We instinctively fear the unknown and the alien. The ancient way of coping with the world’s palpable indifference to our hopes and dreams was to personalize natural forces, to think of the world as a society of spirits who are only hidden from view, like dear friends who have gone off to foreign lands but with whom we can still keep in touch (with prayer or animal sacrifices). The world became one big family and no one was left homeless, kicked to the curb as an alienated and demoralized outsider. Instead of having to be horrified by the world’s strangeness, we extended our delusions about our personhood onto the manifestly impersonal world, and so instead of looking natural reality in the face, we surrounded ourselves with distorting funhouse mirrors. There were no more alien forces, because fellow people were everywhere! See that lightning strike? That was a sign of Zeus’s fury. Here that volcano? That was bubbling from the underground abode of the dead.
Modern science came along and shattered those mirrors. Descartes captured the urgency of the moment when he distinguished between the outer and the inner worlds, and thus between the horrifying impersonality of matter and the comforting familiarity of the ego. Modern egoism itself, though, has come undone in our postmodern limbo, and so now we’re unknown even to ourselves. Our spirits have fled us in our unbelief. Not only is the universe far too large and alien to be anyone’s home (not even a sociopathic plutocrat’s), but we’re no longer even like snails with their portable shelters. We’re alienated from our bodies, as scientists naturalize more and more of us. We too are just mammals, evolved machines obeying natural laws, which are really not laws at all, but alien rhythms of the undead god’s decay.
When cognitive scientists come to master the brain within the next few decades, the disenchantment will be complete and our homunculi will be banished from our carapaces. The world will be only a monstrosity of interlocking shells, of former homes of shiny, happy spirits holding hands, now known to be undead machines, some of which have control mechanisms and even the capacity for false hope for escape from the grotesque corpse of nature. We cynical and selfish dupes replace the theist’s longing for the spirit world to show itself in the afterlife, with the technoscientific civilization’s re-engineering of the wilderness. We wield our second-order machines to infuse our values and other delusions into the original skeletons that dance all around us to the Halloween doom metal which is the music of the spheres, recreating natural processes in our hallucinated image. Thus are we sophisticated postmodernists still arcane animators of the undead.
Here, then, are three Western portrayals of this relationship between the self and the terrifying impersonality of the disenchanted world. These portrayals aren’t exhaustive, but perhaps they’re instructive.