Friday, June 8, 2007

A Long, Earnest Post About Literature, or Something

Popular Eschatology

A lot of people I like and respect have an incredibly pessimistic view of the future. One just loaned me The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I read it over the course of two commutes. While McCarthy isn’t exactly known for his sunny vision (cf. Blood Meridian), this was a particularly brutal look ahead. I loved it – the story of a father and son traversing post-nuclear Appalachia and “carrying the fire” satisfied my inner need for political vindication, perhaps, or dovetailed perfectly and painfully with my own expectations. Terrifying, disgusting and above all sad, it was delivered with McCarthy’s Hemingwayan, journalistic spareness. Every detail reported, even the most explosive or enraging, using simply the words on the page.

Were there no need for apocalypse in the popular imagination, you wouldn’t have Mad Max. And Mad Max wouldn’t have formed my (for instance) narrative expectation of doom, destruction, and desert. The same goes for Edward Abbey’s Good News. I suppose Kevin Costner’s movies The Postman and Waterworld are in that canon, but I haven’t seen them. Certainly the book and film Children of Men feel right in that company. Even in Anne Lamott’s angst-ridden parenting journal, Operating Instructions, she envisions raising her son to be the “leader of the resistance.”

Oddly, this isn’t a political stance. Conservative end-timers, liberals, intellectuals and militarists all feel like it’s coming down. They’ve felt this way for centuries, in many cultures around the world. To be honest, I don’t know who William Miller was, but I know this: he thought the world was going to end on a particular date. And he was only one of dozens in a famous lineage. Today we have whatsisname, the Peak Oil guy.

Nuclear weapons only bolster the ancient narrative of Ragnarok. The narrative, the expectation, was there before nukes, which suggests that the invention of race-ending technology only serves a peculiarly homo sapiens hunger for world’s end. Why aren’t we tempering population growth? How come we’re all resigned to massive global climate change, brought about by our own excesses? Why are these books and films and religious movements so popular? I submit it’s because it just feels right.

This fear and expectation grows from the knowledge of individual mortality: each of our individual worlds will end one day, and that's frightening. A cynical view of organized religion suggests that the codified narrative of apocalyse was caused by/crafted to capitalize on this fear. It’s another mode of control, based on the assumption that attaining heaven is not good enough. Only by even more truly embracing the faith (or sacrificing your enemies, or donating to Pat Robertson) can you save yourself after that fateful day.

So it is with The Road. “We’re carrying the fire,” the man tells his son. And there’s no mention of precisely what the fire is, but the reader knows. It’s a perfectly developed device, because there isn’t a reader in the world who’d read that and NOT nod his or her head in shared understanding. Yeah, we think, reading. You and me both. And it doesn’t matter what you picture burning there in your own consciousness – intellectual curiousity, civilizing impulses, belief in law, the flame of the Enlightenment, protective love of family, religious faith, Yankee fever – you know that you’ve got it, too.

And you’re right. That’s the crucial thing. We’re all carrying SOME fire. Each one of us – right now, you, me, the person in the next cubicle – believes it. Even the most debased and evil people in the world believe it. The cannibals in McCarthy’s book? That mohawk dude, Wez, in The Road Warrior? They believe it, too.

So maybe, instead of hoping/waiting for/expecting the future world to explode in a refining event that brings out the One True Fire, we can start to look at the world we have as a place already replete with beings of pure flame, each bearing his or her single spark. If you know that the person in the cubicle next to you, or your nation’s enemy hiding in a cave someplace, both believe the same thing about themselves that you do — I’m chosen — doesn’t it make it more worthwhile to save and improve the world we live in today?

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