Things far out of my brain's reach, yet that I will presume to speak of.
I am disturbed by an accelerating trend in storytelling of the storyteller and the listener not believing in the story. I was reminded of this because of the (spoiler alert) dream sequence ending of The Shack, though dream sequences are a less offensive version of what I mean. The perfect example is the movie Big Fish. This movie tells of a man whose father, on his deathbed, tells him fantastical tales of his life. Stories of Siamese twins and killer catfish. The son hates that his father will only tell lies--he knows the stories aren't true. But by the end of the movie, the son realizes that what is true and what isn't true is hard to know, and, perhaps, doesn't matter. He joins into the storytelling himself, joining his father in half belief and storytelling.
A sweet tale, but noxious if you ask me.
Francis Schaeffer had it that trends start in philosophy, then move down to art, then down to literature, then down to the masses. This seems to be disturbingly true. Postmodernist philosophers (or whatever you want to call this--everyone seems to mean something different by postmodern) broke with the knowable, rational universe of the moderns. Many decided that in this world of chaos, that you can't know or find meaning.
This disillusionment trickled down to literature, as could be seen in many post World War writings like this, one of my favorites, from T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
In our broken, post-war world, after all the writers crawled out of the trenches, all we had left of our pretty ideas of the universe was a heap of broken images, where no roots of belief could anymore clutch. Nothing had meaning, and we had seen too much to cling to our fairy-tale beliefs from before. No more God, no more meaning, no more happy ending. Bertrand Russell said that the fundamental principle of the universe is despair, a principle everyone has to face in a world that is fundamentally meaningless. Postmodern novels like Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 showed the futile and endless search for clues in this mystery of life, for meaning in an utterly chaotic, meaningless, unknowable world.
But one can't stay on this parched ground where the dead tree gives no shelter and the dry stone no water for long. To survive, we had to find new ground. The philosophers themselves knew this. Some proposed pretending. "We know true meaning can't be found in this world, but we also know that we have to have it to survive. So let's pretend we believe. Let's pretend there's a reason for justice and love and mercy, because, although there isn't, we must have them to live." Though without God or any knowable absolute, they had no platform for belief in love, mercy, justice, or fairies, they presumed belief in order to regain a livable life. Camus saw that life was absurd. Instead of committing suicide (to him, the essential question that must be answered when faced with this meaningless world), he decided to make up a world out of the rubble. He believed that we were each free to make up what world and meaning suited us best. Meaninglessness "frees" us to invent our own meaning (though it's not objectively real, real in the old sense that everyone used previous to this last century).
And now we see the play pretending of the philosophers trickling down into our literature and our movies. At first, there were glimmers of hope. Writers like Toni Morrison (this is why I like her) wrote unabashedly of ghosts and flying, giving no excuses or explanations. The fancies that had been banished from literature were ushered back in by the curve of her welcoming arm.
But more and more, instead of believing in our ghosts, we're winking the eye at our stories. Like Big Fish. We know that the father isn't actually a catfish, but we really want him to be, so we'll pretend we believe, just like the son pretends to believe the stories.
What does all this prattle matter? What's the difference? Before we cracked and threw our fairy tales out the window, we didn't actually believe there was a Big Bad Wolf. But in our stories, a place existed, a world existed, where the Big Bad Wolf could have lived. Now, although we'll let him into our bed in theory, we won't even believe in him in our stories. In our stories, we give the pretext, "I don't actually believe in you Mr. Wolf, but I love to reminisce about when I could." We are half-hearted, fake mystics.
I can't put it any better than G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy (here, he's speaking of materialists, those who don't believe in anything other than the material):
"You may explain the order in the universe by saying that all things, even the souls of men, are leaves inevitably unfolding on an utterly unconscious tree--the blind destiny of matter. The explanation does explain...But the point here is that the normal human mind not only objects to both, but feels to both the same objection. If the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk. The whole of life is something much more gray, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole.
...The materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel.
...Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairy land."
What Chesterton didn't know at the time, however, is that the materialists have cheated and snuck an imp into their pimpernel. They don't actually believe in the imp, but in the twilight, they suspend thier belief and let him out to fly.
But the half-imagined imp is still only flitting above the stony rubbish of disillusionment. Playing make-believe with the spiritual, we're still just squatting on parched ground where the sound of water flowing will never be heard from the rock.
* I tried in vain to find C.S. Lewis' essay on fairy tales in writing this. Can anyone tell me where I can find it?