Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Saturday, July 2, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 11

11: Apocalypse

Following Orlando.

“Jo, get up,” pleaded Cox’s assistant, Fazila Aswat, as the politician lay dying. “No, my pain is too much,” Cox replied, her last words.

-- from a New York Times column by Roger Cohen about the assassination of MP Jo Cox and the possibility of the Brexit vote passing

It’s the first day of summer, a beautiful blue, refreshing Carolina day with warm but pleasant temperatures, following an unusually hot late spring. The first tomatoes and peppers are in in the garden, the daylilies and phlox and beebalm and blackeyed susans are in full bloom, as the fragrant oriental lilies, with their huge flowers, begin to open. It’s the green promise of life we get given every year, whether we deserve it or not.

… So, life is good. Then why o why am I feeling so morose and grumpy? It’s a bit like I’m seeing the world through heavily tinted glasses and I feel tired, not refreshed. My symptoms are the classic signs of depression, I know, but I also know I’m generally not prone to depression and nothing particularly horrible is happening in my personal life to bring it on.

I could blame all this on current events, I guess. It’s a week after the horrible massacre in Orlando, and just past the anniversary of the equally senseless killings in Charleston… each committed by an unhappy and disturbed and murderously angry guy… each citing some vague, wacko political excuse, but clearly each just another lost and confused and dangerous young man. The lost-confused-angry-dangerous young man is a species we now see are all over the landscape out there, like volcanic geysers, waiting to blow. 

The killings bring with them a kind of deadening feeling of futility, as public reaction inevitably gravitates to common hot-button anger topics – ISIS! Islamic extremism! Homophobia! Racism! Mental illness! Godlessness! – and, for the umpteenth time to calls for laws to prevent disturbed people from getting weapons of mass destruction… and, simultaneously, for angry opposing arguments by heavy-weaponry-obsessed gun fanatics, who, it seems, will lose all will to live unless they can stock their homes like military armories. Locked in place in this irrational policy battle, we all know nothing will change.

Then there’s the currently presidential campaign, which a severely disillusioned friend of mine keeps referring to as “the worst election ever.” I’m a democrat and don’t think that Hillary is so bad, but I acknowledge that many, many people out there dislike her with an intensity that makes the word “loathing” seem mild. I’m not completely sure why this is – a bad memory of the Bill Clinton years, perhaps, when things got creepy and selfish in this country, or a subliminal reaction to seeing a strong, ambitious woman, or simply disgust with the political class, which she definitely belongs to… for me, the foaming-at-the mouth angry reaction of people to her is even more disturbing than some of these dark echoes in the candidate. And then there is Trump.

Trump, of course, is a disturbing topic and an essay in himself, but let me say briefly that he is a shock to my sensibility, as he is to the sensibilities of so many others, in that he seems to be a complete violation of what we might call "our American ideals” -- the bedrock rules of our country’s established political culture and of public decency and discourse. While people on the right might believe, as Barry Goldwater once said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” (meaning that a certain amount of totalitarian behavior is allowable in pursuing conservative ideological principles), this guy is ugly, mean, childish, a foul-mouthed bully, an open racist, an open xenophobe, an inciter of mob violence… all in the service of nothing more than his own monstrous ego, a near satanic triumph of public narcissism that offends huge chunks of people from both sides of the political spectrum. Comparisons have been drawn to Hitler, history’s quintessential mad, monstrous leader, and, while that is perhaps still an offensive overstatement, the clear parallels are there. It hardly seems possible to imagine that someone like this could be the nominee of one of the major political parties in this country – he’s so surreal that it feels like a bad dream.

But what I (and almost everyone I know) really am disturbed by most is the fact that approximately a fifth of the country are people who are so ignorant or ugly themselves that they like this thug, and that fully a third of the country are so politically callous that they might be willing to vote for him if he just mumbles the right political doctrine. These people are all around me -- neighbors, even friends -- and the thought that they are okay with social evil and political tyranny is, well, deeply depressing.

But, in the end, I guess I’m forced to conclude that Trump and other political nightmares roaming the countryside are themselves just symptoms (rather than causes) of an overwhelming cultural ennui, as the French would call it (it’s perhaps close to what the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called “la nausee” – nausea, a kind of existential panic), that everyone seems to be feeling. Gloom, unease and discontent seem to be in the water.

