"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 88
"Why do horrified critics deny that many societies have found cannibalism acceptable?"
-- Jared M. Diamond
-- Jared M. Diamond
Because they'd start to see signs of the same basic phenomenon in their own societies?
Does cannibalism count as human sacrifice? My first instinct was to say no, because we draw a distinction between animals we kill for food and animals we kill for the gods: so it stands to reason that we would do the same for people whom we see as cattle. But from the moment I started thinking about it, I couldn't shake the feeling that historical accounts would prove me wrong. Perhaps cannibalism is more superstitious at root than I realise.
The closest our own society comes to cannibalism--the harvesting of organs from the brain dead or stem cells from the unborn--is a medical rather than culinary practice. But inasmuch as there is an element of improving your life at the expense of someone else's, we may be looking at the same thing.
Which brings us to the question of what human sacrifice has to do with global warming . . .
Sometimes I come across a chapter in a novel that seems to have a similar purpose to the "middle eight" in a song. It doesn't move the plot along or contribute much to character development, but it provides a place for reflection . . . and sometimes a new note that is never heard again but that gives the story a richness or a power that it never could have achieved with a more streamlined structure. So, no, it doesn't really bother me that Professor Norman Hoffman comes out of nowhere to drop several bombs at once.
"Just as there is an ecology of the natural world, in the forests and mountains and oceans, so too there is an ecology of the man-made world of mental abstractions, ideas and thought . . .
Within modern culture, ideas constantly rise and fall. For a while, everybody believes something, and then, bit by bit, they stop believing it . . . Ideas are themselves a kind of fad . . .
In fashion, as in natural ecology, there are disruptions. Sharp revisions of the established order. A lightning fire burns down a forest. A different species springs up in the charred acreage. Accidental, haphazard, unexpected, abrupt change . . ."
I don't know about you, but I find this fascinating. Culture as an ecology of thought is a radically different model from the one we (like Nicholas Drake) seem to have accepted these days: culture as a battlefield. As models go, I think the former is preferable.
While I'm hardly qualified to sketch a proper ecological history of Western civilisation, I am the only living expert on the ecosystem of my own mind--which is currently being blown by the metaphor of ideas as different species. My intellectual life has its share of dinosaurs, prehistoric throwbacks, domesticated pets, feral escapees, invasive species, and mutant strains . . . among other varied citizens.
It's interesting to think that our culture combines a passion for protecting endangered animal species with a passion for eliminating certain thought species. That our desire to preserve great swathes of natural wilderness for generations to come is rivaled only by our desire to turn the wilderness of ideas into an intellectual golf course. That we somehow balance scandalised disbelief that certain philosophies are still going strong in the twenty-first century with determination that certain animals not disappear on our watch. But whether we are trying to hunt ideas to extinction or to protect wildlife through "education," we make the same mistake of believing that ecosystems can be perfectly managed. Take the allegory of Yellowstone National Park.
". . . what you have," Kenner said, "is a history of ignorant, incompetent, and disastrously intrusive intervention, followed by attempts to repair the damage caused by the repairs, as dramatic as any oil spill or toxic dump. Except in this case there is no evil corporation or fossil fuel economy to blame. This disaster was caused by environmentalists charged with protecting the wilderness, who made one dreadful mistake after another--and, along the way, proved how little they understand the environment they intended to protect."
You could have knocked me over with a dodo feather when I got to that passage and realised that you could substitute "environmentalists" with "Traditionalists," make other context-appropriate changes, and have basically the same moral. For despite what some butt-hurt bloggers will tell you, the real problem of the Traditionalist Catholic movement is not a supposed "lack of charity," but a lack of understanding of what it takes to preserve an environment. (Hint: it's not with capes, cigars and Chesterton.)
The asteroid that was Vatican II may have wiped out a lot of majestic creatures . . . but it didn't get the turtles, the crocodiles, the sharks, and the crustaceans! Okay, that's not such an inspiring thought, so how about this: mammals probably wouldn't have thrived if the dinosaurs had held the edge in numbers. Or to paraphrase State of Fear: "The threat of [Vatican II] . . . is essentially non-existent. Even if it were a real phenomenon, it would probably result in a net benefit to most of the world."
All that was harder for me to write than anyone will ever know. In case it was also hard for you to read, I share the consolation that came to me: the hope that when the Spirit is sent forth, they shall all be created and the face of the earth shall be renewed.
Which finally brings me back to human sacrifice, which is, of course, rooted in fear and part of the culture in any State of Fear . . .
"Has it ever occurred to you how astonishing the culture of Western society really is? Industrialised nations provide their citizens with unprecedented safety, health, and comfort. Average lifespans increased fifty percent in the last century. Yet modern people live in abject fear. They are afraid of strangers, of disease, of crime, of the environment. They are afraid of the homes they live in, the food they eat, the technology that surrounds them. They are in a particular panic over things they can't even see--germs, chemicals, additives, pollutants. They are timid, nervous, fretful, and depressed. And even more amazingly, they are convinced that the environment of the entire planet is being destroyed around them. Remarkable! Like the belief in witchcraft, it's an extraordinary delusion--a global fantasy worthy of the Middle Ages. Everything is going to hell and we must all live in fear. Amazing."
Although the professor really should know better about the ecology of the Middle Ages, I'll give him a pass because he totally gets the ecology of our own times. It's true that so much money, time and energy are spent assuaging the terrors of the safest people in the history of the world that there is nothing left for the millions of others who actually are suffering. If we rewrite the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the latter would be living in a house built with state-of-the-art sustainable materials, driving the latest low-emission car model, and feasting on 100% organic food . . . all of which leave no room in the budget for neighbourly aid.
This is bad enough without the added frustration that comes when an object of fear returns as a fad. Professor Hoffman points out that after $25 billion dollars was spent to move power lines because people believed the electric fields around them caused cancer, magnetic therapy became the hot new thing and magnet sales eventually ran into the billions as well.
As for the plot . . . So Ted Bradley gets to be part of the final group, does he? I don't really mind, because an incredulous voice still seems to be necessary. Besides, if he doesn't get eaten (I probably shouldn't "ROFL" here, aye?) he may end up going through his own rite of passage! And if he doesn't, well, it would add another layer to the moral to have him incredulous to the end. An end we are rapidly approaching! Aren't you thrilled? =D
1) Confess: which belief would you love to wipe off the face of the earth completely? And if you could be granted this wish but also had to choose an animal species to suffer extinction, which animal would you pick to take the bullet?
2) Can you think of another example of a fear which returned as a fad?
3) What was your favourite part of Professor Hoffman's "middle eight"?