Saturday Post 3: Why I'm kind of relieved that everything is suddenly awful
It might be a dystopia, but at least we're "all in it together"
Science fiction is a very useful genre, much moreso than is usually suspected by the non-initiate. In great part, sci fi focuses on human psychology, on philosophies of being, ethics, and even theology; large questions about how human beings ought to live, and not to live, what we should and shouldn’t do in difficult times and situations.
Stories are about people, not things; the idea that sci-fi is all about technology is incorrect. At its best sci-fi’s unearthly scenarios are the equivalent of philosophical thought experiments, hypothetical explorations of how we humans would react if our own comfortingly normal times and circumstances were suddenly erased or radically altered. It also spends a lot of time exploring logical consequences not only of technologies but ideas; “If we took this idea and ran with it for 500 years, what would the world look like? What would this idea do to us?” All sorts of ideas - most of them awful - have been explored this way.
I think one of the most useful and interesting of these thought experiments has been the one that explored the question, “What if Nihilism were true? What if there were no God, and only power were important, ‘meaning’ were meaningless, and the universe was about that?” The answer is the “Cosmic Horror” genre, based on what we are now calling the “literary philosophy of Cosmicism,” of H.P. Lovecraft. If you’ve ever read Lovecraft - particularly in an empty house after dark - you will know that, at the very least, a universe in which atheistic nihilism were true is … undesirable. I’m reliably told that Lovecraft himself wasn’t actually insane, but from his writing it’s really, really hard to tell.
This is why, I believe, people like me - raised on “classic” science fiction; Azimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, LeGuin - have been able to take our current strange situation a little more in stride. If nothing else, this is all certainly how I was taught to expect things to go: badly1. After 20 years of writing and researching into the doings of our “global elites,” and exploring the philosophical foundations of the things they aim to do, I would have to add that for quite some time I have expected things to go very, very badly indeed. As awful as it all sounds to most people, I’m experiencing not a little sense of relief at no longer having the feeling that I know horrible things, cosmically awful things, but no one believes me. Finally… finally… the rest of the world is waking up to find themselves locked in a horror sci fi novel, the same one I’ve been living in since about 1998. Come on in, everyone, it’s really awful.
Quite a large volume of science fiction is taken up with the concept of a dystopia: what would it look like if things went as badly as we can imagine? In a first year literature class, we explored a few of these dystopic ideas - that have become what we could call “tropes” - from a number of sources. Writers have been exploring the “What if everything goes as badly as possible?” question for quite a while, all the way back to the Greeks, in fact. I remember I wrote an essay in that class I was rather proud of arguing that between 1984 and Brave New World, I would hope most for the oppressive political conditions Winston Smith lived under, because that kind of external suppression of human freedom could not last. Human nature will reassert itself inexorably, like a bubble of air held under water by force - the buoy always rights itself.
Ingsoc couldn’t last. It is built in to human beings to be free; liberty is a universal constant that sits at the very core of our being - I would now call it a “faculty of the soul” - and the desire for it, no matter how deformed the mind by fear, will always, always, ALWays resurface. External oppression would always generate an opposite reaction. And I think this theory was borne out by the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet revolutions of the late 80s and early 90s. Those were some fiercely oppressive regimes - particularly Romania and Albania - run by men who did not qualm at mass murder on an almost unimaginable scale. At that time the whole business seemed to be subject some kind of inverse rule of political physics; the more misery and political oppression the regimes created, the more push-back they generated, until finally in the worst cases violence inevitably exploded, and the oppressors came to some memorably gruesome ends.
Much more frightening to me was the idea that this faculty could or would be removed from the human race through technological intervention in the human genome - which was the basis of Huxley’s Brave New World. A world in which all the things that we think of that creates “humanity” - that is, all natural genetic and psychological human formation and development from the zygote stage - are simply removed and replaced with someone’s Bright Idea about how humans should be, how they should live, and what “happiness” looks like. What if we could some day find a way not merely to externally suppress the human instinct for liberty, creativity, independent thought and initiative, but simply remove it altogether? What if we found a way to create a human world in which liberty were actually impossible?
I started thinking about this very science-fictiony question in the late 1980s. In the late 1990s, I started finding out what our atheistic nihilist friends in laboratories were up to, and something in me froze in real terror. Then, starting about 2001, I started meeting politicians and bishops and scientists, and “internationalists” and “transhumanists” and “bioethicists” and other kinds of “thought leaders” - the kind who spend a lot of time at the UN and EU and international conferences and getting large funding grants from global mega-corporations - and I started to understand just how completely and utterly f…. doomed our civilisation was. These were people who were taking entirely the wrong lessons from the nihilistic hellscapes of the 20th century. ENTIRELY the wrong lessons.
As a child of the Cold War, I was used to the nightmares; getting nuked in your sleep three times a week as you’re growing up prepares you for things. But I wasn’t prepared for this, and starting in my mid-thirties the nuke-nightmares started getting replaced with something quite a bit worse.
And I think that’s when the thing I’ve called the “paralysis of pointlessness” really started. I’m pretty sure that’s when Acedia got started on me. It started with the deep dread that filled me about the things I was working on, and created a fog of despair that I have never come out of since then. What made it worse was that the people I worked with in the pro-life movement, for the most part, didn’t understand what was really happening, what all of it was really about. They seemed only to think in terms of politics, petty activism. They thought about overturning bills and handing out leaflets and writing speeches and organising protests. I couldn’t believe how little they saw of what I saw. I knew I was alone, even there.
And I guess it was not at all merely coincidental that it was also more or less the start of my return to the practice of the Faith. I left - or rather fled - the West Coast in 1997; I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I was heading toward something new and had no intention of ever going back. When I landed in Halifax - because that’s where I ran out of road - I stayed, got a job and started attending the meetings of a group of “young adult” Catholics I found there. I started going again to Confession and Mass, and for the first time entered a Catholic social milieu - a whole Christian worldview opened up for me, and it felt like home at last... so … that was good.