Okay, we're blue. But why? And so what?

A diversion into fantasy.

As I said, it’s summer, sweet summer, and I, like many other people I know, take the time to indulge in fun, light, entertaining “beach reading.” My particular summer genre is science fiction-fantasy-horror and there are always a couple of the “usual suspects” blockbusters out there for me to read. This year, I got the new Joe Hill ( a horror/fantasy writer who happens to be Stephen King’s son) novel “The Fireman” and Justin Cronin’s “The City of Mirrors,” the last in his vampire-novel “Passage” trilogy. I finished the first and was about a fifth through the second, when suddenly I realized that the novels were very similar – they are both apocalyptic global plague novels. I guess I have a fondness for this kind of stuff, but the more I started thinking about it, the more I realized that a huge chunk of sci-fy/fantasy literature these days are apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) novels. Zombie apocalypse – need I say anything more? It seems that when our imaginations turn to the future, that’s what it sees, not flying cars and miraculous brave new worlds. And in adolescent lit it’s the same thing – there is a whole new genre, in fact, of what is called “dystopian fiction” (“The Hunger Games,” “The Fifth Wave,” even -- in some ways -- the “Twilight” novels), in which plucky teens rebel against the monstrous new order that they have been born into.

So this is the fantasy that we indulge in – the world is falling apart and we are all, more or less, horribly screwed! Everything ends, badly and irrevocably -- what larks! Why so glum, America? We can't say it's Trump, or even modern dysfunctional politics, because this trend in our imaginative life well preceded all of that. "The Road," "The Stand," "Mad Max," "Waterworld" (okay, now I'm getting too dark… sorry)… bleak visions that proceed The Donald and government shutdowns.

Since I’ve been struggling to understand my own odd malaise, I’ve been considering larger answers. Yes, I’m equating a negative view of life with a negative imagination and negative future outlook and basically saying it’s somehow the same thing as feeling depressed. I know these are all apples and oranges and bananas and that I’m oversimplifying, but I also know that on a fundamental level, it's all the same when things are going rotten: it’s black fruit of the poisoned tree.

With that in mind, one of the first things I began to consider when I tried to find the root of my feelings was something basic and banal – my own physical condition. I’m approaching (if I haven’t already reached) senior citizen status and old people have what society used to call (for a reason) “complaints.” Since turning 60 a year ago, I’ve been afflicted by a number – hands and feet that ache with arthritis (or so the doctor thinks), pronounced stiffness in the joints and lack of flexibility, some memory loss (no, I’m not worried about Alzheimer’s – this is pretty typical for someone my age), some noticeable loss of strength, some sleep problems, including early morning wakefulness and mid-day sleepiness, etc., etc. Yes, I do exercise daily and try to eat right – though I’m overweight – but, contrary to the modern health myths, you can’t get older without feeling older. We are all mortal, and the body ages, some bodies faster than others. I guess I’m both a realist and a pessimist on this (more on pessimism later), but I’ve accepted my own physical decline, and I’m here to tell you that acceptance may feel honest, but it still sucks and does very little to make you feel better. When you reach the age where things hurt pretty constantly, you are constantly reminded that (1) they didn’t use to hurt that way and (2) there is no turning back. That, my friends, is depressing. This is why old people are commonly characterized as grumpy and cranky (guilty on all counts!).

So that’s part of what is making me see the world as wrecked/bad/falling apart/coming to the end, but what about everyone else? Well, I’m a Baby Boomer, and it bears remembering that my generation, by virtue of its size, has always had an unfortunately outsize influence on our culture… and we are all feeling pretty old (I’m actually one of the younger boomers). This is why you have to sit through all those Viagra/Cialis, constipation, irritable bowel, cancer therapy (etc., etc.) drug commercials on TV – we boomers are legion, and all we are thinking about are all our physical complaints, and wishing that there was a magic pill to cure them. It doesn’t help that my generation was once dubbed “the young generation” (“Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees!”). Somehow, many of us got conned into thinking it would always be that way. Bummer, man, bummer.

