Reality is making us sick, and fantasy can’t cure us
You’re honey child to a swarm of bees
Gonna blow right through you like a breeze
Give me one last dance
Well slide down the surface of things
You’re the real thing
Yeah the real thing
You’re the real thing
Even better than the real thing
Fantasy stories, myths, legends, tall tales, fairy tales, horror, all these have been with us for a very long time. Science fiction, as well, has been with us since Mary Shelley found herself in a bet with Lord Byron about the possibility of writing a new kind of horror, one not grounded in the gothic.* So the presence in our popular culture of stories based in unreality of one form or another is certainly nothing new.
It seems to me that there’s been a lot more of it lately, though. I don’t have the means to conduct the kind of thorough study we’d need to prove the point, but a cursory examination of what’s on television demonstrates that a good bit of our attention is being occupied by various hyper-realities.
- In this TV.com list of most popular shows, at least 20 deal with the supernatural in some form.
- A quick look at the networks’ fall line-up reveals 11 non-reality-based shows. Add to this Chuck, which will be back mid-season sometime.
- That list doesn’t include cable, of course. In addition to SyFy (or whatever the heck it’s being called these days), HBO is currently burning it up with True Blood, an exceptional vampire/mystery series.
When you factor out reality and game shows, soap operas and children’s programming, the ratio of supernatural-to-natural (such as it is) is quite high. And we’re not even including ludicrously fanciful programming that’s ostensibly based in the plausible (think Desperate Housewives here).
Now let’s have a look at the top-grossing films of 2008:
- The Dark Knight
- Iron Man
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
- Kung Fu Panda
- Twilight (2008/I)
- Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
- Quantum of Solace
- Horton Hears a Who!
- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
- The Hangover
- Star Trek
- Monsters vs Aliens
- Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
- X-Men Origins: Wolverine
- Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
- The Proposal
Beginning to notice a pattern?
I can’t help wondering why. Cultures behave the way they do for reasons, and studied examinations of those behaviors (and most especially, of the culture’s popular artifacts) tell us a great deal about the society. What does it love, what does it hate? What does it dream of, what does it fear? What are its dysfunctions…
In this particular case, what are we running from?
We Are the Hollow Men
I have a theory. Well, actually, it’s not well developed enough to be a theory. Or even a hypothesis, for that matter. So let’s just call it a question. I recently read Affluenza, a book that sets out to examine our culture’s pathological need for stuff. The editor’s review at Amazon sums it up this way:
The definition of affluenza, according to de Graaf, Wann, and Naylor, is something akin to “a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” It’s a powerful virus running rampant in our society, infecting our souls, affecting our wallets and financial well-being, and threatening to destroy not only the environment but also our families and communities. Having begun life as two PBS programs coproduced by de Graaf, this book takes a hard look at the symptoms of affluenza, the history of its development into an epidemic, and the options for treatment. In examining this pervasive disease in an age when “the urge to splurge continues to surge,” the first section is the book’s most provocative. According to figures the authors quote and expound upon, Americans each spend more than $21,000 per year on consumer goods, our average rate of saving has fallen from about 10 percent of our income in 1980 to zero in 2000, our credit card indebtedness tripled in the 1990s, more people are filing for bankruptcy each year than graduate from college, and we spend more for trash bags than 90 of the world’s 210 countries spend for everything. “To live, we buy,” explain the authors–everything from food and good sex to religion and recreation–all the while squelching our intrinsic curiosity, self-motivation, and creativity. They offer historical, political, and socioeconomic reasons that affluenza has taken such strong root in our society, and in the final section, offer practical ideas for change. These use the intriguing stories of those who have already opted for simpler living and who are creatively combating the disease, from making simple habit alterations to taking more in-depth environmental considerations, and from living lightly to managing wealth responsibly.
Grist notes that in the wake of 9/11, affluenza seems to have evolved from social disease into official policy:
In each of the past four years, more people declared bankruptcy than graduated from college. On average, the nation’s CEOs now earn 400 times the wages of the typical worker, “a tenfold increase since 1980.” Although the United States makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, we produce 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions; since 1950, we “have used up more resources than everyone who ever lived on earth before then.”
Many of us also know that bigger houses, bigger cars, more gadgets, and more expensive clothes do not make us more content, despite the glossy promises of advertisers. Yet consumer spending has long been used as an indicator of both the national economy and the national mood. The more we spend, the better off we are — or so we’ve been told. This mantra has been particularly insistent in the past year, as the great blooming bubble of stock market riches began to deflate and the Bush administration chose instant gratification as an economic strategy. Since Sept. 11, national leaders have been telling us with ever-increasing urgency that consumer confidence must and will rebound. While confidence — as an indicator of our faith in the future — should return, it’s equally clear that the past few decades’ rate of consumption is neither sustainable nor desirable. Moreover, we must assume — and hope — that tragedy has made us wiser, and tempered the impulse of so many Americans to affirm their existence with a pleasing new purchase.
