"One of the greatest blessings that the United States could receive in the near future would be to have her industries halted, her business discontinued, her people speechless, a great pause in her world of affairs created. . . . We should be hushed and silent, and we should have the opportunity to learn what other people think."
And here we are, nigh on a century later. As much as I’d like to pile scorn on the US, I find Cage’s sentiments most compelling when they’re applied to the individual, rather than to a specific nation. I’d wager most people, certainly those spending the greatest amount of time on the social internet, have felt their lives overtaken by dispersion these last...many years, and I’d regard any cessation of that familiar howling to be, if not wholly “a good thing”, at least a potentially-useful change of state. I’ve been hemming and hawing about what, if anything, I should say here concerning these troubled and uncertain times...I’ve gotten quite sick of the tendency amongst “artists” (probably better described as “creatives” - somehow just typing that accursèd word leaves a bad taste in my mouth) to make everything now appear to be somehow “about” the coronavirus, which is of course simply the latest manifestation of that perennially tedious careerist belief that one’s art must be “about” something particularly timely, which is a subject I’ve written about at exhaustive length previously.
So, to answer the question on everyone’s lips of late, “how’re you holding up in this unprecedented situation”: odd as it may seem, in all honesty, I’m feeling fine, which strikes me as being a bit heretical. I get the distinct impression that I’m supposed to be bogged down with this titanic fear and bunker-dwelling survivalist dread, or else I’m no better than some traitorous Trvmp-alike. What I think accounts for my “feeling ok” is that, after having spent most of my life feeling desperately isolated, my only friends being Doom, Gloom and Disaster, I finally feel less alone, less like I’m the only one seeing the encroaching darkness. “The rest of you” know what it’s like now, and I don’t mean that at all in a vindictive way, or to suggest that no one else has been depressed, isolated or consumed by darkness - it just feels like the dissonance between my inner and outer lives has finally been resolved. It also makes me feel that, if I can survive wondering every single day since I was 15 if today will be the day that I die (by my own hand or due to outside forces), y’all can make it through this.
Beyond that, the only larger social/economic structures I see “collapsing” from this are the ones that have been rotting away for quite some time, and I can’t be bothered to mourn them. I find it a bit ironic that, from what I see on the internet, the people who’d been chanting the loudest and most belligerently about “breaking the wheel” these last few years are the very ones who’re now the most petulantly upset by having had their capitalist identities put on hold. I really don’t want to be cruel here, and I mean this genuinely, but: what did you think “the end of capitalism” would look like? Did you think that the “new world” would all have been secretly planned out in advance, ready to be swapped over like flicking a light switch? That you could “break the wheel” while still letting it spin around unimpeded? It gives me the sense that many of the self-cast “revolutionaries” and “iconoclasts” of my generation were really just fantasizing about overthrowing kings to become the kings themselves, and were mostly in this “year zero/accelerationism” game as a form of masturbatory self-soothing, or perhaps as the
-approved, atheistic rephrasing of that whole “the meek shall inherit the earth” con. If having to take a break from shopping, going to shows and getting fancy coffee made by the cast of Newsies feels like an inexorable slide into unrelenting cataclysmic chaos, then you never had any business talking about the coming insurrection. It seems society still hasn’t moved past the stage defined by Crowley, back in 1938, as, “the childlike confidence in progress combined with the nightmare fear of catastrophe, against which we are yet half unwilling to take precautions.”
I’ve been personally hearing that “we live in uncertain times” since...I don’t know, 2001? Probably right around 9/11. That particular phrase has been done to death by seemingly everyone, talking about seemingly everything, from every point on the socio-political spectrum; as such, I don’t understand how its supposed to carry any weight anymore. When the planes hit the towers, we were told we now lived in uncertain times. When the US invaded Iraq, times were revealed to be uncertain. When Al Gore told us the waters were coming, the times, yea, they were uncertain. When the markets crashed in ‘08, when the Maya apocalypse was nigh, when ISIL made their debut, when Prince, Leonard & Bowie died, when England bowed out of the EU, when Trvmp got elected, when that Swedish girl picked up on Gorestradamus’s prophecies...on and on and on and on, this idea was wheeled out that, now, not before, we were truly in uncertain times. All this century, I’ve felt like a foie gras goose, being stuffed to bursting with all these certain pronouncements of novel uncertainty, and I think I may finally have had my poor little metaphorical avian liver ruptured.
