Postmodern Conservative

Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 104, Pink Floyd, “Matilda Mother”

All through the late-19th century up through the mid-1960s one felt the cultural pull of it:  a celebration of techno-managerial progress, always with the promise of more to come.  The heroes were the architect, the in-charge social-scientist, the business, military, or government man applying scientific methods, and most of all the natural scientist himself.   There is still plenty of such techno-managerial optimism percolating in our society, but it has never quite felt as intense as it did in those pre-1965 times.  Any viewer of 50s movies, for example, and especially any reader of Walker Percy’s Moviegoer (1960), cannot but notice it. 

The high-tide of this confident expectation of Tomorrow-Land wonders coming from science was probably reached in the early 60s, and found an echo and expression in architecture’s international style.   All was to be angular, sleek, and silvery-grey—as orderly, if perhaps as jarring, as a physicist’s formula.  When the style was seriously executed it could have, as its most effective cinematic satirist Jacques Tati admitted and displayed, a certain undeniable beauty. 

The second of those images is of the famous 1958 Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe, and the first is a still from Tati’s ingenious, architecture-concerned, and I’d say quite postmodern-conservative film, Playtime, released in 1967, but conceptualized in the early 60s. 

What sort of men belonged to such a world?  Well, let’s go along with the notions popularized by the more critical 50s sociologists like David Riesman and William Whyte for a bit.  It belonged to “organization men,” men who would wear super-shiny black shoes like those Tom Wolfe so obsessively described when (The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test) he portrayed the FBI agents, men who would part their slicked hair like Robert McNamara’s as straight as any direct line plotted on a chart from point A to point B.  That is, men like this guy:

It ends with this:

And fairy stories held me high, on

clouds of sunlight floating by.

Oh-oh mother, tell me more.

Tell me more.

Now the adult fascination with fairy stories, always with us to some degree, seems to have reached an apex of articulation and achievement in the 20th-century work of Lewis and Tolkien.  “Matilda Mother’s” and “The Gnome’s” songwriter Syd Barrett may not have read their theoretical essays about such, but he seems to have had a solid notion of what they were up to.

Tolkien’s essay, available in various collections, displays his familiarity with early British literature and Norse saga, but also with children’s literature generally.  It contains some of his most direct attacks against modern technology, and most open defenses of so-called literary “escapism” from its ugliness.  I haven’t read all of it, but I have read a work that conveys some of its teaching, From Homer to Harry Potter:  A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy, a curious but worthwhile book, written by Tolkien expert Matthew Dickerson and my friend and philosophy scholar David O’ Hara.  They provide a learned and heavily Tolkien/Lewis-influenced account of how one properly distinguishes myth, Biblical myth, fairy story, allegory, etc.  We’ll use their quotations and interpretations of Tolkien, to get the gist of how he and Lewis felt fairy stories could hold us higher:

“He who would enter the Kingdom of Faërie,” Tolkien writes, “should have the heart of a little child.”  In choosing this language Tolkien is making a clear connection to… Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven[Luke 18:17].  He continues, “For that possession is necessary to all high adventure, into kingdoms both less and far greater than Faërie.”

Though Tolkien was rightly hesitant to give any single-sentence definition of fairy story, he did write that fantasy was not something to be embarrassed about in literature, but rather was one of the four most important values of fairy story (along with recovery, escape, and consolation):  “Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie.”

Here’s a final bit that’s all from Tolkien:

“Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons:  it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it:  tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”

One senses that for him, Faërie is a literary-imagistic realm that is inevitably called forth by an age-old desire.  It is.  He suggests that our desire for it rightly intensifies in modern times, to in some way resist modernity’s “disenchantment of the world.”  Lewis is even more emphatic on that last point.  The strongest sense of this comes from the first two Narnia books, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian, particularly the second of these. 

