In The Cambridge Guide To Postmodernism, Brian McHale unpacks the idea that there are two contrasting, possibly contradictory, perspectives on the nature of human existence. The first perspective, more traditional perhaps, is the notion that life is analogous to a mission. The human life is a goal-oriented endeavor, aimed at achieving certain, universally acknowledged goods, or at developing into a certain kind of creature.
On this view of existence, each individual life has a kind of narrative arc to it, a story-line that, although it can go terribly wrong at various points, nevertheless presupposes an actual purpose for the person carrying out that life. This purpose unfolds, for better or worse, in a plot-like manner. Most of us intuitively think about our lives in this way. Sometimes we fill in gaps in our stories with meaning and purpose, creating for ourselves an overarching life story. Other times, however, we have a stronger sense that something is imposing meaning upon us, that something is giving structure to that which we otherwise cannot grasp and which is pulling us toward its own ends for us.
In contrast to this telos driven view of human existence, McHale points out that in post-modern thought, especially post-modern literary thought, the idea of such individual narratives, or the narrative of history itself, is itself rejected. Rather than events, plots or their human agents happening, unfolding or acting for actual reasons or purposes, things just happen and people merely react to such happenings. The plot of human existence is that there is no plot to human existence.
In this intellectual world of post-modernism, a purposeless and patternless existence is embraced as “true.” However, these themes are not only embraced as a disappointing fact of a mindless world of blind, material forces. For the postmodernist, this randomness enables a world of artistic freedom, where the mind is allowed unrestricted play with the images, symbols and “realities” it encounters. It is a world without boundaries: metaphysical, moral, even logical.
Go Tell Alice in Wonderland
A seminal precursor to the more explicit, postmodern literary exploits of the 1960’s and 70’s were Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice in Wonderland and 1871 Through the Looking Glass. In their own time, Carroll’s stories were considered exercises in “literary nonsense.” The books were specifically meant for children, but not necessarily for their edification or upbringing. They were not didactic in nature. By design they could not be. They were meant to entertain and provoke, nothing more.
Carroll’s (Charles Dodgson) books served as a baseline for many postmodern authors and artists to riff off roughly a century later. Speaking to this phenomenon of reworking “canonical” texts of Western literature, McHale says of Carroll’s classics:
The rewriting or recycling of canonical texts is a typical postmodern practice. Sometimes parodic, sometimes not, it occurs throughout the postmodern decades, but its breakthrough moment might be 1966…Lewis Carroll’s Alice is another such precursor text, postmodern before the fact – always already postmodern – and thus a source of multiple rewritings, partial and complete, overt and covert, throughout the postmodern decades.
The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism, Brian McHale
Starting around 1966, and continuing up to blockbuster films like 1999’s The Matrix, Alice spin offs abound. Some of the more notable reworkings of Carroll’s nonsense story are Grace Slick’s 1966 song, “White Rabbit,” Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, and, as mentioned, the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 box-office smash. McHale points out a shared feature of these, and many other, postmodern cultural products of the last 60 years–the idea of the “trip.” This idea is born out of Carroll’s original novels:
To read Alice as a trip is to read it as an experiment in world-making and – unmaking, and thus as a precursor of postmodernism – always already postmodern.
Excerpt From: The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism, Brian McHale
In Slick’s musical variant of the Alice story, Carroll’s literary exercise in the creation of nonsense worlds is related to the kinds of experiences one has while taking LSD, an experience that later became known as “tripping.” McHale explains:
“White Rabbit” introduces a new and transformative understanding of Carroll’s Alice books as reflecting or anticipating psychedelic experience. It emphasizes, for the first time as far as I can see, the literally hallucinatory quality of the Alice world – its abrupt, unmotivated juxtapositions and transformations, its disjointedness and sense of non sequitur, its illogic and mutability. The reframing of Alice in terms of psychedelic experience very quickly became a commonplace of popular culture
Seeing the Alice stories as akin to a drug-induced “trip” illuminated to many in the postmodern era features inherent in Carroll’s texts, which themselves were not written in a drug-induced state of mind:
The trip model also emphasizes the weak narrativity of Lewis Carroll’s original books….Eventful though they are, literally event-filled, they are also episodic, disjointed, weakly plotted, picaresque in structure rather than strongly end-oriented.
