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Originally published on his blog The Archdruid Report 4/23/2014

 

I have been wondering for some time now how to talk about the weirdly autumnal note that sounds so often and so clearly in America these days. Through the babble and clatter, the seven or eight television screens yelling from the walls of every restaurant you pass and all the rest of it, there comes a tone and a mood that reminds me of wind among bare branches and dry leaves crackling underfoot: as though even the people who insist most loudly that it’s all onward and upward from here don’t believe it any more, and those for whom the old optimism stopped being more than a soothing shibboleth a long time ago are hunching their shoulders, shutting their eyes tight, and hoping that things can still hold together for just a little while longer.

It’s not just that American politicians and pundits are insisting at the top of their lungs that the United States can threaten Russia with natural gas surpluses that don’t exist, though that’s admittedly a very bad sign all by itself. It’s that this orgy of self-congratulatory nonsense appears in the news right next to reports that oil and gas companies are slashing their investments in the fracking technology and shale leases that were supposed to produce those imaginary surpluses, having lost a great deal of money pursuing the shale oil mirage, while Russia and Iran  pursue a trade deal that will make US sanctions against Iran all but irrelevant, and China is quietly making arrangements to conduct its trade with Europe in yuan rather than dollars. Strong nations in control of their own destinies, it’s fair to note, don’t respond to challenges on this scale by plunging their heads quite so enthusiastically into the sands of self-deception.

To shift temporal metaphors a bit, the long day of national delusion that dawned back in 1980, when Ronald Reagan famously and fatuously proclaimed “it’s morning in America,” is drawing on rapidly toward dusk, and most Americans are hopelessly unprepared for the coming of night. They’re unprepared in practical terms, that is, for an era in which the five per cent of us who live in the United States will no longer dispose of Image result for eye of sauron

a quarter of the world’s energy supply and a third of its raw materials and industrial products, and in which what currently counts as a normal American lifestyle will soon be no more than a fading memory for the vast majority. They’re just as unprepared, though, for the psychological and emotional costs of that shattering transformation—not least because the change isn’t being imposed on them at random by an indifferent universe, but comes as the inevitable consequence of their own collective choices in decades not that long past.

The hard fact that most people in this country are trying not to remember is this: in the years right after Reagan’s election, a vast number of Americans enthusiastically turned their backs on the promising steps toward sustainability that had been taken in the previous decade, abandoned the ideals they’d been praising to the skies up to that time, and cashed in their grandchildrens’ future so that they didn’t have to give up the extravagance and waste that defined their familiar and comfortable lifestyles. As a direct result, the nonrenewable resources that might have supported the transition to a sustainable future went instead to fuel one last orgy of wretched excess. Now, though, the party is over, the bill is due, and the consequences of that disastrous decision have become a massive though almost wholly unmentionable factor in our nation’s culture and collective psychology.

A great many of the more disturbing features of contemporary American life, I’m convinced, can’t be understood unless America’s thirty-year vacation from reality is taken into account. A sixth of the US population is currently on antidepressant medications, and since maybe half of Americans can’t afford to get medication at all, the total number of Americans who are clinically depressed is likely a good deal higher than prescription figures suggest. The sort of bizarre delusions that used to count as evidence of serious mental illness—baroque conspiracy theories thickly frosted with shrill claims of persecution, fantasies of imminent mass death as punishment for humanity’s sins, and so on—have become part of the common currency of American folk belief. For that matter, what does our pop culture’s frankly necrophiliac obsession with vampires amount to but an attempt, thinly veiled in the most transparent of symbolism, to insist that it really is okay to victimize future generations for centuries down the line in order to prolong one’s own existence?

Mythic and legends such as this can be remarkably subtle barometers of the collective psyche. The transformation that turned the vampire from just another spooky Eastern European folktale into a massive pop culture presence in industrial North America has quite a bit to say about the unspoken ideas and emotions moving through the crawlspaces of our collective life. In the same way, it’s anything but an accident that the myth of the heroic quest has become so pervasive a presence in the modern industrial world that Joseph Campbell could simply label it “the monomyth,” the basic form of myth as such. In any sense other than a wholly parochial one, of course, he was quite wrong—the wild diversity of the world’s mythic stories can’t be forced into any one narrative pattern—but if we look only at popular culture in the modern industrial world, he’s almost right.

