Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book Review: Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion

Chris Hedges: Empire of Illusion, the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle. Alfred A Knopff Canada, 2009. 193 pages, chapter notes, bibliography (extensive), citation sources and references (extensive), good index. Rating 9 on 10, excellent.

"In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honest or reality.. We ask to be indulged and comforted by clich├ęs, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be.. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison of incessant repetition.. all complex thought, ambiguity, and self-criticism vanish." page 49

"A populace deprived of the ability to separate lies from truth, that has become hostage to the fictional semblance of reality put forth by pseudo-events, is no longer capable of sustaining a free society." page 52

        This is a hard hitting book. I know one social activist who read it in dribs and drabs, a few pages every week or so because she felt it was both essential reading and punishing. I didn't have this reaction probably because I gave up on the status quo and attempts to reform or transform it, years ago. I think this is a particularly valuable text for young people who are starting to question the nature of the "reality" that surrounds them. This book could save them years of wandering in the desert, asking useless questions and dreaming up rationalizations to justify or explain the madness they see around them. I concede I found the second chapter on pornography repellent and was happy when I finished reading it.

         From my perspective, Hedges is presenting us with a warts and all portrait of modern industrial culture, particularly American culture. It is picture of a morally bankrupt, spiritually vacuous culture whose sole function appears to be the maintenance of the greedy and ecologically suicidal life styles of a demented elite: even animals are capable of providing for future generations; we will leave only ashes..

         Because we today are lost, wandering in the wilderness like the ancient Hebrews, Hedges can provide no recipes to turn things around. He can analyze the disease - he does this exceedingly well! - but he can offer no cure that fits within the operating parameters of the dying "System" we live in. In the concluding passages, Hedges waxes prophetic, recalling archetypal images of death and rebirth reminiscent of the "Dark Night of the soul" evoked by the great Spanish mystic, Saint John of the Cross:

"Our culture of illusion is, at its core, a culture of death. It will die and leave little of value behind. It was Sparta that celebrated raw militarism, discipline, obedience, and power, but it was Athenian art and philosophy that echoed down the ages to enlighten new worlds, including our own. Hope exists. It will always exist.. The power of love is greater than the power of death. It cannot be controlled. It is about sacrifice for the other - something nearly every parent understands - rather than exploitation. It is about honoring the sacred.. Blind and dumb, indifferent to the siren calls of celebrity, unable to bow before illusions, defying the lust for power, love constantly rises up to remind a wayward society of what is real and what is illusion. Love will endure, even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains." page 192-3

             Of course, what Hedges, as prophet, is proclaiming here is a new model or "paradigm" of culture, at the antipodes of the protofascist vision of an Ayn Rand. Whether we or our grandchildren will live to see such a new vision of society arise from the ashes of the dying culture remains a moot question.

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