May 20, 2022
Last week’s newsletter about that yearning for the lost past that we call nostalgia set me to thinking about a symmetrical yearning in the other direction, a yearning for the future. So far as I know there is no name for such a feeling, and, given the temper of the times, some readers may wonder what I am even talking about. Nowadays, the future inspires only anxiety, at times verging on terror. We feel we are trapped in a nightmare from which we do not know if it is possible to awaken. Those eager for the future are pumped up with a toxic drug, a mixture of two thirds lust for power and one third nihilistic psychosis. Meanwhile, the good people are numb with hopelessness: if the fascists don’t get us, climate change will. Last year was the centenary of Yeats’s often-quoted poem “The Second Coming,” which says that “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” and what that poem says is coming is not Christ but a demonic figure, “moving its slow thighs,” the prefiguration of zombie apocalypse.
We have lost something since I was young in the 60’s. Oh, the terror was already upon us then. Those of my generation remember the Cuban missile crisis, the civil defense drills in schools in case of nuclear attack, the McCarthy fascism. By the time we were in our teens we were confronting Nixon and Vietnam. One of the most popular narrative formulas of the 50’s and 60’s in science fiction was the story set in a society reduced to a pre-modern state after a nuclear war. A classic version of this scenario is Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955), set in the Amish country of my native Ohio because the pastoral lifestyle of the Amish is, so to speak, pre-adapted for survival in a post-technological world. A late version is The Wild Shore (1984), the first novel of Kim Stanley Robinson, of whom more in a moment. Science fiction in its British origins was in fact a tragic and pessimistic genre, from H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon down through later ironic writers such as Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard. In his landmark history of science fiction, The Billion Year Spree (later expanded as The Trillion Year Spree, 1973 and 1986 respectively), Aldiss nominated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—whose centenary we have also celebrated recently, in 2018—as the first science fiction novel. Whatever the merits of the assertion historically, it fits Aldiss’s view of science fiction as a literature of negative critique, for the theme of Frankenstein is that science can only serve to further the human impulse to self-destruction.
But this pessimistic view was in creative tension with a counter-vision that was very different, and one that was not only literary but also experiential, even political. The center of gravity of this counter-vision was American science fiction, imbued with traditional American optimism. It has often been regarded with suspicion because of its shady past, for while British science fiction, starting with Wells, is largely an outgrowth of the literary tradition, American science fiction was one of the genres of popular formula fiction, such as I discussed in a previous newsletter, published in the cheap “pulp” magazines of the time. Its twin themes, when it had themes instead of being just escapist adventure fiction, were, first, that we do not have to accept the pessimistic view of life: the right use of science could change the world for the better, and in fact is already doing so; and, second, that the stars are the new frontier, not just to conquer in some sort of cosmic imperialism but to explore with curiosity, reverence, and wonder. The word “wonder” in fact became a key term summing up this hopeful vision.
American science fiction in the pulp era is often caricatured as the power fantasies of technology-crazed teenage white males. Such crude fantasies existed, but were only one element in a much larger field of imagination. Yes, there were stories about how brilliant and muscular Spaceman Jim rescued the buxom blond and saved the galaxy from the evil Emperor, but there was also a visionary element whose motive is aptly described by my catchphrase “expanding eyes.” In fact, that’s where I got it from: I was nurtured by the visionary idealism of science fiction long before I ever heard of Northop Frye or William Blake. And I was not alone: the same was true of the astronomer Carl Sagan, who convinced NASA to include the CD-ROM called the Golden Record on board the twin Voyager spacecraft, a record of humanity and the natural world sent into interstellar space as a friendly greeting to intelligent alien life. Sagan not only was inspired by science fiction but wrote his own science fiction novel, Contact, made into a film with Jody Foster. He also created the hugely popular television series Cosmos, inspiring countless people with his own sense of wonder. The title is perfect: the Greek word cosmos refers to an order that is also beautiful, the kind of thing Keats meant when he (or his Grecian urn) said that beauty is truth, truth beauty. Sagan co-founded the Planetary Society, to which I have belonged for 30 years, an organization which combines advocacy with serious scientific innovations of its own, such as the recent successfully tested Lightsail.