The story of the callow nobody who answers the call to adventure, goes off into the unknown, accomplishes some grand task, and returns transformed, to transform his surroundings in turn, is firmly welded into place in the imagination of our age. You’ll find it at the center of J.R.R. Tolkien’s great works of fantasy, in the most forgettable products of the modern entertainment industry, and everything in between and all around. Yet there’s a curious blind spot in all this: we hear plenty about those who answer the call to adventure, and nothing at all about those who refuse it. Those latter don’t offer much of a plot engine for an adventure story, granted, but such a tale could make for a gripping psychological study—and one that has some uncomfortably familiar features.

With that in mind, with an apology in the direction of Tolkien’s ghost, and with another to those of my readers who aren’t lifelong Tolkien buffs with a head full of Middle-earth trivia—yes, I used to sign school yearbooks in fluent Elvish—I’d like to suggest a brief visit to an alternate Middle-earth: one in which Frodo Baggins, facing the final crisis of the Third Age and the need to leave behind everything he knew and loved in order to take the Ring to Mount Doom, crumpled instead, with a cry of “I can’t, Gandalf, I just can’t.” Perhaps you’ll join me in a quiet corner of The Green Dragon, the best inn in Bywater, take a mug of ale from the buxom hobbit barmaid, and talk about old Frodo, who lived until recently just up the road and across the bridge in Hobbiton.

You’ve heard about the magic ring he had, the one that he inherited from his uncle Bilbo, the one that Gandalf the wizard wanted him to go off and destroy? That was thirty years ago, and most folk in the Shire have heard rumors about it by now. Yes, it’s quite true; Frodo was supposed to leave the Shire and go off on an adventure, as Bilbo did before him, and couldn’t bring himself to do it. He had plenty of reasons to stay home, to be sure. He was tolerably well off and quite comfortable, all his friends and connections were here, and the journey would have been difficult and dangerous. Nor was there any certainty of success—quite the contrary, it’s entirely possible that he might have perished somewhere in the wild lands, or been caught by the Dark Lord’s servants, or what have you.

So he refused, and when Gandalf tried to talk to him about it, he threw the old wizard out of Bag End and slammed the round green door in his face. Have you ever seen someone in a fight who knows that he’s in the wrong, and knows that everyone else knows it, and that knowledge just makes him even more angry and stubborn? That was Frodo just then. Friends of mine watched the whole thing, or as much of it as could be seen from the garden outside, and it was not a pleasant spectacle.

It’s what happened thereafter, though, that bears recalling. I’m quite sure that if Frodo had shown the least sign of leaving the Shire and going on the quest, Sauron would have sent Black Riders after him in a fine hurry, and there’s no telling what else might have come boiling up out of Mordor. It’s by no means impossible that the Dark Lord might have panicked, and launched a hasty, ill-advised assault on Gondor right away. For all I know, that may have been what Gandalf had in mind, tricking the Dark Lord into overreacting before he’d gathered his full strength, and before Gondor and Rohan had been thoroughly weakened from within.

Still, once Sauron’s spies brought him word that Frodo had refused to embark on the quest, the Dark Lord knew that he had a good deal less to fear, and that he could afford to take his time. Ever since then, there have been plenty of servants of Mordor in and around the Shire, and a Black Rider or two keeping watch nearby, but nothing obvious or direct, nothing that might rouse whatever courage Frodo might have had left or convince him that he had to flee for his life. Sauron was willing to be patient—patient and cruel. I’m quite sure he knew perfectly well what the rest of Frodo’s life would be like.

So Gandalf went away, and Frodo stayed in Bag End, and for years thereafter it seemed as though the whole business had been no more than a mistake. The news that came up the Greenway from the southern lands was no worse than before; Gondor still stood firm, and though there was said to be some kind of trouble in Rohan, well, that was only to be expected now and then. Frodo even took to joking about how gullible he’d been to believe all those alarmist claims that Gandalf had made. Sauron was still safely cooped up in Mordor, and all seemed right with Middle-earth.

Of course part of that was simply that Frodo had gotten even wealthier and more comfortable than he’d been before. He patched up his relationship with the Sackville-Bagginses, and he invested a good deal of his money in Sandyman’s mill in Hobbiton, which paid off handsomely. He no longer spent time with many of his younger friends by then, partly because they had their own opinions about what he should have done, and partly because he had business connections with some of the wealthiest hobbits in the Shire, and wanted to build on those. He no longer took long walks around the Shire, as he’d done before, and he gave up visiting elves and dwarves when he stopped speaking to Gandalf.

