"The Atlantic" Chronicles American Unreason, Including Ancient Astronauts; Plus: "The Week" Condemns Americans for Eschewing "Realist Fiction"
I want to start by pointing to an excellent article by Kurt Andersen in the forthcoming edition of the Atlantic in which he traces the roots of American irrationalism back to the founding era, placing blame for our current explosion of insanity on the 1960s and the rise of the counterculture and postmodernism. It’s not entirely that simple—the weakening of elite institutions as part of a general hollowing out of civic culture in the name of capitalist profit plays a role too—but overall he is quite right. For our purposes, this paragraph is probably the most important, tracing the rise of conspiracy and even Trump to the forces unleashed by the spread of the darkest forms of UFO belief:
I’m pretty certain that the unprecedented surge of UFO reports in the ’70s was not evidence of extraterrestrials’ increasing presence but a symptom of Americans’ credulity and magical thinking suddenly unloosed. We wanted to believe in extraterrestrials, so we did. What made the UFO mania historically significant rather than just amusing, however, was the web of elaborate stories that were now being spun: not just of sightings but of landings and abductions—and of government cover-ups and secret alliances with interplanetary beings. Those earnest beliefs planted more seeds for the extravagant American conspiracy thinking that by the turn of the century would be rampant and seriously toxic.
He misses the fact that this wasn’t an accident but part of a purposeful effort by rightwing groups to attract new followers by infiltrating UFO groups and using aliens as a wedge issue to draw in believers to hard core antigovernment conspiracies, as Michael Barkun outlined in A Culture of Conspiracy, a book that Andersen cites in the article.
Andresen, however, goes too far in imagining that the 1960s broke some rational paradise. He writes of a familiar ancient astronaut figure in imagining how the 1960s gave way to the horror of the 1970s: “Americans were ready to believe von Däniken’s fantasy to a degree they simply wouldn’t have been a decade earlier, before the ’60s sea change.” This is not true. The UFO preachers and ufology of the 1950s, which tied ancient history and the Bible to UFOs, and the Theosophy craze of the early twentieth century, and even the Shaver Mystery, speak to the desire to believe long before history began when the Beatles landed in New York. What changed wasn’t the public’s credulity but the media’s unwillingness to exercise a gatekeeping function. Speaking of Chariots of the Gods, he writes that “Certainly a decade earlier NBC wouldn’t have aired an hour-long version of the documentary in prime time” as they did with the 1973 Chariots documentary, In Search of Ancient Astronauts. But that wasn’t a reflection of the public’s willingness to believe but NBC’s desire to cash in with sensation; after all, CBS had aired a documentary on UFOs with CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite (!) in 1966. If it was less credulous than NBC’s, that was only because CBS applied news standards while NBC tried to save money by buying outsourcing the show to a production company that bought a premade documentary and dubbed it with Rod Serling’s voice. The difference was due to capitalism, not intention or public credulity.
On a similar thematic note…
I don’t usually read The Week, so I did not see a strange and sad article that Matthew Walther, a writer of curmudgeonly commentary for a number of mainly conservative media outlets, published a few weeks ago about Game of Thrones. Walther is the kind of person who feels that young adult fiction is “a disastrous development for literature, to say nothing of morals” and, alluding to Henry Ford, that “history is bunk.” He is the sort of person who praises A. N. Wilson on Twitter for taking Charles Darwin down a peg in his creationist-tinged biography of the great scientist while pretending to stand at a distance from the creationist fringe. In his criticism of Game of Thrones, he promoted it to the level of young adult fiction, arguing that the program is actively dangerous because it employs fantasy, thus making it unworthy of the serious consideration of mature adults. But his reasoning is so awful I had to take note. In fact, his article was so hyperbolic and overwrought that I thought it a parody. But it seems to be deadly earnest.
Walther’s actual target is so-called “nerd culture,” and he disapproves in a clucking, matronly way of “well-adjusted tax-paying contributors to our GDP” taking an interest in the finer details of a fictional universe. Better they spend time fantasizing about professional sports, I suppose, since that contributes more directly to the right kind of GDP—the Republican kind. Indeed, he calls our current culture a “nerd-driven death spiral” in which consumers of genre fiction are destroying American culture by preferring fantastic fiction to realist fiction, which, as we know, is the only acceptable form of literature. After all, if Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, along with U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver’s Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, all agreed that the fantastic is subversive, clearly it must be true.
Obviously, you can tell I am not buying the argument. But let me quote his astonishing reasoning:
How did this happen? Obviously there is a problem of supply — people can only watch the films and television programs that get made. But supply doesn't exist without demand. There is a deeper sense in which the old problems that were the hallmark of realist fiction and drama — the old stand-bys of morals, manners, marriage, and money — are simply not interesting to people who are not emotionally mature enough to engage with them. And that group, I think, makes up a larger and larger percentage of the dollars-spending, media-consuming American public each year. We really are, emotionally speaking, a nation of teenagers — albeit horny ones with generous allowances.
