Culture War: It’s not Past vs Present, it’s rescuing your father!

The supposed “culture wars” get a lot of airtime these days. The most infuriating part of it is that, once again, everything (and I’m looking at you, Social Media) is engineered to force people into camps that are binary in their delineation, and must by definition be diametrically opposed. This reduces complex areas into zero sum games. I don’t believe in zero sum games very often; it’s certainly possible for two (or more) parties to be elevated through a transaction, but just as likely for both parties to be dragged downwards into the mud.

I believe that there’s a way out of the culture wars, but it requires both parties learning how to listen to one another once more. It might be helpful to start from first principles. What is culture, anyway? One definition is that it’s “the manifestation of a society’s collective artistic desires.” This is to some extent true but doesn’t explain the rationale for such collective desires; as such this is only half of the story. IMO culture is also the armour with which a society clothes itself; it represents the very best of what the very best of us have to offer; otherwise it wouldn’t endure, and it therefore must hold some inherent value. But it’s always dying. By the time a culture is established those who have established it are already dead or dying. That cycle is continual, and never-ending. But the culture never truly dies, does it? Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be here (unless it does actually die and the civilisation collapses, such as in Rome, or Athens, or [insert your ancient civilisation of choice here]).

Therefore, to prevent that final death, there is a constant need for the revivification of the culture. That means burning away the deadwood (but no more than the deadwood) and building upon the solid foundations underneath. If you burn too much away then you must start from first principles or, to put it another way, from unbridled chaos, like the first line of Genesis. So it’s generally better to build upon what came before; for example, Ravel built upon Debussy built upon Lizst built upon Chopin built upon Beethoven built upon Mozart built upon Bach etc). But you don’t knock all of the old away when introducing the new. This means you retain the foundation upon which your society can lean upon when the going gets tough. It gives people a reason to defend their countries, for one thing. It’s also why people who are involved in the creation of culture are generally venerated whilst those who aim to destroy it are considered to belong to the darkest, most reprehensible corners of human history (the Nazis, ISIS terrorists, the Soviet Union, Pyongyang, the Khmer Rouge etc).

If the culture is always dying, then who is to revivify it? By definition, the culture is what’s already there, and so mythologically is represented by the figure of the Father, the ruling entity at the top of the existing hierarchy of ideas. And so who is readily available to restore that culture? By definition it must be the next generation, represented in myth by the child. The child’s mission is to revivify it, but that cannot be done simply breeding lilacs out of the dead land. That which is useless and impairing growth must be swept or burnt away. Only then can the corpus be restored with new ideas and innovations. In that way the child a) rescues its father from his own inertia; b) establishes its own stake in the world; and c) establishes its own reasons for maintaining it.

So what happens if, instead of trying to revivify the culture, a generation seeks to destroy it? The intent may be well-meant, but we all know what paves the road to Hell. The goal may be to replace the culture with something that may be perceived as being more suited to the zeitgeist. There may be apparent justification for such an act; that is to say, that the culture is inherently corrupt and unfit for purpose and that there is evident proof of that because look where it has brought us; why else would it be dying? It is irrefutably correct to postulate such a position, but also only half a truth; the culture must also by definition be nourishing, protecting, and encouraging, because look where it has brought us.

The two truths hold and cannot be separated; if the culture never changes then it becomes tyrannical and zombified, unable of absorbing new ideas, people and items. If the pre-existing culture is knocked out in its entirety by a generation overzealous on change, then there is no bedrock left, and there is no fertile soil in which to plant new ideas: hence they too fail, and that remains is unadulterated chaos. There are several examples from history: the execution of Charles I and the subsequent establishment of the Commonwealth in England; Russia, after both the fall of the Tsars in 1917 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991; even the independence of the United States in 1776, which established the USA as a free country but one split by ideological lines that wouldn’t be rubbed out until after the Civil War, almost ninety years later; and even the story of Exodus, where the Jews escape the tyranny of the Pharaoh but are cast into the desert for forty years. In each case a period of chaos emerges after the traumatic revolutionary event that isn’t fixed until years (in some cases decades) later.

The myth of the dying Father/culture is recurrent in popular culture. Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Frozen II (though, oddly, not Frozen), Moana, Pinocchio, Coco, Sleeping Beauty, all heavily draw from the same well, continuing a storytelling lineage that goes way back to ancient myths such as the stories of Genesis, the Egyptian story of Horus, the Mesopotamian story of Tiamat, and countless others. They all rely on the central dual motif of saving the father and repurposing the culture at the same time. Most recently I’ve seen it in Pixar’s Onward, a film which wears its mythological substructures on its sleeve so brazenly that it’s almost unbelievable. I may well do a full mythological analysis of the film in the coming weeks.

Rescue your father. Repurpose your culture. Prepare for the future.

It is therefore incumbent upon emerging generations to cast a critical eye upon those who preceded them without seeking them to erase them entirely. It’s also incumbent on those dying fathers to permit themselves to be rescued.

It’s a strong motif in myth that children have a dual purpose; to rescue their parents (or, at least what their parents represented, which is essentially the same thing), and to remake the world into something that can move forwards through time and space but also retain the firmament of the cultural foundation.

If then so strongly in myth, why not in reality? We must have the courage to ask ourselves these questions.

Published by dgjones81

Away from the page, I work for the UK Space Agency on a European programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories. My first novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published hither and yon. I’m a member of the Society of Authors and a supporter of SFFChronicles. I was born in Forest Gate, east London, and now live in Essex with my wife and two daughters.

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