An Age of Anxiety, Haunted by History

Adam Curtis's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" and W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn

“Accurate scholarship can / Unearth the whole offence / From Luther until now / That has driven a culture mad / … / The lights must never go out, / The music must always play, / All the conventions conspire / To make this fort assume / The furniture of home; / Lest we should see where we are, / Lost in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good.”

— From “September 1, 1939,” by W. H. Auden

This Never Ending Now

In the dog days of last summer, as Marjorie Greene Taylor and QAnon occupied the national headlines, it began to occur to me that many of my fellow Americans had quite literally gone insane. I wrote an essay on it, framing the phenomenon as a second, shadow pandemic afflicting the mental health of many in the US, and especially in rural, conservative areas like the place where I live. Here’s the gist of what I wrote.

There is an ongoing mental health pandemic that has led people to believe in absurdities such as those perpetuated by QAnon and to distrust or deny scientific authority, and it is not unrelated to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. It has been fueled by the denial of reality, gaslighting, and outright lies that Donald Trump, Fox News and other regime enablers have wrought on the public for at least the last four years.

Amidst the upheaval and social isolation of the pandemic, this atmosphere of distrust and paranoia has greatly accelerated. But the collective insanity that has led many in the US to believe in conspiracy theories like QAnon and other patently absurd nonsense has deeper roots.

Paranoia at a societal level and conspiracy theories are not especially new in America. Isolated 19th century settler communities, among others, harbored strange and improbable ideas about those in power. The John Birch Society however, a reactionary political movement founded in the late 1950s with bizarre ideas surrounding fluoridated water and communist infiltrators everywhere, marked the first appearance of an organized ‘lunatic fringe’ with political ambitions in mainstream American life.

Also occurring in the late ‘50s, the psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ to characterize a trend in behavior he saw emerging. Cognitive dissonance describes the psychic discomfort that occurs when a person holds a belief that is challenged by new information or facts that contradict this belief. This discomfort must ultimately be alleviated or reduced, and people tend to do this through various strategies, one of which includes outright denial of the challenging fact or information. Festinger’s theory grew out of an earlier study of an apocalyptic religious UFO cult, entitled When Prophecy Fails. New and strange forms of behavior seem to accompany a society in transition.

The post-World War II period of the 1950s in America and elsewhere was a time of rapid and unprecedented social and technological change, and this helps to explain the emergence of abnormal psychologies at the societal level. And with the recent invention of the hydrogen bomb and the possibility of nuclear armageddon as the outcome of a rapidly heating Cold War, anxieties were high. Neil Postman in 1963 and later Alvin Toffler in 1970, characterized the distress and disorientation felt by many living in such a rapidly evolving, technologically dominated society as ‘future shock.’

The 1950s seemed to me like a good place to start then, in pondering how we have arrived at the strange times we’re now living through, and particularly in how our society has become so fragmented. The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, in his latest series “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” embarks on his own quest to make sense of the events and people who have shaped the current reality many of us struggle to comprehend. He covers some similar territory in his work, which I’ll now discuss.

“Can’t Get You Out of My Head”

More than a few of the stories that play out over the course of Curtis’s eight-plus-hour, six-part series begin in the 1950s while others have earlier origins—for example, the start of Jiang Qing’s affair with Mao Zedong, and the impacts of Victorian mathematician George Boole’s intellectual and familial legacy on the history of the 20th century. But it is with archival footage of lesser-known historical figures like Michael de Freitas and Kerry Thornley, both of whose stories start out in the 1950s, that our journey really begins.

The goal of the series, as Curtis explained it in a recent Time Magazine interview, “was to unpack how we came to live in a society designed around the individual, but where people increasingly feel anxious and uncertain.” In doing so, this sweeping documentary examines themes and topics ranging from the advent of conspiracy theories in the US, to the birth of the surveillance state, the decline and decolonization of the British Empire, the domination of western governments by financial elites, and the rise to prominence of Russia and China on the world stage, as well as many others. Also central to Curtis’s thesis is the concomitant loss of collective power amidst the rise of individualism—for example, through the death of labor unions—and how this produced leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who were in many ways the first in a new global era of ineffectual national leaders.

Curtis employs a characteristic, highly stylized montage of archival footage interspersed with his own narration and evocative soundtracks to tell this fascinating story. The grand narrative of how the ‘great societies’ of the mid-20th century morphed into the dysfunctional, paranoid and alienated ones many of us inhabit today comes to us largely through its director’s piecing together of the individual ‘stories’ of his many subjects and themes.