In it we are told the story of Caspian as a little boy.  He is growing up in Narnia, which the reader knows to be the magical place described in the first book, but in a later time when his race of men, the Telmarines, occupy the land, having centuries ago conquered it and driven out its previous occupants.  They now deny that these predecessors ever existed.   But some humans, such as Caspian’s nurse, keep knowledge of the old things alive in tales.  Caspian loves these forbidden tales, but innocently lets it out that the nurse is telling them by saying he wishes he lived in the “old days,” when “all the animals could talk” and there were “naiads and dryads…, lovely little fauns,” a “White Witch,” and a lion of awesome power named “Aslan.” The original inhabitants of Narnia, whose hidden descendants Caspian will soon meet, are essentially a menagerie of classical and medieval mythology:  centaurs, dwarves, satyrs, Maenads, giants, walking-trees, etc.  These, along with some human allies like Caspian, reconquer Narnia, but only ultimately with the help of Aslan.

Since Aslan is Lewis’s representation of Christ in the Narnia books, what the plot of Prince Caspian in essence does is to pit the mythology-denying Telmarines, the men who have long ruled the land, against all the creatures of pagan mythology and the Christian God also.  Not a fair fight!  But think of it in terms of Lewis’s literary effort in our world:  instead of the Renaissance-through-Enlightenment pattern of moderns employing certain attractions of pagan history, philosophy, and poetry against Christian belief the better to establish their own rule, here’s a 20th-century Christian using the attractions of the pagan, particularly those of the mythology, to rebel against the moderns’ well-established dominion. 

Like so many in the 60s, Syd Barrett wanted to re-employ the pagan, and in his case the things of Faërie especially, against the sterile and modern, but without this issuing in a rededication to the Christian.  But such “Tolkien-ism”-sans-Christ leads one where?  Perhaps back to a new kind of art-as-religion, perhaps to an effort to revive Celtic or some other European paganism, or perhaps, to the Occult.   


Some hippies made the fantastical children’s literature they were raised upon an excuse for their overall lifestyle.  I recall an interview with Grace Slick, where she said that when you were a child, you were told all these wonderful tales of magical people and places, but then when you grew up, you were forced to reconcile oneself with the standardized rat-race.  She was expounding upon the juvenile cleverness of “Go Ask Alice,” which purports to justify acid-taking by pointing back to the use of potions and pills in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  (Tolkien, for what it’s worth, refused to classify that as a fairy-story, given its reliance on a dream-pretense.)  But Slick’s more serious point is that children held high by fairy stories, shouldn’t be then expected to stoop to the regularized behavior required by modern adulthood. 

“Matilda Mother” hints at this complaint also—for unlike Caspian, modern man doesn’t find the fairy stories he was told at his mother’s or nurse’s knee coming to life, and turning out to be the true history of the realm.   Moreover, the thoroughly Barrett-stamped Piper at the Gates of Dawn album, drenched with LSD, arguably showing evidence of the connected madness that would soon enough completely rob him of his sanity, containing one song about using the I Ching, and another that evokes obsession with the occult, certainly does not suggest that such a man, that is, the one whose heart has been fired by the poetry of Faërie but who will not turn to the Christian hope and cannot turn back to contentment with atheistic modernity, can turn out well.  Such a man will either gravitate towards easier New Age spirituality, or, amid a rush of drugs, spells, and various other attempts to re-create pagan intensity, he will lose his mind.

That suggests the kind of case that could be made against the project of Faërie-literature.  I take it the modern atheist case is obvious enough, but let’s consider a certain kind of Christian one.  C.S. Lewis once said “That is why I often find myself at such cross-purposes with the modern world:  I have been a converted Pagan living among apostate Puritans.”  That’s quite right, but it’s also worth imagining what a non-apostate Puritan critic might say to him and J.R.R.: 

