Human society is journeying to a terrible place. — Arundhati Roy
What’s the use of imaginative literature? None whatsoever.
That is, it cannot be made to accomplish anything.
Not, at any rate, if you view the single work or author under the sign of the isolation to which a commercial and individualist mindset has condemned our view of art.
And yet: the collective function of any art form is to bring consciousness into a different relationship to reality.
For there is an “out there” that is impervious to our wishes—yet, at the same time, needs always to be invented.
“Creative” writers might be compared to the throngs of micro-organisms that pervade healthy soil, their presence crucial to plants’ assimilation of essential nutrients. These nutrients—these infusions of ever-evolving reality—are composted from a blend of so-called timeless universals (love, death, and the changing of the seasons, let’s say) with historical specifics. Shortly before the start of my own life—I was born in 1950, on the coast of Oregon—another element was added to the mix: when my country “nuked” the civilian populations of two Japanese cities, human beings realized that their own kind (white Americans, scientists, militarists, men—the qualifiers mean everything and nothing) had finally created an efficient means of bringing about the end of the world. Ever since then, our species has been on suicide watch—much of the time, unfortunately, more in the spirit of a spectator sport than a preventive maneuver.
The famous “generation gap” of my own adolescence has for me a quite specific meaning, signifying a divide more acute than that between the generations of an immigrant family born into radically different environments: I count myself a member of the first generation to be required to assimilate the fact of our species mortality at almost the same time that I became aware of death as an individual fate. Having to confront, repeatedly, that image of the death of the world has been for me the worst experience of my life (evidence, I realize, of my personal good fortune as much as of the horror of our position in history). And so, with the thought that my lifelong sensitivity might as well be put to use, I take up the double task of this blog: to think in public about how we are living with The End (by which I mean, of course, no certainty of ending—not that yet, thank god–but the radical new mortality we’ve bestowed on our planet); and to think, as well, of what The End signifies for the enterprise of imaginative writing.
I’m not concerned simply with the notion that poetry and fiction need to take on as content the possible scenarios of species demise. I want also to think about the implications for form, and about how our imaginations themselves have shifted, or will have to shift soon, in response to what is.
If one crucial function of literature is to help us access the mythic in the midst of the ordinary, then what are the effects on that process of a break in the hitherto unassailable chain of past-present-future, such as is now occurring, both on the level of the imagination and on that of Earth’s beleaguered physical existence? (For what are mass extinctions and uncontrolled climate change if not assaults on our ancient notions of security in time?) What does it mean to say, in our era, that poetry is concerned with “love, death, and the changing of the season”? Is love, which has to work so hard to cope with merely individual loss, up to the test being posed by the looming vision of a stripped planet, devoid of the after-comers who ought to do the connective work of mourning that always follows catastrophe?
In my early years, the culture possessed a monolithic language for expressing these concerns: the narrative of the Bomb, a “master narrative” if there ever was one. On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove, and popular songs like “Eve of Destruction” and Bob Dylan’s “Talking World War III Blues” expressed the vision of an Apocalypse not too far out of line with Biblical models. These works of the imagination definitely had a horrifying basis in the actual history of the period; a news article on a recent reissue of Dr. Strangelove quotes Daniel Ellsberg as saying that when he saw the movie shortly after it first came out, he remarked to a companion, “That was a documentary.” Popular works like these often criticized the “masters of war,” but their focus inevitably also encouraged more attention to and even identification with the awesome power of those who had a “finger on the button” and might singlehandedly determine the fate of the Earth.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, the options for death-dealing really got spread around. Now, one who lived through the psychic terror of the fifties and early sixties, and the resurgence of nuclear fear and anti-nuclear activism in the early 1980’s, may recognize the return of a theme with a difference. The smoking gun a mushroom cloud, anyone?
Not for nothing is the site of the World Trade Center dubbed Ground Zero. The images of apocalypse which, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, were supposed to have acquired an almost kitschy charm are back, without the horrid yet on some level comforting tidiness of Mutually Assured Destruction. As the rank injustices that breed endless conflicts grow ever more rancid, and the devastation of land and sea becomes so pervasive that we are pushed to see the term “environment” for the glaring misnomer it is (casting the Earth as something outside ourselves, something we are on, not everything we are), the authentic story of disaster grows more complicated, ragged. Less attractively streamlined; less Hollywood-friendly, and a lot less flattering to the necropols.
This ill-starred and ill-advised journey holds out astonishing literary potential.
“Always look on the bright side of death,” Monty Python advised.