Neil Young, also old.
Keith Richards

So the aging of things, specifically the aging of our personal things is a large-scale negative influence that is shading our whole society. And it’s not just our bodies. It’s hardly a revelation to say that our country, both in terms of its economic health and in terms of power and global authority, is aging too. As has been said by many, we’re at the tail end of our empire, our century of glory, our Pax Americana and that is upsetting for the whole country, since we have all only known nothing but the glories of empire. Our national mythology is full of “America the Beautiful” with waves of golden grain and fruitful plains, with alabaster cities gleaming, with truth and brotherhood from sea to shining sea, and mainly with fairly non-stop growth, prosperity and expansion. As we all learned in school, this was fueled first by the open and seemingly endless frontier, “left” to us by Native Americans vanquished by disease and gun (and, yes, made affordable and profitable by slavery and cheap immigrant labor). Once that began to close, we had world war, which left us largely untouched and also militarily triumphant – in many ways, we owned the world and got to keep expanding into it.

But all things must end, and global development (which still enriches us) and globalism (which enriches only a few of us) has now brought us to the stage where the fat, easy days of empire and dominance are ending. Trump may claim that he is going to “make America great again,” but even his most gullible followers know that this isn’t really going to be so (though they like his attitude). The age of lucky, arrogant, selfish, bullying "great" is, inevitably, passing.

It’s worth noting that the passing of empires is rarely happy news for anyone. The passing of the Roman Empire led to centuries of feudal darkness, disease and violence. The slow passing of the Islamic Empire led to the colonization of it’s lands and the lasting humiliation of its peoples and contributed to the chaos that began the first world war. The collapse of the colonial empires (particularly the British Empire) led directly to the horror of the world wars and the fear of the Cold War that followed. When empires die, the world has to shift and re-arrange, and that that transition is rarely smooth and peaceful. It's the recurring historical point that Yeats talks about in "The Second Coming" where "the falcon cannot hear the falconer" and "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed." This is all dark, hysterical-sounding doom talk, of course, the stuff of poetry, not of everyday life, but it’s also something we all fear is true.

It’s really just change, of course, and change is and always has been a constant feature of reality. But it’s also change in just one direction – aging – and we all know what that leads to. No wonder, I guess, that I am depressed, that the country is depressed, that everything is going haywire and falling apart. It’s not like this feeling is sudden or new either, because we have been building up to it. To go back to thinking about all those dystopian novels our young people are reading, it bears reminding that they are not altogether new. In my youth we already had “1984” and “Brave New World” and “The Time Machine” and then “Lord of the Flies” and “A Clockwork Orange” (“hello darkness, my old friend!”). While we still thought dreamily about “explor(ing) new worlds and new civilizations” and “boldly go(ing) where no man has gone before,” we were also beginning to sense that it might not go so well, and there was a slowly creeping feeling of gloom.

So, summer. All sing cuckoo!

One of my favorite songs from the young, folky, early hippy era of my youth (which, yes, was full of flower children and peaceful protest, but was also in the constant shadow of The Bomb) was a song by Richard Farina (a local favorite in my hometown), “Children of Darkness”:

Now is the time for your loving, dear
And the time for your company
Now when the light of reason fails
And fires burn on the sea
Now in this age of confusion
I have need for your company

For I am a wild and a lonely child
And the son of an angry man
And now with the high wars raging
I would offer you my hand
For we are the children of darkness
And the prey of a foul command

It's once I was free to go roaming in
The wind of the springtime mind
And once the clouds I sailed upon
Were sweet as lilac wine
Then why have the breezes of summer, dear
Been laced with a grim design?

The song and the feeling have always haunted me. So, this takes me back to where I began, wondering “why have the breezes of summer… been laced with a grim design?” Farina, like the rest of the generation of my youth, was of course staring into the black maw of Vietnam and, as we all know (and Neil Young sings) this dreadful, nihilistic war “did slowly go by.”

So, I fervently hope, this too shall pass. But first we have to get by Trump -- our own “Apocalypse Now.” Good luck, my fellow Children of Darkness… And snap out of your self pity -- there are still wars to fight.

No comments:

Post a Comment