October 29, 2017



It is impossible for us to fully grasp the cataclysmic cultural shift that was created by World War I. Each of us has lived and moved and had our being shaped by the world that emerged from that rubble. The War to End All Wars did not succeed in ending war, but it did herald the final blow to the unparalleled optimism of the 18th and 19th centuries, destroyed the remaining vestiges of the Medieval world, and ushered in worldwide despair, angst, and nihilism.In other words, Modernity was born.

In the century leading up to that Great War, the world--especially in the West--was dominated by an intense optimism that is difficult for us to comprehend. The world was changing extraordinarily rapidly. There were advancements in medicine and food production. The Industrial Revolution had raised the standard of living for most people, and technology was booming. Prince Albert launched the Crystal Palace exhibition to showcase the world of the future via British advancements. And, emboldened by a new "rational" approach to the world, promoted by Enlightenment philosophers, political leaders redrew the map. Ignoring millennial-old ethnic, religious, and cultural ties, they created new nations and dissolved empires with the stroke of a pen--utterly confident that they were solving the problem of war.

Poverty, illness, disease, war: it truly appeared that mankind was on the cusp of conquering every foe. Even death could be defeated. With the right combination of technology, scientific advancement, and rational common sense, the world was set to usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity.

But, instead of achieving Heaven on Earth, the world imploded on itself and became a living hell. And twenty years later, it did it again.

A death toll surpassing the Black Plague, worldwide famine, crushing economic depression: these were the fruits of man's optimism. That technology which appeared to be the savior of mankind was harnessed to unleash unprecedented destruction. The whole world was devastated, birthing a tremendous global cultural angst. Hope and optimism were replaced by alienation, isolation, and despair. And the whole of creation groaned.

Erich Fromm, in his afterword to Orwell's 1984, describes it this way:

"This hope for man's individual and social perfectibility, which in philosophical and anthropological terms was clearly expressed in the writings of the Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century and of the socialist thinkers of the nineteenth, remained unchanged until after the First World War. This war, in which millions died for the territorial ambitions of the European powers, although under the illusion of fighting for peace and democracy, was the beginning of that development which tended in a relatively short time to destroy a two-thousand-year old Western tradition of hope and to transform it into a mood of despair." 

It seemed as if the whole world had been turned upside down overnight. In a blink, thousands of years of culture and tradition were cast off and a brave new world emerged in its place. [...]

[I]n the midst of this darkness there were voices of hope. Voices which called us back to a transcendent reality, which tried to reintroduce mystery and wonder as an antidote to despair and angst. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both began to write stories that deliberately countered Modernity. Science fiction and fantasy became increasingly effective means to show readers a reality which reoriented hearts to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness and offered an answer to the hopelessness and chaos of the modern world.

Fantasy attempts to reintroduce transcendent meaning to the universe through the use of magic, fairies, supernatural creatures, mythological elements, and epic battles of good versus evil. There is something not just magical but also mysterious and unknowable in Lewis and Tolkien. The fantasy world is alive with meaning and things are rarely as they seem. And this strange and foreign world is beautiful and appealing, both answering and cultivating a longing within us for a greater reality.

But there is another genre that is just as effective at challenging the prevailing modern mindset, one which we perhaps overlook. Many mystery writers fought against the swell of Modernity just as fiercely as Lewis and Tolkien. And while fantasy achieves this aim in some other world--such as in Narnia or Middle Earth, the mystery novel does it in the here-and-now, in our own familiar place. 

When I used to submit questions for the BBC World Book Club they had Ian Rankin on and I asked him if he ever felt like Rebus was the last Calvinist in Scotland.  
Posted by at October 29, 2017 7:59 AM