“Your unintended part in the 60s culture revolution shows you where you went wrong.  You thought your literary paganism, suffused with Biblical truths, and crowned with the hidden Ilúvatar and the shining Aslan, would fight against the deadening damper rationalist modernity had thrown over Christendom.  But too many of those adults your stories fascinated did not find the gospel kernel but fed instead on the glorious shell, and too many of the children your stories captivated proved unable to thrive when up against the inevitably disappointing facts of modern-day quotidian life, including those that manifest themselves in church-life.  Instead of moving through Middle-Earth and Narnia to Christian faith, many of them wound up seeking to recreate ‘paganism,’ ruining their lives and leaving us today with a host of heresies to contend with.  Our moderns now are less like the dark-suited calculating ones you detested, and more like the pre-Christian inhabitants of the Roman world, the ones who regarded the continual trying out of various religious or magic-reliant ideas, like the trying out of various lovers, as perfectly normal.  Perhaps most of this would have happened anyway, but your work lent potent aid.”

“Many of the aspects of the modern world you denounced were nothing more than technology applied with Christian Charity, and with respect for the ideas of equality and personal dignity similarly derived from the Bible.  The Industrial Revolution saved lives.  As even the Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain argued, we had some reason to expect modern European and American civilization to contain a Christian “leavening” within it.  So long as man understands his role as a steward of God’s creation, let him employ his ingenuity to use its goods and cultivate it for the better.  We certainly do not want him to revere the tree or the river as if it were a person or god.   Let the spirits depart from the forest, from nature generally, and do not try to smuggle them back in, in some ‘merely literary’ manner.  Sane environmentalism we are for, and we agree that the years 1830-1970 saw many an outrage.  But surely by now you can admit that the attempt to re-sacralize nature has produced sects and impulses intrinsically hostile to the gospel.”

“Puritans have always warned against the longing for the miraculous—there are strong reasons to believe that the age of such is over until the Second Coming.   Similarly, we have warned Anglicans and Catholics about their image-stoked fascination for intermediary powers and statuses, i.e., with saints, angels, and purgatory.  Thank God “angel-ology” has yet to find a poetic elaborator with a literary genius equal to Dante’s, as we suspect you of holding onto the unbiblical doctrine of purgatory largely due to your attraction to his poetic image of it.  Do you not see that Middle-Earth and Narnia have a similar poetic pull, albeit one productive of worse errors and heresies?”

There are a number of specific defenses and counter-attacks that “Tolkien/Lewis” could employ here, many of which are theological.  But the main defense, which this Protestant Christian agrees with, is that the thirst to return in some manner to pagan mythology, especially to its enchantment of the earth and zest for high adventure, is unavoidable.  This is particularly so in times of diminished Christian shaping of the culture. 

In literary terms, and with respect to specific Northern European roots, this can be understood as a thirst for Faërie.  Again, it should be thought of as a realm that is simply there.  Since modern man inevitably will attempt to enter into it, wouldn’t it be best for him to have Christian guides?  The realm’s dangers were fully admitted by Tolkien and Lewis.  At the very beginning of his essay, Tolkien warned that “Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.”  His The Lord of the Rings excludes nearly any mention of Middle-Earth religious practice, i.e., it enthralls readers with pagan-like life without them getting fascinated with pagan rites; moreover, it hints at the superintendence of a loving and Biblical-like God, something The Silmarillion openly reveals.  As for Lewis, his Narnia books make Aslan/Christ visible throughout.  

I’ll close this partial response to our retrospective Puritan critic by noting that many might benefit from the more specific defense C.S. Lewis made of raising children on fairy tales (outlined here), and that what he says therein largely answers the type of argument made by hippies like Grace Slick above, and repeated here by our Puritan.

Still, the yearning expressed by Syd Barrett through “Matilda Mother” is one of no slight significance; and his sad fate, along with the broader derangement of many in his generation who tried to reject the modern world outright, reminds us that such yearning can turn out badly.  And it ought to make us tremble a bit when we choose the stories by which we enchant the child, or our own selves.  I hate to end in a way that suggests that “escapism” is the key concept for understanding Tolkien, but I do think that the best artists of our times will as often seek out ways to play amid the modern, along the lines of Jacques Tati’s funny little cinematic masterpiece, as ways to escape from its very existence in the manner of Tolkien’s towering literary achievement. 

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