The Green Man, or how to resist the tyranny of the algorithm
This is a post originally found on my former blog at Angelico Press.
Once upon a time, in a summerland called The Late-Nineteen Hundreds or Early Two Thousands, my wife and I went to the Michigan Renaissance Festival accoutered in festival attire and accompanied by our then extant brood (might have been three, might have been four or five—I’m not good at keeping track), at least one of whom was probably in a stroller. At one point in our festivality, we encountered a unique character: The Green Man. This was an ingenious character and even more ingenious costume. The figure looked not unlike the ents from the LOTR films (long before they appeared), but it was much less bulky—in fact, it was rather lithe. Through a clever use of stilts and crutch-like appendages extending from where the hands must have been, it stood at least ten-feet tall and moved at an excruciatingly slow pace. I stood there dumbfounded. After ten minutes or so of taking in the spectacle, my wife and our easily-bored little ones wanted to move on, though I stalled them as long as I could before finally acquiescing.
As we moved along in search of jousting and/or sword-swallowing, my wife asked, “Why were you so into that thing?” (meaning The Green Man). I told her the truth: “I’ve seen him before.”
Only I didn’t mean I’d seen this-guy-in-an-ingenious-costume-at-the-Renaissance-Festival. I meant “The Green Man.”
Allow me to explain.
In the mid-80s, while out for a picnic in the woods, I had seen a figure very much like the one I’d encountered at the festival. At least I thought I did. The figure I saw in the woods, though, or rather figures (actually there were more than one) seemed to travel at an even slower rate, more or less through the canopy of maple and oak trees around me. They were a bit smaller than the costumed figure, but very similar. Only, they were less “substantial.” Imagine a walking nervous system, but replace the nerves with twigs and sticks and you’ll get the idea. Of course, seeing such things is crazy. So I convinced myself my eyes were playing tricks on me. I never thought about it again until that moment at the festival.
One fall afternoon several years later as my wife was raking leaves in our yard, our eldest daughter, then probably three-years-old, asked her stop what she was doing. “Those people,” she said, pointing to the place in the garden where her mother had just cleared some leaves. My wife saw nothing, but our daughter was insistent and didn’t want the people to be hurt. She’s now almost twenty-one and still swears it really happened.
Years later, I found another daughter’s makeshift booklet outside (she was about seven or eight at the time). It read:
On the cover, in a circle, the title: Fairys
Page 1: Sientifec fairy Reaserch
—when a baby laughs for the first time a fairy is born
One day this same child showed up at the back door with a long-handled fishing net. “What do you want?” I asked. “Is this good for capturing things?” she said. “Depends,” I answered. “What kinds of things?” “Faeries,” she replied, very forthrightly. I told her I thought it could work; it was worth a shot. She was not successful.
Of course, children often believe that fairies exist. We find it cute.
When they don’t grow out of it, we find them odd. And some never grow out of it.
Some of those who never grow out of it grow up to be philosophers and theologians, which is perhaps not as surprising as one might think. Two that come immediately to mind are John Milbank and David Bentley Hart. I am sure there are others. Some, though, tend to hide this proclivity beneath a literary veneer—pointing to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and even J.K. Rowling as imaginative explorers of the land of magic, but ultimately backing off from actually signing on the dotted line. Such a posture may be very convenient, but also a bit cowardly, a kind of aestheticism both disingenuous and patronizing. At best, I wonder if such individuals are simply hedging their bets and trying to cover their behinds. At worst, perhaps there is something of infantilization at work there. Freud wasn’t exactly a moron.
My grandfather, Michael Patrick Conlon, was born in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland in 1910 and died in Detroit in 1984. He was a burly redhead who worked in a factory, but, on some summer evenings when I was a child, prompted no doubt by beer and Kessler’s, he would tell his grandchildren stories of his childhood (or that he’d heard in childhood) concerning the invisible kingdom and its denizens. He was not one of those people given to fancy; but he knew these things were true. Untold numbers of people claim to have seen into this kingdom, and in the early twentieth century it was still easy to collect their stories, though I imagine now such experiences are not nearly as common as they used to be. Unfortunately, positivistic psychology, science, and sociology dismissed these kinds of experiences as wish-fulfillment, the product of unintended ingestion of natural hallucinogens, or a kind of atavistic primitivism. I never liked these kinds of explanations, which always seems to me an example of the kind of arrogant colonization western intellectuals have yet to resist inflicting on peoples and cultures they deem inferior.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written about the development of a “buffered self” that accompanied the rise of modernity and the Scientific Revolution and which cordoned Western people from a porosity to nature and a trust in realities not readily apparent to the five senses: realities such as fairies, of course, but also those concerning the subtle qualities of things (such as the moon, relics, holy water, icons), not to mention angels, demons, even God. The Scientific Revolution and the Reformation served as what Taylor calls “engines of disenchantment” made only more efficient by the Enlightenment and what followed: the Industrial Revolution, the Marxist revolution, and, perhaps most insidiously, the digital revolution.
But even to use words like “re-enchantment” betrays that we don’t really accept these realities; that we’re simply nostalgic for a cultural past that lives only in our memory. We are still outside of it, doomed by a Cartesian separation oppressing us, an affliction of our cultural patrimony.