Many of the ‘characters’ who appear throughout the series have been dead for some time, and there is a sort of spooky quality to some of this footage, as figures like Michael de Freitas and Tupac Shakur seem to speak to us from beyond the grave. De Freitas, also known as ‘Michael X’ was a Black revolutionary and civil rights activist throughout the ‘60s in London, though he returned to his native Trinidad where he was executed for murder in 1975. His personal story of idealism, radicalization, and eventual disillusionment exemplifies the broader arc and pattern of Curtis’s series.

Like de Freitas, Kerry Thornley is another character who seems to end up changed by the system he sought to change. Thornley has the distinction of being the only writer to have written a book, The Idle Warriors, about Lee Harvey Oswald before the JFK assassination. Thornley and Oswald, as it happened, served in the Marine Corps together before Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union. But Thornley’s life is full of even stranger coincidences and more bizarre ironies, many of them surrounding the circumstances and people involved in the JFK assassination.

Along with childhood friend Greg Hill, Thornley founded a counterculture group known as the Discordians in the late ‘50s. One of the Discordians’ lasting legacies was the deliberate promotion of a hoax conspiracy theory involving the Bavarian Illuminati—part of an elaborate practical joke involving Playboy Magazine known as “Operation Mindfuck.” Ultimately though, the Discordians were surprised to find that elements of their conspiracy theory had taken on a life of their own to colonize space in the cultural consciousness.

Operation Mindfuck could be considered a classic study in the tactics of disinformation so prevalent today, but it also speaks to the power of the ‘meme,’ in the sense of the word that Richard Dawkins and others have used it—i.e., as an ideological or cultural unit of transmission and inheritance analogous to the gene in biology. As is the case with genes in the context of Darwinian evolution, when ideas are released into the wild there are often unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences for both individuals and societies.

As Curtis explains in a recent interview, “[Power has] mutated and morphed into all sorts of different forms, some of which are good, some of which are bad, some of which have grave consequences.” Throughout “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” we witness the evolution, mutation and flux of ideas and beliefs through decades and across cultures, in a way that few others have successfully achieved.

The style and narrative technique of “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” though it may follow a twisting and indirect route with many detours to arrive at its truths, does so wonderfully. We come away from the experience hypnotized, haunted—by video, images, sounds, weathered fragments of media salvaged from the depths of our collective memory and brought up into the light of the present.

In Curtis’s method, there is something close to what Werner Herzog has termed ‘ecstatic truth’—the film works on the viewer with a power that is closer to myth than cold, hard fact. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” in this respect lives up to its title—the weight and presence of the characters and connections take up psychic and emotional space.

But it’s worth unpacking the series’ subtitle as well: ”An Emotional History of the Modern World.” As Curtis has stated in the Time interview, “we live in an age in which people’s emotions have been given primacy. Feelings have been given prominence in the society in a way that in previous societies they haven’t. Therefore, the journalism has to reflect that.” Curtis’s documentary approach does reflect that, both in the medium he employs and in the message of his content.

Much of the series is concerned with questions of how systems of power exert control over the minds, and especially the emotions, of individuals. There is discussion of the failed mind control experiments of Ewen Cameron and the CIA during the ‘60s; of how the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ was exploited to extract intelligence from prisoners in the global war on terror; of how B.F. Skinner’s ideas on operant conditioning have been used in China to manipulate the behaviors of its citizens, among others.

But perhaps most pertinently to the current climate of anxiety in the US, Curtis explains in the final episode of the series:

“In the West, the corruption and inequalities continued to grow, but the politicians seemed unable to do anything about it. But the technology systems were mutating, morphing into ever more extreme forms. And out of that was going to come a completely new kind of management and control in the modern world. Unlike in China, it wouldn’t try and bury people’s emotions and feelings. It would work by doing the very opposite—pushing and exaggerating those emotions to a pitch of continual hysteria and suspicion that would create a frozen world, paralyzed by the distrust of everyone and everything.”

He goes on to describe the evolution of the social media landscape vis-a-vis the rise of “viral content factories” dedicated to spreading memes and other emotionally charged materials. The so-called “high-arousal emotions,” like outrage it was found, when disseminated across social media platforms translated into greater user engagement and more clicks and shares, driving the success of big tech companies like Facebook.