There are of course plenty of people who have no use for what they see as literally ungrounded escapist fantasies when there are so many problems on earth to which we should be devoting our attention and resources. The fact that the American space program was funded largely out of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union tainted it, despite the fact that NASA was a civilian and not a military organization. But in the eyes of other people, space exploration was linked with a hopeful progressive vision of a possible future. That hope was embodied in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Its famous opening words about space as the “final frontier” echo President Kennedy’s rhetoric attempting to define the space program as something more than merely an attempt to extend American military dominance beyond the earth. Despite the sometimes-creaky plots and rudimentary special effects, the series became a perennial favorite because it provided a model of a future world. Its cast included women, members of various nationalities and races, including alien races, and even (in its Next Generation sequel) androids, all interacting in a community of equality, as if the vision of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech had been realized. The model itself was more powerful than any argument. Moreover, the mission of the Enterprise is genuinely exploratory and occasionally nurturing, not imperialistic and exploitative. To those who allege that the show was only an attempt to supply sheep’s clothing to the capitalistic, imperialistic American wolf, at the very moment that the wolf was ravening its way through Vietnam, the only reply is that humanity does not live by ideology alone. The tough-minded reply is that such a statement is itself an evasion.
Some years ago, science writer Matt Ridley published a book called The Rational Optimist (2010), showing in vivid detail how science has dramatically improved the quality of human life in the span of a few centuries. It continues to be worth reading, because everything it says is true, but the problem is everything it leaves out. Ridley unfortunately makes himself into a version of Voltaire’s Pangloss, who argued that we live in the best of all possible worlds—if you ignore a few inconvenient facts like the Lisbon earthquake. Even Bill Gates criticized The Rational Optimist for ignoring the catastrophic potential of technology and globalization. There is very definitely such a thing as being too hopeful, too optimistic. On the other hand, it is sad to hear one of my favorite science fiction writers, Kim Stanley Robinson, say in a New York Times article (A Sci-Fi Writer Returns to Earth: "The Real Story Is the One Facing Us") that he is probably done writing about space travel and other worlds, because the present world crisis is simply too dire. I understand what he is saying, but the contraction of perspective strikes me a kind of partial defeat.
Science fiction, whatever its artistic limitations, became central to serious thinking about the future because it was increasingly recognized that humanity had to make that future for itself rather than relying on the traditional Christian deus ex machina, the god descending from the machine to impose a happy ending upon history. When we ask what Christianity really did teach about the future, we get a complex answer. Jesus, after all, explicitly counseled us to “Take no thought for the morrow” for “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6:34, King James translation). This sums up an extended passage 6:25-34) in which Jesus says to “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink,” for “Behold the fowls of the air,” who do not sow nor reap, “yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.” Consider the lilies of the field, for “not even Solomon in all his glory” was arrayed like them. Out of context, Jesus sounds like a 60’s hippie, but he goes on to say that God knows you do need to eat and drink, but “seek you first the kingdom of God…and all these things shall be added unto you.” The response that common observation shows this not to be remotely true is to kick the argument upstairs: those who are not provided for in this world will be rewarded in the next.
This argument had more force in the early years of Christianity, because the coming of the Kingdom was widely held to be imminent. As that hope faded, the Church had no recourse but to insist on patience and obedience. God will provide—when he’s good and ready. Christianity through the Middle Ages was a vertical religion, looking upward towards the City of God. The Church did its level best, so to speak, to suppress the horizontal, forward-looking aspect of Gospel message in the interests of maintaining social order. Visionaries who attempted to restore the historical dimension of Christianity were declared heretical. A commonly cited example is the 12th-century theologian Joachim of Fiore, who declared that the Old Testament age of the Father and the New Testament age of the Son would be followed by an age of the Holy Spirit in which the Church would wither away, like the state in Marxism, no longer needed because God would be present in the heart of each individual, ushering in an age of universal love. Dante put Joachim in heaven in the Paradiso, but the Church condemned him as a heretic.
Nevertheless, Joachim’s theology was no mere invention but an extrapolation from the historical vision of the Bible, known as typology. In the Christian Bible, every image, character, and event in the Old Testament is said to be a type, looking forward towards its full clarification and realization in some corresponding image, character, or event in the New Testament, called its antitype. Typology extends beyond the coming of Christ, however, to a culmination at the end of time, so that the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible is a kind of encyclopedic coda of antitypes, the goal of the entire Biblical narrative. On its typological side, the Bible stresses not, or at least not only, obedience to a higher otherworldly authority but, in fact, revolution. The central event of the Old Testament is the Exodus, in which Moses gathers twelve tribes in revolt against the tyranny of Egypt. The antitype of Moses and his twelve tribes is Jesus and his twelve apostles. Jesus refused to be a political revolutionary, saying that his kingdom is not of this world. But that does not inevitably mean he was a political quietist. When the angel announced to Mary that her child will be the Messiah, she burst out with the hymn known as the Magnificat, which exults that God “hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away” (Luke 1:52-53). There is more than one way to be a revolutionary, and it is significant that the Magnificat appears in the gospel of Luke, which is the gospel of social concern.
