I recently caught up to a fantasy flick called Odd Thomas that came out a few years
back. The film, based on a series of young adult novels by thriller novelist Dean Koontz, follows the eponymous Odd, a order cook, played by the late Anton Yelchin. Odd is aptly named, a running joke that his family and friends never seem to tire of, because he has visions – or are they hallucinations – of demonic spirits who nefariously influence evil behavior among unsuspecting victims. Odd is a very serious young man and casts himself as a superhero. Because he alone has the gift of the sight, only he can make his best effort at being a kind of one man exorcist, and ghost buster.
He accompanied by a very doting girlfriend and supportive father (Williem Dafoe phoning it in), who stand around for pages of expository script and to give someone for Odd to talk to. Odd gets embroiled in a mystery in which he believes he has to prevent violence in his town – which ends up being a heavily demonically possessed man starting a mass shooting at the shopping mall, and then a bomb. It’s the edgy part of the movie, where the adventures of Odd Thomas tries to be relevant to the real world considering the spate of mass shootings in America. But Odd Thomas does something rather – well – odd with this little touchstone of reality. It chooses to make the mass violent act somehow the act of supernatural evil. It’s not Jack Bauer who comes to the rescue when terror strikes, but a kid who sees demons everywhere. It comes off as not dramatic or even frightening, but kind of ridiculous, which basically typifies the entire movie.
I go on about this rather poor film because it’s instructive of how Americans perceive their own moralizing and heroic lives mediated with symbolic struggle against death. Odd Thomas is a prophet-seer, a martyr and moral American hero whose very heroism comes from his demented life, his private insanity proves to be the town’s saving grace. Don Quixote had at least a Sancho Panza to question his delusions. Odd’s companions encourage his. Odd Thomas is very American in this sense, and hearkens to a long history of rogue suffering visionaries, seers, saints and prophets, the sprawling tendrils of ecstatic and charismatic religions that have inspired demon hunters and exorcists since the Puritan days; from Anne Hutchison to Cane Ridge to Aimee Semple McPherson to today’s baby-goo-goo talking televangelists. Europeans might be surprised to learn of just how many Jesus freaks there are in America, all of them claiming to have a direct line to the man upstairs, making them weary of the devil’s influence everywhere. According to a 2014 poll by Pew Research, 58 percent of Americans believe in a literal hell, 72 percent in a literal heaven. Another poll says that 8 in 10 Americans believe in literal angels.
Odd Thomas is a charismatic Christian adventure story with the magical Jesus bits
redacted. It’s the movie you end up with when Kirk Cameron wasn’t available. And it’s sort of demonstration of how fantasy-oriented the American consciousness is. It’s a subject that Kurt Andersen takes up in his recent book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. Andersen, with a splash of cold water in the demented face, makes the case that Americans are hopelessly lost in public and private fictions with a broad stroke of contempt for American’s penchant for conspiracy theories, UFO sightings, ecstatic religions, celebrity culture, capitalist hucksterism, lifestylism, Disneyfication, an empire of illusions and mass media. Andersen takes up more than 400 pages to paint America as a really nutty place, its head half in the clouds. Although he makes interesting observations, he lacks the sociological or philosophical tools to account for the key question – why? Why is America a haven for fantasy-minded zealots?
Contrary to the cry for myth of Rollo May and Joseph Campbell who prescribed myth as a panacea, America really is drowning in fictions, myths and fantasies, and is ever more engulfed in an entire simulacrum of illusions. We’re not starved of myth so much as we’re starved of grounded Reason.
We don’t have a culture that is well prepared to deal with reality at all because we are
much more impacted by symbolic than the real, by fantasies and appearances than the factual. But there is a problem in language that Baudrillard identified in the 1980s in Simulation and Simulacra. It has to do with the symbolic nature of our age. Signs, or symbols, no longer reach what they are referring to. In other words, our prevailing semiology does not reference the real world at all but has become its own self-referential simulacrum, whereby people exist entirely within the communicative realm of the simulation. We no longer have politics, but rather a simulation of politics. We no longer have a society, but the simulation of society. We no longer have the earth, but a simulation of earth. And our simulation is somehow a banal, moralizing, dumbass version of reality fused with myth.
A large part of the fantasy, what may be called American quixotism, is that the culture casts the individual as a hero in a moral struggle against nature, time, and otherness. Harold Bloom makes a provocative claim about this sort of configuration of the American self in The American Religion. Americans, he says, are only nominally Christian, but they actually are post-Christian and practice an idiosyncratic Gnosticism. Many claiming and aiming to have a private connection to the Almighty, to feel a special call that is specifically individualistic, not socially motivated (in contrast to Catholic, Orthodox, even Anglican approaches). American religious trends – Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Quakers, Shakers, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and thousands of other non-denominational sects – have this in common, and typify the ecstatic and religiously steeped American culture which America has been exporting all over the world. It’s the product of a culture of occupation, a culture of nomadic portability. It’s a culture devoid of a history and ethic moored to a landbase. It’s a culture motored by the rootless impulses of a and death-denying culture that mystifies the real and reifies the mythical.
Non-American readers may be surprised to learn that America still has strong moral and cultural ties to the religious zealots which landed in what would become Massachusetts four hundred years ago. Bloom, along with scholars like Sacvan Bercovitch, who studied the Puritanical and literary origins of the American Self, observe that the
American religious imagination specifically sets them into a highly moralistic system. The religion here is not so much Christian, but American. The Christ is not a worldly man/God suffering on the cross, but an empty cross, a deity which has already risen, already beyond the world. The American Religion is fixed on aligning oneself with the world beyond, a transcendental ontology. It’s a feature of the American Religion that makes it intensely millenarian, as fundamentalists, the most literal minded of the American Religious tradition, interpret America as a new Canaan which is becoming a new Zion with the grace of the American religious spirit preparing America to be the holy land for the second coming with a tireless moralistic cleansing of the culture.
The trouble with this system is that it persists despite contrary evidence. In fact, these zealots take contrary evidence to their system as temptations of the devil, which only reinforces the tidy moral system. But this system is itself virtual, bearing little resemblance to material reality, which is the tragedy of Don Quixote. Quixote has real problems – a hostile world, hunger, failing health. But he is unable to confront real problems because he busies himself with imagined ones – acts of chivalry, maidens to save and giants to slay. This is the state of the deranged, religiously-mad America today. It has real problems – pollution, climate change, poverty, racism, lack of health care, drug addiction, exploitation, violence, no disaster preparedness, and the rubble and blowback of failed military adventures in the Middle East. But it doesn’t see real problems, but wrapped in the imaginary superhero clothes takes on problems that are far more symbolic than real – standing for the flag, saving fetuses, defeating Isis or the enemy du jour, building a wall, banning refugees – whatever tireless struggle that can promote the feelings of transcendent victory.
It’s a dangerous world of illusions in which reality is precisely what is avoided from
the report. What else should we expect in a culture where more Americans believe in
Angels than believe in climate change? How can a real threat like climate change be
dealt with when half the country believes they are soon going to be beamed up to be with Jesus? We don’t have a culture that is well prepared to deal with reality at all because we are much more impacted by an externalized symbolic level of awareness that adheres to simplistic banalities like us-versus-them, good-versus-evil, angels and demons. The post-truth world, the simulacrum, is somehow a banal, odd and dumbass quixotic world caught up in a world of symbols and gestures. Imagine if people were as upset at the acidification of the ocean as they were about players kneeling for the national anthem. It’s a dark comedy, this moment, where even having the tools to confront reality are in serious question. It’s hard to imagine Sancho Panza even. Hard to imagine today a quorum of fact-based resistance to quixotic America.