In due course, it’s revealed that Facebook ultimately sought to manipulate the behavior of its users, leading to a chain reaction of paranoia and distrust with far-reaching consequences that are with us to this day. This is in spite of the fact that subsequent research has revealed the psychology of ‘priming’ to be largely ineffective in manipulating a user’s behavior toward a particular outcome. Yet the damage was done and the culture of paranoia and distrust begotten in that moment persists.

Concluding amidst the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic and the recent social upheaval in the US, Curtis sees a civilization in crisis, our societies are “exhausted and empty of any new ideas,” with China and Russia also in dire straits. He sees several possible paths into the future, among them the bleak prospect of a techno-dystopian surveillance state, along the lines of what is emerging in China, where individualism will meet its end.

But he also finds hope from the recent evidence refuting the psychological theories that suggest humans are fragile and easily manipulated. “It may be that we are really far stronger than we think,” Curtis continues:

“The one thing that is certain is that the world of the future will be different. And the people in that future will feel and think differently too. If we can regain our confidence, we will find that we have the power to influence how that future turns out. And as a first step, we have to begin imagining what kind of future we want to build. The anthropologist and activist David Graeber described the forgotten idea that is waiting to be rediscovered, and how thrilling it could be: ‘The ultimate hidden truth of the world,’ he wrote, ‘is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently’.”

So what are we to make of this conclusion that we’ve followed along through six episodes to finally arrive at—that the systems of power we are subject to don’t really exist after all? Well, not really. The ‘man behind the curtain’ revelation of Graeber’s with which Curtis concludes (and begins) his series is a call for reclamation of human agency, a testament to the fact that all of our systems of power were set in motion by humans—even if they have taken on a life of their own, morphed and mutated into a kind of ‘ghost in the machine,’ to endure through history. It is this history we must come to terms with and the gravity of which we must escape if we are to move forward.

The Rings of Saturn

Stylistically, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” has a very literary feel to it. As a filmmaker Curtis has stated that a major influence on his work has been the U.S.A trilogy of John Dos Passos, whose three novels exhibit a literary experimentalism that melds elements of film and newspaper media with fictitious stories and characters set amidst the political and cultural climate of the pre-Depression years in the US.

While much of Dos Passos’s technical experimentalism and critical perspective is clearly present in Curtis’s work, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” suggests the work of other novelists too. Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon come to mind, as much of their work deals with paranoia and dark currents at work in post-World War II American society. But W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, comes closest, I think, both in its treatment of history and its mood—a dreamlike, melancholy, deeply evocative atmosphere of decline and decay—to the world Curtis has shown us. On the face of it, The Rings of Saturn is a weird hybrid of travelogue, novel, and memoir, among other literary forms, that recounts one man’s walk through the East Anglian countryside over a few days in August of 1992.

The characters we’re introduced to in the novel’s opening pages—including the middle-aged male narrator, who is a hospitalized version of Sebald himself—soon succumb to sickness or death, setting the tone for the rest of the novel, an inquiry into the larger cultural malaise that has afflicted Western Civilization since at least the Enlightenment, and which continues to plague us.

The narrator’s hospital stay prompts an imaginative though digressive meditation on the life and death of Enlightenment philosopher and polymath Thomas Browne, who died in Norwich and whose skull is purported to be housed in a museum at that very hospital. Through this interlude, we’re transported to a scene in 17th century Amsterdam, immortalized in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, where a post-mortem is underway of a just-executed criminal. In attendance along with Rembrandt and others is Nicholas Tulp who is the surgeon conducting the autopsy, Rene Descartes, and as the narrator speculates, Thomas Browne, then a young medical student. The occasion unfolds thus:

“… the anatomy lessons given every year in the depth of winter by Dr Nicholas Tulp were not only of the greatest interest to a student of medicine but constituted in addition a significant date in the agenda of a society that saw itself as emerging from the darkness into the light. The spectacle, presented before a paying public drawn from the upper classes, was no doubt a demonstration of the undaunted investigative zeal in the new sciences; but it also represented (though this surely would have been refuted) the archaic ritual of dismembering a corpse, of harrowing the flesh of the delinquent even beyond death, a procedure then still part of the ordained punishment.”

The scene is a keynote for the rest of the novel. It describes the ironic—on many levels—birth of the civilization whose irreconcilable ideals and history haunt the memory and the landscape of the present, as we see during the narrator’s soon-to-begin trek through the English countryside. Browne’s presence is significant for many reasons, not least of which are his metaphysical ideas relating to burial rites, death, history, and eternal recurrence. Browne is a recurring presence throughout the book, much like some in Curtis’s cast of characters. It is here too, through Browne, that we understand the essential tragedy of history that is central to the book: “For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.”