But of course the rumors and news from the southern lands slowly but surely turned to the worse, as the Dark Lord gathered his power and tightened his grip on the western lands a little at a time. I recall when Rohan fell to Saruman’s goblin armies. That was a shock for a great many folk, here in the Shire and elsewhere. Soon thereafter, though, Frodo was claiming that after all, Saruman wasn’t Sauron, and Rohan wasn’t that important, and for all anyone knew, the wizard and the Dark Lord might well end up at each other’s throats and spare the rest of us.

Still, it was around that time that Frodo stopped joking about Gandalf’s warnings, and got angry if anyone mentioned them in his hearing. It was around that same time, too, that he started insisting loudly and often that someone would surely stop Sauron. One day it was the elves: after all, they had three rings of power, and could surely overwhelm the forces of Mordor if they chose to. Another day, the dwarves would do it, or Saruman, or the men of Gondor, or the Valar in the uttermost West. There were so many alternatives! His friends very quickly learned to nod and agree with him, for he would lose his temper and start shouting at them if they disagreed or even asked questions.

When Lorien was destroyed, that was another shock. It was after that, as I recall, that Frodo started hinting darkly that the elves didn’t seem to be doing anything with their three rings of power to stop Sauron, and maybe they weren’t as opposed to him as they claimed. He came up with any number of theories about this or that elvish conspiracy. The first troubles were starting to affect the Shire by then, of course, and his investments were beginning to lose money; it was probably inevitable that he would start claiming that the conspiracy was aimed in part against hobbits, against the Shire, or against him in particular—especially the latter. They wanted his ring, of course. That played a larger and larger role in his talk as the years passed.

I don’t recall hearing of any particular change in his thinking when word came that Minas Tirith had been taken by the Dark Lord’s armies, but it wasn’t much later that a great many elves came hurrying along the East Road through the Shire, and a few months after that, word came that Rivendell had fallen. That was not merely a shock, but a blow; Frodo had grown up hearing his uncle’s stories about Rivendell and the elves and half-elves who lived there. There was a time after that news came that some of us briefly wondered if old Frodo might actually find it in himself to do the thing he’d refused to do all those years before.

But of course he did nothing of the kind, not even when the troubles here in the Shire began to bite more and more deeply, when goblins started raiding the borders of the North Farthing and the Buckland had to be abandoned to the Old Forest. No, he started insisting to anyone who would listen that Middle-earth was doomed, that there was no hope left in elves or dying Númenor, that Sauron’s final victory would surely come before—oh, I forget what the date was; it was some year or other not too far from now. He spent hours reading through books of lore, making long lists of reasons why the Dark Lord’s triumph was surely at hand. Why did he do that? Why, for the same reason that drove him to each of his other excuses in turn: to prove to himself that his decision to refuse the quest hadn’t been the terrible mistake he knew perfectly well it had been.

And then, of course, the Ring betrayed him, as it betrayed Gollum and Isildur before him. He came home late at night, after drinking himself half under the table at the Ivy Bush, and discovered that the Ring was nowhere to be found. After searching Bag End in a frantic state, he ran out the door and down the road toward Bywater shouting “My precious! My precious!” He was weeping and running blindly in the night, and when he got to the bridge he stumbled; over he went into the water, and that was the end of him. They found his body in a weir downstream the next morning.

The worst of it is that right up to the end, right up to the hour the Ring left him, he still could have embarked on the quest. It would have been a different journey, and quite possibly a harder one. With Rivendell gone, he would have had to go west rather than east, across the Far Downs to Cirdan at the Grey Havens, where you’ll find most of the high-elves who still remain in Middle-earth. From there, with such companions as might have joined him, he would have had to go north and then eastward through Arnor, past the ruins of Annuminas and Lake Evendim, to the dales of the Misty Mountains, and then across by one of the northern passes: a hard and risky journey, but by no means impossible, for with no more need to hinder travel between Rivendell and Lorien, the Dark Lord’s watch on the mountains has grown slack.

Beyond the mountains, the wood-elves still dwell in the northern reaches of Mirkwood, along with refugees from Lorien and the last of the Beornings. He could have gotten shelter and help there, and boats to travel down the River Running into the heart of Wilderland. From there his way would have led by foot to the poorly guarded northern borders of Mordor—when has Sauron ever had to face a threat from that quarter? So you see that it could have been done. It could still be done, if someone were willing to do it. Even though so much of what could have been saved thirty years ago has been lost, even though Minas Tirith, Edoras, Lorien and Rivendell have fallen and the line of the kings of Gondor is no more, it would still be worth doing; there would still be many things that could be saved.

