some notes for Steve Hayes’ call for papers:
I. The Tectonic Plate Shift in The 1960s
I think there are shifts in consciousness. The much-maligned ‘generation gap’ of the late ’60s and early ’70s was shorthand for just such a shift in consciousness. It isn’t easy to describe, but you can hear the shift in the music of the era as experimentation with psychoactive drugs became more widespread and a certain ‘interiorness’ became mandatory for music, especially popular music, to be taken seriously. There were a lot of disasters, and a lot of the most promising artists of the 60s and 70s either died as a result of their drug use or had their voices prematurely stolen from them.
The experimentation by the generation of the ’60s with the sexual contract was simultaneous with, and even more earth shaking than the use of psychoactive drugs. As the baby-boomers reach retirement in the advanced industial democracies, it is hard to imagine that lifelong monogamy was once not just the ideal, but the reality. The organization of human energies within the family, and concentrically outward, the commercial sphere, the state, and the church.
There was a book published in 1970. I’m surprised I even remember it. It was called The Greening Of America and it was written by a Yale Law School professor, Charles A. Reich. It was a very popular and controversial book in 1970, celebrating ‘rock music’ and recreational drug use. It was a rah-rah book for the 60s ‘counterculture’, and nobody takes it seriously today. It appeared just at that moment of history when the 60s counterculture began to self-destruct, from its own contradictions and its own success.
Charles Reich was asked recently (2008) if his book had any continuing relevance. He said something that struck me as being very insightful. Paraphrasing him, has that young people today are concerned about the material emptiness of their lives; I can’t find a job, I can’t support a family. The complaints fielded in the 1960s were more spiritual; I don’t feel like a real human being, I feel like a machine.
Reich said, insightfully, that it is the same system that creates the different forms of emptiness. I will go Reich further and say that something truly awful has settled in the center of the web of exchange that we have been busy building and maintaining since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which is sucking all the energies out of the Grid, pulling it closer and closer to the Core, and leaving the outlying circuits to die for lack of nourishment.
Since I am not an economist, nor a professional philosopher, nor a social critic, and am proceeding from intuition rather than from direct observation, I can only speak from that intuition. That which inhabits the center of our web is an Algorithm, composed of a mixture of usury and analysis. In order to come close to the levers of power, the human agents of the Algorithm internalize it. The cultural revolution of the 1960s was the last internal challenge to the Algorithm on it home ground, and it failed. Now it appears that we will find out what will happen to the Algorithm when the infecting vector kills off its host.
II. The Emergence Of Fantasy Literature in the 1960s
The embrace by the counterculture of The Lord Of The Rings took a lot of people by surprise in the mid-60s. It was counter-intuitive that a convoluted yarn about small people with hairy feet written by a deeply traditional Oxford professor would become a hit with young people who were thought at the time to be quite ‘radical’ and ‘experimental’.
Very shortly after the initial success of the triology, imitators began to appear. Very prominently, most of these works take place in a sort of pseudo-Middle Ages where machinery was less prominent and technology less intrusive.
This was Professor Tolkien’s legacy. His great achievement was to produce a medieval work in a modern milieu, and he was well -equipped for the task. His colleagues were frustrated in his almost total lack of interest in any literature later than Malory. He seldom rode in automobiles, preferring a bicycle. It was said that he had a name for every tree within 20 miles of his Oxford home, and was not often invited on CS Lewis’ walking tours because of his frustrating habit of pausing frequently to inspect the local flora.
Professor Tolkien had something closer to the consciousness of a well-read man of Chaucer’s time than existed anywhere else in the world in his lifetime, and we are fortunate indeed that his Lengendarium proceeded from that consciousness. If nothing else, it made us homesick for what we had lost through the triumph of the Algorithm.
The Lord Of The Rings as a medieval work stands firmly against the central assumption of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that followed hard upon it, that reason rather than custom is a superior method of organizing human energies. This was the great conceit of the Renaissance, that the preceding age had been kind of a Dreamtime in which the race slumbered unaware of its potential.
Tolkien’s work here echos the work of his predecessors, the Romantics and the pre-Raphaelites who saw in medieval culture a unity and spritual cohesiveness lacking afterwards. In this way, The Lord Of The Rings is only the latest and most successful Romantic challenge to the hegemony of the Algorithm in a chain linking back to Blake and his lament against the “dark Satanic mills” and the triumph of Urizen the measurer.
In the early 20th century, it was popular to say that the Russian Empire was a “medieval” state, an offensive survival from a ruder, earlier age, like the winged mounts of the Ringwraiths being the last brood hatched in a cold eyrie in mountains under the Moon.
In the same way, the Chinese or the Indians would be hard-pressed to find a “Middle Ages” in their historiography. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a Russian, a Chinese, or an Indian The Lord Of The Rings. The necessary sense of medievality is not there, if medievality is a conspicuous re-adoption of a previously discarded consciousness which the discarder believes himself to have transcended.
This despite that Russia, China, and India had very bloody and very wrenching entrances into the world of European post-medievality. The experience of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment came for the world and the cultures outside of Europe as an experience of conquest, colonialism, and revolution. The Spanish conquest of the New World goes even farther back. The Spanish Baroque conquistadores destroyed the last remaining vestiges of the ancient pre-Classical age and incorporated it uneasily into the emerging European web. Perhaps the literary phenomenon of “magic realism” in Latin American letters is a corresponding medievality.
One culture I can see having a full-blown indigenous sense of medievality would be the Japanese culture. The opening of Japan’s hermetically sealed Tokugawa Shogunate by the European powers in the 19th century led to the supplanting of a traditional, highly stratified, and hierarchical society by a more open and technocratic one. From what little exposure I have had to Japanese cultural product, mostly through manga and anime, it appears that there may be a rough correspondence between the Western sence of medievality and the Japanese.