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.