three utopias

The Island

Trying to escape one time from The Most Beautiful City, where we lived like some 21st century equivalent of lotus-eaters, we traveled around until we thought we’d found another place. We drove up a slow straight gravel road from the little seaside town, past open fields and fences and ranks of tall dark firs that all said, “Welcome Home.” The sunlight danced on hedgerows of berry bramble and plots of tassled corn. The sea had the sheen of tarnished silver under a big gray sky swept with darker clouds. On all sides the sea glinted through the trees, two lines of snowcapped peaks towered across the narrow straits, east and west. Our home was an island. We had never been there before.

When we arrived, the people said, “Welcome!” Then we discovered there were many others coming in before and behind us, all following the same road: fields, firs, mountains, water, sky. Yet it was a different road for each. And the place they arrived at was different for each. When they started to speak of it, we looked around: we did not see what they saw, hear what they heard, feel what they felt.

Some began chanting, “Home, my home!” The chant grew louder and louder, till the word was nothing but a moan, a kind of anguish – home was dying in their grasp as they clutched it more tightly, pieces of it crumbling through their fingers – toppling the groves, covering the denuded earth with hardscape. They began to tear what was left out of one another’s hands. The people who had lived there for generations stood quietly looking on, or turned away in despair.

The Cornucopia

Traveling on and away back south in the Northwestern spring, we drove through torrents of rain and slashing winds to find a place to spend the night. Someone told us you could camp for free at the Indian Casino. When we got there, we found it was true: there was a special parking lot where you were allowed to stay in your vehicle overnight, no charge. On the oily cement under the arc lights, with the enormous neon-lit palace looming over us and the air heavy with mist that made its brilliant, pulsing colors soft and dreamlike, we camped.

We went up to the casino to eat. Inside the glazed doors, we were absorbed into a total environment that stormed the senses. Dark caverns filled with noise and three hundred scintillating shrines, each with a single acolyte. A seamless, mazelike Temple of Luck and Pleasure. No defined edges: all the corridors sinuous and circular, leading you back to the omphalos: the slots, the gaming tables, the Keno screens.

There was nothing living visible in there but people. There were some representations of wild animals – along with superheroes, sea monsters, zombies and other totemic beings. Over the bar, there was a fiber optic display that looked like a waterfall.

It was Saturday. It was very crowded. It was hard not to remember Hunter S. Thompson saying that Las Vegas was how the whole country would spend Saturday night, if the Nazis had won the war. The perhaps uniquely post-modern aspect was the atmosphere of Family-Friendly Vice: big tables in the restaurants loaded with kids, who, forbidden from gambling, drinking or smoking, can still eat, play video games, and buy.

The Native owners were not in evidence. White working class people served the drinks, and white working class people bought them. The eyes of each were equally masked with fatigue.

Yet what we had entered was actually another utopia, of personal desire infinitely unleashed. The Cornucopia: The Promise of Something for Everyone.

Outside, the imperfect mountains rose behind, clutching the mist. The shredded wild still clung to them in some distant place, but we could not see or touch it.

The Utopia of Oil

A song from the 1970s is on the car stereo, with extended guitar solos, a melody that appears and disappears in wild, driving riffs, the musicians locked into their instruments, dueling with one another to take the song to a farther, deeper, wilder place, and we are driving south along the California coast now with the blue sea a brilliant promise and it builds and builds as the sunshine explodes till everything is sunshine and we are back in the days when we first heard the song and in our adolescent imaginations roads opened up, endless roads, and we were whirled along them and there was joy in the feel of the wind and the scenery sweeping by like a banner unfurling and the possibility that the journey was endless the moment was endless and the song rises up and up until everything is perfectly balanced, flowing – guitars, hills, road, wheels, wind, sky – and as long as it keeps on rising and building toward some ultimate ecstasy, we can almost forget what we’ve learned in all the downward-drifting decades since: that all roads eventually end or circle back on themselves and our journey had no destination anyway so really we were going nowhere at all.

