The lotus was introduced to the Western mind by Homer. Odysseus tells how his ship was blown off course and landed on an island. While his men rested, he sent a small party to investigate. These men encountered the natives, who gave them a drink made from the lotus flower, which grew on the island. It was a narcotic that put them into a languid state of bliss. So much so they had no desire to tend to their work or return home. Odysseus forced them back onto the ship and sailed away, despite their protestations.
Lord Tennyson’s poem, the title of which is the title of this post, is a retelling of Odysseus adventure among the lotus eaters. The difference is it is from the perspective of the men as they try to explain why they should stay and live a life free of toil. Living as a lotus eater means abandoning external reality and living instead in a world of appearances, as if everything is a pleasant dream. It is a world of self-delusion where everything “seems’ the same, which is why “seems” is liberally used thought the poem.
This is what came to mind reading this piece on Richard Spencer in the Atlantic. The writer, Graeme Wood, tells us so much about himself in the piece, the article could just as easily have been about him. In fact, the whole article is less about Spencer than the reaction of the writer to the very idea of Spencer. It is a style of writing common today, where the author tries to take you on their emotional journey as they encounter the subject of their piece. Often, the subject’s role in a story is only as a catalyst.
Even though the author is trying hard to put Spencer in the worst possible light, you get the sense that he is locked in an internal tug-o-war with himself. On the one hand, there is the temptation to engage the world of reality. On the other hand, there is the world of forms in which he lives, a world where everything seems right. Based on what Wood tells us about himself in the beginning of the piece. It is a safe bet he has never left the island, or at least not gone to far away from shore.
That’s why the article reads, at times, like Wood had made the journey upriver to meet Mr. Kurtz, to tell him he has been bad for business. If Spencer had mounted a few severed heads on pikes, it would have fit in perfectly with the tone of the piece. The difference is, instead of Spencer as the one muttering “The horror! The horror!” at the end, it’s Wood. He has made his journey into the heart of darkness and now munches on the lotus, hoping to never be tempted by reality again.
Therein lies part of the hysteria we see from the social justice warriors and PC enforcers running around trying to stamp out dissent. It’s not really about the dissenters. It’s not, strictly speaking, about the content. It is about the temptation. Like Tennyson’s sailors, the social justice warriors are locked in a struggle with themselves. They want to remain in the languid land of “seems” but at some level they know it is self-deception. The dissenters, the people who left the island, are a reminder of that and they hate them for it.
The old saw about people not being able to handle too much reality is certainly true. It has always been true. The reason for myths, legends and religion is to knock the hard edges off of life and give people hope and purpose. For most of human history, it has been the rulers who find ways to keep the people in a bit of a delusional fog. Whether it is bread and circuses or manufactured reasons to pull together toward a common goal, the clear-eyed people at the top have found an opiate for the people.
Today, things are upside down. It is the people that face the hard realities of life, while the managerial class sits around drunk on self-delusion, fearful that someone may introduce temptation into their world. The poor may be high on heroin, but they have no illusions about the world. The people in charge, on the other hand, are living a fantasy version of life. It’s why they are not concerned with the consequences of their polices. They simply don’t think of the consequences. They focus on how good it makes them feel.
Odysseus and his sailors eventually left the island. It was the authority of Odysseus that compelled them to leave, but they did leave. Maybe that’s what happens with the managerial class. Just as Spencer’s search for meaning has led him to identity politics, the managerial class will make a similar journey off the island. A world of low work and high pay has its attractions, but it it snot life. It offers no genuine purpose. Of course, that could mean they start a war or unleash a plague. Things can always get worse.