It’s enormously difficult to shake off a cultural inheritance in which one has been submersed for one’s whole life.
For about the last hundred and fifty years, there has been growing a general viewpoint in Western society as a whole which embraces Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ natural environment, Marx’s dialectical materialism (which stresses that human society is based on physical needs and the dominance of force) and Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis (which reduce the human being to a collection of dark urges) along with a whole host of other principles and theories of which these three are only the better known. The broad consensus which has developed is that we live in a purely material universe which is gradually ‘winding down’ and collapsing, which is meaningless, and which gives rise to a society based on raw survival instincts, accidental genetics and a ruthless and amoral coercion. Might makes right; only the strong survive; behind the stars is eternal blackness -- that kind of thing. Our own minds, we are told, are elaborate but nevertheless purely chemical networks — the firing of one synapse against another has no qualitative difference to any other such firing.
Such a world is empty. Our existential survival is all that there is — and we are not even sure if there’s a comprehensible reason for any of it.
Everything that we come into contact with, from our childhood schooling to the reading material that is in circulation everywhere to the media, to politics and what passes for modern culture has been pervaded by this generality. This pervasion or infiltration goes so deep that, even in reading this, many will feel hackles of protest rising — how can it be any other way? our impulses tell us. 'This is the world — welcome to it, and wake up to it. Don't try to convince me otherwise,' inner voices may cry, 'it's hard enough to accept as it is. Try not to think and just tell yourself that there is no other way of looking at things.'
Except that that isn’t necessarily the whole picture.
Part of this Ironic culture’s self-defence mechanism is something that C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’. This is the position taken my many people that the world which we see around us — the ‘modern’ world — is the latest product of an ongoing evolution. Drawing on the ideas implicit in Darwin, Marx and others, they say that society adapts, changes and ‘improves’ (they fail to notice the contradiction inherent in the term) so that what we have today is ‘naturally better' than what was available ‘yesterday’. They point to technology as the ‘obvious’ example: you could not even read this article a hundred years ago because of the way that technology has evolved and created new, faster and better gadgets. Medical advances, man on the moon, transportation and communication revolutions — all these things are accepted as evidence that we live in a 'better' and ‘more advanced’ world than that of the 19th century or its ‘primitive’ predecessors. ‘Progress’ is the god of this viewpoint — and many crimes are overlooked and condoned in its name.
But along with the bathwater of earlier technologies, lacking as they were in life-saving medical knowledge, wonderful electronic wizardry and detailed understanding of the material world, the baby is also thrown out: they think that, because we now know so much more about how the material universe behaves, then the historical and philosophical framework of knowledge which preceded us was ignorant in its totality and possessed nothing or very little of value to us today. Along with ignorant medical practices, much social and moral wisdom is thrown out; along with unproductive agricultural routines and a general lack of understanding of atomics or electronics, out goes much wisdom to do with human relationships and seasonal rhythms, compassion, connection, cohesion, stability and sanity.
‘What does all this have to do with marketing books?’ is the usual refrain at about this point.
Well, as we saw earlier, the very notion of ‘marketing’ and indeed the very idea of a ‘book’ are both products of the modern perspective — journey back in time just a little way and these concepts change beyond recognition. A book, in the Middle Ages, for example, was not considered to be a piece of intellectual property possessed by its individual author. In fact, to assert such a thing would have been considered not only ridiculous but dangerously anti-social and perhaps even a sign of madness. To the mediaevalists, a book contained merely the latest ‘take’ on a set of universal ideas, and its effectiveness was measured not by its originality or its ability to sell but by its presentation of underlying universal principles. The author had done a ‘good job’, in other words, if certain things which were already known to be true could be seen more clearly or freshly after reading the book.
Mediaeval writers, far from asserting intellectual property rights, went over the top in claiming that their ideas were merely humble reflections of ideas taken from earlier, greater writers, Plato in particular. All were keen to suggest that ultimately they had been inspired or guided by God, or begged forgiveness if some deviation into ‘originality’ had occurred in their work. In fact, one might quip that the notion of ‘Original Sin’ as outlined in the Bible could be reconfigured to be the ‘Sin of Originality’.
It’s a hard idea to grasp and you’re probably struggling with it right now. A parallel might be a young Western writer today striving to impress upon his readers that his stories were no more than mere poor reflections of the tales of Louis L’Amour; or a horror writer fighting to communicate to her readers that she was drawing all her ideas, characters, plots and inspirations from those of Stephen King of Alfred Hitchcock — not a single idea, she would urge, arose in her own mind.
Hard to conceive, because it’s the opposite to the way we normally think, isn’t it? And it goes further.
Even the idea that one had a mind of one’s own, which was somehow fenced off from all other minds and could give birth to original ideas in isolation — which is the modern assertion — would have been considered outlandish and possible devilish by the mediaevalist. One’s mind, to the thinker of the Middle Ages, stood in a different relation to ‘reality’ than ours. We were not individual, disconnected islands, building and creating in secret, struggling with our existential individualism; we were open, co-habiting, created spirits, living in a garden which we had despoiled but which still had a Gardener. Yes we had individual souls - but the notion of 'intellectual property' was as ridiculous to the mediaeval philosopher as the idea that a flower 'possessed' the sunlight which enabled it to grow.
All this has profound implications for us as writers trying to make a buck out of our work, as we shall see. But where it leads is to a better place than the open warfare of the modern marketplace, that’s for sure.