What deluded miserable creature doesn’t want to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and thwart the unjust? It’s not only fair and right and good, it’s even cheaper that way. That’s just cold, hard reality. So we have a world full of serious, sober-minded men and women doing their best to make this all happen. They’ve been working on the problem for six thousand years.
Think about that for a moment. Six thousand years, and we still haven’t figured out how to feed the hungry, even in a world that can easily grow more than it can eat. That is a remarkable accomplishment. You’d almost think we were avoiding the solution.
More and more, the talk is just about the problems, not the solutions. We see where we want to go, but we’re surely beginning to wonder if we can even get there from here. It’s getting frustrating.
Art is the best place for idealists to hang out, but even there, realism nibbles away at the margins. Mainstream fiction spends a lot of time talking frustration, usually around the kitchen table, and usually concludes, philosophically—which is to say impotently—that that’s just the way things are. And it goes way back. Dante’s Inferno, a painfully realistic work, is often regarded rightly as somehow more satisfying than Paradiso, precisely because you can’t get anywhere from the Inferno, so the environment is recognizable. C.S. Lewis was right when he said the Inferno was science fiction. Modern dystopic science fiction just carries the Inferno forward: you think that’s just the way it is? Well, it is, but it will get a lot worse before it’s done. Altogether, nothing has been better for modern fiction than the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy becomes our excuse for six thousand years of failure to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the poor. But Dante did all that without physics. That’s just the way the universe moves. That’s just cold, hard reality.
Maybe we should try some cold, hard romanticism for a change. Now, a realist will laugh the idea to scorn, both in life and in art. Get real? But we have got real, and by now we have to wonder if realism is really going to get us anywhere. Why would you want a slice of life when you already have a whole pie?
There’s a lot of virtue hidden just below the surface in Romanticism. Alchemy? What does that word do for your soul that the word chemistry can’t? And is your home really your castle? Of course not, and I’ll bet you can tell the difference between the two.
Remember when your school teacher asked the class if anyone wanted to be an astronaut? Why did they never ask if anyone wanted to be a knight? Not to belittle astronauts, but knight would be a far more useful profession in this world, I suspect. Any kind will do: medieval or Jedi, boys or girls, knights ought to come in all flavors, Galahad, Joan of Arc, Obi-Wan, Batman.
The problem in literature is that knights are usually set up to fail: Percival, Lancelot, Arthur. But that’s OK. Sometimes they have to lose: “. . . the one battle a knight must lose is the fight to make his own choices.” (From The Fundamentalist)
We don’t need the swords and armor or the Batmobile—we just need the behavior. We need it in everyone. Chivalric behavior demands courtesy, honor, and self-sacrifice. A knight should be devoted to the protection of the “weak, the defenseless, the helpless, and to fight for the general welfare of all.” Isn’t that all that’s wanted in this world? But if you suggested we ask for that kind of behavior from everyone for a change, you’d be laughed to scorn. Get real. But we have got real, lots of real, and look what it has got us.
The funniest thing about it is that if everybody in this world just behaved like a faerie tale knight, the real world would become a much better place to live in. Maybe we would finally even feed the hungry, heal the sick, and find a little justice in the world. But whenever the smart, important people sit down to deal with the same problems we’ve been facing for six thousand years, the one thing they never look and act like is knights, plain old faerie-tale knights.
That’s just cold, hard reality.