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walking, writing, reading

When I walk, things and their meanings seem to flood my mind simultaneously. Because the meanings are made of sense and emotion and intellect; it’s all of a piece. When I am back in a room, trying to type, I lose so much. I lose thousands of the impressions that fire a billion brain cells on a short walk, and retain a tiny handful, drying up like reeds when you pull them from the stream. Then of the few I retain, I lose either the things or their meanings; I can’t hold on to them both. The things become pictures: empty, flat. The meanings become abstract, word-work, sentences forming an architecture of the non-living entirely in my mind.

James Joyce tried to capture that mottled flow of things, sensations, ideas; even he, all synapses firing with syphilitic genius, couldn’t do it. But he created a simulacrum that has its own life. The purpose of art is to make something alive, said Henry Green, who wrote in Joyce’s shadow.

That’s what our much-lauded creativity comes down to doesn’t it, though? The desire to hold on, to capture, to dominate a temporal reality with our minds and extract its temporality, like choking off a spring of fresh water. To persist, when all of life says you must die, you must not persist, because if you did the world would fill with ghosts and ash.

Only the very best can create something that persists and still flows (Proust’s dream of the roman fleuve), and even that thing only flows because it intersects with our minds, and they re-animate it, re-impose upon it the temporality that is the source of all flow.

Signatures of all things I am here to read, said Stephen Dedalus as he walked on the beach. And yet we are narcissists, as he was. We read them only to look for our own reflection. We write them only to create our own image. What would it be like to disappear, to step aside? What would the literature of humility, the collapse of otherness look like? Would there be one? Or only silence?

the first thanksgiving

This story first appeared in the late lamented LiP Magazine, and appears in Tipping the Sacred Cow: The Best of LiP Magazine.

No, really, it isn’t any trouble at all. I’m thrilled that you’re interested, because I love to tell the story of this place; I feel the story is part of its healing quality, you know, and that is why you’re here, why we’re all here. And it wasn’t always like you see it now—by no means! We had to work at it; we really had to create it from nothing, but we did it because we believed in what we were doing, and you know, when you really believe, the universe makes a way…

I think it helped that we were all, the group of us who started it, of truly like mind. We’d been meeting at conferences for years; we’d been talking and thinking and hearing about all these wonderful ideas for a sustainable life, as things kept getting worse and worse — you know, the wars, the destruction of nature, and the terrible violence in the cities — and we were all thinking the same thing: there’s got to be a better way! We need to stop talking about it and actually start to live it. For the sake of the planet!

So our minds were definitely starting to form a gestalt; we discovered we all agreed on the basic ideas, and finally it was simply a matter of when, not if.

(Of course the other thing it turns out we all had in common, which some of the others who tried to “do” sustainable living around the same time didn’t, was investments. Which we were also savvy enough to liquidate before the Crash—that’s the “creative class” for you, I like to say!)

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absence and presence

Writing is always about absence. To practice it you must absent yourself from immediate experience, and what you write is always a memory or a prediction of the experiences from which you are absent, otherwise you would have nothing to say but “I sit here typing…” The practice of most other arts is its own kind of present experience, but writing is uniquely mental, solitary and abstract.

And imagination may be a wonderful thing, but it is not as wonderful as the Real World Out There, the one we have to abandon and despise in order to live inside our own minds.

As another irreplaceable day, unique in all of endless time, with its unrepeatable configuration of birds, clouds and winds, its dense totality of living entities in this incomparably life-filled sphere, whose  collective actions will never again take the exact shape or have the exact same participants they had today – passes away, and i have shut myself inside again where so little changes, and so little is alive by comparison, i mourn a life i’ve never known, the impossible life of a self-conscious being who could move in that plenitude as an ecstatic participant, in any locality – not even for a whole life, just, possibly, for one whole day. Who could naturally feel (without chants or hallucinogens, without coercion of any kind) in relationship with that totality of the living non-human, absorbed in it, almost utterly meaningless to it, and yet safe: neither predator nor prey, just praise-animal. A tiny part of the dance in that place, that time only – but fully part.

