Wouldst thou like to think deliciously? Robert Eggers and the Myth of Modernity

It’s a sobering thought to imagine our way of life, the only one we can possibly know, could one day be looked upon with disdainful revision. As both the manner in which we conceive of things and the conditions that define them slowly becoming outdated by the endless tread of progress, it’s fair to imagine that, although people may one day learn of the times we live in, they’ll never truly understand them. Perhaps that’s why, when examining history as it’s often presented -in a linear fashion- past rationale can seem entirely alien. How people could have ever thought witches or mermaids to be real goes beyond the logical spectrum of what is possible within our existent realm of perception. With the tools and influence of an endlessly myopic present, mystical conceptions like fantastical creatures of old can appear indicative of a populous unmoored from logic and reason.

Sociologist Max Weber referred to this movement away from traditional mysticism as disenchantment. With the momentum of his contemporary period overcome by a societal obsession with rationality and preference for a new mode of thinking- one ostensibly immune to the shortcomings of traditionalism- Weber outlined what he perceived to be a clear move away from the fantastical thinking of yesteryear. However, Weber, and other thinkers of the day, poked holes in this relatively narrow-minded view of what they often deemed ‘progress.’ Newfound rationality may have certain advantages with its processes, calculability, and individualism enjoying their unsullied effects upon incorporation, but the ominous cloud of its own failings was just over the hill. The unaccounted and immeasurable side effects of this new mode of thought brought on by the Protestant Reformation, a Pandora’s box of dour consequences. Something Weber himself referred to in his opus, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as the ‘iron cage.’

It’s difficult to read Weber’s writing today and not feel the encroachment of the effects he warned against: the alienation we feel from one another, our work, and various other modern societal ailments have made us exceptionally cynical. A loss of traditional mysticism hasn’t led to an adoption of universal rationale. Only that personal beliefs are all the more private and inscrutable. Climate deniers and people who believe 5G causes COVID-19 exist in a world of limitless information- their conclusions all the more harmful. The idea that we are impervious to the pitfalls of dogmatic belief because of a difference in thinking fails to acknowledge how we perceive reality.

Director Robert Eggers is obsessed with exploring the differences in our perspective and what phantasmagoric conceptions result from them. His answer, when asked about an attraction to mythos and folktale, indicative of a creator who’s looking to escape the binary nihilism of the modern era: “Numbers are the Gods of today. There’s not a lot of magic and mystery in the creative world…[things] that push the boundaries of philosophy and belief.”

It’s within this desire to inject a newfound conception of mysticism and better understand a lost perspective that Eggers attacks the myth of modernity. As one of the bright pupils in a new class of horror-adjacent directors, his short but significant filmography takes on the daunting task of presenting, in all its frailties and misconceptions, bygone eras vanished to the unforgiving winds of time. In adopting an approach set on organically recreating the magical realism that arises from a world operating on divergent ideological framework, Eggers’ dedication to period accuracy can appear paradoxical given his implementation of myth in story. But it’s within this paradox that we can gain a greater understanding of what the young director is attempting to say about authentic experience and of those that came before.

Eggers’ first feature, The Witch, follows a puritanical family who, after disagreeing with the practice of faith in their burgeoning new-world community, set off to make a life on their own in the wooded lands of New England. Led by the convictions of a Protestant-based ethic, the family struggle in battling the ceaseless dangers of the unforgiving wilds. Sometime after establishing a small settlement, the youngest member of the family, Samuel, is disappeared while under the close watch of his sister Thomasin. What ensues is a cabin fever-esque thriller of familial and existential anxiety.

As the difficulties of a rough-and-tumble life encroach upon the family, the mental affectations of their rigorous faith begin to materialize. Samuel’s disappearance catalyzes the anxieties of a puritanical worldview as the jealousy of an aging mother besets a developing young woman and challenges the faithful convictions of the patriarch. Eggers’ main idea seems to suggest that while their beliefs may help in dealing with difficult circumstances, that same prism with which they process the world has the potential to turn everyday life into a nightmare.

Any positive that could be found in their bleak lives would galvanize the strict adherence to the code they lived by, while any misfortune could and often would be correlated to the pervading sense of guilt their faith demanded. Though every member of this accursed family suffers a tragic fate of their own conception, it’s Thomasin who epitomizes the fear of deviating from endless penitence. If not to underline the importance of her journey, the film essentially opens and closes with closeups of the female scapegoat. First, longingly seeking to please a faith that demonizes her very existence, and a final shot providing cathartic release from those binding chains.

