I’m in Trout Lake, Washington, visiting my parents. They live in a beautiful place, surrounded by evergreens, bordered by the narrow, fast-running White Salmon River, which feeds off snow fields on nearby Mt. Adams, one of the highest volcanic peaks in the state. I’m saying goodbye to this place, which I have been getting to know and love for the past 30 years, in a triple sense: (1) because my parents are in the process of moving to Vancouver, and I won’t be coming back, at least not regularly; (2) because the area, like every beautiful place I’ve ever loved, is threatened by increasing development pressures; (3) because I can’t help obsessing about global warming, wondering how this land is going to be changed, what will happen to its seasons, its water table, the balances that sustain plants and animal species. Will Mt. Adams still have glaciers a hundred years from now? (My sister just told me there was no ski season in the Cascades this past winter because of severe drought and lack of snow—just a “natural” variation, or harbinger of more severe aberrations to come?)
In the midst of such thoughts, I’ve been reading an article in the June Harper’s: “Buried Suns: The Past and Possible Future of America’s Nuclear-testing Program” by David Samuels. Even though the point of the article is that the U.S. may soon resume testing nuclear weapons, the writing partakes of a phenomenon I’ve been noticing a lot of recently, a sort of Cold War nostalgia. It strikes me that a number of us have begun to miss the days when the technology of ultimate destruction was in sole possession of the superpowers, days when guys like JFK had their finger on the button, when brains like Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller were in charge of the technical end. (There’s a very interesting piece by Vivian Gornick, “Creator and Destroyer: A Rivalry to End the World,” on the dangerous competition between the two atomic patriarchs, in the current issue of Boston Review, occasioned by a spate of new biographies whose publication may be yet another symptom of a renewed fascination with an obsolete apocalypse.) Apparently enough time has passed that Mutually Assured Destruction appears both quaint—a charming relic of decades past—and somehow romantic (possibly another Good War). The Harper’s piece is accompanied by a series of horribly fascinating photographs of nuclear tests from a series called “100 SUNS” by Michael Light; the Hosfelt Gallery of San Francisco is credited with supplying the nuclear art. I was reminded of a book I encountered recently that documents a project in which a photographer goes around the world taking pictures of fallout shelters—relics that, in their various states of repair and disrepair, speak to the worldview of a time that now seems almost unimaginably remote (a time when preparations for The End of the World could take a specific architectural form, because the ultimate threat was understood to be linear, contained—as to its cause, if not its effects, anyway).
The Harper’s article describes the author’s interview with Troy Wade, assistant secretary of energy under Reagan and the founder of the not yet opened Atomic Test Site Museum, presumably another instance of nuclear nostalgia in the making. (“‘Let me tell you,’ [Wade] says, ‘the specter of seeing this mushroom cloud…You can actually see the shock wave coming across the desert at you, and when it hits you, you feel the thermal effects and you feel the shock, and it’ll knock you right flat on your butt. I became a better American and a better patriot and a better God-fearing man because I did see them.’” [p. 67] ) I remembered the bitterly sardonic passage in David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration–the piece is called “In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon All This Will be Picturesque Ruins” –where the narrator visits a bomb museum in the southwestern desert and observes that the only way Americans can deal with death is by “owning” it.
Wojnarowiz’s book is, of course, an AIDS memoir. I am struck by the fact that the structure of his book connects AIDS and the nuclear threat, without, fortunately, making any attempt to force one issue to “symbolize” the other. I wonder who else has made this connection, besides Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Richard Mohr, whose comment on the topic she footnotes at the end of the following thought-proking passage from Epistemology of the Closet:
“Unlike genocide directed against Jews, Native Americans, Africans, or other groups, then, gay genocide, the once-and-for-all eradication of gay populations, however potent and sustained as a project or fantasy of modern Western culture, is not possible short of the eradication of the whole human species. The impulse of the species toward its own eradication must not either, however, be underestimated. Neither must the profundity with which that omnicidal impulse is entangled with the modern problematic of the homosexual: the double bind of definition between the homosexual, say, as a distinct risk group, and the homosexual as a potential of representation within the universal” (130).