Might it not be that...you know...we’ve always lived in uncertain times? That uncertainty is, perhaps, a central principle of existence (if not the central principle)? I was born in the 1980s, into a world still obsessed with its seemingly-imminent demise in a nuclear holocaust. Chernobyl was fresh in everyone’s minds, and Germany, my father’s homeland (from which he’d been exiled) was still bitterly divided between East and West, each side feeling that they would end up being the frontlines of World War 3. The sainted 90s, the millennial beforetimes, were, looking back, a horribly uncertain decade, with a continuing AIDS crisis, difficult transitions into democracy/capitalism for the former Soviet states, the first Gulf War, the Balkan genocide, the Irish Troubles, catastrophic earthquakes, Japanese terrorist attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber, the Waco siege, Heaven’s Gate, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Columbine, and looming fears about some manner of Y2K-initiated descent into either Thee Newe Dark Ages™ or a Terminator-type AI hell-on-earth. If this much tumult is readily apparent in a decade generally remembered nostalgically as “a good one”, as the warm duvet we’re supposed to pull up to our quivering chins, then it seems abundantly clear to me that “certainty” has only ever been an illusion.
I’d say there are a few things going on with this idea that the “uncertain times” we’re currently experiencing are different from those of the past. The first is simply that we didn’t have the internet back then, but it’s also that my generation didn’t live through the 1960s, for example, so we didn’t personally experience that time of social upheaval (the Red Scare, the assassinations of MLK, JFK and RFK, the space race, the Bay of Pigs, etc.). The same goes for other eras and events that were “before our time”, like the Great Leap Forward, McCarthyism, both World Wars, the Great Depression, the Weimar Republic, Spanish Flu, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Industrial Revolution, Tsarist pogroms, the American Civil War, the English Civil War, the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, the Mongol invasions, the Black Death, the Norman Conquest, Viking raids, the decline of the Roman Empire, the Sea People...we only experience what we actually experience, so it’s easy to think we’re the only ones who’ve ever felt the things we’re feeling. I also think people do, quite often, simply forget things - few Oscar-winning movies seem to truly live beyond Oscar season, for example, and I’d say the same goes for a large portion of the albums and books that end up on various year-end “best of” lists. We get briefly enchanted by something, and in the moment tell ourselves that this is it, but when the lustre fades and the new thing comes along, the intensity of those suddenly-old feelings is promptly dispersed (which is fine - nothing wrong with having liked and then forgotten about Moonlight, but it is worth noticing the pattern). I try to stay fairly attuned to process this in myself, but I’d like to thank my archaeologist wife for being an ever-present reminder that there’s nothing terribly new in the horrors of the world. I’m put in mind of one of my absolute favourite song lyrics, from Gastr Del Sol’s Blues Subtitled No Sense Of Wonder:
“Most blues are subtitled either ‘no sense of wonder’ or ‘no sense of scale’.”
I’m not arguing that “the world right now” isn’t scary, but rather that it’s always been scary, we just weren’t around to see it, or if we were, we weren’t aware of it, for a multitude of reasons. Reckoning with horror and the unknown have always been a part of life, and in essence what we’ve been experiencing for the last decade+ is simply Leeloo Dallas Multipass googling “war” and going comatose. My aim here is to suggest that, if you’ve ever considered your life to be “ok”, then it still is, or at least it hasn’t suddenly stopped being that way because you became aware of something that was already taking place. To offer a personal example: I grew up in a particularly violent area, and when I was in 6th grade, a beheaded body was found four doors down from my house, sprawled out on the sidewalk. As we all soon discovered, one of the local gangs had decided to “send a message” to their rivals by snatching one of their members and executing him, leaving his body at the end of my street and his head a couple blocks away, on his parents’ doorstep. This was, obviously, an unthinkably terrible event, to say the least, but it doesn’t negate the reality of my own experience, of having grown up in a loving home, of having survived, of my childhood having been a good one. The skill is to be able to allow both to be real - that unfortunate man really did get killed, really was dismembered and left like trash on the side of the road, and I really did have a nice family and a warm home in which to grow. My childhood’s “ok-ness” can’t undo the horror of that poor soul’s end, nor does his horrific death invalidate my experience. They are both real, both accurate, both eternal.
I’d really like someone to find me some specific examples of these misty and romantic “certain times”. I’m only half being a dick here - I really would like to know what people would offer as examples, and I’d be very interested to see if any of those examples amounted to anything more than “childhood”. As far as I can tell, that’s ultimately what we’re saying with this stuff: “I used to be young, and untroubled, but then I got older, and became troubled”. When I think back to, say, 1995, it does indeed seem like a more reassuring and light-hearted time, but I have to remind myself that that’s because I was a kid. As long as I got my homework done in time to watch The Simpsons, I was
- no bills to pay, no cars to drive, no elections to vote in, no retirement to plan for. The horrors on TV were nothing more than movies I didn’t want to watch, the OJ Simpson trial merely an annoyance for its constant preempting of the true Simpsons.