That made me mad for a number of reasons. First, there is nothing inherently immature about the literature of the fantastic; it is literally as old as literature itself. The Epic of Gilgamesh is nothing if not an epic fantasy, taking place in a heightened reality populated by giants, monsters, and magic. But Walther also betrays both a small-minded bias and an ahistorical myopia. His bias comes from his narrow interest in the small problems of one particular social class—morals, manners, marriage, and money are more the concerns of the white upper middle class and upper-class elites in a way they are not for other groups whose identities are not tied to the capitalist socioeconomic hierarchy. His myopia is much greater still, ignoring the fact that genre fiction can examine these same issues, albeit in coded and symbolic terms, which by definition require greater mental dexterity to understand than when plainly stated. But more important, he misses the fact that “realist” fiction is the product of one particular time and place, associated with a specific socioeconomic group, and never the dominant mode of literature.
For most of Western history, the fantastic mode was the preferred method of presenting fictional tales. The esteem with which fiction was held varied greatly, and in the eighteenth century there was an Enlightenment movement to oppose fantastical fiction for fear it would cause the simpleminded to believe in specters and magic instead of science. The Romantics killed off that argument when they expanded the audience for novels beyond wealthy women, and fantastic, romantic, and uncanny fiction sat alongside the realist mode straight through World War I. Read the literary magazines of the era, and you will see that critics made no distinction between realist literature and any other kind; all were equally able to represent elite literature. The war years created a modernist reaction against the fantastic, and it was in the wake of World War I and the great crisis of culture which followed that elites declared that only fiction that pretended to represent life as it is was worthy of the title. The rest was mere pulp trash for the poor, the marginalized, and women. We still live in the shadow created by that artificial distinction between genre and realist fiction—which is to say, modernism—but the return of Gothic fiction and the emergence of magical realism cracked the midcentury consensus that fiction should never extend beyond the boundaries of the plausible. Fiction, after, by definition is untrue.
For Walther to dismiss the whole of the Western tradition in favor of a fossilized version of the 1950s is entirely in keeping with the myopic view of so-called cultural conservatives, those public intellectuals who pretend to value Western culture but instead want to use specific elements of it to impose a particular ideology.
Walther’s second argument against Game of Thrones is even more laughable because of his righteous indignation in the face of his own myopic ignorance. After describing the various mutilations, rapes, nudity, and battles of the series, he says:
What does it say about our culture and the state of the souls of millions who participate in it that anyone could find any of this even mildly diverting, much less praise it as a triumph of man's creative energies and subject it to endless hours of analysis and speculation? Half a century ago, when our absurdly generous obscenity laws were still occasionally enforced, a program like this could not have been conceived, much less produced at great expense and broadcast.
I will not stand here and defend the specific content of Game of Thrones, which on occasion is more graphic than I would perhaps prefer. But to claim it as evil is to condemn the Western artistic tradition from start to finish, worse still because Game of Thrones bases its horrors on real life events which actually happened, often in even worse ways, to real medieval people. For example, the Red Wedding was modeled on the real-life Black Dinner, a Scottish horror in which James II’s retainers invited two teenaged nobles to dine with the child king. A severed bull’s head was set before them as they ate, and then they were dragged away, given a mock-trial, and beheaded as Clan Douglas laid siege to the castle in which the events transpired. Point is: Bad stuff happens in the real world, and a fan of “realist” literature ought to be aware of the fact that the horrors he despises are every bit as “real” as a stagey midcentury melodrama. If Walther experiences no emotion at Game of Thrones because it lacks poodle skirts and letter jackets, that is the fault of his taste in fantasy, not the content of the program.
Has our esteemed gentleman read the monuments of Western literature? The Iliad and the Odyssey are chronicles of one damned thing after another, full of mutilations and death and horrible injustice meted out by cruel gods. The Hebrew Bible chronicles epic cruelty ranging from child sacrifice, genocide, and endless warfare. Ancient and medieval literature revels in the grotesque, often in detail that our bowdlerized translations mask with euphemism. Try reading Martial’s epigrams in the original Latin.
The fact is that Game of Thrones, as a historically inspired fantasy interested in questions of elite power through sex and violence is in many ways entirely in keeping with the Western tradition of the past three thousand years or so. It is the midcentury, bowdlerized family-friendly TV born of the technological limitations of early mass media that is the anomaly. To long for that period—which was neither as anodyne nor as puritan as its reputation imagines—is to pine for a fantasy every bit as fake as the imaginary analog of England in Game of Thrones.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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