As stated earlier, while Carroll’s projects were meant for children, what they intended to mean to children is entirely obscure:
Only weakly narrativized, the Alice books are literally pointless in the sense of refusing to make a point. In contradistinction to nearly every other children’s book of that era, and by Dodgson’s conscious design, they teach no moral, deliver no warning, offer no model of behavior for a child to emulate. They are also pointless in the sense of literally going nowhere.
McHale notes that in the 1951 Walt Disney version of Alice, the writers had to introduce narratival features to the original in order to impose some modicum of sense or order. In the animated version, Disney had to “give Alice something to do,” and “devise a mission for her to undertake.” Even Tim Burton, whose films tend toward the “trippy,” had to “narrativize” in order to make his 2010 live-action version of Alice. In Burton’s version, Alice must liberate Wonderland from the terror of the Red Queen, something not in the original, even if the Queen of Hearts acts like a tyrant in the book. In Carroll’s story, however, the Queen’s tyranny is random. It is not grounded in any moral or psychological reasoning or some tragic backstory (so commonplace in many of today’s films about evil supervillains, with the notable exception of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight).
The Bigger Mosaic of Postmodernism
McHale uses Alice and its various manifestations to articulate some of the main features of postmodern literary thought. As we have seen, these features relate to a fundamental orientation toward human existence. Human life is ultimately pointless. Your and my lives are without inherent meaning or any transcendent purpose. Life is a series of random phenomena that simply pass over time. Things are actually incoherent, and nothing and no one is headed for any real location or destination. In sum, roughly two things exist: the human imagination and a free will with which we can activate that imagination. And, in some very obscure way, there may be an external world as well. But, since that external world is itself unintelligible, it impresses nothing upon us that we need to take seriously.
One can think of all the cultural forms that express this view of reality. Movies like The Matrix play with the idea, only then to offer us the hope that a world like that is not actually the true world (Neo’s taking the red pill is akin to the slave breaking out of Plato’s cave). Films about Vietnam, the era in which postmodern thought exploded into public form, like Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, present war as itself a kind of trip. This is quite the opposite of the traditional view of war as a mission, if not the ultimate form of mission. Coppola and Kubrick’s takes on war are a far cry from Heraclitus, who saw strife and conflict as the very source of purpose, order and telos:
War is the central principle in Heraclitus’ thought. War between human beings determines their destinies; even strife between citizens determines the health of their cities. But the war and strife are not lamentable moments of destruction: they are the necessary grounds of all coming to be for Heraclitus. The people, the cities, the cosmos that come to be because of war are bloody and dangerous, but the work of this war is also well balanced, harmonious, and even beautiful. War is not only a principle in the world of mortal affairs; it governs all things, both every being in the cosmos and the cosmos itself as a whole.
Abraham Schoener, “Heraclitus on War”
Pilgrim’s Progress: The Anti-Alice
John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress from prison in or around 1660. It is one of the most-read works in history, and a story Carroll would have been quite familiar with. In Bunyan’s allegory of the Christian life, nothing is random, nothing is vague, nothing obscure (at least for the reader). Bunyan’s narrative tells the story of Christian, a pilgrim who one day awakes in his town, The City of Destruction, compelled by a terrible sense of doom and judgment. Longing for the transcendent and suffering under the great burden of his own sin, he flees from Destruction to seek the Celestial City.
The characters Christian meets along the way are representative of the various types of trials, temptations, conflicts, psychological and spiritual obstacles that any seeker of Christ encounters along the road of life’s journey. The ultimate goal of the journey is death and new life, an abandonment of the world and its finite nature which is passing away, and entry into the city of God, which is the eternal home of all who love Him.
The Pilgrim’s Progess is the anti-Alice. It is a story not only about mission, as opposed to trip, but about the mission. Bunyan, like Augustine before him (and Paul before him), presupposes there is really only one mission, the journey from darkness into light, from death to life, from the creation to the Creator. In addition, Bunyan’s story also illuminates that even though there is only one, overarching mission– the pilgrimage toward Christ and the City of God– within that mission there are many subordinate missions, many “sub” missions. However, all of these journeys within The Journey matter to the overarching goal. They make sense in light of the final end state, and, the final end state makes sense of them.