Nor would such a journey have to be made alone. Though Aragorn son of Arathorn was slain in the last defense of Rivendell, there are still Rangers to be found in Cirdan’s realm and the old lands of Arnor; there are elf-warriors who hope to avenge the blood shed at Rivendell, and dwarves from the Blue Mountains who have their own ancient grudges against the Dark Lord. The last free Rohirrim retreated to Minhiriath after Éomer fell at Helm’s Deep, and still war against King Grima, while Gondor west of the river Gilrain clings to a tenuous independence and would rise up against Sauron at need. Would those and the elves of Lindon be enough? No one can say; there are no certainties in this business, except for the one Frodo chose—the certainty that doing nothing will guarantee Sauron’s victory.

And there might even still be a wizard to join such a quest. In fact, there would certainly be one—the very last of them, as far as I know. Gandalf perished when Lorien fell, I am sorry to say, and as for Saruman, the last anyone saw of him, he was screaming in terror as two Ringwraiths dragged him through the door of the Dark Tower; his double-dealing was never likely to bring him to a good end. The chief of the Ringwraiths rules in Isengard now. Still, there was a third in these western lands: fool and bird-tamer, Saruman called him, having never quite managed to notice that knowledge of the ways of nature and the friendship of birds and beasts might have considerable value in the last need of Middle-earth. Radagast is his name; yes, that would be me.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, you are old Frodo’s youngest cousin, are you not? Very nearly the only one of his relatives with enough of the wild Tookish blood in you to matter, or so I am told. It was just a month ago that you and two of your friends were walking in the woods, and you spoke with quite a bit of anger about how the older generation of hobbits had decided to huddle in their holes until the darkness falls—those were your very words, I believe. How did I know that? Why, a little bird told me—a wren, to be precise, a very clever and helpful little fellow, who runs errands for me from time to time when I visit this part of Middle-earth. If you meant what you said then, there is still hope.

And the Ring? No, it was not lost, or not for long. It slipped from its chain and fell from old Frodo’s pocket as he stumbled home that last night, and a field mouse spotted it. I had briefed all the animals and birds around Hobbiton, of course, and so she knew what to do; she dragged the Ring into thick grass, and when dawn came, caught the attention of a jay, who took it and hid it high up in a tree. I had to trade quite a collection of sparkling things for it! But here it is, in this envelope, waiting for someone to take up the quest that Frodo refused. The choice is yours, my dear hobbit. What will you do?


Originally posted on his blog The Archdruid Report 4/21/2014

Myths, according to the philosopher Sallust, are things that never happened but always are. With a few modifications, the same rule applies to the enduring narratives of every culture, the stories that find a new audience in every generation as long as their parent cultures last. Stories of that stature don’t need to chronicle events that actually took place to have something profoundly relevant to say, and the heroic quest I used last week to frame a satire on the embarrassingly unheroic behavior of many of industrial civilization’s more privileged inmates is no exception to that rule.

That’s true of hero tales generally, of course. The thegns and ceorls who sat spellbound in an Anglo-Saxon meadhall while a scop chanted the deeds of Beowulf to the sound of a six-stringed lyre didn’t have to face the prospect of wrestling with cannibalistic ogres or battling fire-breathing dragons, and were doubtless well aware of that fact. If they believed that terrible creatures of a kind no longer found once existed in the legendary past, why, so do we—the difference in our case is merely that we call our monsters “dinosaurs,” and insist that our paleontologist-storytellers be prepared to show us the bones.

The audience in the meadhall never wondered whether Beowulf was a historical figure in the same sense as their own great-grandparents. Since history and legend hadn’t yet separated out in the thinking of the time, Beowulf and those great-grandparents occupied exactly the same status, that of people in the past about whom stories were told. Further than that it was unnecessary to go, since what mattered to them about Beowulf was not whether he lived but how he lived. The tale’s original audience, it’s worth recalling, got up the next morning to face the challenges of life in dark age Britain, in which defending their community against savage violence was a commonplace event; having the example of Beowulf’s courage and loyalty in mind must have made that harsh reality a little easier to face.

