This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Vacancies in the tower of babel

“Where men live huddled together without true communion, there seems to be greater sharing, and a more genuine communion. But this is not communion, only immersion in the general meaninglessness of countless slogans and clichés repeated over and over again so that in the end one listens without hearing and responds without thinking. The constant din of empty words and machine noises, the endless booming of loudspeakers end by making true communication and true communion almost impossible. Each individual in the mass is insulated by thick layers of insensibility. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t hear, he doesn’t think. He does not act, he is pushed. He does not talk, he produces conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises. He does not think, he secretes clichés.”

–Thomas Merton

There is a curious infatuation with zombies in today’s movies, and it probably indicates something about our social situation. Think about the scenario: it is always a world where the hero is nearly or completely alone; he is also nomadic with no place to call home, he is simply wandering through the ruins of a once human civilization in which all the other people have become monstrous and hostile. These once-human creatures move slowly through the streets, anonymous, devoid of anything resembling a personality, and harmless, until you get too close, at which point you’ll be eaten alive. The hero must exist in this ambient ménage, trying to make the best of what he can scavenge, with little hope of ever finding an idyllic, peaceful, human life. The old ways of fellowship and happiness are shut, even though the earth is still spinning and most of the people are still there.

What does that all sound like? Is that not a caricatured but frighteningly accurate depiction of modern man’s existence in the crowd? That’s why our generation loves the zombie flicks. We can, in a very sick way, relate. The story speaks to us more than the old John Wayne cowboy and Indian conflict. We’ve moved on.

John Wayne was a drifter and a loner, just like our apocalyptic heroes, but the difference is that his solitude was of an entirely different character. The noble, rootless cowboy was in solitude because he walked away from civilization. He was menaced by Indians he had deserted those like him and wandered into alien territory. His solitude came from being alone by choice: he could have chosen differently.

Our new loneliness—the loneliness we like to see in our zombie hero—is of a very different kind. It is a loneliness of immersion within a mass. We see people, we move within crowds of them, even bumping into them on the subway, but we don’t know them as people. We cannot know them, and so we live largely in solitude. And there is no alternative. It isn’t a matter of choice.

This is an expression of the frustrations of mass existence. Just look at the structures we build ourselves:

We live in hives—that’s really the only word to describe apartment buildings and skyscrapers. They’re hives. We live in closer proximity to our fellow men than ever before, and yet we don’t know our neighbors at all. That’s our paradox. You live next-door to me but I know nothing about you, and to be honest I don’t want to know you. If you lived a mile down the road then perhaps I’d like to meet you, but I need distance between us first. If I’m going to be glad to see you I have to be able to see you coming before you bump into me on the elevator. When I must unwillingly rub up against you every day, when I must hear you on the other side of my wall every night, then cannot desire to meet you because you are already too close for comfort.

Our presence in the hive means we are automatically invasive toward one another. It drives out, or at least inhibits, communion even when we really do desire it. Isn’t this true, my fellow resident of the hive? How is your little cell over there, by the way?—can you hear me typing? Perhaps one day, when this tower of Babel collapses and we’re driven out into the open air, we’ll be able to meet for the first time.

That’s what this is, by the way, this skyscraper filled with a hundred cells. It is the tower of Babel. We have lots of them. They are great achievements of human genius, wondrous structures to impress the entire world and reach to the heavens!—and they destroy the possibility of real human communication. That’s Babel for you, to a “T.” It doesn’t matter if we all speak English. Within the hive we might as well all be from different planets.

What always confused me about the myth of Babel was that each man seemed to have received his very own language—his very own confused tongue. But it all makes sense when I look at us, in our great and wonderful structures. If you put too many men together in a room and get them all going, then it matters very little that they all speak the same language. It doesn’t help them one bit! Their communication is still babble, and their tongues are confused.

My point is merely this: you and I, if we ever want to meet, if we ever want to get away from the babbling, we will have to give up the hive life. That won’t solve all of our problems, but it will solve at least one.

Maybe the men at Babel became zombies; or, if they didn’t, I’d bet each man felt like he was surrounded by zombies. Either way, zombies or babbling fools, I think we can relate. This is what the sociologists mean when they say that modern men are “mass men.” We are a mass. We are living as an undifferentiated confusion of humanity.

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