Why does human life seem instead like a pin-hole of light in the grim shutter of a dark-lantern? We made those shutters, no one else. We turned it all inside out, by coming to tortured consciousness only of the temporal vastness of “I am not,” and fearing and hating that understanding, instead of realizing the baroque and inexhaustible variety (age doth not wither nor custom stale etc.) of the time we are, and learning to immerse ourselves in it, even with so few turns round the sun in order to do so. Collectively, we go on trying to de-complexify everything until it is either boring or dreadful, now in our shoddy automaton world that doesn’t even work well for most, that never gives even the  privileged more than a momentary illusion of control – when all around us, and inside us too, was a breathing, palpitating, circulating body of such inexhaustible abundance of forms.

Yes, from before the beginning of our self-consciousness, we had to kill and eat living things, and kill or flee anything we feared would eat us. Was there nothing more we could do with that primal understanding than to become what we have become? I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if a photosynthesizing creature had developed self-awareness.

I suppose when we give up on presence, and disappear into the imagination, we can at least fill the world with interesting phantoms.

 

the third world war

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

Was undeclared. Exactly where and when it began is debatable. Most would say there had been low-level conflict for millennia, but it only became a world war toward the end of the 20th century CE. Some choose the symbolic date when we ran that tanker, the Exxon Valdez, aground in Prince William Sound, because its cargo was the secret weapon that had brought the war into this new stage.

Our global forces were still divided into two antagonistic camps at that time, but both were at war with the greater enemy. The eastern camp had already killed the Aral Sea and poisoned 180,000 square kilometers of land with nuclear radiation (although this action was a Pyrrhic victory, resulting in more drastic consequences to us than the enemy). Shortly thereafter, we declared a truce of sorts between the factions, so we could make further gains in the great war, ostensibly without so much damage to ourselves. For the remainder of the last century, our forces were on the march everywhere, and the enemy fell back.

But in the early years of this century, some unseen fulcrum began to shift. Rather than the widely and randomly interspersed events we experienced in the relatively mild regime we grew up with, we saw destructive actions that escalated in their scope and frequency until they came to seem like calculated responses.

The waves of heat and cold. They caught us off-guard with their new intensity. Then the storms, to which we continued to give bland, suburban names: Mitch, Dennis, Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Iris, Maria. At first mostly a threat to the growing legions of the unprotected poor, they soon showed themselves a match for our largest cities. And beyond that: whole provinces, countries were paralyzed for days, weeks, months. And then the fires – early on they were far from where we lived and breathed, in the still-vast northern forests, but then they came closer, filling the skies of our cities apocalyptically with drifting ash and smoke, and finally, audaciously, striking at the sprawling cities themselves, taking thousands of buildings in a single attack.

Our initial casualties were so small – a few tens of thousands a year against all our billions. We published the tiny body counts for each incident, as if nothing else was of consequence. But overall, we took little notice, because we killed ourselves with friendly fire in vastly greater numbers. And against the enemy, we unleashed a holocaust. Total war. We took no prisoners. It was xenocide; we were willing to exterminate not just individuals but whole species to win our freedom. Thousands, then tens of thousands of species began to fall.

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fleet week, blue angels

It is a perfect October day: warm, blue-green-and-golden light poured over every scene like a potter’s glaze.

The long, green strip of the Panhandle is dotted with people at leisure: couples in each others’ arms, men and women pushing babies in strollers, drummers, cyclists, athletes, bench sitters. The constant roar of traffic is a dull and distant backdrop.

In the midst of this comes a shattering sky-filling scream, a sound that momentarily seems to take all of the surrounding air for itself, leaving you gasping. Then the jets are visible, flying like shaftless arrowheads through the air, or as if the sky were flesh on a body inside which we lived, and we could watch as some unexpected knife pierced through and ripped it open.

Through the gash left behind by the Blue Angels’ passing, other things come into view: a filthy man in rags, muttering angry curses, a child bombarding a squirrel with rocks, a wall-eyed girl beating futilely on the arms of a man pinning her down.

The screaming machines that a moment before seemed an absurd intrusion in the idyll have forced their logic on us. Once you accept that logic, you are in its sphere and you will close your eyes to anything.

What the Blue Angels’ roar eliminates, what their presence really protects us from, is the impermissible idea that our life in this world might have been wholly otherwise.

fire and rain

This essay first appeared on the CounterPunch and Dissident Voice webzines.