As I discuss in The Productions of Time, the Bible is not necessarily conservative, otherworldly, and authoritarian: it contains a Contrary vision of revolution and social justice, usually suppressed, but bursting out occasionally in a theologian like Joachim, a poet like Blake, or a critic like Northrop Frye. Today, typology has been kidnapped by right-wing fundamentalism and made to serve an authoritarian ideology. However, if Christianity could shake off its subservience to authoritarianism and science shake off its subservience to the reductionistic materialism that has made it an abettor of capitalistic and imperialistic exploitation, it might become clear that the centuries-long war between religion and science was tragically unnecessary. That would entail an epistemological paradigm shift that today is nowhere in sight—but the deeper forms of social overturn typically erupt as if out of nowhere, although they have been preparing in the depths of the imagination.
It will be obvious by now that I believe we do need a hopeful dream of the future, one that is not mere wish fantasy on the one hand or crass identification of progress with one-day delivery by Amazon Prime on the other. Why? In an age in which it’s cool to be edgy, why risk looking like a naïve goody-goody? There are two reasons. First, no social justice is possible without both a sense of possibility and a model to give that sense of possibility a goal. A sense of futility probably accounts for much of the recent “woke” phenomenon: with no faith that anything constructive can be done, social justice is being reduced to accusing those who should be allies of increasingly minute infractions. Second, human beings were not meant to live without something to look forward to. Jung went so far as to say that, while we can never know if they are true, intuitions that death is not simply the end to life are, from the standpoint of a psychologist, mentally healthy.
The darkness afflicts the young even more than the old. There has been an explosion of mood disorders in the decades that I have been teaching: perhaps 40% of my students suffer from depression and anxiety. The commonest reason for failing a class is not lack of ability or even deficiency of prior educational background. Students simply stop coming to class and stop turning in work. When asked why, they produce reasons that seem less like lies than rationalizations. I frequently get the sense that they themselves are searching for the real underlying reason for a paralysis that makes Hamlet look decisive. Of all people, college students ought to be future-directed in a positive way, aspiring to some dream, even if they are not yet clear about what dream is truly theirs. I wonder how much of their paralysis derives from the inability to imagine—and imagination is exactly what we are talking about—any kind of future except some variety of apocalypse. Perhaps their addiction to social media is less some moral failing than an attempt to distract themselves from the intolerable sense that life is a dead end, one that they have already reached. Why do they feel this way? I have great sympathy with them. Their families were often crushed by the financial meltdown of 2008 and have yet to fully recover, on top of which they have endured what the rest of us have also endured: two simultaneous pandemics, one biological and one right-wing political, both of which refuse to end. In addition, they have a better sense than their parents and grandparents of what climate change is likely to do, and they know that they are the ones who will suffer from it.
A dysfunctional society behaves very much like a dysfunctional family, with everybody making everybody else worse in a negative feedback loop. Twitter and Facebook have amplified that tendency, but the news media have largely sold out because they have been literally sold out to entrepreneurs who demand profit, and the easiest way to increase viewership is to get people riled up, fearful and angry. The YA publishing industry learned, somewhere back around the time of The Hunger Games, that young people were drawn to dystopian scenarios, and the market is now flooded with them, creating another negative feedback loop. The greatest threat to the future right now is the rise of fascism not only in the United States but all over the world. It is fair to say that the far right is the problem, because all of our other problems, even climate change, could be coped with if it were not in the way. What has caused its resurgence? It is no secret: many books and articles have been written to show that there are far too many people who feel that there is no positive future, so they become drawn to regressive movements determined to turn back the clock. Why should we sympathize with these people, given that their version of a positive future would be a return to heterosexual white male supremacy? We cannot sympathize with such a vicious and pathetic goal, one that has been shaped and driven by fear and hate. But the key to any future progressive political activism is understanding that the fear and hate are situational, not products of an inherently corrupt human nature.