As such, some of these journeys are genuine detours, missteps along life’s journey. They are traps the pilgrim falls into and, looking back at them, feels could have been avoided. Others are spiritual battles one is specifically called to fight as the journey unfolds. None however, neither the missteps nor the specific callings, are wasted steps if the Christian pilgrim perseveres to the end (which, according to Reformed theology, he most assuredly will do).
Post-Modernism and the Descent Into Despair
Francis Schaeffer traced an intellectual genealogy of modern man’s descent into despair in his classic The God Who Is There. Although one might argue that the post-modern “mood” can be traced all the way back to Socrates’ sophist interlocutors, Schaeffer marks the ascendancy of post-modernism in the West with the thought of Kant and, more specifically, Hegel:
With Hegel … people gave up the concept of a rational, unified field of knowledge and accepted instead the idea of a leap of faith in those areas which make people distinctive as people–purpose, love, morals and so on. It was this leap of faith that originally produced the line of despair.
Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, 43
Schaeffer goes on to lay out how the very abstract and theoretical notions of thinkers like Kant and Hegel disseminate over time and through culture, ultimately shaping every aspect of the society in which we now live. However, there is one, particular feature of both Kantian and Hegelian thought that has disseminated through the culture and that is identifiable in each of its domains:
The various steps on the line–philosophy, art, music, theater [literature] and so on–differ in details, and these details are interesting and important, but in a way they are only incidental. The distinctive mark of the twentieth-century intellectual and cultural climate does not lie in the differences, but in the unifying concept. The unifying concept is the concept of a divided field of knowledge. Whether the symbols to express this are those of painting, poetry or theology is incidental. The vital question is not the symbol used to express these ideas…but the concept of truth and the method of attaining truth.
Schaeffer demonstrates that the attempt by western society to generate purpose apart from truth is ultimately a project of despair. It is this despair that is manifested throughout our cultural symbols, to include the literature mentioned above. Carroll may only have been toying around with language and genre, himself, like Bunyan, a true believer in that ultimate mission of life. However, he was expressing an emerging mood that would soon prove to be a serious syndrome within western culture. Schaeffer sums up that mood, citing two poems written in the 1960’s. The first is by Hans Arp, a member of the early 20th-century “Dada” movement:
the head downward
the legs upward
he tumbles into the bottomless
from whence he came.
he has no more honor in his body
he bites no more bit of any short meal
he answers no greeting
and is not proud when being adored
the head downward
the legs upward
he tumbles into the bottomless
from whence he came
like a dish covered with hair
like a four-legged sucking chair
like a deaf echotrunk
half full half empty
the head downward
the legs upward
he tumbles into the bottomless
from whence he came.
Arp’s poem is not unintelligible, nor is it itself without purpose. But, what is its purpose? Its purpose is to point to purposelessness. The chorus is obvious, as Schaeffer points out, it tells about “man tumbling into the bottomless,” where down is up and up is down. The two refrains support the chorus by hitting on, in the first refrain, man’s isolation from himself, the world and others; and, in the second, the grotesqueness of phenomenal experience and randomness of words.
The second poem Schaeffer cites is more straightforward. It is an anonymous parody of Psalm 23:
King Heroin is my shepherd, I shall always want,
He taketh me to lie down in the gutters.
He leaders me beside troubled waters.
He destroyeth my soul.
Here is succinct description of the life without God, the life not on mission, but only on a trip. Again, what was for Carroll in the mid 19th century only a playful attempt at manipulating genre, symbol and language, becomes an extended series of pointless trips by the time the 1960’s roll around, as demonstrated by Slick’s “White Rabbit” and Arp’s poem. The anonymous parody of Psalm 23 does little more than state the inevitable end-state of that series of meaningless journeys. Once the luster of playful “trippiness” has faded, the soul winds up utterly destroyed in the gutter of life.
Christianity and Realism Of Meaning
Christianity is a realistic faith. Schaeffer argues that Christianity is realistic, in that if what it claims is to be true is, in fact, not true, then the alternative to Christianity really is meaningless existence. Hope cannot be constructed simply out man’s subjective experiences of mindless nature, nor, as Nietzsche argued, can it be elicited directly from his will. In this sense, Christianity agrees with the clear-sighted, post-modern nihilist, as opposed to the deluded modernist, who wrongly assumes man can create his own meaning.
