The Twilight of the Official Myth

The passing of Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, has little bearing on my life. To my knowledge, I have no British ancestry. I have spent all of five days of my life on British soil, and have not set foot in one of the various Realms or Territories since a lunch at a Canadian golf course a decade ago. For that matter, I live into a country that came into being by throwing off the yoke of British rule. Like most Americans, I could content myself with reading a news story or two about the passing of the crown and move on.

And yet I confess a fascination with the late monarch. My weekend devolved into long Wikipedia dives down the lineages of royal families and their estates, a quixotic quest to understand the arcane layers of royal titles and role. Elizabeth II earned respect, even among anti-monarchists, for her longevity and ability to project a stable, dutiful image even as Britain convulsed its way through the dissolution of its empire, 15 prime ministers, the lurches of the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and, finally, Brexit. But she represented more than just good health in the age of modern medicine and her meticulous decorum: she was the living symbol of what it meant to be a Briton, the whole churn of history and greatness and oppression and everything else that comes with being an obscure island off the coast of Europe that has shaped world history as much as any other place.

Such symbols are in decline. One of the former Commonwealth countries, Barbados, took its own path to Brexit in 2021; now a republic, it no longer recognizes the British royals. Others will likely follow, and while the outpouring of British mourning has no parallel in American life, even in Britain there appears to be a generational gap in real appreciation. For that matter, republicanism, the cause for which millions died over the course of two and a half centuries in a revolt against the power of monarchs, faces its own crises amid charges of aloof elites and out-of-touch representation, or perhaps a descent into dithering dysfunction that fails to get anything done. Politics devolves into rage or apathy, neither of which has much time for unifying symbols. To hold one’s nation-state in great esteem comes off as a special brand of naïveté, perhaps noble in the case of some members of the armed forces but also quaintly antiquated in a world that is supposedly beyond borders.

The nation-state is far from the only realm where unifying mythologies of the modern era are falling away. To be religious in the educated or fashionable circles of society is now passé, a stodgy formality akin to a fondness for corsets or three-piece suits, and that once-universal language of Biblical references that litters midcentury popular culture now draws blank stares from younger generations. The great media brands of the postwar era are being eaten alive by the cacophonous inanities of social media, the only exceptions being niche interests like the Wall Street Journal or companies that have become one with the beast and turned themselves into full-on lifestyle brands like the New York Times and, in different ways, Fox News. The only national arbiters of culture seem to come through momentary fads, a quick TikTok craze that comes and goes in a blink, the most notable of which we may recall in twenty or thirty years, but disconnected from many broader statements about our times.

The rational mind likes to think this death of myth is a victory: we are dispatching of fictions and living in reality. Leaving the merits of this worldview aside, the evidence that this mindset is actually taking power is wanting. Religiosity finds fascinating new outlets, some of them much less worthy of respect than an omnipotent deity. A dating app now sends me weekly astrology advice; I swipe left in disgust, though apparently there is a market for this. The middlebrow epic film on themes of historical resonance may be in decline, but the myths of Middle Earth and Hogwarts and Westeros and A Galaxy Far, Far Away keep cycling back in a meta-myth that would no doubt chagrin Joseph Campbell. Financially, these reboots pale next to the searches for superhero figures to save us from an ever-grittier perdition of the supposed real world, a childhood wish extended in a none-too-subtle quest for redemption. Vladimir Putin channels a certain czarist revanchism in his Ukrainian adventure; lesser actors on the world stage, from Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Narendra Modi, likewise gesture toward an imperial power they would surely like to wield.

Putin’s floundering offensive, however, is just one of many markers that suggests old myths, once dented, cannot simply revive themselves with a few well-directed artillery rounds. (I will spare this post any discussion of Make America Great Again or a resurgent socialism.) The absurdity of social media as a news source speaks for itself, and meditation for its own sake is hollow solace when darkness comes. Rock consigned classical music to a niche realm of high cultural appreciation, but now seems to be drifting that way itself as its Boomer progenitors age out of the limelight. The humanities revolted against the white maleness of Western Civilization and have wound up not as newly empowered multicultural wealth of knowledge but instead stumbled into the wilderness. Humanities majors have gone into precipitous decline, with a few loud voices sucking up the oxygen for the culture wars while more and more students spend less and less time in any well-structured place where they can figure out what this whole life thing is for. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

There is nothing particular to the death of Queen Elizabeth, or to the uncertain future of the British Empire, that fills me with sadness. And yet, as I look to a world where more and more people around me seem at a loss for things to ground them in a liquid world, ever more consumed by paralyzing anxieties or resignation in the face of it all, I cannot help but feel a slight tug of emotion when William Blake’s lyrics to “Jerusalem” ring out at Westminster Abbey next week. The Queen, for all her monarchy’s flaws, was a stable part of the world we had, and her passing leaves a void. In some ways it may be a welcome void, but it is a void nonetheless. And any project that does not seek to fill the void with something as compelling, whether national or cultural or educational or personal, will see it filled by something else.