I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Atlantis. Of course, I’m sure I didn’t know about it as an infant, but I can’t recall when I first heard of the destruction of the island. It’s as if it has ever been percolating in my personal cultural imaginary.
I definitely knew about Atlantis by grade school, perhaps through Marvel Comics’ character The Sub-Mariner, whose home was the underwater realm of Atlantis. Or maybe it was through one of my friends at school telling me about the legend, or maybe through Donovan’s 1968 piece of pop-psychedelic perfection, “Atlantis.” I simply don’t recall. I do remember learning at some point (probably in my early twenties) that legends and myths of the Deluge—like the stories of Noah, Manu, or Utnapishtim—are nearly universal across all cultures, so the myth of Atlantis at least has some relationship to the history of the world.
Over the years, I heard or read many things about Atlantis, not the least of them Plato’s telling of the story in the Timaeus and the Critias. In Plato’s account, 9000 years before the time he was writing Atlantis possessed a sophisticated civilization that boasted a formidable military prowess, posing a real threat to the rest of the known world; but the entire island and its inhabitants disappeared in a violent earthquake that reduced Atlantis to nothing but a muddy vestige in the Atlantic Ocean off Gibraltar, the Pillars of Heracles.
More fantastic, but certainly no less or more true than Plato’s account, other narratives of the Atlantean civilization told of a technologically-advanced civilization that had mastered the powers of plant growth to such a degree that an Atlantean could plant a seed and it would immediately grow and, for instance, allow the individual to climb over a wall or scale a building. This, I recall reading or being told, was still available to cultural memory in the fairy-tales, like Jack and the Bean Stalk or Rapunzel, which spoke of miraculous growth.
One particular version of the destruction of Atlantis—and I do not remember where I first encountered it—is the story of a technologically-advanced, though morally bankrupt, civilization which used its power not to work with nature (as in the Jack and the Bean Stalk motif), but to subvert nature and the natural order. As a result of this hubris, the Atlanteans created monsters—minotaurs, chimera, gryphons, centaurs, and so forth—that so populate world mythologies. The gods, the story goes, were totally not cool with this R&D program and wiped Atlantis from the face of the globe as punishment. End of Story.
I like all of these takes on the myth, and I think each of them has something to say to the cultural imaginary. The story of Atlantis, after all, like so many myths, is really the story of us all. But lately I have been thinking quite a bit about the resonances with the technologically-advanced/morally bankrupt Atlantis and our own moment.
I have been writing, teaching, and warning about transhumanism for about twenty years, and I have been as surprised as anyone by the level of cultural cache the notion has received over the past year—especially since the topic was almost universally ignored over the past two or three decades. That’s a frightening development, to say the least. “Scientific breakthroughs” such as the human-monkey chimera recently announced cannot but help raise the specter of Atlantis’s mucking about with the natural order. In addition, the immanent project to release hundreds of thousand of genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida as well as the continuing adulteration of the animals and plants through genetic modification similarly invoke the image of Atlantis’s hubris. And don’t even get me started on synthetic meat and synthetic blood. Add to that the diabolical project to use aborted babies for research and the staggering number of people killed or harmed by experimental therapies over the past few months, including my wife and my nephew (harmed, not killed—thanks for asking) and I’d say we have reached our own Atlantean moment.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a sinking feeling about all this.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.