One of the founding myths of contemporary intellectual culture is the idea that, denied the consolation of religion and confronted by a universe both devoid of meaning and over-burdened with choices, humanity now finds itself in a world that has become disenchanted. As Max Weber puts it:
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ”disenchantment of the world.” Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental.
The term ‘disenchantment of the world’ is not in fact Weber’s but that of Friedrich Schiller whose critical writings — including Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) — can be seen as attempts to come to terms with his feeling of being somehow out of step with the world and more in tune with the by-gone age of classical Greece. An age which:
Displaced humanity, and recast it on a magnified scale in the glorious circle of its gods; but it did this not by dissecting human nature, but by giving it fresh combinations, for the whole of human nature was represented in each of the gods.
With characteristic insight, Gabriel Josipovici suggests in Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2010) that this sense of displacement flows not from a fundamental change in the nature of the world or of man’s relation to it, but from a sense of romantic nostalgia.
This sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern.
This sense of detachment from the world and yearning after a time when life had meaning is elegantly articulated by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s new book All Things Shining – Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (2011). In an early chapter, Dreyfus and Kelly compare the affairs of Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857)) with the adulterous affair of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini in Dante’s Inferno. Whereas Flaubert depicts Emma’s betrayal of her witless husband in a way that can continue to command our sympathies, Dante depicts adultery as a form of moral incontinence:
The medieval couple knew that it was wrong to engage in an adulterous affair – there was no question about it; unfortunately, they couldn’t resist the sinful passion of lust.
The medieval couple lived their lives within religion’s enchanted bubble of certainty and, as a result, they knew that they were doing wrong whereas Charles and Emma Bovary, living in the modern disenchanted world, lack a basic moral infrastructure. In fact, despite her shallow tastes, emotional remoteness and infidelity, Charles comes to the point of admiring his unfaithful wife for her betrayal.
Dreyfus and Kelly’s account of Dante’s psychology is above reproach. It is lucid. It is elegant. It is comprehensive. However, the psychological model underpinning Dante’s characterisation is profoundly alien to our modern eyes. If Paolo and Francesca were so sure as to the ‘right thing’ to do, why did they act otherwise? And, more importantly, how did they act otherwise? Dreyfus and Kelly speak of the couple as suffering from what ancient philosophers called akrasia or weakness of the will, but they do not delve deeply into the psychology of akrasia and the ways in which a mindset characterised by moral certainty and a tendency to akrasia might differ from a modern one. Indeed, as modern disenchanted readers we find it easy to empathise with Charles Bovary’s refusal to condemn his wife because, like him, we have trouble choosing which moral framework to apply to her actions. Should we judge her by the standards of Christianity? Or should we be understanding of the fact that she was trapped in a loveless marriage to a dull and unambitious man? This inability to choose between frameworks is, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, the defining characteristic of our modern disenchanted state:
This sense of certainty is rare in the contemporary world. Indeed, modern life can seem to be defined by its opposite. An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to find ourselves at least occasionally wavering.
But what is this “wavering” if not akrasia repackaged in existentialist livery? Dante may claim that Paolo and Francesca knew that they were doing wrong but their actions suggest a degree of uncertainty as to whether or not ‘the right thing to do’ was actually the right thing to do in that particular situation. It is my contention that, far from being a modern invention, existential anguish and lack of certainty are fundamental to the human condition. They are necessary by-products of the way in which human consciousness engages with the world. As John Gray puts it in Straw Dogs (2002):
When we are on the point of acting, we cannot predict what we are about to do. Yet when we look back we may see our decision as a step on a path on which we were already bound. We see our thoughts sometimes as events that happen to us, and sometimes as our acts. Our feeling of freedom comes about through switching between these two angles of vision. Free will is a trick of perspective.
While we may not possess free will, our consciousness is such that we cannot help but see ourselves as free. This perception of limitless freedom and responsibility for making choices creates a sense of existential vertigo as we struggle to come to terms with the fact that we could have acted differently and yet did not. This sense of existential vertigo is omnipresent in contemporary intellectual culture because all systems of value are now open to scrutiny, but even if our culture did not tolerate dissent or ‘shopping around’ for values, we would still feel that lack of certainty. We would still feel that lack of meaning. We would still desperately try to latch on to any system that would help our conscious minds make sense of our actions.
Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) explores both the universality of existential anguish and the universality of the need for consolatory myths. Deploying science fictional tropes to create a world in which people’s lives have both a meaning and a purpose, Never Let Me Go suggests that the lost certainty lamented by Romantics is nothing more than another myth concocted as a remedy to our innate sense of alienation from the world.