Tiny Essays, No. 3: The Psychopomp of Progress and the Last Days of Eden

Because of the abrupt changes that the Industrial Revolution and World Wars brought, there has tended to be an unexamined discontinuity in our perception of the past. Somewhere about 1880 or so, it becomes “us”: something so radically different from all else, as if changed in its very DNA, that we think of it as for all intents a completely new world. What came before, by contrast, has seemed “other”—faded, irrelevant, vaguely unreal, and above all, powerless to harm us.

Only now, as we see that brave new era beginning to slip away from us, to show its tatters, hypocrisies, and age, do we begin to realize it was but a part of History’s stream all along—not an “end of history” by any means, but a strange, marvelous but frivolous golden age, whose tragedy was that its very instincts and genius prevented it from developing an enduring way of inhabiting the planet. 

• * *

The magic of Faustian-Platonic-technologism rose through the early 20th century and attained the sublime shortly after the crisis of WWII, with the United States as its torch-bearer and champion—the City on a Hill and self-declared mystagogue of Progress. But the staggering marvels on which this ascent was founded, such as antibiotics, moon landings, and nuclear energy, could only be discovered once—and so this high-water mark was most likely already passed decades ago, perhaps even by 1970.

The 2008 crash and the rise of right-wing populism in the US—arguably buoyed by a wave of frustration at stalling, ill-apportioned, or even retrograding progress—mark a darker kind of turning. It is less a peak than an inflection-point, where the infallible torch-bearer is recast as just another fraught and fallible nation-state; here, Progress’s mystagogue, its light-bearer, is transformed into its psychopomp, a conveyer of souls into the underworld.

With the hastening disintegration of multinational structures like the EU, and the deep complications climate change and biophysical limits present to the growth-ethic on which both the general and professional impressions of progress vitally depend, the stage is set for the emergence of a mythology entirely different from what led us here. We can reasonably expect that its differences will be the more disturbing, the greater the abruptness and the worse the circumstances under which they have to be imagined. 

To forestall our imagining of a world-myth that encompasses these trends, in the hope of their eventual return, is to set ourselves up for worse to come. If the Second Religiosity is coming, as Spengler discussed, we must take it upon ourselves to frame those myths and traditions in the light of the best wisdom available to us, and the best of the ages past.

* * *

Up till now, the supreme historic monument to human insanity and stupidity, to the hopeless flaws and flukes of our collective nature, has been Nazi Germany. Here, an entire nation, extremely wealthy and technologically advanced, went mad—completely and proudly mad, no less—and went forth to murder tens of millions, with a strange combination of haphazard slaughter and industrial exactness. It was stopped only years later, at horrific cost; and when we speak of the horrors that human nature is capable of charging headfirst into, therefore, we instinctively turn to Hitler and the Holocaust.

There are other cases, naturally. Stalin comes to mind, possibly Pol Pot, Rwanda, Armenia; but from the meanest Internet troll to the most solemn perorations given at national memorials and museums, Nazism holds a special place as our arch-icon of human fallibility, of human-made disaster, not only because of the exceptional intensity of the crimes it committed, but because of the intellectual pedigree of the nation that spawned it. For that the land of Goethe, Leibniz, Schiller and Gauss could also create Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich and Hess seems to tell us that even in the depths of the most “progressive” and intellectually enlightened there lurks this terrible potentiality.

We pretend we have grown wiser, even as we gradually consign history into convenient boxes that are “other”. We do not stint on lip service to the contrary: Nazism has left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness, one often hears; we must not ever forget; nay we shall not. One smallish country bears the stigma; but the entire world bears the stamp. We say this, even as Nazism has inspired a kind of fascination, a covertly admiring kitsch in the mass culture.

Many of the other trends currently in motion in the world portend eventually to supplant even Nazism as the ultimate dark mirror we hold up to ourselves. For where will we look for hope or faith in our chances as a species when that dark mirror is no longer a wall-mirror we occasionally glance at in the direction of the past, dutifully to remember our frailty as embodied in a single evil nation that was defeated long ago? How will “humanism” still stand, except ironically, as an Icarus-like myth of sheer hubris, when the mirror becomes a world-sized hall of mirrors, one where our frailty stares back at us from every corner of the earth, not from the past but in the present, in the form of inundated cities, decimated crops, mass displacement of peoples, spreading diseases, wars and perhaps population collapse?

In the decades to come, the mythic power of the Holocaust may not be so much lost or forgotten, as eclipsed by the greater and more terrible story of how humanity, in its seemingly “progressive” need for expansion and technological thought, laid waste to the our one and only world. And whereas memory of the Holocaust has faded or grown more abstract over the last seven decades, in seven centuries the shadow of worldwide environmental ruin could still be staring humankind in the face, not a remembrance but a daily misery, a daily humiliation.

* * *

In the Middle Ages, human beings were automatically viewed as fallen, imperfect beings, not hopeless but sorely in need of grace and forgiveness. In a great irony, that need for absolution became the need for divine favor, which in turn morphed into an excuse for still more layers of barbarism, exploitation and cruelty. It was only the vision of Progressive Man, guided by Science and the divine faculty of Reason towards a heroic conquest of social and technological perfection, that jarred us at least partly free of this constant and fruitless self-doubt.

It was our misfortune to confuse that vision with the Conquest of Infinity, the inherently doomed Faustian project of which Spengler wrote so keenly.

In the years to come, the vision of Humanity as the Faustian conqueror of its fate will steadily unravel, and the vision of the frailty and folly of humanity will gradually regain its old priority. The frenzy for absolution, too, will resume—but this time, it will not be absolution for peccadilloes or impure thoughts that we seek, nor for a distant myth of human folly leading to a Fall. Instead, we will hunger for absolution from a still-palpable historical fact of how humanity turned the world into a wasteland by, on the one hand, squandering the spectacular one-off gifts of science, in favor of the delusion of unsustainable plunder and enrichment; and on the other, by devaluing the natural and spiritual endowments of the world itself.

In this sense, despite all its warts, our present time may best be understood as the last days of Eden.

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