Mass Media and Lifestyle Fantasy

Last time we looked at the effects of the Enlightenment and the final disenchantment of the world, as both organized religion and everything perceived as being “irrational” were banished from polite society; or at least from the worldview of the elite.  The perfectly rational, logical man of the Enlightenment who would shake off the superstitions of his ancestors and move confidently into a Utopian future of reason and humanism never materialized, though.  Human nature being what it is, the loss of the transcendent and the supernatural left a void that needed to be filled.  Nietzsche expressed this poetically in his famous writing about the “death of God” (the quote below is from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of The Gay Science):

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche’s answer–that we must become gods–foreshadows his idea of the Übermensch, the “superman”.  As we’ve seen over the last century and a quarter since Nietzsche’s death, that didn’t work out so well.  The void remained unfilled.  What could fill it?  At this point, we must leave that question hanging for a bit while we look at another of the great societal changes to come out of the Enlightenment.  In the last post, we looked at the religious and philosophical changes brought on by the Enlightenment.  Here I want to look at a change that was partly technological, partly educational, and partly cultural–the rise of mass media.

The printing press had been invented in the 15th Century, and had already wrought enormous changes in the Western world.  It has been suggested that the Protestant Reformation, for good or ill, might never have been sustainable without the printing press.  In any case, despite this huge influence, the printing press was yet to come fully into its own for awhile yet.  That would require other changes in society.  By the time of the Enlightenment, those other changes had taken place or were taking place.

Widespread availability of books did no good if most people couldn’t read.  The Protestants picked up on this early on–after all, Martin Luther is quoted (possibly spuriously) as having said that the Bible ought to be available and easily understandable to the simplest plowboy.  This, of course, assumes the plowboy is literate.  Thus, there was a push for greater education of the masses in Protestant countries.  With a sort of if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them attitude, the Catholic Church got on the bandwagon, with orders such as the Jesuits and Dominicans building universities across Europe, and orders such as the Christian Brothers and the Piarists being founded for the express purpose of educating the young, especially the poor and the commoners.  By the 18th Century, the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and equality gave extra impetus to the notion of widespread education.  As a result of these factors, literacy rates shot up from 10% to 20% of the population on the eve of the printing press to 70% or more by the end of the 18th Century (given the difficulties of estimating pre-modern literary rates, these are very approximate figures; but you get the basic idea).

Concurrent with this was the proliferation of printing technology, improvement of printing presses, and a substantial drop in the price of printed materials.  Moreover, the middle class was steadily increasing in size, with more money and leisure time than had ever been available to any but nobility in the past.  Thus, there was now a large pool of literate people with time on their hands to fill, and the disposable income to purchase things to fill that time–things such as books to read.  These factors all combined to usher in the beginning of the book publishing industry.  They also brought about the age of the media superstar and what we would now call pop culture.

The archetypal media star of this age was George Gordon, Lord Byron.  Having spent his teenage years and early twenties living a riotous life and touring Europe, at the age of twenty-four he published the long poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which tells the story of a world-weary young man brooding around across Europe–in short, a thinly disguised version of Byron himself.  The book was a sensation, and Byron later said, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”  Having spent his early life living a scandalous and debauched life in relative obscurity, Byron now proceeded to live a scandalous and debauched life in the full glare of fame.  The resulting notoriety resulted in his leaving England for good four years later, eventually dying at the age of thirty-six in his quixotic attempt to assist in the Greek war for independence against Turkey.  His legacy lives on in his works and in the archetype of the “Byronic hero“.

A few years before Byron’s birth, another famous author was about to create a media sensation.  Unlike Byron, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, lived a long, productive, and respectable life.  Goethe did not become a media star in the way that Byron did; but his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther was a media sensation.  The book is an epistolatory novel in which Werther, the protagonist, a sensitive young artist, essentially broods about life, friendship, and romance, ends up in a love triangle, can’t deal with it, and so commits suicide.  Essentially, this was a very early example of the trope “Too Good For This Sinful Earth“.

I may sound a bit flip or snide–I’ve actually tried, without success, to read the book a couple of times, and it just doesn’t do it for me.  Still, it’s hard to convey just what a huge impact The Sorrows of Young Werther made on European culture.  It was an early example of Romantic literature–the Enlightenment was winding down by now, giving way to the Romantic Movement–and it was a bestseller.  It was translated into various languages and it was the topic of conversations across Europe.  Napoleon Bonaparte carried a copy with him on his campaigns.  Young men everywhere bought outfits like the one Werther was described as wearing (the first examples of cosplay?).  Prints, porcelain, and even perfumes “inspired by” Werther were produced and sold everywhere.  Europe was in the grip of what came to be known as “Werther fever”.  Finally, there were even a few suicides of young men that were blamed on an obsession with the novel and imitating the protagonist a bit too closely.

If all of this sounds like it could have happened last week instead of in 1774, you’re exactly right.  It’s a striking example of the beginning of modern pop culture.  It was an outlier at the time, but a prophecy of what was to come.  With mass media it becomes possible for what we would now call memes (not just the Facebook variety) to spread through the culture like wildfire.  As memes and fictional tropes spread, people, being naturally imitative, tend to–well, imitate them.  This is facilitated by the available money and leisure to do so, of course, something not available until relatively modern times.  I think the motivations, however, are deeper.  By Goethe’s time, the Enlightenment had been around for some time, and the beginnings of the disenchantment of the world were in play.  People were beginning to experience the lack of meaning resulting from the displacement of religion and the supernatural, and, as we saw above, looking for something to replace it.  This milieu was the background in which the Romantic Era came into being as a reaction against the Enlightenment.

In the specific context of Werther, for the first time young people, particularly young men, found escape from the drab meaninglessness of this world by entering a fictional world, a world full of deep emotions and meaning.  Not content with experiencing this world vicariously through reading, they sought to make it real by their clothing, their mannerisms, their purchases–in short, what The Encyclopedia of Fantasy refers to as “lifestyle fantasy“–that is, living one’s favorite stories and characters for real.  This, I assert, is the basic nucleus of modern phenomena such as cosplay, LARPing, fanfic, and much of fandom in general.  This also explains, I think, the striking similarities between religion and fandom, the basic theme of this series. We’ll look at the modern phenomenon next.

Part of the series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality

Posted on 01/06/2018, in Entertainment, literature, novels, religion, society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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