Science Fiction, Wars, and a Meaning to Life

by Bob Wallace

When I was 12 to 14 years old the most important thing in my life was science fiction, including the original Star Trek. I got high off of it -- I felt what is called "the sense of wonder." I don't have to explain it to those who understand; those who have never experienced it, I can't explain it to them.

In my imagination I ranged across all of time and space -- and before them, and after them. I traveled through parallel dimensions and alternative universes. I encountered a vast array of aliens -- talking cats, winged beings, and those that lived under the sea, or in space. It was heady stuff.

Because it was the most important thing in my life at that time, it was in effect the meaning of my life. Others got their meaning from sports or music. Billy Joel once said that rock 'n' roll was as close to a religion as he had.

I am grateful that I encountered SF at the age I did. I think if I had run across it a few years later, although I would have enjoyed it, I would have never felt that intense sense of wonder. I sometimes wonder about those stuck in ancient and ossified cultures like China, India and Islam, who've never been able to feel what I did. Almost all SF --as Norman Spinrad noticed, the only visionary and transformational literature -- has come from America and England, two of the most free countries in the world.

At the same age as I began reading SF, I quit going to church. It bored me immensely. I got the awe and wonder from SF. From church I got nothing but boredom. The latter held no meaning for me. How can anything be called a religion when you get nothing but boredom and meaninglessness from it?

I have for years felt that SF was for some people a substitute for religion, or, in some cases, complimentary to it. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien exemplified the latter (although, to be accurate, Tolkien wrote fantasy.) For some people it gives community and meaning. Watch Trekkies, in which one of the characters comments, "We are always recruiting."

All people seek meanings to their lives, even if they deny there is any meaning to life. Richard Dawkins may be an atheist, but obviously his obsessive promoting of Darwinism is his meaning. People will never choose something boring as their meaning in life. It must always give them excitement and a sense of community.

People who may be a bit more sensitive, imaginative and intelligent than others may be lucky enough to encounter that "sense of wonder," what the original Outer Limits called "the awe and mystery." But what about those who aren't so lucky, who are far more limited? What do they seek for excitement and community?

Sometimes -- oftentimes -- they choose war. Although, for the vast majority of them, it does not involve personally fighting. It involves cheering from the sidelines. It's a spectator sport for them. Being cheerleaders for war gives meaning and community to their otherwise boring lives. This boredom -- ennui -- has always been considered the sin known as accidie. It's what comes from their lack of sensitivity, intelligence and imagination.

Such people mistakenly see this feeling of community and purpose as patriotism, love of country. It's anything but. Indeed, it's the exact opposite. They're nationalists, and as George Orwell noticed, "The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them."

Chris Hedges understands all of this. "The seduction of war is insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true -- it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time of our life, feel we belong," he said in a speech at Rockford College, quoting from his book, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. "War allows us to rise above our small stations in life; we find nobility in a cause and feelings of selflessness and even bliss...

"War is a fine diversion. War for those who enter into combat has a dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and the grotesque. The Bible calls it the lust of the eye and warns believers against it. War gives us a distorted sense of self; it gives us meaning."

Robert Nisbet, an influential conservative sociologist and "conservative sociologist" almost sounds like an oxymoron wrote in his book Community and Power (republished as The Quest for Community), "The power of war to create a sense of moral meaning is one of the most frightening aspects of the 20th century. . .one of the most impressive aspects of contemporary war is the intoxicating atmosphere of spiritual unity that arises out of the common consciousness of participating in a moral crusade."

Nisbet's book, indeed all of his books, is about the alienation that comes from the loss of community. Such loss always happens with the expansion of the State. As it expands, it destroys all the intermediary institutions such as religion, neighborhoods and families. Finally, there is nothing left between people and the State. There are various names for such a condition fascism, communism, Nazism. The State becomes everything, and people become absorbed into it. Think of the Borg.

Writers such as Erich Fromm and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn have pointed out many people want to be absorbed into a group as an escape from their alienation. It gives them a sense of community and security. Nisbet adds there is something else such people don't give up their individuality in these groups, but instead exalt their selves, as they now believe they are part of something they think is much larger than they are.

They become, as I call it, "a community of gods." They believe the group itself is god-like, or blessed of God, so they partake of that "divinity" by being part of the group. They are literally worshipping their selves, a worship that always means those outside of the group are devalued into sub-humans whose murders are dismissed as "collateral damage."

As Russell Kirk noted, "the monstrous self is the source of all evil." The Nazis, the communists, and the fascists were that monstrous self writ large. I believe this is why Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote, "'I' is from God and 'We' is from the Devil." That "We" can only be of the Devil when the State destroys the intermediary institutions, and the only "We" left is the combination of the people and the State.

During long-term warfare society becomes militarized and in doing so damages, destroys or absorbs such intermediary institutions as churches. Then we end up with disgraces such as Jerry Falwell claiming "God is pro war," which of course means God supports only the wars of the United States.

"When the goals and values of a war are popular," writes Nisbet, "both in the sense of mass participation and spiritual devotion, the historic, institutional limits of war tend to recede further and further into the void. The enemy becomes not only a ready scapegoat for all ordinary dislikes and frustrations; he becomes the symbol of total evil against which the forces of good may mobilize themselves into a militant community."

In short, war can give meaning and community and an intoxicating power to some people's lives. That makes it a religion, a false one based on hubris and being drunk with power. Power does more than just corrupt; it intoxicates. In The Lord of the Rings, it was that power that turned Smeagol into Gollum. The same thing could happen to people in reality.

I believe the people who are the least liable to fall under the spell of this sense of false community and false purpose are the most intelligent, most sensitive, and most imaginative. For one thing, they can more easily see both sides of an issue. The less intelligent, the less sensitive and the less imaginative cannot. They are the ones who most easily fall under the spell of "nationalism."

They, too, get high off of their nationalism -- that "lust of the eye." But I see no awe and wonder and mystery in that lust. Obviously, some highs are better than others. Awe and love and mystery and wonder are good things. Simple excitement and a false sense of community are fleeting things, not worth clinging to.

Will people change? If they ever do, it will be as it always is -- it starts right in the human heart, the place where the only true change takes place. But until that happens, people will always take the cheap thrills, the bread and circuses over the love, the awe, and the wonder -- because they don't know what it is, and because of that, don't know what they're missing.

published at Endervidualism on  4/2/05

Bob Wallace has a degree in Journalism. Formerly a reporter and editor, now an author, Bob penned I Write What I See. Visit his Shameless Book Promotion Page and his Page Full o' Fun. He also blogs. Bob has previously written articles and essays which have been published by LewRockwell.com, The Libertarian Enterprise, Sierra Times, Strike-the-Root, and The Price of Liberty, in addition to Endervidualism.