty and empire, without the emperor. It rolls on inexorably, a giant impersonal machine, devouring and processing the world, unstoppable.”
This last sentence is, of course, a description of the Carriage of Jagannath (or “Juggernaut”, in the English pronunciation). Something “too big to fail” is a juggernaut.
How close is our situation to that described in the novels of Conrad, Golding, Huxley, and Orwell? Well, take the market meltdown of 2007-2008. I have not heard of anyone comparing it to the scenario depicted in Lord of the Flies, but when even ostensible regulators confess that the financial crisis that threatened to bring down the entire global economy arose because Wall Street traders lacked “adult supervision”, the barbarism of Lord of the Flies comes immediately to mind because it became almost palpable reality for us. Yet, it’s a safe bet that these same traders would never think of recognising themselves in the debased childish characters of Golding’s novel lapsed into superstition and barbarism.
And one could say the same for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Huxley’s Brave New World, or Orwell’s 1984. The present architects of the “new normal” would never think of recognising themselves and their schemes for society in these prophetic novels.
There’s a certain unpleasant irony in that. It reminds me that Hitler and the Nazis were so convinced that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, widely condemned as a forgery,were a real, evil master plan for Jewish world domination that they used these same Protocols as the blueprint and model for their own policy planning for world domination. The “evil” they so readily condemned in others was really their own that they never admitted to themselves.
Something similar seems to be the fate, too, of our own “civilisation”.