An early description of the way contemporary culture is now full of re-creations and themed environments was provided by Umberto Eco. In a brilliant essay, Eco saw that we create these realistic fabrications in an effort to come up with something that is better than real — a description that is true of virtually all fiction and culture, which gives us things that are more exciting, more beautiful, more inspiring, more terrifying, and generally more interesting than what we encounter in everyday life. In his description of Disney, Eco also saw that behind the facades lurks a sales pitch. Put these ideas together and you have a succinct characterization of the age, which is forever offering us something that seems better than real in order to sell us something. That makes Umberto Eco one of the forerunners of contemporary thinking on this subject.
In 1964, the literary critic Northrop Frye published a short book, titled The Educated Imagination, in which he tried to summarize his ideas on the relevance of literature to life. In it, he asserted that we all find ourselves confronting a world of nature, which is oblivious to our values and desires. It is a world that is inhuman in shape, manifesting no larger intelligence or morality that we can discern.
Our response to this experience, Frye said, is to turn nature into a “human world” that looks more like home. Although he expresses it somewhat differently, it is obvious from the text that he believed we create this “human world” a number of ways. One way we do so is by reconstructing our physical environment, replacing it with something of our own design. We build roads, farms, cities, and so on. Another way we do so is by producing literature, which allows us to explore alternative models of human experience. Here, instead of re-creating physical reality in our own image, we invent fictional versions of reality that let us see a vision of the world as we can imagine it and as we want it to be.
When we examine the characteristics of contemporary societies that have been described in previous pages, we find that much of it comes down to a few essential ideas. These societies are part of a new civilization and a new period in history, which can be referred to as Faustian (with apologies to Spengler) because of its quest for power.
At its core, this new Faustian age and civilization believes in the self and the self’s right and ability to control the conditions of its own existence. It exalts reason, but it is practical or “instrumental” reason, which is seen as a tool that humanity can use to manipulate the world.