The rabbit trail of the Internet led me today from a David Brooks column to a Joshua Mitchell essay to the new Star Wars trailer. And in the end I think I caught an interesting wabbit.
The Age of the Outsider
In his column in the New York Times today Brooks writes about how we are living in an “Age of the Outsider.” Many of what used to be our central political and social institutions are breaking down, their gravitational pull upon us, in Brooks’s metaphor, being replaced by pulls from smaller stars and planets. “Each central establishment, weakened by its own hollowness of meaning, is being ripped apart by the gravitational pull from the fringes.”
The phenomenon of the outsider cuts across political and social divides. Donald Trump is an obvious outsider, disrupting the traditional gravitational pull of our democratic politics. But so is, when it comes to the institution of marriage, the cultural warrior trying to redefine that institution.
The Age of Exhaustion
Where’s all this heading? Brooks asks. Here he references Georgetown University professor Joshua Mitchell’s recent essay in the American Interest, “The Age of Exhaustion.” Mitchell’s essay is long and heady but well worth the read.
In it he argues that in our time there are three paradigms that vie for our allegiance: Liberal Triumphalism, the anti-Liberal Politics of Identity, and the Great Exhaustion. Brooks strikes me as prescient in seeing the Great Exhaustion as the condition toward which our culture is declining. But what does Mitchell mean by this paradigm?
The Time of the Great Exhaustion, writes Mitchell, is a time neither of great loves nor of great hatreds. It is, instead, a time of ennui, boredom. In Kierkegaard’s ironic phrase, it is a time of despair not even knowing that it is despair. In such an age,
“Citizens will lose faith in liberty and no longer labor to maintain and defend it. Instead, they will prefer a quiet, purportedly beneficent equality in servitude, a despotism that assures them that they have security and adolescent entertainment: Facebook, Twitter, never-ending video games, and the titillation of ever more mesmerizing gadgets. This delivers them from the specter of anxiety and the burden of freedom. The democratic age ends, neither with robust Liberals striving in a forever imperfect world, nor with defiant anti-Liberals striving to perfect the world, but rather with The Great Exhaustion. Striving, uncertainty, risk, labor, suffering, insult—these become too much for our fragile constitutions to bear. Above all, in the time of The Great Exhaustion, no one wants to “feel uncomfortable” and, so, we conspire to organize the world so that it is without duress or hardship. The 1 percent political and commercial classes are happy to oblige.”
Evelyn Waugh once called sloth the besetting sin of the age. Without using the theological term, Mitchell concurs. And so do I.
The Force…It’s Calling to You
In light of these observations, what we are to make of the new trailer for the J.J. Abrams film, The Force Awakens, that promises to reboot the Star Wars franchise with a vengeance?
We might be tempted to say that such a blockbuster film is simply one more example of the kind of “adolescent entertainment” Mitchell decries, the kind that helps us fight our spiritual exhaustion by distracting us with cartoon epic adventure, special effects, and explosions.
But I believe this would be wrong.
Speaking not as a fanboy but as one attempting to make use of the kind of metaphysical “lapsometer” that Walker Percy’s protagonist, Dr. Thomas More, wields in Love in the Ruins, I contend that the Star Wars films show us the human spirit revealing its deepest yearnings, its need to be devoted to a great love and to the destruction of a great hatred.
As a species, at any rate, human beings cannot live without passionate intensity for what is true and good and beautiful. And if we don’t find those qualities in our failing institutions and those who lead them, then we will pick up our chalk pieces and make drawings on the walls of our caves, reminding ourselves of the call to great action that defines us as rational animals.
So the new Star Wars trailer culminates with the words:
“The force…it’s calling to you. Just let it in.”