The Gods of Progress

Recently, I saw two classic films for the first time; Blade Runner and Network. I enjoyed both, but there was also something intensely sad about them. They both expressed such…hopelessness. They’re very much modern films, that is to say, films made from the perspective of a modernist / progressivist worldview, though a self-reflective one. Blade Runner had some room for wonder and morality; Network was a world ruled by crass commercialism and cynical disillusion. But even Blade Runner could only throw up its hands and take refuge in an agnostic materialism in which death is the inevitable and final end. It too was a fundamentally commercial and material world, but one in which people could still raise their heads and ask why, though no answer was forthcoming.

“I want more life, father.”

Both films sit firmly in a world of progress; of hard-headed materialistic triumph. Science in one, economics in the other. We have androids indistinguishable from humans who wrestle with the same existential questions, spaceships colonizing other worlds, endless cityscapes, we have powerful commercial networks that dream of economizing and entertaining all human problems away, headed by strong, domineering female executives who have shattered the glass ceiling.

And hardly a speck of joy or hope to be found in either of them. Even the sex scenes express no love and hardly any desire (Faye Dunaway’s character in Network keeps talking about her job even while having sex, which I found darkly hilarious). The result of all that is, as William Holden’s character puts it, “shrieking nothing.”

(That’s about as good a description of modernity as I’ve heard)

Films like these make me appreciate what a blessing it is to have faith. When Deckard’s voice over comments that Batty only wanted to know what everyone else does: “Where do I come from? Where am I going?” I found I had an answer: “we come from God and we are going to God. We have a place in this world; a place that is by no means supreme, but it is our own. We are made for infinite happiness.”

But it seems we, as a civilization, didn’t like that answer and so went with the strong gods of progress in the hopes of making our place supreme. The results are expressed in films like these.

“For though I lie on the floor of the world
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.

What have the strong gods given,
Where have the glad gods led,
When Guthram sits on a hero’s throne
And asks if he is dead?”
Ballad of the White Horse, Book III

Gunga Din at ‘The Everyman’

A new ‘Everyman’ post went up yesterday, talking about Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din and what it reveals about both his perspective and ours:

Now, you cannot think sense about morality unless you get this idea of principles clear, and you cannot get it clear until you can identify what is and is not an equivalent case.

The respective views of Mr. Kipling and a modern college student on the subject of the Indian peoples, for instance, is not an equivalent case, for they were raised in completely different intellectual climates. Kipling’s point of view was never seriously presented to the college student as something he ought to believe; if it was presented at all, it was as a historical relic that has been supplanted. The reason the modern college student doesn’t think as Kipling did is not because he is that much more enlightened than Kipling, but because it was never a serious option for him to do so. He may as well be proud of the fact that he never owned a slave or mistreated a horse. Likewise, Kipling never seriously encountered a perspective that we would recognize as Progressive, and certainly wasn’t raised to one (though he was likely to be much the more independent thinker of the two, but we’ll discount that for now).

I am not here saying that Kipling’s Imperialism and the modern’s Progressivism are morally equivalent; that’s as may be. I am saying that they are socially equivalent. What we would call racist sentiments was as common in Kipling’s day as progressive sentiment is in ours. In both cases they are more or less the accepted, cultured view among the educated classes. And both have their ‘Other:’ the people who, in the common view, are ‘lesser than us.’ For the Imperialist it was the native population; for the Progressive, it is (among others) the Imperialist.

And herein lies the equivalent case; not how each regards Indian people, but how each regards their particular ‘Other.’ Stripped of their respective idioms, this is what is being said on each side:

The modern says, “This man is of this type and therefore he is of no account.”

Kipling says, “This man is of this type, but nevertheless is of more account than I.”

Read the rest here.

Aquaman and Causation at The Everyman

That review I fisked last week sparked some thoughts in my mind about Progressivism and causation. The resulting essay appears today at The Everyman

First it must be noted that Aquaman is a very successful film. As of this writing, it’s made 265 million dollars in the US and close to a billion worldwide (according to boxofficemojo.com)—and it’s still going, sitting comfortably at number one in the US Box Office, while standing at a respectable 7.5 rating on IMDb. Objectively speaking, it’s not a great film by any means, but clearly people like it. Heck, I liked it, even with all its many flaws.

Now here comes the point: if it had been everything this reviewer apparently wanted it to be—a social justice driven, feminist-environmentalist tale where instructions on real-world politics and ideology served as the main themes—does anyone honestly suppose that it would have been half as successful as it is?

There are no hard and fast rules in the box office, but there are in philosophy, and one of them is this: if you change the cause, you change the effect. Aquaman is a very successful film because audiences enjoyed it, and one of the reasons they enjoyed it seems to be that it was so unabashedly escapist in its tone. If the filmmakers had changed that and instead opted for a self-consciously ‘relevant’ film like, say A Wrinkle in Time or Ghostbusters 2016 or Robin Hood, it almost certainly would have bombed just like they did.

Read the rest here.

By the way, since writing that, Aquaman has officially passed the $1 billion worldwide mark. He’s come a long way since the Superfriends.