For Victoria Nelson, author of the somewhat disturbingly-named, The Secret Life Of Puppets, our world is experiencing an unusual inversion in the traditional discourse between art and religion.
While “religion up to the Renaissance provided the content for most high visual art and literature, art and entertainment in our secular era have provided both the content for new religions and the moral framework for those who practice no religion at all,” says Nelson. Though “serious literature and art are conventionally supposed to provide a sense of ‘transcendence,’ invented cosmogonies and pantheons from the humble genres of science fiction and fantasy now serve as the inspiration for many New Age religions.” Now, “the larger mainstream culture, via works of imagination instead of official creeds, subscribes to a nonrational, supernatural, quasi-religious view of the universe: pervasively, but behind our own backs. Consuming art forms of the fantastic is only one way that we as nonbelievers allow ourselves, unconsciously, to believe.
“Shakespeare’s worldview of the Renaissance – the worldview that holds there is another, invisible world besides this one, that our world of the senses is ruled by this other world through signs and portents, that good and evil are physically embodied in our immediate environment – is alive and well today in science fiction and supernatural horror films that build on a three-hundred-year tradition of the secularized supernatural and behind that on the millennia-old beliefs Western culture shares with older societies around the world. The inherent Platonism of cybertheory has given an added boost to a recent gradual transformation of mainstream culture in which ancient themes are being actively revived in aesthetics and philosophy.
“A subtle paradigm shift… is now under way: Western culture is on the verge of adjusting its dominant Aristotelian mode of scientific materialism to allow for the partial reemergence of Platonic idealism. Far from being a new event, this kind of Zeitgeist rollover happens regularly in our culture. The last major turn took place in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when the Platonism of natural philosophy and the Christian cosmos gave way to the Protestant Reformation and the scientific revolution, then to Enlightenment rationalism, and ultimately to empirical materialism.
“In the current Aristotelian age the transcendental has been forced underground, where it has found a distorted outlet outside the recognized boundaries of religious expression. As members of a secular society in which the cult of art has supplanted scripture and direct revelation, we turn to works of the imagination to learn how our living desire to believe in a transcendent reality has survived outside our conscious awareness. We can locate our repressed religious impulses by looking at the supernatural in fantastic novels and films, where it is almost universally depicted as grotesque and demonic, not benign and angelic – a paradox that developed out of very specific cultural developments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We can locate our unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul by looking at the ways that human simulacra – puppets, cyborgs and robots – carry on their role as direct descendants of graven images in contemporary science fiction stories and films.”
One of the “rollover” periods Nelson cites is the Protestant Reformation and she recounts an interesting and illuminating story that flows from one of the specific innovations of Protestant dogma – that miracles and the direct exercise of the supernatural upon human life had ceased to occur in the year 600 C.E. “The repudiation of miraculous events and other intrusions from the higher world, including ghosts, became not simply the dividing line between the new mainstream Protestant culture and the older Catholic belief but a marker of piety as well.”
The story goes that during the early seventeenth century, “When Sir Thomas Wise saw a walking spirit in the reign of James, the local arch-deacon was inclined to think it might have been an angelic apparition. But the theologian Daniel Featley firmly declared that it must have been an evil spirit because it was well known that good ones could no longer be expected to appear.”
And so it naturally follows that any supernatural event now occurring – short of the second coming of Jesus Christ, one might assume – “would be seen as the work of the Devil.” Until now. Nelson sees a more benign expression of the supernatural reemerging and explores how cybertheory and virtual reality is reopening the door to an ideal propounded by the martyred Renaissance Hermeticist and Neo-Platonist, Giordano Bruno: “the divinization of the human.”