For, if Christ is not risen, as Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, then our faith is truly in vain, and we are to be most pitied (1 Cor 15:12-19). Without a metaphysical principle, or, in this case, Person, that unites all knowledge and all being, the post-modernist is correct, there is only an incoherent, disjointed and unintelligible bundle of images.
Fortunately, for us and our salvation, Christ is not only the Real, but He is also the Reality that makes our lives not a mere trip but an actual mission (should we so accept it). Paul lays out the metaphysics and the meaning of Christ in his letter to the church in Colassae:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Of course, Paul can confidently claim both the metaphysical principle and the meaning of it, because Christ has been risen from the dead, bodily, and in history. On account of this real event, in this real world, all men and women can choose to be on a mission instead of just a trip. This choice is the choice between the imaginary and the real, between the shadow of fantasies invented in the minds of men, and the real world created out of the Mind of God. Christianity is the true “red pill,” as it always has been.
Caveats To “Christian” Realism
It would be intellectually dishonest to end at this point, even though I believe that Christ is the best point upon which to end. After all, Christ is the end of all things, as well as the beginning of all things (Rev 1:8). Nevertheless, to maintain consistency in this article, and to be fair to truth, I am bound to point out that Christian realism is not the only form of realism. I have already mentioned two other systems above that assume realism about metaphysics and meaning: Judaism and Platonism. Of course, the connection points between Christianity and Judaism are well known and obvious, so there is no need to expound further on that.
Plato, on the other hand, was for many of the early Church fathers, the most noble of all pagan thinkers. His metaphysical, epistemic, moral and political thought were considered the most inspired among men who only had access to God’s general revelation. In fact, Plato’s thought was considered so relevant that some church fathers, like Justin Martyr, postulated that Plato must have had access not only to God’s reality via nature (Romans 1:18-32), but to the Old Testament revelation itself:
And that you may learn that it was from our teachers—we mean the account given through the prophets— that Plato borrowed his statement that God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world, hear the very words spoken through Moses, who, as above shown, was the first prophet, and of greater antiquity than the Greek writers […] Both Plato and they who agree with him, and we ourselves, have learned, and you also can be convinced, that by the word of God the whole world was made out of the substance spoken of before by Moses.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, LIX
Regardless of the debate over whether Plato knew, in some form, the Torah and, knowing it, actually borrowed from Moses, or whether his theories were born entirely out of a careful examination of nature and his own reasoning, the point to draw out is that Plato too saw life as far more than random happenstance. Far more indeed.
In short, there are other systems of belief: Orthodox Judaism, perhaps some type of Neo-Platonism, and, of course, Islam, that all presume life is not a random trip, but indeed a purposeful mission. However, to adjudicate between these other philosophies or revealed religions is not the purpose of this article. That kind of comparative apologetics is for another time.
A Practical Test
After much argument and explication, it may be interesting to do a practical test regarding the concepts of mission or trip. According to Francis Schaeffer, in the West, the theories that are spawned in philosophy ultimately filter down into the popular culture and manifest themselves through concrete, artistic forms. To understand this contrast between trip and mission, therefore, one can perform a simple test. This is best done not though reading literature, but through listening to music.
Here is the test:
- First, isolate yourself in a quiet, dimly lit space with a device you can play music on.
- Second, pick one of the following musical pieces: Pierre Schaeffer’s (no relation to Francis) “Le Triedre Fertile”, John Cage’s “Electronic Music,” or Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierre Lunaire.” It doesn’t matter which one of these you choose, so long as you listen to it in focused isolation and, preferably, with the volume loud enough to block out all other ambient noise. In other words, engross yourself in the sound of the “music.”
- After you finish listening to one of these composition, if they can be called that, or have endured as long as your soul is capable, immediately (meaning with as little break as possible) turn on Bach’s Cello Suite #1.
- My suggestion would be to not use the links provided if possible, since some of them also have visual content and ads that can interfere with the experiment. The experiment will work best if you line the songs up on your Spotify or other music App and then listen to them back to back without interruption. But, if you can’t do that, just use the links above and skip any ads that might precede the music.
That’s it. That is the test. I think this demonstrates the stark contrast between “trip” (any of the first three compositions) and “mission,” the Bach composition. After you listen, there is only one thing left to do: ask yourself “am I on mission, or just on a trip?”