In today’s increasingly secular society, angst surrounding the mere existence of female desire, though by no means is it absent, may seem nonsensical given modern conceptions. In The Witch, however, the audience comes to understand why so much fear was ascribed onto someone who lacked immediate agency. Fear of evil’s covert intrusion was paramount in people’s lives. It could take any variety of forms and was often provoked by a deviation from faith. The most prescient sense of divergence arose from an actualization of desire. No one wanted to work endlessly, but work provided a tangible respite from the guilt of an angry God. Furthermore, as Weber underlines, your position and material success in the world was evidence of God’s opinion. Wealth and material success were indicators of God’s blessing, while strife and poverty an undeniable hallmark of existing outside his grace. Shirking one’s responsibilities or telling a white lie may not, in and of itself, turn a family inside out, but when the anxieties of a faith are amalgamated into a singular entity, there’s someone to point the finger at.

As the family continue to confront the natural happenings of frontier life, the innocent reactions dictated by their faith unfurl the fabric of their beliefs. William’s constant toil of chopping wood as a Protestant satiation of existential anxiety cascades over his body after Black Phillip, the family goat, gores him into the product of his work. Katherine’s jealousy consumes her as Thomasin does little but exist as a developing young teenager. The nail in her proverbial coffin is the mark of suckling familiars- proof of witchery. Caleb’s subconscious desire to usurp patriarchal duties and restore normalcy, likely motivated by his incestuous attraction to Thomasin, leaves him a husk of his former self. The apple of desire lodged deep in his throat after squealing for the salvation of an eternally silent, apathetic God.

Thomasin, freed from a world crushed under the weight of its own convictions, is finally able to explore the evil she was always accused of. As she rises to the treetops, laughing in the face of her cosmic absurdity, the guilt set forth at the start of the film -a moral debt she never asked to incur- is collected in full. A lifetime of worry has been followed to its logical endpoint and the fulfillment of desire breaks like a dam(n).

Most would imagine that in the crescendo of a trudging horror like the one Thomasin and her family are subject to, that the bewildering, unimaginable image of evil’s architect is as fantastically absurd as one could possibly imagine. But it’s in this final quietly suggestive scene that Eggers’ strange, sparing horror is fully realized. With more than adequate practical and computer-generated effects at his disposal, he takes to the use of these powerful modern tools with hesitation. Instead of subjecting us to an idea of what he might imagine is scary, the suspense and submersion of the audience through what he often refers to as a ‘cumulative effect’ allows our own minds to do a lot of the fear-driven leg work.

Eggers isn’t focused on confirming whether or not these events actually happened or simulating what may have been if they did. He’s intent on providing an experience that offers an explanation as to how someone may have conceived of it and the paralyzing fear that comes along with an empathic experience of that perspective. The devil in The Witch is, as people outlined at the time, an agent of fulfillment. One that coerces and lubricates the slippery, inviting slope of sin.

For Eggers, it seems that a fundamental part of life isn’t just what happens to people with regards to what is perceived and recorded by others, it’s about what happens and how they process it.

Max Weber spoke to the impending ills that a more rational -rational in the sense of process, not to denote a binary idea of betterment- perspective might bring. In a world where there’s so little space for mysticism and magic to exist, it’s refreshing to have a young director reintroduce cynical audiences to a world where supposedly irrational beliefs ran rampant. Upheld and decorated by the trusses of their perspective, the meaning his characters ascribe onto certain objects, actions, and persons are what we come to understand as members of his audience.

So much of what Eggers achieves in his films bring horror full circle. With demons, CGI, and intimate experiences of horrific gore saturating the market, Eggers harnesses the power of suggestion and potential. What ends up being more dreadful than a chainsaw-wielding psychopath or creature from the deep is the ever-changing affectations of our minds. Our deepest fears spawned from the supports that construct our reality. That kind of projection of antiquated fear is only achievable when someone steps down from the pedestal of the current moment and ingratiates themselves in the authentic experiences of those that came before. Through period-accurate waistcoats, dialogue, and sets, Robert Eggers- if but for a moment- allows us to believe again.

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