A century of writing from a viewpoint often roughly characterized as “existentialist,” from Kierkegaard through Heidegger and Sartre down to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, has shown us that depression and anxiety, or, to give them their older names, melancholy and dread, are the real “original sin,” the flaw in human nature. They derive from the consciousness of death, and are therefore permanent. Normally they are repressed, or at least controlled, often, as Jung surmised, through religion’s promise of a transcendent future goal. But in times of social instability the repressed returns, and that has been happening in modernized Western societies for quite some time. Clear back in 1970, Alvin Toffler (and his wife, although she is not credited as co-author) published Future Shock, whose premise was that the constantly changing nature of contemporary society, and the loss of traditional anchors such as stable jobs and families, was exceeding many people’s ability to cope with the constant flux. It was already received wisdom that college graduates could expect to change jobs at least a half dozen times in their careers, that their marriages had a fifty/fifty chance of ending in divorce, that the nomadic nature of careers meant no roots in a traditional neighborhood or set of friends, that technology would change so fast that each generation would feel outdated by its senior years, that higher education would alienate younger, college-educated people from their less educated families. Electronic communications, even before the Internet, meant that the cycles of news, fashion, and celebrity gossip increased their speed, making people either anxiously addicted to keeping up or so alienated that they refused to believe or even pay attention to any of it. It is no accident that in the 90’s Toffler became something of a guru to Newt Gingrich, one of the chief earlier fomenters of reactionary right-wing politics. It is future shock that is instigating the fear and hatred that are the chief danger of our time.
Where then is the vision of a more hopeful future to be found? Perhaps we may consider the parable of two Shelley’s, Percy and Mary, husband and wife, visionary geniuses whose work revolved around the question of the human situation and what might be done to improve it. By the time Percy met Mary, he had already completed a long didactic poem called Queen Mab (1813, revised 1816), a vision of a utopian future to which were appended notes on vegetarianism, free love, atheism, and other topics. Under the influence of the famous book Political Justice (1793) by Mary’s father William Godwin, Queen Mab’s theme was the possibility of human perfectibility, achieved over time through rational methods. Mary grew up surrounded by radical thinkers convinced that human beings could remake civilization by their own efforts, a group that also included her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous feminist. The first edition of her father’s book went so far as to speculate that humanity might ultimately discover the secret of life itself and achieve immortality. The secret of life is of course exactly what Victor Frankenstein is determined to discover. What is distinctive about him is that he turns from the traditional method of pursuing this quest, through alchemy, to science. The subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, and it dramatizes the folly of such Promethean presumption. Mary’s whole tragic life seems an object lesson in how much humanity is at the mercy of senseless and indifferent death, beginning with the fact that her mother died in giving birth to her. Mary lost three of her four children, and her husband drowned at the age of 29. In her later novel, The Last Man (1826), the whole human race is wiped out by a pandemic. She precedes the existentialists in her sense of the absurdity of human existence, an absurdity made conscious through the awareness of mortality.
Mary is often credited with critiquing her husband’s utopian vision, but it is worth asking whether Percy learned from that critique and responded to it. In 1819, a year after Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, Shelley produced his central long poem, Prometheus Unbound. In the original myth, as dramatized in Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound, Jupiter binds Prometheus to a rock for opposing his rule, but the two are reconciled at the end. In Shelley’s version, there is no reconciliation with a tyrant, Jupiter is overthrown, and not only human society but the natural world is transformed and renewed. Yet the real theme of Prometheus Unbound is not political revolution but an inward transformation of consciousness that makes the external social and natural transformation possible. Since Queen Mab, Shelley had learned what Blake knew earlier, that no social and political liberation is possible unless what Blake called the “mind forg’d manacles” are broken. What we are really imprisoned by are mental structures of oppression.
How do we break those internal chains? Not by an act of will: Shelley is not advocating the power of positive thinking. Rather, by a renunciation of the will, which takes the form of Prometheus recalling the curse he has pronounced on Jupiter. He has realized that Jupiter is a projection of his own fear and hate, and that it is his fear and hate that gives Jupiter his power. Where did that fear and hate come from? From the withdrawal of the subject from the object, resulting in what Blake called the “cloven fiction” and identified as the original Fall of humanity. As it withdraws from its environment, both human and natural, the subject becomes self-centered, and everything outside its circumference becomes Other and threatening. I explore this at some length in The Productions of Time, because it is part of its central argument. The opposite of such fearful withdrawal is the identification of subject and object that Shelley always calls “love,” his ultimate value. We are back to the theme of empathy, subject of a recent newsletter.
This may seem long-winded, but Shelley realized what we need to realize: that no model of a hopeful future is possible without a change of attitude. We cannot produce such a model, or work towards realizing one, by an act of will. What we can do is encourage a change of attitude, a mental reversal, in both ourselves and others, through love, through art, through education, and, yes, through social service and political activism, all informed by the principle of identification of self and other that is one way of defining the imagination. And that is what happens in Prometheus Unbound. Once Prometheus withdraws his curse, a mysterious figure called Demogorgon rises from the depths and sweeps Jupiter off his throne. The deus ex machina ascends from below rather than descends from above. Demogorgon is something of an algebraic “x” in Shelley’s equation: Shelley seems none too clear about his identity, so that the resolution comes off as rather arbitrary. But the passing of the torch, shall we say, from Prometheus the fire-giver to Demogorgon corresponds to the change in Blake’s own mythology. In his later poems, Blake’s original hero, the Promethean fire-haired Orc, symbol of personal desire and political revolution, is sidelined in favor of Los, symbol of the decreative and recreative imagination. Los works underground, in the “dens of Urthona,” which means he works internally and invisibly, and he works gradually to expand the eyes of the human race over time, a process Blake explicitly links with Biblical typology, although his Christianity is of the revolutionary type.