The same point can be made about the hero tale I borrowed and rewrote in last week’s post, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Frodo Baggins was no Beowulf, which was of course exactly the point, since Tolkien was writing for a different audience in a different age. The experience of being wrenched out of a peaceful community and sent on a long march toward horror and death was one that Tolkien faced as a young man in the First World War, and watched his sons face in the Second. That’s what gave Tolkien’s tale its appeal: his hobbits were ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges, like so many people in the bitter years of the early twentieth century.

The contrast between Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings is precisely that between the beginning and the zenith of a civilization. Beowulf, like his audience, was born into an age of chaos and violence, and there was never any question of what he was supposed to do about it; the only detail that had to be settled was how many of the horrors of his time he would overcome before one of them finally killed him. Frodo Baggins, like his audience, was born into a world that was mostly at peace, but found itself faced with a resurgence of a nightmare that everyone in his community thought had been laid to rest for good. In Frodo’s case, the question of what he was going to do about the crisis of his age was what mattered most—and of course that’s why I was able to stand Tolkien’s narrative on its head last week, by tracing out what would have happened if Frodo’s answer had been different.

Give it a few more centuries, and it’s a safe bet that the stories that matter will be back on Beowulf’s side of the equation, as the process of decline and fall now under way leads into an era of dissolution and rebirth that we might as well call by the time-honored label “dark age.” For the time being, though, most of us are still on Frodo’s side of things, trying to come to terms with the appalling realization that the world we know is coming apart and it’s up to us to do something about it.

That said, there’s a crucial difference between the situation faced by Frodo Baggins and his friends in Middle-earth, and the situation faced by those of us who have awakened to the crisis of our time here and now. Tolkien was a profoundly conservative thinker and writer, in the full sense of that word. The plot engine of his works of adult fiction, The Silmarillion just as much as The Lord of the Rings, was always the struggle to hold onto the last scraps of a glorious past, and his powers of evil want to make Middle-earth modern, efficient and up-to-date by annihilating the past and replacing it with a cutting-edge industrial landscape of slagheaps and smokestacks. It’s thus no accident that Saruman’s speech to Gandalf in book two, chapter two of The Fellowship of the Ring is a parody of the modern rhetoric of progress, or that The Return of the King ends with a Luddite revolt against Sharkey’s attempted industrialization of the Shire; Tolkien was a keen and acerbic observer of twentieth-century England, and wove much of his own political thought into his stories.

The victory won by Tolkien’s protagonists in The Lord of the Rings, accordingly, amounted to restoring Middle-Earth as far as possible to the condition it was in before the War of the Ring, with the clock turned back a bit further here and there—for example, the reestablishment of the monarchy in Gondor—and a keen sense of loss surrounding those changes that couldn’t be undone. That was a reasonable goal in Tolkien’s imagined setting, and it’s understandable that so many people want to achieve the same thing here and now: to preserve some semblance of industrial civilization in the teeth of the rising spiral of crises that are already beginning to tear it apart.

I can sympathize with their desire. It’s become fashionable in many circles to ignore the achievements of the industrial age and focus purely on its failures, or to fixate on the places where it fell short of the frankly Utopian hopes that clustered around its rise. If the Enlightenment turned out to be far more of a mixed blessing than its more enthusiastic prophets liked to imagine, and if so many achievements of science and technology turned into sources of immense misery once they were whored out in the service of greed and political power, the same can be said of most human things: “If it has passed from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin,” Tolkien commented of a not dissimilar trajectory, “that was of old the fate of Arda marred.” Still, the window of opportunity through which modern industrial civilization might have been able to escape its unwelcome destiny has long since slammed shut.

That’s one of the things I meant to suggest in last week’s post by sketching out a Middle-earth already ravaged by the Dark Lord, in which most of the heroes of Tolkien’s trilogy were dead and most of the things they fought to save had already been lost. Even with those changes, though, Tolkien’s narrative no longer fits the crisis of our age as well as it did a few decades back. Our Ring of Power was the fantastic glut of energy we got from fossil fuels; we could have renounced it, as Tolkien’s characters renounced the One Ring, before we’d burnt enough to destabilize the climate and locked ourselves into a set of economic arrangements with no future…but that’s not what happened, of course.