I’m not suggesting that “everything is fine”, in that trite, wookish way, nor am I saying that our current issues not being “novel” means that there’s “nothing to be concerned about” with the ‘rona, et al. I do, however, feel myself constantly looking around in bewilderment saying, “have we really forgotten about AIDS?” It seems to me that we never fully understood how devastatingly unprecedented (to us the word of the day) that virus was, and I’d argue that this was simply because, so long as you weren’t a homosexual man and/or a heroin addict, you could say to yourself that it didn’t affect you. If one is inclined to see the certifiably evil utterances coming out of the Trvmp camp as being new and novel, I’d suggest reflecting on some of the particularly inhuman pronouncements issued by various members of British government in response to AIDS:
“If you want a queer for a neighbour, vote Labour.” - Conservative party campaign slogan, 1985
“Those bunch of queers that legalise filth in homosexuality have a lot to answer for, and I hope they’re proud of what they’ve done. As a cure I would put 90 percent of queers in the ruddy gas chamber.” - William Frank Brownhill
“AIDS is a self-inflicted scourge, [resulting from homosexual men, et al] swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making.” - James Anderton
“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” - Margaret Thatcher
“Their defiling act of love is not only unnatural; in today’s AIDS-hit world it is LETHAL. What Britain needs is more men like James Anderton - and fewer gay terrorists holding the decent members of society to ransom.” - The Sun
“WHEN BEING GAY SHOULD BE A CRIME” - headline of The Standard
In 1988, bringing the above-quoted sentiments to a legislative head, the British government instituted Section 28, which stated that local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality, or promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". Section 28 wasn’t repealed until 2000, and yet I’d wager the general picture of “Britain in the 1990s” had more to do with the Spice Girls, Blur vs Oasis, Liz Hurley, Damien Hirst, Guy Ritchie, or any of the other pop-cultural jingoism that swept the media world as “Cool Britannia”, than it did the unchallenged legacy of Thatcherite homophobia.
We’ve generally been able to see many of the issues of the past as only concerning “that lot over there”, as not being, really, about all of us. They could say that AIDS “only affected gays and junkies”, and thereby dismiss it as not being a “real crisis” (since what good Christian person would want those types to stick around). SARS was “a Chinese problem”, and since “we aren’t Chinese”, it wasn’t a big deal. “Ebola only affected Africans”, the same kind of thinking went, and on and on and on. White people could say civil rights was only a struggle for the non-white, straight people that marriage equality was only for the not-straight, men that access to abortion and birth control were women’s problems, gentiles that the holocaust “was only bad for the Jews”. As such, the true “novelty” in what’s happening these days is that the tired line about it being “not my problem” isn’t holding up the way it has before, which I consider to be a very good thing. As my great-grandmother could have confirmed, had she not been “euthanized for the genetic integrity of the Reich”, anyone can become “the other”, and there, but for the grace of gods, go us all. The single most helpful realization any of us can come to is that, anything that can happen to a person, can happen to us personally - the subjective realization of this truth teaches compassion and understanding in a way that no impersonal doctrine ever could. Perhaps the mementos mori of days gone by really were, in fact, helpful reminders of a universal truth, and not the mere morbid talismans we see them as today.
In an attempt to reign this all in a little bit, since I’m getting tired and would like to move on with my day, my point here is not so much that these mythic “certain times” never existed, but rather that they were always completely personal and subjective, and really had nothing to do with “the world at large”, being entirely about one’s own internal sense of things, and one’s own place within a specific familial/social context. I also think it’s worth remembering that, whenever you think what you’ve experienced is unique (and particularly when you feel it’s uniquely horrible), our species has lived through millennia of uncertainty, and we’re still here, for better and for worse, so buck up - you’ve got this. Your human ancestors endured incredible difficulty to bring you here, and before them, all of life itself struggled unyieldingly to manifest itself as everything. That prehistoric fish who first crawled onto land was dreaming of becoming you, of what he would encounter on the long road of consciousness, of all the forms he would take, all the lives he would lead. All the suffering, all the joy, has only ever been the rhythm of his little fins on the mud, pulling life resolutely onward.
Rejoice! Your world is ended.