This affliction troubles most Christians today. I am often puzzled by theologians and other Christian intellectuals and academics who resolutely affirm the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the efficacy of prayer, and the existence of God, but who get a little fuzzy in their assurance when it comes to angels and demons, not to mention the qualities of relics and holy water. And don’t even start them on fairies and green men. If the numinous exists, it cannot be only in the context of the Mass. Unfortunately, most of us are only porous (or pretend to be) on Sundays.
I think one of the best examples of a figure who can hold both Christian orthodoxy and folk belief in balance (with a little Roman paganism thrown in) is the seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet Robert Herrick. (I have a chapter about him in my book, The Incarnation of the Poetic Word.) In his massive Hesperides and Noble Numbers, Herrick asserts the joy of parish life: a life that includes Christian piety as well as pagan revelry. In his unwieldy collection of verses, Herrick embraces the rosary as well as the maypole, the lares as well as the Holy Spirit, the annoying members of the parish as well as the beautiful maidens, the Virgin Mary as well as Queen Mab, the faerie kingdom as well as the Kingdom of God. The world he describes is a messy one, but open to all. And that is about as Christian as it gets. The fact that he published his book after being ejected from his living in Devonshire and used it as a stick to thrust in the eye of the tiresome Puritan killjoys who censured him makes it all the more delicious.
An important aspect of Herrick’s book is that it also serves as lament for a world that was passing away: the world of a faith life integrated with nature. Nowhere does he describe so directly this world he so loved as in “The Argument of his Book”:
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers, Of April, May, of June, and July flowers. I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes, Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes. I write of youth, of love, and have access By these to sing of cleanly wantonness. I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris. I sing of Time’s trans-shifting; and I write How roses first came red, and lilies white. I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing The court of Mab, and of the fairy king. I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall) Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.
As the Scientific Revolution asserted its superiority, as the Reformations (and Counter Reformations) reduced the Church calendar to a shadow of its simultaneously cosmic/agrarian and divine character, and as enclosure laws and the march of capitalism more and more removed people from the land and drove them into the squalor of the cities and the self-fulfilling prophecy of a dastardly social Darwinism, there was no room left for such a world. Such a world—of fasts, festivity, and divinity, of fairies, fertility, and fairs—is not efficient. It is not economically viable. Stockholders don’t like it.
Our own world has no fasts to speak of, so it has no true festivity. It is hostile to both divinity and fertility. But it has its own faeries. Indeed, is not the internet a diabolical faerie Otherworld, a world of no material substance that nevertheless exists? Is not the posture of the person with a cellphone in his or her lap the same as the person in a state of contemplation? Do we not enter another world in just this way, whether in contemplative repose or by way of a screen? Is not the second of these a demonic parody of the former?
It seems to me that a connection to the natural world and its rhythms, to the wheel of the cosmos and the cycle of the liturgical year, is the anti-internet because it’s the real internet: it opens us to what is real, the intertwined realms of the natural and the supernatural, and it helps us stay in touch with each other because it allows us to stay in touch with reality. In considering the sterile benefits of modernity at the beginning of the twentieth century, G.K. Chesterton saw the return to the land as a significant part of the return to sanity: “If we ever get the English back onto English land they will become again a religious people, if all goes well, a superstitious people. The absence from life of both the higher and lower forms of faith is largely due to a divorce from nature and the trees and clouds.” We could use some healthy superstition connected to nature instead of the unhealthy superstition of virtual reality by which our humanity has become so degraded.
What I am saying, then, is that the green man I saw (or didn’t see) so long ago, the little people my daughter saw as a child, and that many of the thousands upon thousands (probably more like millions) of experiences others have had of the invisible realm throughout history are indicative of what I have called in another context a poetic metaphysics. And by “poetic” I do not mean less real than what we’re accustomed to. On the contrary, I mean more real than what we’re accustomed to.
Such a world is not any more inconsistent with Christian belief than the internet is. Indeed, being mindful of even the possibility of such a world can certainly restore health to psyches affected in untold ways by the ravages of postmodernity so clearly made manifest in the utter madness so prevalent on social media and the internet. The digital revolution, like those before, cares nothing for human flourishing, but, like its antecedents, merely instrumentalizes human beings for other purposes. As Martin Heidegger told us so long ago, technology is never neutral.
At the first performance of J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan on December 27th, 1904, no one knew what to expect when, after Tinkerbell’s death, Peter asked the audience, “Do you believe in fairies? If you believe, wave your handkerchiefs and clap your hands!” An anxious Barrie had told the orchestra to be ready to lay down their instruments and clap their loudest when that moment came. But when it did come, the audience burst into such overwhelming applause that the actress playing Peter Pan burst into tears and had to leave the stage for a few moments to compose herself.
I don’t think people are any different now. Only now, people are even more distanced from nature: that lack more than compensated for by their addictive involvement with their phones. They still desire a connection with the real, but look for it in exactly the wrong place.
I’m not suggesting everyone try to see faeries or the green man, or even to believe that such things exist. All I am saying is that there is more to the natural world than can be boiled down to an algorithm. As William Blake wrote, “We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves; everything is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep.”
Those of us who go by the name Christian would do well to not confine the numinous to Sundays, for the Lord poured out his Wisdom over all of nature (Sirach 1:9). God is a spirit, and he is to be worshiped in spirit and truth. And spirit is impervious to data or algorithms.