Run to the trees
Trees will be burning
Run to the sea
Sea will boiling
All on that day

So, summer, the frivolous season of our supposed repose, now brings dread, east and west, north and south. As summer peaks in the west, everything dries and dies, and as the suffocating heat grows inland and the dry grass whispers we start watching the skies fearfully for lightning, and we wait for the news that actually it wasn’t lightning; it was a tossed cigarette, a forgotten campfire, some guys shooting rifles, a firebug with a can of gasoline. And then the sight of the firestorm on the jagged horizon, moving faster than anything that doesn’t fly, the flames joining together in an impossible roaring uprush that feeds on itself, that grows like a living thing, and the trees light up like great torches, the pain of whose immolation we cannot feel because thanks to the scientific worldview we know trees have no brains and no nerve endings and thus don’t feel pain anyway. They are just matter, burning.

Of course, coming from a species that has set alight its own members, with their highly developed nervous systems, when it seemed politically necessary, this suggests that even if we did think individual trees felt pain we wouldn’t necessarily care if we needed other things more than large numbers of trees, which we clearly do, because we, collectively, are watching them go up in flames on a grander scale every year without making much of a peep about it, and the trashed trophy homes and cars scattered back in there are all we can really mourn for, the only things that have a compelling reality for us. Forests grow back, right?

Except when they don’t, because some invisible calculus has determined that the underlying conditions which made their existence possible are gone. We may not be there yet for what’s left of the great boreal forests, but we won’t actually know when the threshold is crossed – invisible means just that. Chaos theory means just that. Biologists have identified a phenomenon in complex living systems called “critical slowing down” whereby those systems become gradually less resilient in the face of repeated onslaught until some non-trivial boundary is crossed and they collapse. Where is the line, exactly? Well, the scientists tell us with marvelous equanimity, that’s precisely the puzzle. Hard to say…

We of the bourgeoisie rise momentarily from our stupor when fascists begin to stir in the shallows of our societal swamp, ironically more like some monstrous presence out of an H.P. Lovecraft story than the racist, miscegenated, fever-dream monsters Lovecraft actually gave us. We’ll even take the kids out for an afternoon to send those fascists back “where they came from,” which is the same place we come from, so good luck with that. But when the distant forests burn in their hundreds of millions of acres over the longer, hotter, drier summers, we barely so much as sigh – what good would marching in the streets do?

Whether we can see it or not, the inanimate (to us) forests have been set alight by the lineaments of our gratified desire: cars, roads, houses, electronic devices, cosmetic surgery, food from everywhere. Thanks, capital! Thanks, science! No more hands and backs into the hard labor of pulling sustenance from the soil or forging steel or tending gigantic machines – our livelihoods are gained now by our dancing fingertips alone! Who will be the first bourgeois to blow up that bargain? Who will be the first of the expendable classes not to seek it? And at least we are compensated by the quality of the sunsets – what beauty there is in annihilation really! It’s as if we told ourselves, well, all those tiki torches sure did make for a pretty procession!

Those who can’t turn their attention to other distant horrors or daily cares will then have to listen to the insane barking of politicians who blame tree-loving enviros for preventing responsible forest-destruction that would, according to those wise men of capital, make these fires of growing intensity, scale and frequency somewhat less damaging. Never mind the climatic elephant in the ideological room, that’s a non-starter with men whose fanatical devotion to the profit system can be diminished by no preponderance of evidence. Why bother to argue, even shoving the elephant aside for a second, that massive thinning and brush clearing further dries out the forests and impoverishes their soils, making them even more susceptible to catastrophic burning, or that “responsible logging” is an oxymoron when you throw in economies of scale? Why argue that the vast, safe, checkerboard tree plantations of the coastal Northwest are no more forests anyway than Nebraska’s wheat fields are prairies? Not even apples and oranges, it’s apples and ball bearings. There is no basis for a discussion because there is no shared conceptual framework. That living systems have any right to exist apart from our usage of them is inconceivable within capitalist (or socialist, frankly) doxa.

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