When I am done with my biography of the Book of Common Prayer, I will — God willing — write a rather large book about certain vital cultural events that occurred in the early months of the year 1943. But when that’s done, I have another book I want to write. It may be years and years before I get to it, and I may not get to it at all — I’m old enough now to be aware how unlikely it is that I’ll be able to write all the books I want to write — so I thought I’d sketch it out here. It’s about the relationship between technological modernity and the genre of fantasy, which, it turns out, is much more complex that the repudiation of what Tolkien called “the Machine” that’s so central to The Lord of the Rings. The story looks something like this:
1) What we now call “fantasy” is something closer to “realism” in the pagan world, which is populated by many powers capable of acting upon what Charles Taylor calls “porous” human selves. In the pagan world success in life is largely a matter of navigating safely among those powers, which are unpredictable, beyond good and evil, and indifferent to human needs. (Such indifference means that they can help as well as hurt, but also that their assistance can never be relied upon.) In this environment, fantastic creatures are at the very least personifications or embodiments of powers genuinely believed to exist. This is especially true of Faery, which Tolkien rightly called “that fair and perilous land.”
2) The Christian world is alien to the pagan world primarily in its concentration of all power in the hands of an almighty God, from which everything else has only derivative strength, virtue, and indeed existence. People fully shaped by this account of the world, with its emphasis on the need to account for the very being of the cosmos, will necessarily find fantasy insufficiently curious about where the powers that afflict human lives come from. (Many pagan mythologies have no creation stories or thin, minor ones.) Also, for people fully shaped by the Christian account of the world a “buffered” self becomes a possibility for the first time, largely because any of the powers that afflict us are secondary, derivative, conquerable. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). “In all this we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). Attachment to the One True Power makes possible the absolute defeat of all others.
3) In this light, the progress of modernity can be seen as the movement from “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” to “I can do all things.” The possibility, and desirability, of a truly buffered self remains even when belief in Christianity wanes.
4) What follows from this is the generally increasing recognition that a purely buffered self is isolating, anxiety-producing. See Emerson on the “melancholy discovery” that we exist, existentialism, “the age of anxiety,” “the lonely crowd,” etc. (Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age explores this development exhaustively, exhaustingly.)
5) Accompanying this realization, and causally connected to it in subtle and highly complex ways, is the acceleration of the pace of development of technological modernity. This is perceived by many as proof that we can indeed do all things, and that if technology exacerbates alienation and anxiety it can also alleviate them. Others see this as the end of the age of the buffered self, because we are now porous to our own technological creations — or rather, to the people who control those creations. Thus Scott McNealy: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
6) It is in this environment that fantasy literature comes to be increasingly central, both as a form of nostalgia for a day when the porous self was at least surrounded by other sentient beings, and as a kind of allegory of our own condition — an acknowledgment that the great problem of the pagan world, how to navigate as safely as possible through an ever-shifting landscape of independent and unpredictable powers who are indifferent to human needs, seems to be our problem once more. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is an especially important text for this moment, because it rightly identifies technologies as gods and simultaneously sides with the older gods as being intrinsically closer to the proper human lifeworld. Imaginatively, we are pagans once more.