Yes, the imagination needs the future: it needs a vision of hope, all the more so when the hour is dark. Only through history is history conquered. But we are in it for the long haul. A movie that dramatized this in a curious yet haunting way was The Shawshank Redemption (1994), the tale, based on a Stephen King story, of an innocent man wrongly sentenced to life in prison. The plot is complicated, but I think what sticks with most people is the final image of the tunnel that took the man 20 years to dig, through which he escapes at the end. I know I cannot be the only one affected by that image because the former Mansfield Reformatory in which many of the scenes were filmed has become, believe it or not, an Ohio tourist attraction. You are free to say that Ohio is clearly desperate for tourist attractions, but I think there is more to it than that. After all, Ohio was also one location of the underground railroad, in which the “underground” image was not necessarily literal but was no less powerful for all that.
No dystopian future is inevitable, and no dystopian present is final. Orwell tried to argue otherwise in 1984, but Orwell’s model was the Soviet Union, which lasted about 70 years. The fact that history is a product of forces contending beneath the surface of ordinary reality means that, for better or worse, sudden reversals are always possible. We learned this the hard way in 2016, and learned it again when Putin invaded Ukraine, which no one had foreseen. But reversal can be in the opposite direction as well—in fact all the more so, because evil, being nihilistic, has an inherent entropy that gives it a tendency to implode—as the Soviet Union imploded in 1989. Shelley dramatized this in his sonnet “Ozymandias,” in which the statue of the tyrant is inscribed with the message, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But in fact all that is left of Ozymandias and his works are “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone” and a half-buried head. Shelley himself died at 29, but his poem is likely to last longer than Ozymandias’ empire did.
We have been through seven years of hell, seemingly with no end in sight. We need to keep in mind the fact that, previous to that, we witnessed the election—totally unthinkable when I was young—of our first African-American president, a man who spoke of “the audacity of hope.” That was not an illusion, and in fact the reactionary forces know it better than we. What we are seeing is a kind of desperate, angry, terrified last stand by people who secretly know that the future is not their friend. These are cornered weasels, and it makes them vicious.
Shelley’s Jupiter is every human tyrant, but for Shelley he is also the Christian God—this is a man who was tossed out of Oxford for a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism. And yet Prometheus’s renunciation of his curse, allowing Demogorgon to take over, amounts to “Thy will be done,” except that, again, the redeeming power rises from below rather than descends from above. Is Demogorgon a kind of deus absconditus? When asked his name, he answers, “Eternity.” On the level of ideology, Shelley is anti-Christian, but his imagination was more flexible. One of my touchstone authors, Loren Eiseley, has an essay called “The Chresmologue,” published almost simultaneously with Future Shock and yet far profounder. It opens by saying, “No civilization professes openly to be unable to declare its own destination. In an age like our own, however, there comes a time when individuals in increasing numbers unconsciously seek direction and taste despair” (64). But this essay, written by a scientist, ends by saying that “Our very thought, through the experimental method, is outwardly projected upon time and space until it threatens to lose itself, unexamined, in vast distances. It does not perform the contemplative task of inward perception” (73).
In attempting to perform that task, Eiseley cites the anonymous 14th-century work of Christian mysticism known as The Cloud of Unknowing, which tells us that “The future is neither ahead nor behind, on one side or another. Nor is it dark or light. It is contained within ourselves” (73). He ends with the following:
For the endurable future is a product not solely of the experimental method, or of outward knowledge alone. It is born of compassion. It is born of inward seeing. The unknown one called it simply “All,” and he added that it was not in a bodily manner to be sought. (74)
All hopeful models of a better future must arise from that inward center, whether we call it compassion, the imagination, God, or simply leave it unnamed because it is ultimately unnamable. It unites people with one another, people with nature, people with the cosmos, without dissolving them into the false unity of a collective, of a mob, as authoritarianism always does. We could also call it beauty, or truth, because it is all we know, and all we need to know. The audacity of all hope arises from that ground.
Loren Eiseley. “The Chresmologue.” In The Night Country, University of Nebraska Press, 1971. 59-76.