But at that time - starting when I was 31 or so - I was also becoming aware of a huge conflict, first in my own chest and then - like an optical illusion resolving itself - riddled through the whole world in which I lived. I had known all my life that something was desperately wrong with the world, though I only had a indefinite idea of what it was. I had watched the Hippie/occultist/New Age/Feminist/pop-psychology movements emerge around my mother and me as a child, compared it with the cultural sanity that was still the rule in my grandparents’ house, and knew with certainty that whatever-it-was had a lot to do with that.
In 1998, while spending most of a year recovering from a complicated and somewhat mysterious illness, I started reading (because I couldn’t work and didn’t have much else to do). I took out an external subscription to the Dalhousie University library and started with ethics and discovered the great shift from classical, Hippocratic medical ethics to our current Utilitarian-based “Bioethics”. And that was when the nature and scale - the unimaginably enormous scale - of the conflict started to come into resolved clarity.
Turning back for a moment to Lovecraft: a common scenario in the stories is the “half mad” character - usually a journalist or researcher - who discovered something unspeakably horrifying and went mad trying to warn everyone. I’m relieved, at least, to have been spared that fate by the sudden, undeniable collapse of all our civilisational norms. His recurring theme of an ordinary person discovering the underlying nihilistic horror of the universe (represented more or less symbolically by his Cosmic Monsters, Cthulhu and crew) and becoming paralysed with existential dread; this is a pretty good description of what happened to me.
Between 1998 and 2004 I worked for a pro-life organisation as a researcher and writer, and now that I think about it, this is when the awful tendrils of Shelob’s web of darkness - despair, paralytic fear, - really started getting into me. That was when my internal war started. During this period of my life, I felt as though I was being dragged out of a kind of fantasy world into reality, and it was paralysingly horrible. I saw, at least in part, something that simply Should. Not. Be. A world founded on completely false ideas; not just false but insane - and it seemed at the time that I was nearly the only one who noticed.
I remember the day it really came home to me that nearly everyone had been convinced - mostly by being taught not to think too much - that it’s perfectly fine to kill people you find personally inconvenient. An unborn child, a sick person, a disabled person, an old person you no longer had any use for - it should be legal, indeed in many places it is legal - to just get rid of them. And here was the worst part: until very recently, that’s what I thought. I had been one of them, only a couple of years before. That had been me: I was the monster.
I remember exactly where I was when I really understood that nearly everyone around me thought murder should be legal. I was on a bus half way between the Halifax Citadel and my apartment. I was suddenly looking around at each person on the bus and thought, “Nearly everyone here is murderously insane, literally cannot tell the difference between right and wrong.” I was in a strange state of near-panic - a “panic attack,” I guess - and went up to the driver and told him I felt sick and asked him to stop and let me off. I got off the bus and walked the rest of the way home - it was -30 C - and when I got home I unplugged the phone and went to bed, and stayed home for days.
Yep, I guess that was kind of the start. I calmed down and got back to my life, but it was never quite the same again. I realised I was in a real sense quite alone in the world, and that never changed.
Science fiction sometimes can be very helpful in providing a framework for our thoughts; I saw what was happening as a kind of sci fi horror short film: the whole world brainwashed, everyone imagining that they are free and doing well, and every one of them in reality a kind of hypnotised zombie marching mindlessly for an abyss.
But again I am remembering something from Tolkien; what if the Palantir I’ve been looking in has been tainted by Sauron, set up to show me things that, while true, are only the bad, scary things, to push me into a madness of despair and grief? What if a life immersed in a terrible mental world of nihilistic dread has created a condition of mind that is unable to think any other way? What if a lifetime of this kind of fear has left my brain - the faculties of my intellect and imagination - in a permanent state of defensive crouch? Psychologists who talk about childhood trauma-related PTSD certainly think this is how we work.
If we consider for a moment the idea that Acedia is really a demonic force - for argument’s sake - and not just a kind of psychological malady, what better frame of mind could the demon ask for? A mind that is already filled with dreadful things, ideas of crushing, paralysing weight, is all the easier to convince that there’s no point, no hope, no reason to try or do anything, wouldn’t you say? We are integrated beings, as I’ve said; our mind, body, intellect and will all form a unified whole person. If one of those is weakened, wouldn’t you think it would create a “way in” for an enemy?
Evagrius and others tell us that the Noonday Demon - that is certainly related to despair and depression - can be defeated not by running away (as with Lust) but must be confronted, opposed, battled forcefully. That, in fact, running away is precisely the thing the Demon Acedia wants - Shelob wants you to run in a panic straight into her web. She wants you to shun your daily duties, to run out of the confinement of your “monastic cell” and seek any distraction you can find, to surf the internet, to brainlessly scroll Facebook and Twitter feeds and watch YouTube videos - anything at all to avoid looking around at the room you’re really in here and now and do your life. Is it a coincidence that Jordan Peterson tells us exactly the same thing about defeating our psychological addiction to quitting, to slacking, to giving up and not caring and not trying?
Thanks for reading all the way to the end. I hope you’ve found something useful here, and will continue to join us. If you would like to donate to help me keep the lights on, and keep writing, please go to my Ko-Fi support page here: Hilary White: Sacred Art. I really do appreciate all the assistance; right now it and painting are my only source of income. More to come…
If a zombie apocalypse/alien invasion/civilisational collapse actually does happen, the people who have watched all the movies have a better chance of surviving than the people who avoided sci fi because it was “silly” and “juvenile”. Well, here we are. Who’s laughing now, eh?