Sedgwick’s footnote then quotes from Richard Mohr’s “Policy, Ritual, Purity: Gays and Mandatory AIDS Testing” (cited as forthcoming in the journal Law, Medicine, and Healthcare): “AIDS social policy has become a body accelerated under the gravitational pull of our anxieties about nuclear destruction. Doing anything significant to alleviate the prospects of the joint death of everything that can die is effectively out of the reach of any ordinary individual and indeed of any political group now in existence. So individuals transfer the focus of their anxieties from nuclear omnicide to AIDS, by which they feel equally and similarly threatened, but about which they think they can do something—at least through government. AIDS coercion is doing double duty as a source of sacred values and as a vent for universal anxieties over universal destruction.”
How does the Cold War imaginary of nuclear “holocaust” serve as the grounding for other fears (epidemics, climate disasters) without necessarily maintaining its place as primary, as the template for all the others (now that destructive power has become so fragmented and hence, perhaps, even less controllable)? How do these free-floating, thus far fictional narratives of total disaster interact with and exacerbate psychotic fantasies of world-death? (Robert Jay Lifton has recently built on his important research into the psychological effects of nuclear fears—the syndrome he calls “nuclearism”—with work on Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese end-of-the-world cult that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system.)
What does it mean that we keep telling ourselves the story of the end of the world in these various guises? (“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice….”) And yes, I submit that we all keep telling ourselves these stories; even those of us who dismiss them, who take pride in scoffing at “Chicken Littles” and “doomsayers,” must be expending considerable psychic energy propping up their own optimistic defenses.
On Sunday, I sat with my friends Howard and Grey in the kitchen of their elegant, simple old frame house in Southeast Portland. Once we’d gotten caught up on each other’s lives, the talk turned to first and last things. I heard again about the famous New Yorker series on global warming, which I have yet to read. “I don’t know how the environmentalists are even managing to keep going,” Grey said. Howard recapped the trajectory forecast by the series: a vicious cycle with a point of no return that may already have been reached. Grey, who’s about to become a grandmother, said that now she wonders, as she never did in the old days, about what it means to have kids, given the state of things. The two of them went through the usual litany of conjecture: as far as global warming goes, it won’t be so bad for the ones now being born. But as for the following generation….
When has human consciousness known such a strange predicament? To live in relative safety, in a world that looks more or less intact (at least so far as the daily experiences of middle-class Americans are concerned), while contemplating that a global process, already far advanced, may utterly wreck the lives of our children’s children’s children. Even the hideous surrealism of everyday life in the 50’s and 60’s under the shadow of the ICBM’s can’t quite compare with it.
I want to acknowledge that there is a level of dangerous melodrama connected with this narrative of the end—i.e. the possibility that painting this supposed future horror with such a broad brush may simply paralyze us further, especially given the fact that most people’s confidence in their own ability to intervene productively in history is not exactly at an all-time high. At the same time, I want to insist that suppressing the discussion accomplishes nothing. I want to argue vigorously against those who counsel that looking at the broad picture is too much for us to bear, that we should therefore block out the horrifying long view and preserve our sanity by retreating into purely local short-term action.
In the 1970’s, when I was already living in New York and made one of my summer trips back to the Pacific Northwest, I went on a backpacking trip to the Wallowa Mountains in eastern Oregon. The trip was for women only, led by a couple of young guides who were expert outdoorswomen and knew the area very well. I remember talking with one of them about her expressed sense that “wilderness” was a vanishing item. How, I asked her, could she bear to immerse herself in a place she clearly loved so passionately, if she thought it was doomed? I can’t remember everything she said about her coping mechanisms, only that she acknowledged the difficulty while admitting, her voice all wincing irony, that she’d made the calculation: “It will probably last my time.”
In the few decades since then, we’ve managed to reach the point where “it will probably last my time” could well become an entire planet’s epitaph.
June 7, 2005
Bolivia. Bolivia. Bolivia. Bolivia. Bolivia.
I saw this morning on “Democracy Now!” the pictures of the masked demonstrators in the streets of La Paz, demanding the nationalization of the country’s energy reserves—demanding, as well, a revised constitution with more clout for the indigenous population. The truth is that I felt a twinge of fear—and at the same time, such hope–to see the “power of the people” on display. It’s still there, that power. George and Dick and Condi can’t make it go away. (What are they going to do, occupy Bolivia?)
And just think: Bolivia’s natural gas deposits are the second largest in South America, after those of Venezuela—another thorn in the side of the colossus to the north.