In an optimistic moment, one can see for the first time that the protagonist is the whole! The correlation of forces bodes no good, but at least now the reckoning must include everyone. (The old, monolithic Masters of Narrative should have deleted us while they still had a chance to accomplish their work in a single afternoon.)
For now—never mind what happens down the road—The People(s) are rising up to compose their own jagged narratives of creation and destruction. To sing their songs of seasons unmoored. To tell the tale of what continues, for as long as it continues. To imagine the travail of the Beloved Patient.
Whose prognosis will be terrible for a long time to come.
To Be Continued….
Winter of 2005: I hear on the radio an ad, one like thousands of others, for a “Best of Barbados vacation.” I am invited to purchase exposure to “breathtaking natural beauty.” “You can still hear the tree frogs” is the pitch. It’s that still that devastates me, with its implicit how long? The way the stilll is just taken for granted. It’s accepted, on some level, that nature is going away—and I’m expected to enjoy it in the midst of its vanishing. (Perhaps I am being asked to enjoy its vanishing? To enjoy my role as consumer of its vanishing, a consumption that, pace the proponents of eco-tourism as an environmental boon, is probably helping it to disappear faster?) (And what about the citizens of Barbados? How do they experience that still?)
February 9, 2005 : David Edwards of Media Lens summarizes a BBC report on the diminishing effect of “global dimming”: due to lowered levels of particulate matter in the atmosphere, global temperatures might rise twice as rapidly as hitherto predicted, with catastrophic consequences. For instance, reservoirs of frozen methane under the seas might thaw. Ten thousand billion tons of the gas could enter the atmosphere, ending the conditions permitting human life on earth. (I wonder, but the report does not specify, if any life would survive the methane release.)
March, 2005: “We’ll get through this,” a friend chides, reproving my weakness when I gesture at the grim political moment. When I say I’m not so sure about that, and use the phrase “global warming” as shorthand for the throng of potential disasters I envision, she counters with a bit of received cynicism: “We’ll be gone by then.”
Is this what it means to be middle-aged now: “we’ll be gone by then” must become our optimism? (Is this how other people have reacted when their world came to an end? Chinua Achebe’s tragic hero Okonkwo was proactive: he hanged himself.)
Another friend my age tells me her son spends way too much time reading “crazy, apocalyptic” stuff. “Or maybe not crazy,” she amends, “but I tell him, you can’t keep focusing on this. I can’t look at the big picture all the time. I have to focus on the little part that I can affect directly. I used to read a lot of political theory. I don’t do that anymore. It’s way too depressing.”
April 9, 2005: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes a column, “Nukes Are Green,” touting nuclear power as the earth-saving solution to “our” energy needs. I feel a tiny, familiar wave of fury and despair—I should have known: doesn’t their having fucked us up good always serve as the excuse for fucking us a few times more? It reminds me of the Bush Administration using higher mortality rates for African-Americans as justification for the assault on Social Security. Kristof’s column runs opposite an editorial decrying the vulnerability to terrorist attack of cooling pools at nuclear reactor sites.
April 11, 2005: My poetry group meets. Bea reads a beautiful draft of a poem that might be about the end of the world. In response to a line about “a relentless ellipsis and fewer kinds of song,” Steve expresses puzzlement—aren’t there actually more kinds of song? No, he is told, many species of songbirds that were around when he was young have since become extinct. This is news to him—“such a city boy,” as he says. I realize for the umpteenth time that I live surrounded by millions of people for whom the life of the Earth lies so far outside the pale of their imagining that it possesses no realistic features at all. It belongs to the past. It happens upstate. It strikes them as purely theoretical.
April 12, 2005: I open the New York Times, looking to see if there will be a new article about the outbreak in Angola of the hemorrhagic virus known as Marburg—and, if so, will the coverage have migrated nearer to the front page than the last time I looked? There are two articles, taking up all of page three. I read them, feeling indignant about the lack of decent healthcare in Angola. (A spokesman for the World Health Organization is quoted as saying that a health worker in Africa is like “a fireman in a village with the whole village on fire.”) But more than that, I am thinking that there is no decent public health system here. I wonder why these articles, unlike the ones about SARS and avian influenza, don’t talk about the possibility that the virus could come here. I am noticing that this Marburg virus sounds a lot like the plague that finishes humanity off at the end of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. And this is what’s so shameful about fearing for “the world.” As it was in my childhood, when “we,” the Great Nuclear Powers, saw ourselves at the center of the apocalyptic drama, so fear for “the world” today is always bound up with the imagination’s special pleading on behalf of privilege. (As long as the virus remains in Africa, “the world” is not ending; only Africa is in torment. But if it comes here….)