A few summers ago, there was this song you could hear everywhere. On the radio, at the beauty salon, at the supermarket. It was one of Nelly Furtado’s earliest hits, I’m like a bird.
Furtado sings to someone she apparently loves, but she talks most of all about her insecurity, about her fear of her own ephemeral heart and the sense that she will eventually change and leave her current love behind. The chorus expresses the spirit of a generation.
I’m like a bird, I only fly away.
I don’t know where my soul is,
I don’t know where my home is…
I am, we are, like a bird who knows only to fly away. A bird which does not arrive or come back, but flies in perpetual pursuit, farther and farther away. Like the dove which could not find where to land, before it found Noah’s ark, it flies and flies, with no firm place, or soul, or home, to come to.
Chantal Delsol, a French philosopher, also sees our current moment as one of flight, but as a collective, civilizational rise and fall. In Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World, Delsol sees the modern project through the lenses of the ancient Greek myth of Icarus. Like Icarus, we have tried to fly high, to leave behind nightmares, wars, tribalism, religion. But just like Icarus’ waxed wings burned by getting too close to the sun, our grand modern project of rational progress – be it through Socialist revolution, Nazist social engineering, science and technology, Enlightenment philosophy – has culminated in World War II and the horrors of the 20th century. What remains of modern ideology, free-market capitalism, gives us some nice gadgets but does not nurture the soul, while globalizing inequalities and abuses. So we crashed to the ground, and the postmodern reaction to modernity has deconstructed almost all meaning, altars and authorities that were left. As Delsol puts it,
The human condition no longer makes sense, since its foundational narratives, mythical or religious, have been eliminated…. [Modern man] is amazed that everyone is content to live in a world without meaning and without identity, where no one seems to know either why he lives or why he dies… a world without signposts.
I find her analysis very insightful. We are indeed in a period of existential and ideological disorientation, the disillusionment of someone who wants to walk away but is not sure where to. As a civilization, we have lost the will to meaning, so we live our lives focusing on individual problems and pleasures, closed within the walls of the self, longing for, but also dreading, anything grander or more authoritative than the individual self. Furtado and Delsol seem to speak almost with a single voice here.
Our time seems to be characterized by a feeling to being locked in… It asks the question not of where to go, but of how to get out…. Our contemporary, freed from what constrained him to run even further, continues desperately to run, but without knowing where he is headed.
So where are we headed? You tell me. Each of us provides an answer with the way we conduct our lives … at least until before the trumpets are heard and our civilization discerns what its next era is.