To be honest, reading Affluenza is one of the hardest things I’ve done in some time. I not only saw the moral emptiness of my society laid bare, there were entirely too many pages that described my own life. Even in instances where I feel like I’ve won the battle against consumerist addiction, I still had to acknowledge that once upon a time I was eaten up by a craving for material things that not only couldn’t have made me whole, it would have made the hollow space even larger. I had to slog through passages that seemed specifically written about people I know, people close to me. Worst of all, the book flogged me relentlessly with details about how our obsessions with status and toys are annihilating the physical world that sustains us … for the moment.
Affluenza ripped at my guts in ways that brought me literally to the brink of illness. Or maybe past the brink – I haven’t written about it before, but I’m currently battling at least a couple of medical conditions that may ultimately be the result of affluenza. One of them – a blood sugar issue that I’m now taking medication for daily – is certainly a product of the American food complex. If you drink, on average, two liters of soda a day for the better part of 25 years, how many milligrams of high-fructose corn syrup have you strained through your body? I’m not blaming anybody for my stupidity, which was considerable, but let’s not pretend that our consumption patterns exist in a vacuum, either.
The physical impact pales next to the psychological, though. I grew up desperately seeking the sort of validation that comes with success in America, and if you aren’t careful you can fixate on all the wrong goals. Is success a certain income level? Is it a house in a certain neighborhood? Is it the security that comes from knowing that your children have newer, cooler and more expensive basketball shoes than their friends? Is it a Lexus or Beemer or Mercedes? Is it having a certain number of people reporting to you?
Is it the satisfaction that comes from working so many hours your wife doesn’t recognize you when you come home? Is it the number of ulcers you have? Is it having a physical stress level so consistently high that your body is more or less always sick in some way?
Affluenza made me think about the lies we tell ourselves about success. About the “American Dream.” We grow up enculterated into a consumerist assumption (unless our parents raise us in the woods, miles from the nearest television – and then we have a whole ‘nother set of problems). At some point we realize that we’re not happy (although “realize” may be the wrong word – one thing affluenza seems to do is systematically kill off our self-awareness – in any case, we aren’t happy). Everywhere we look, though, we see happy people (these are called advertisements), and the happiness we see emanates from a thing. A car, a haircut, a shirt, a house, an iPhone, a particular brand of computer…whatever it is, it’s something that can be purchased. So we purchase it. And after a few minutes, we’re not happy again.
I once watched a young boy on his first real Christmas morning. The monetary value of the presents he had under the tree was probably triple the value of all the presents I’d ever had under all the trees during my entire life. He ripped into the first present – it was spectacular. He looked at it, then put it aside and ripped into the second one. And the third. And the fourth, and fifth, and so on. He never paused to play with any of them. It was only about more, more, more. And when there were no more, he still didn’t play with them. The look on his face at that moment was one of profound and unmistakable disappointment. There were no more.
I had never seen anything like it, and I was as horrified as he was unfulfilled. That young boy has had several more Christmas mornings since then, and as best I can tell each one has been little more than a re-enactment of that first one, only with escalating price tags. He’s a smart kid and a very good kid in many ways, but I shudder at the hollowness that now threatens to consume his entire life.
Can I complain about the parenting decisions that have been made in this boy’s life? Well, I could, but in truth the significance of the story isn’t what happened to him, it’s that what happened to him happens millions of times a day all across our consumerist nation. The more we have, the emptier we are. We’re a nation of addicts, and all the stuff that we’re Jonesing for is a million times more addictive and destructive than crystal meth.
What Happens When We Run Out of Fantasies?
We are the age of insubstantiation,
a generation of digital bells,
loose change on the sidewalk.
Our days are loops,
our nights tight spirals,
and if the virtual is
even better than the real thing
it’s only because the real thing is so goddamned empty.
So here’s my theory/hypothesis/question. We’re a hollow nation, a society that provides nearly all of us with rampant access to more material goods than we know what to do with. But we cannot find happiness in the material because there is not happiness in it. On the contrary – it’s a system that’s rigged to feed us a shiny, pretty lie that hollows us out some more, all the while whispering that only more of the lie will make us happy.
This is our reality. So should we be surprised that our favorite television shows and movies aren’t about “reality”? That instead, we turn toward the magical, the mystical, the alien, the supernatural and hyper-real realms that can promise us even more? Even when these narratives are dystopian, they can’t help but be more interesting than stories about this world. After all, we have everything that this world can offer and we’re still bored to tears.
These are heady days for fantasy merchants. But where will we go next, when even better than the real thing grows dull?
* Alkon, P. Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.