Three books ruined me for living a comfortably boring middle-class life among the petty bourgeois. Before I tell you what those books are, I have to confide that it tickles my sappy romantic soul that books can still ruin people. How many people are ripe for being completely molded by a book? I cannot say. But we exist, and as long as there are a few of us, writing books and reading them will still be worthwhile.
The first book that ruined me was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—which is itself three books, but no matter. The tale about Hobbits, Elves, Rings of Power, Dwarves, Dragons, and Wizards, told in an almost mythic voice, gives the reader a taste of what it would mean to live in a world where actions have moral weight, where identities matter, where who we are and what we do have ultimate meaning and significance, that they affect the fate of all good creatures in an enchantingly beautiful but fragile land. Good and evil exist, and there is satisfying and exciting adventure and peril in fighting for the good and resisting the evil, all for the cause of freedom and contented happiness of the small and the weak. Meaning. Weight. Death not in vain. But Tolkein’s books are a mere taste of weight because it’s not real; it is pure fantasy, and only the insane or those obsessed with cosplay would say otherwise. If a person is sufficiently taken with the life of meaningful adventure in a fantasy world, real life with its lack of apparent meaning seems dull and weightless, lackluster, and so as I child I would lose myself in play, pretending what I did was exciting and that it mattered. Playing with the idea of moral significance in Tolkien’s fantasy world was the perfect way to prime a child for what came next.
The next book that did me in was the Bible, the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. All of that make believe and play in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth that sustained my meaning-craving as a child failed to satisfying my developing reality principle as an adolescent. I needed something serious enough that it could withstand an adolescent coming to terms with the real world and the increasing pressure of the social world. With the Bible, that meaningful and exciting struggle between good and evil was both real and something I could be a part of. Though the meaning that the Bible finds in the world isn’t actually real—there are no gods, no afterlife, no redeeming drops of blood—I could pretend they were real, and I could surround myself with people who would tell me they were real. And oh, I believed in God and the afterlife and the redeeming drops of blood! I organized my life around them. I gave my life to them. Every action, every thought, every deed, every conversation mattered; the fate of the souls of the lost were always at stake.
If the Lord of the Rings showed me what it would be like if things mattered and the Bible showed me what it would be like if I believed it that they really did matter, then Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil taught me how to live meaningfully after learning that nothing could ever matter in the way Tolkien hinted at and the Bible promised. God is dead. God’s been long dead, at least from the perspective of a single human life, and most people have no idea what that even means. It’s not that god doesn’t exist; he never did, and besides that’s not the point. The point is that god no longer matters. We have ceased to understand cause and effect and the natural world in terms of a creator. We no longer believe sickness and health, good fortune and bad are the result of the providence of a beneficent yet inscrutable creator. We no longer believe that morality depends on the will and command of the Lord our God. At the same time nature has become disenchanted. No sense of destiny. No sense of mission. No sense of fate, character, good, or evil. But weight exists nonetheless. Weight depends on the will and health of the one for whom things are heavy. Mattering, significance, and moral weight are nothing more than the way each person relates to their world. And yet each of us are the kinds of beings who, seemingly inevitably, find ways to make things matter. Just because things don’t matter on their own, just because there is no god and no good and no evil out there in the universe, doesn’t mean that we can’t find things meaningful.
And here is where I return to that average, middle-class, contented life among the petty bourgeois. A house. A car. A husband or wife. 2.5 kids. A career. Health insurance. Security (or so we believe). A 401k. Since there is no meaning written into the nature of things, it’s perfectly possible to find value and meaning in these particular things; nothing’s stopping you. I just can’t do it. I was primed by these three books — Tolkien, the Bible, Nietzsche —for a more mythic, heroic, and morally sublime sort of meaning. What ever happened to the liberty and happiness of all free creatures, even the weakest? Whatever happened to the fate of souls (including the fate of one’s own soul!)? There may be no ring of power to destroy or Great Eye to defeat. Souls may not be fated for all eternity. There may not be any redeeming drops of blood. But there are still compelling enemies to fight and still satisfying battles to be won. Things to be overcome. Works of great beauty and sublimity to create. And if enough of us can see it, there are still free peoples whose liberty and comfort can be secured from their oppressors. One only has to have the vision for it. And the courage.