Like Curtis, Sebald thus embarks on a journey through a landscape that is haunted by a seemingly irredeemable history. Along the foot journey through the towns and countryside on the edge of the North Sea, we encounter historical personages like Roger Casement, Charlotte Ives, Joseph Conrad, and the Chinese dowager empress Tz’u-hsi, among others. These ghosts from other times and places spring up in the narrator’s mind through circumstance or free-association, though they are ultimately in some way bound up with the landscape they haunt.

During the narrator’s sojourn in the seaside town of Lowestoft, it is revealed that Joseph Conrad, one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century, learned English (his third language) working on ships out of the port there, and so begins one of the narrator’s side excursions into memory. Though one glimpses the obvious influence of Joyce’s Ulysses on Sebald, this walking tour is as much a journey into the heart of darkness as the one recounted by Marlowe almost a century earlier. Conrad’s critique of empire and his deep pessimism regarding history and the nature of Western Civilization are powerfully present here too.

Sebald was eerily prescient nearly thirty years ago in identifying one facet of the current crisis barely touched on by Curtis: the unfolding and increasingly urgent environmental and ecological catastrophes of our present that will most assuredly haunt future generations. The scars of what is now termed the Anthropocene are omnipresent on the landscape throughout Sebald’s book. Walking along the shores of the North Sea, our narrator stares into a void:

“The boats in which the fishermen once put out from the shore have vanished, now that fishing no longer affords a living, and the fishermen themselves are dying out…Out on the high seas, the fishing continues, at least for the present, though even there the catches are growing smaller, quite apart from the fact that the fish that are landed are often useless for anything but fish-meal. Every year the rivers bear thousands of tons of mercury, cadmium and lead, and mountains of fertilizer and pesticides out into the North Sea.”

Elsewhere, he surveys the wreckage still present from a freak windstorm that occurred in 1987, or the encroaching waves of the North Sea as it inevitably rises. Later we visit the abandoned islands of the nuclear testing site at Orford Ness where grainy black and white photos detail ominous structures looming against a low horizon, among them an enormous and surreal concrete pagoda for the testing of bombs.

In another passage, he offers a sort of origin story to the global civilization that was born in the Great Britain of the Industrial Revolution and which has now consumed much of the planet:

“Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn…. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers.”

In focusing on these scenes of environmental devastation and decay, I mean only to make the case for The Rings of Saturn as one of the first major works of literature—to my knowledge, at least—to offer a sensibility of the Anthropocene. There is much about this book that is beautiful and compelling precisely because of its utter strangeness, even if the mood throughout is decidedly melancholy.

In much the same way that “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is stylistically a very literary documentary, The Rings of Saturn is a thoroughly filmic work of prose. Sebald’s strange and unique book has inspired much commentary and various multimedia responses, including an interactive map of the journey, as well as another sort of documentary titled “Patience: After Sebald.”

The latter film by Grant Gee, whose earlier work includes characteristically atmospheric treatments of Radiohead and Joy Division, offers a cinematic envisioning of the places on Sebald’s trek as well as commentary by a variety of scholars and Sebald aficionados including Robert MacFarlane among others.

But Sebald’s novels themselves, and particularly The Rings of Saturn, stand out for their author’s inclusion of photographs, drawings, and copies of historical documents among the pages of his book, which lend a sort of documentary vérité to the experience of reading the narrative. In a sort of reciprocal way to Curtis’s mythopoetic approach to documentary journalism, Sebald’s approach aspires to blur the borders between fact, fiction, and myth.


“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken,” Stephen Dedalus famously states in Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If history is indeed a nightmare, perhaps it is most potently and recognizably revealed to us through the dream-like aesthetics, images and atmospheres created by Curtis and Sebald in their respective works.

For Sebald, modern history seems to be a sort of shadow whose inescapable and ever-present nature haunts us like the actual rings of Saturn—fragments of a dead moon locked in an eternal orbit around the god of time. Whether or not this history may be ultimately redeemed, we don’t know.

While Curtis is more hopeful in his outlook and seems to believe we can break the dream-like state of paralysis that keeps us from enacting meaningful cultural and political change, he acknowledges the possibility for dystopian futures that are darker still than our present.

Whatever insights or grander truths one may glean from watching “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” or reading The Rings of Saturn, the mesmerizing, deeply evocative aesthetic experience that each offers is reason enough in its own right to spend some time with both of these works. I hope you will.

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