We didn’t make that collective choice when it still could have made a difference: when peak oil was still decades in the future, anthropogenic climate change hadn’t yet begun to destabilize the planet’s ice sheets and weather patterns, and the variables that define the crisis of our age—depletion rates, CO2 concentrations, global population, and the rest of them—were a good deal less overwhelming than they’ve now become. As The Limits to Growth pointed out more than four decades ago, any effort to extract industrial civilization from the trap it made for itself had to get under way long before the jaws of that trap began to bite, because the rising economic burden inflicted by the ongoing depletion of nonrenewable resources and the impacts of pollution and ecosystem degradation were eating away at the surplus wealth needed to meet the costs of the transition to sustainability.

That prediction has now become our reality. Grandiose visions of vast renewable-energy buildouts and geoengineering projects on a global scale, of the kind being hawked so ebulliently these days by the prophets of eternal business as usual, fit awkwardly with the reality that a great many industrial nations can no longer afford to maintain basic infrastructures or to keep large and growing fractions of their populations from sliding into desperate poverty. The choice that I discussed in last week’s post, reduced to its hard economic bones, was whether we were going to put what remained of our stock of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources into maintaining our current standard of living for a while longer, or whether we were going to put it into building a livable world for our grandchildren.

Image result for Ronald Reagan

The great majority of us chose the first option, and insisting at the top of our lungs that of course we could have both did nothing to keep the second from slipping away into the realm of might-have-beens. The political will to make the changes and accept the sacrifices that would be required to do anything else went missing in action in the 1980s and hasn’t been seen since. That’s the trap that was hidden in the crisis of our age: while the costs of transition were still small enough that we could have met them without major sacrifice, the consequences of inaction were still far enough in the future that most people could pretend they weren’t there; by the time the consequences were hard to ignore, the costs of transition had become too great for most people to accept—and not too long after that, they had become too great to be met at all. .

As a commentary on our current situation, in other words, the story of the heroic quest has passed its pull date. As I noted years ago, insisting that the world must always follow a single narrative is a fertile source of misunderstanding and misery. Consider the popular insistence that the world can grow its way out of problems caused by growth—as though you could treat the consequences of chronic alcoholism by drinking even more heavily! What gives that frankly idiotic claim the appeal it has is that it draws on one of the standard stories of our age, the Horatio Alger story of the person who overcame long odds to make a success of himself. That does happen sometimes, which is why it’s a popular story; the lie creeps in when the claim gets made that this is always what happens.

When people insist, as so many of them do, that of course we’ll overcome the limits to growth and every other obstacle to our allegedly preordained destiny out there among the stars, all that means is that they have a single story wedged into their imagination so tightly that mere reality can’t shake it loose. The same thing’s true of all the other credos I’ve discussed in recent posts, from “they’ll think of something” through “it’s all somebody else’s fault” right on up to “we’re all going to be extinct soon anyway so it doesn’t matter any more.” Choose any thoughtstopper you like from your randomly generated Peak Oil Denial Bingo card, and behind it lies a single story, repeating itself monotonously over and over in the heads of those who can’t imagine the world unfolding in any other way.

The insistence that it’s not too late, that there must still be time to keep industrial civilization from crashing into ruin if only we all come together to make one great effort, and that there’s any reason to think that we can and will all come together, is another example. The narrative behind that claim has a profound appeal to people nowadays, which is why stories that feature it—again, Tolkien’s trilogy comes to mind—are as popular as they are. It’s deeply consoling to be told that there’s still one last chance to escape the harsh future that’s already taking shape around us. It seems almost cruel to point out that whether a belief appeals to our emotions has no bearing on whether or not it’s true.

The suggestion that I’ve been making since this blog first began eight years ago is that we’re long past the point at which modern industrial civilization might still have been rescued from the consequences of its own mistakes. If that’s the case, it’s no longer useful to put the very limited resources we have left into trying to stop the inevitable, and it’s even less useful to wallow in wishful thinking about how splendid it would be if the few of us who recognize the predicament we’re in were to be joined by enough other people to make a difference. If anything of value is to get through the harsh decades and centuries ahead of us, if anything worth saving is to be rescued from the wreck of our civilization, there’s plenty of work to do, and daydreaming about mass movements that aren’t happening and grand projects we can no longer afford simply wastes what little time we still have left.

That’s why I’ve tried to suggest in previous posts here that it’s time to set aside some of our more familiar stories and try reframing the crisis of our age in less shopworn ways. There are plenty of viable options—plenty, that is, of narratives that talk about what happens when the last hope of rescue has gone whistling down the wind and it’s time to figure out what can be saved in the midst of disaster—but the one that keeps coming back to my mind is one I learned and, ironically, dismissed as uninteresting quite a few decades ago, in the early years of my esoteric studies: the old legend of the fall of Atlantis.

