Returning to Earth

What lies at the root of the abstractionism that I discussed last month, which afflicts the modern world like a mania, especially here in the United States?  Walker Percy dubbed the phenomenon angelism, by which he did not mean that those who exhibit it have evolved to a state of moral purity but that we have individually and collectively cut ourselves loose mentally from the ties that bind us to the world and the people around us.  And yet (for reasons that should be obvious) we have not been able, through such abstraction, to overcome the limitations that are inherent in human life and the material world.  Stymied by our inability to overcome those limitations, we have come increasingly to despise the world and our place in it.  And so our response is not to become more human but less so, as Percy’s Dr. Tom More put it so clearly in Love in the Ruins almost 50 years ago:

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man.  Even now I can diagnose and shall one day cure: cure the new plague, the modern Black Death, the current hermaphroditism of the spirit, namely: More’s syndrome, or: chronic angelism-bestialism that rives soul from body and sets it orbiting the great world as the spirit of abstraction whence it takes the form of beasts, swans and bulls, werewolves, blood-suckers, Mr. Hydes, or just poor lonesome ghost locked in its own machinery.

Walker Percy did not live to see the rise of social media (he died in 1990), but the various forms that social media have taken and the conduct they have engendered among so many of their users would not have surprised him.  For all of the potential that social media have to draw people closer together, to rekindle ties with old friends and relatives, to keep us rooted in one another and therefore in the communities in which we are mutually a part, in practice they have all too often enabled the opposite: Social media allow us to engage in flights of fancy, to escape from the reality of our lives by imagining ourselves (consciously or even unconsciously) to be someone different, or even just to cast aside the manners and mores that are essential to civilized life in an actual community.

There have been dozens of investigative articles over the past several years on the phenomenon of “trolling”—people exhibiting behavior toward others with whom they interact online that would, in face-to-face encounters, skirt the line of diagnosable sociopathy, or even cross over it.  A common theme runs through all of them: When trolls meet the reporters, they behave much differently in person.  They are frequently shy, almost invariably polite, and express hurt when the reporters ask them about their actions online in tones that imply condemnation or disapproval.  The reporters themselves experience cognitive dissonance—they expect to dislike, even hate, the trolls but find themselves liking and even sympathizing with them.

The behavior exhibited by trolls looks increasingly like one extreme of a broader phenomenon that afflicts an ever-wider swath of users of social media, and I don’t mean just white nationalists and “social-justice warriors” on Twitter.  More and more of us find it both easy and a relief to create identities on social media that do not reflect the reality of our everyday lives—even if we use our own names.  (And I use us here not as a rhetorical device but as a recognition that I have strayed in this direction myself over the years before recognizing that I had loosed the bonds of earth and needed to return to reality.)

Were Walker Percy still alive, I suspect he would see in this parallels to the psychological condition of dissociation.  With our increasing use of social media (and other electronic media, such as email and texts) as a substitute for the hard reality of dealing with flesh-and-blood human beings, we create alternative unrealities that consume more and more of our attention and consciousness until, one day, we look in the mirror and no longer recognize the man we see there.  We become strangers to ourselves, but the ghosts we have created through our abstraction can never truly replace the creatures that God has made us to be.  Bound by time and ties to people and place, we have only two options: keep raging against reality and losing our true self in the process, or start recovering that true self by accepting the limitations inherent in it, and returning to earth.    

First published in the April 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Life Is Not a Fantasy

The reality of place has weighed heavily on me from a very young age.  My knowledge of self has always been inseparable from the place in which I live.  My understanding of who I am has been closely tied to those with whom I most often interact—family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even those with whom I have a nodding acquaintance (a phrase that has become unfortunately abstract in a world that no longer values simple signs of courtesy and respect).  Remove me from familiar places, and I become a stranger in a strange land, longing for my home.

Even when, as a typical teenager, I longed to leave my hometown, my departure always ended, in my imagination, with my return.  A life elsewhere, among other people, is an abstraction: Home is reality.

Of course, I no longer live in my hometown—and yet, in fact, I do.  In Huntington, as in Rockford, as in Spring Lake, I have walked the streets until they have become a part of me, and found my place among a people who are not simply passing through but are deeply rooted in this portion of God’s green earth and the little bit of civilization that has been built upon it, for all intents and purposes autochthonous and autonomous, a true community made up not of individuals with entirely separate lives but of persons whose sense of themselves is tightly woven with their sense of their neighbor and of their place.

Chaucer was the first to claim that familiarity breeds contempt, and most (if not all) of us can point to concrete examples that seem to prove his adage true.  Yet these words are, at best, a half-truth, which makes them (as John Lukacs reminds us) more dangerous than a lie.  Because it is even more true to say that familiarity breeds community, and that civilization cannot arise among an agglomeration of rootless individuals, but only among men and women who are rooted in a particular place and in deep knowledge of one another.

These brief thoughts were occasioned by continued reflection on what role, if any, aphantasia—my complete inability to create mental images—may have had on the development of my theological, philosophical, and political understanding.  As I mentioned last month, I was initially dismissive of David Mills’s suggestion even to consider this.  But the centrality of incarnationalism in my theological understanding, my visceral rejection of abstraction in philosophy, and my preference for localism in politics, economics (broadly understood), and culture, taken together, do seem like the positions one might expect a person who can’t imagine an orange sheep with five legs perched on the dome of the Huntington County courthouse to have arrived at.

On the other hand, shouldn’t we expect a Catholic who has truly encountered Christ to place the Incarnation at the center of his theological thought and, therefore, to reject philosophical abstraction in favor of an epistemology resembling a traditional Aristotelian empiricism?  If even God must become man in order for us truly to know Him, why would we think that we can have true knowledge of anything else outside of experience?  Even book larnin’ must build on experience, moving from analogy to analogy, and the mental images created by people who are not aphantasic of things they have not directly experienced are still conditioned by their actual experiences.  Thus, the presentation of the Blessed Virgin in medieval art as more European than Middle Eastern is no more a form of cultural imperialism than images emerging from other Christian communities at roughly the same time of Mary with Asian or Ethiopian features.  We know what we know because we have experienced it.  Even those with the ability to create extraordinarily vivid mental images—hyperphantasia, we might call it—cannot conjure up a mental figment that does not correspond in some way to something they have experienced.

Yet there are Catholics today who intellectually accept the Incarnation as a reality but whose theology is otherwise maddeningly abstract, and philosophical abstraction ism, like centralism in politics, economics, and culture, has become more the norm among the intellectual classes than the exception.  Over the last century—and accelerating exponentially in recent years—those tendencies have spread beyond the intellectual classes into the broader populace.  Mass communications, and now social media, have turned abstractionism into a form of mania, a type of mental illness no longer confined to individuals but affecting society as a whole.

Walker Percy saw it coming nearly 50 years ago, and it’s no coincidence that this Catholic convert made the hero of Love in the Ruins (1971) and its sequel, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), both a psychiatrist and a descendant of St. Thomas More.  The answer to the abstraction that’s making us all mad lies in the faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Far from abstraction, that faith is an experience, a personal relationship with the God made Man; not a fantasy, but the ultimate ground of reality.

First published in the March 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.