In much the same pleasing interdisciplinary mode as his popular history of communications technologies, Spirit of the Web
, Wade Rowland has combined travel memoir, medieval history, philosophical speculation, and technological reflection to give us Ockham's Razor
. If the genre existed, the book might be filed under Travel Writing/Plea for a Return to the Miraculously Redemptive Past. But even if the solutions Rowland posits to combat a host of more or less correctly recognized modern evils are unfortunately simple-mindedly and dangerously reactionary, both the sincere plea he makes for a recognition of these subtle terrors and his lively, inviting stylistic approach to the task are to be commended.
What Rowland sees at the core of what is wrong with the West he identifies early on as a "scientific materialism [which] has become more or less a state-sanctioned religion every bit as intolerant of heresy as was medieval Catholicism, and which successfully promotes the assumptions that what is old is bad, or at least inferior, and that intellectual progress (we do not dare speak of spiritual progress) consists in the endless accumulation of facts." Crippling ethical relativism, the dehumanizing bureaucratic erasure of the individual (in the workplace and elsewhere), even stultifying architectural homogeneity-all are by-products, Rowland argues, of a materialistic worldview increasingly dominant since about the time of the Renaissance, and whose insistence upon the supremacy of reason as the sole barometer of right and wrong has robbed modern individuals of the sorts of values and beliefs that make them truly human. "Modern Western civilization's search for meaning," he claims, "is doomed to failure, because the dominant, scientific worldview offers no ultimates. `Meaning' is not on its agenda."
But like Thoreau, another reformer who worked outside the realm of the academy (the author of Ockham's Razor is a freelance writer who also runs a virtual corporation on the Internet), Rowland is determined not "to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbours up." And this is something the book does very well. As a simple memoir about the trip Rowland and his wife take to France with their two teenage children, Ockham's Razor succeeds in delineating the sometimes elusive nightmare (elusive, because we live it every day) that is a society that puts fashion models and the stars of vapid television sit-coms at the centre of its mythic consciousness, and where Monica Lewinsky can get a nearly million dollar book deal. And it succeeds because it isn't yet another tedious academic study written by one technically wearisome professor for like-minded others.
Because Rowland won't be pinned down to one genre, when bemoaning, say, the too-often toxic pragmatism of our age that, by its very nature, cannot recognize quality, only utility, he can recall, in vivid, anecdotal terms, the family's tour through the countryside of France and their paralysis at the sight of the gleaming golden arches of McDonald's. His purpose might be to philosophically caution and instruct; however, like the best New Journalism that focuses on the facts but employs fictional devices in order to better bring them to life, Ockham's Razor is concerned with ultimate truths and often conveys the need for them in engaging accounts of the family's trip.
How many respectable professors of philosophy worth their prized tenure, for example, would dare use the experience of his or her daughter's purchase of a Hard Rock Cafe baseball hat to reflect upon the spiritual poverty of the age? Rowland does. For him the Hardrock Cafe is "a `landmark' created wholly through cunning marketing. They made money solely via the creation and perpetuation of a brand name, which they then sold to the gullible: it was a business that could only have existed in the Age of Information. They are a form of artificial reality, the mass reproduction of something for which there never was an original; dead, devoid of context, ultimately and definitely depressing." Occasionally, however, and perhaps underscoring the unfortunate flipside of being a literary jack-of-all-trades, clichés like "makes your head swim", "thanking my lucky stars", and "I could not believe my ears!" undercut Ockham's Razor's refreshing pastiche of narration, learning, and conjecture.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the medicine Rowland prescribes to combat the various diseases he so acutely diagnoses isn't nearly as convincing. Scientific humanism, Marxism, Nietzsche's superman, Existentialism, Death of God Theology-these are just a few of the more celebrated attempts since the Renaissance to return a sense of enlivening spirit and essence to a world where, for many, previously meaning-bestowing God has left the building. That Rowland fares no better in coming up with some kind of final answer to the problem isn't particularly problematic, although the tenor of his solution is.
When Rowland says, "If enough people see...the possibility of other modes of perception than the scientific, then we can hope for some change", what he is hoping for is a return to a religious mindset on a grand scale, a return to a society that (like the Middle Ages he is always keen to hold up as a kind of paradigm) puts God at the top and humans at the bottom. In return for abdicating control of our minds and lives, however, Rowland wants to assure us that the pay-off is very large. For the Medieval individual, for example, who saw him or herself only as a part of God's well-drawn plan, "[p]eople, individuals, actively shared in the existence of the world around them: they were not entirely separate and distinct from it-they participated in its existence at a very fundamental level, so fundamental they seldom gave it a second thought. But that participation gave them a sense of belonging and of security."
Aside from the fact that, regardless of its desirability, it's impossible for human beings to intellectually "turn back the clock" and start seeing the world as people did six hundred years ago, it's difficult to decide what is most troubling about Rowland's proposal: the blatantly pragmatic nature of his desire for mass mental conversion (let's believe in the Godhead because we'll all live better lives that way), or the possible consequences if such a state of affairs were to actually occur. Although Rowland is eager to defend Mother Church's role in the Inquisition and organized religion's destructive capacity in general with statements like "It's not their natural instinct by any means", unfortunately one doesn't have to peruse a history book, only pick up today's newspaper, to see ample proof to the contrary. And as thankful as we should be to Ockham's Razor for reminding us of the sorry mess we're in as a race, better, as the poet Robinson Jeffers has written, a stone for a pillow than an illusion. And a potentially dangerous one at that.
Ray Robertson is the author of the novel, Home Movies, and the forthcoming Moody Foods, as well as the small press columnist for The Toronto Star.