It’s probably necessary to note here that whether Atlantis existed as a historical reality is not the point. While it’s interesting to speculate about whether human societies more advanced than current theory suggests might have flourished in the late Ice Age and then drowned beneath rising seas, those speculations are as irrelevant here as trying to fit Grendel and his mother into the family tree of the Hominidae, say, or discussing how plate tectonics could have produced the improbable mountain ranges of Middle-earth. Whatever else it might or might not have been, Atlantis is a story, one that has a potent presence in our collective imagination. Like Beowulf or The Lord of the Rings, the Atlantis story is about the confrontation with evil, but where Beowulf comes at the beginning of a civilization and Frodo Baggins marks its zenith, the Atlantis story illuminates its end.

Mind you, the version of the story of Atlantis I learned, in common with most of the versions in circulation in occult schools in those days, had three details that you won’t find in Plato’s account, or in most of the rehashes that have been churned out by the rejected-knowledge industry over the last century or so. First, according to that version, Atlantis didn’t sink all at once; rather, there were three inundations separated by long intervals. Second, the sinking of Atlantis wasn’t a natural disaster; it was the direct result of the clueless actions of the Atlanteans, who brought destruction on themselves by their misuse of advanced technology.

The third detail, though, is the one that matters here. According to the mimeographed lessons I studied back in the day, as it became clear that Atlantean technology had the potential to bring about terrifying blowback, the Atlanteans divided into two factions: the Children of the Law of One, who took the warnings seriously and tried to get the rest of Atlantean society to do so, and the Servants of the Dark Face, who dismissed the whole issue—I don’t know for a fact that these latter went around saying “I’m sure the priests of the Sun Temple will think of something,” “orichalcum will always be with us,” “the ice age wasn’t ended by an ice shortage,” and the like, but it seems likely. Those of my readers who haven’t spent the last forty years hiding at the bottom of the sea will know instantly which of these factions spoke for the majority and which was marginalized and derided as a bunch of doomers.

According to the story, when the First Inundation hit and a big chunk of Atlantis ended up permanently beneath the sea, the shock managed to convince a lot of Atlanteans that the Children of the Law of One had a point, and for a while there was an organized effort to stop doing the things that were causing the blowback. As the immediate memories of the Inundation faded, though, people convinced themselves that the flooding had just been one of those things, and went back to their old habits. When the Second Inundation followed and all of Atlantis sank but the two big islands of Ruta and Daitya, though, the same pattern didn’t repeat itself; the Children of the Law of One were marginalized even further, and the Servants of the Dark Face became even more of a majority, because nobody wanted to admit the role their own actions had had in causing the catastrophe. Again, those of my readers who have been paying attention for the last forty years know this story inside and out.

It’s what happened next, though, that matters most. In the years between the Second Inundation and the Third and last one, so the story goes, Atlantis was for all practical purposes a madhouse with the inmates in charge. Everybody knew what was going to happen and nobody wanted to deal with the implications of that knowledge, and the strain expressed itself in orgiastic excess, bizarre belief systems, and a rising spiral of political conflict ending in civil war—anything you care to name, as long as it didn’t address the fact that Atlantis was destroying itself and that nearly all the Atlanteans were enthusiastic participants in the activities driving the destruction. That was when the Children of the Law of One looked at one another and, so to speak, cashed out their accounts at the First National Bank of Atlantis, invested the proceeds in shipping, and sailed off to distant lands to become the seedbearers of the new age of the world.

That’s the story that speaks to me just now—enough so that I’ve more than once considered writing a fantasy novel about the fall of Atlantis as a way of talking about the crisis of our age. Of course that story doesn’t speak to everyone, and the belief systems that insist either that everything is fine or that nothing can be done anyway have no shortage of enthusiasts. If these belief systems turn out to be as delusional as they look, though, what then? The future that very few people are willing to consider or prepare for is the one that history shows us is the common destiny of every other failed civilization: the long, bitter, ragged road of decline and fall into a dark age, from which future civilizations will eventually be born. If that’s the future ahead of us, as I believe it is, the necessary preparations need to be made now, if the best achievements of our age are to be carried into the future when the time of the seedbearers arrives.

 

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