Our civilization is flooded with content: a thread on Twitter denouncing an evil politician; a series of narcissistic bikini photos on Instagram accompanied by a caption about the difficulty of self-acceptance; a YouTube video featuring some cultish pundit offering cultural criticism; a podcast interview with a journalist going on about their new Very Important Book; that journalist also has a Substack newsletter. You must pre-order their book, by the way, because everybody will be tweeting about it as soon as it comes out. But when will you find time to read it amongst all of the other content? Maybe the author will release it as an audiobook so you can listen while going on a walk.
In this deluge of content, where is the substance? Where are the images, the sounds, the words which will nourish us? We are starving for them, as Werner Herzog likes to say. Films look like commercials, commercials clog the internet, and television producers seem little more than garbage collectors. Even the Very Important Films, which grapple with Very Important Ideas, are full of the same images reworked, the same words rephrased, and the same music telling us how to feel because the film itself has left us cold. How many times must we watch explosions? Car chases? Courtrooms filled with characters who bear the burden of humanity’s oppression? People sitting in diners, smoking cigarettes, the camera cutting back and forth as they talk about sex and money?
The problem is not realism, the problem is an indifference to the world’s fundamental strangeness: as J.B.S. Haldane observed, “The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Anyway, are our fantasies not real? Read Franz Kafka: you will read of an officer whose religious zeal for elegant torture is denied to him as his malfunctioning device spikes him through the forehead; or an ape who has learned to behave like a human; or a sea-god who is so busy with bureaucratic paperwork that he never gets to swim around. Watch Werner Herzog’s films: you will see monkeys gamboling around a madman on a sinking raft in the Amazon; or a man who is so superior at ski jumping that he courts death with every flight; or a river of clouds floating through a Bavarian valley. Listen to Glenn Gould: you will hear a deeply unusual Bach, an idiosyncratic Beethoven, a grotesque Mozart; familiar music subjectively recomposed under the veneer of objectivity. These are original broadcasts of the soul, and they are never forgotten once you encounter them.
Their imagination comes not from introspection, but from observation. Minor artists mistake self-expression for expression; they are obsessed with themselves, their time, their causes, their insecurities, anxieties, and emotions. Narcissism and nowism, a preoccupation with the self and the present, create art which resembles fast food: content without substance, food without nourishment. Consumers of such culture walk around like starving zombies. Major artists resemble storytellers of old, returning from far away lands with wondrously strange tales. They show you parts of life that you did not even know existed: your backyard is teeming with undiscovered species, our planet is largely alien to us, and most of our culture has been obscured by time or fashion. They look at our mysterious world with the conviction that what is fresh and interesting to them will be so for us as well. Their seeking nourishes all of humanity.