the power of nightmares: notes from the mythic year

Posted in Essays on November 5, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

All Hallow’s Eve has come and gone, and so has the day when the dead come back for a visit, but we’re not out of the dark woods of our self-inflicted nightmare yet. The days are still getting shorter, the nights longer, as we edge toward the spooky haunted house of a national election marked, more than any in my memory, by an overwhelming sense of dread.

The obsession with the Witches’ Sabbath in a culture as denatured, as stripped of meaningful and time-bound ritual as ours is something that seems particularly perverse to me these days. Cheesy decorations started going up in the upscale neighborhoods of San Francisco in mid-September. What was that about? Why this holiday, far more than the return of spring and the celebration of human labor in May, or even the birth of the new year in the northern hemisphere at the winter solstice, the magical child, all that? It’s bizarre, and yet when you think of how much we love to terrify ourselves, how rabidly paranoid and easily spooked we are as a culture, maybe not so much.

And when you think how this year in particular, the actual shocks have mounted: from first-person mall shooters to killer cops, killer candidates, and even killer clowns… we have not made Christmas last throughout the year, as the transformed Scrooge was said to have done, instead we have come damn close to making our lives a permanent Halloween.

Of course the movies provide us with clues to this phenomenon. David Cronenberg, master of the modern horror film, understood the desperate need that the horror movie fills in contemporary life. In an interview about one of his best films, his early 1980s remake of The Fly, he talks about how the ability to envision something that is actually worse than your worst nightmares gives a strange sense of comfort and hope. It’s when there’s nothing you can come up with that is worse than reality that you have found the essence of despair.

How close are we as a society to that collective edge? Some science fiction writers have complained about the inability of contemporary speculative fiction to produce anything other than dystopias. But the alternatives that Terry Bisson, Iain Banks or Kim Stanley Robinson have championed are based on the ever-less tenable idea that our sophisticated technologies will somehow help get us out of the fix they have been so well designed to get us into. Edward Bellamy is their 19th century avatar – in his imagination, credit cards, escalators, and glassed-in shopping arcades would be defining characteristics of a socialist paradise.

Much horror is based not just on the fear of death and violence, but on the confusion between “living” and “dead.” Dead things that act as if they are alive (if they ever were) but without spirit, ethics, compassion. And the next technological revolution, waiting in the wings, is the one that will take that process beyond any reasonable chance of our ever being able to restore meaningful boundaries between those kingdoms, nor place ourselves, while we live, firmly on the side of the living. Where’s the upside?

Forty years ago, when what was to become our terminal imperial decline began, utopianism was not simply willful blindness. The choice – and you can see it represented in the freshest, most intelligent literature and films of the time – seemed quite stark: utopia or annihilation.

Then came the Pyrrhic victory over totalitarian socialism, and utopia suddenly and universally acquired the ghastly grin of Ronald McDonald (the original killer clown).

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on the human face – forever,” said Orwell. Now imagine that boot is the calfskin loafer of a globetrotting corporate bagman, be he in marketing, mergers and acquisitions, or speculative finance. And there you have the 1990s.

But even before that, another, more intimate version of utopian yearning was massacred. The “Masque of the Red Death” played out its ghastly plot in our not yet fully sterilized urban streets. The microbe came and inserted itself between us and “don’t dream it, be it” (from the sweetest horror movie spoof ever made, the one that gave the outcasts a midnight mass through the chain-malled, multiplexed, warmongering corporate conformism of the ‘80s, the Rocky Horror Picture Show.) As the subversive revels got wilder, one by one and then hundred by hundred and thousand by thousand the dancers (including many actual dancers) began to drop in their tracks. The ebullience, the world-turned-upside-down carnival atmosphere and pageantry of Halloween in New York or San Francisco turned grim and dirge-like, or increasingly desperate. As these inconvenient people died off or were otherwise pushed out, the cities were effectively cleansed of all the bohemians who had unknowingly been the first wave of their imminent scouring by money; the dikes (and dykes) were removed and the gates yawned open for the storm troops of capital.

After more than 30 years the process is largely complete; the homogenization, sterilization and suburbanization of the mongrel cities is mostly a done deal, with Ishmael the filthy mad street dweller (I alone am returned to tell you) living among the rubbish of the other exploded lives around him, the last witness to what was once the great hope of a progressive, “advanced” civilization: the demos of the city.

And now the paranoid fantasies of borderline personalities are our daily reality. There is a serial killer out there in the shadows, wearing an explosive belt, wielding a badge and a gun, or dropping a cluster bomb. He’s the monster in the non-stop all-day-and-night horror movie called the news. There are viral outbreaks of all kinds from the biotic to the cybernetic, from Ebola to DDos attacks. The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! (Again. It’s the ultimate sequel: Cold War II.)

Every trope from classic horror now has its real world mass society analogue – you could write a Master’s thesis on it. Zombies – the dead behind-the-eyes pink and white-collar “middle” class trudging around the shopping mall looking for something living to consume. Vampires – how about those sexy venture capitalists and speculators barricaded in their faux Georgian country estates, coming out to raid your little town and suck its economic lifeblood to the last drop? Freaks and monsters – politicians and celebrities, showing their bloodstained claws and roaring at us incoherently from every screen. The Devil, the Lord of the Flies? Hard to choose. Take your pick.

A few years back, Adam Curtis, the best documentarian you can’t see on U.S. TV, followed up his amazing analysis of the 20th century, “The Century of the Self,” with an even less-welcome look at covert war and militarism and the U.S. posture toward Islam since the end of World War II, “The Power of Nightmares.” Its premise: regimes that have become illegitimate in every other way have only one real means of retaining power: fear. You don’t have to have read the Project for a New American Century memo to understand this as the endgame of U.S. neoliberalism. But it’s not just the outside enemy, our national political contests have also come down to this: whom do you fear the most?

We have many phobias as a culture, but the most far-reaching is xenophobia, which now applies to anyone who’s not in your Facebook feed. We are all strangers to one another– mass society has only gotten more massive since its discontents were first analyzed at the dawn of the Machine Age. Everything we are experiencing now was predicted then – not in its superficial details but in its essence – by our mythic seers: poets, writers, filmmakers. With dread and at the same time the utopian hope that that future might be averted. But it has come to pass and most of us have simply adjusted to it, with pride even at how fast we can snap at every new bone thrown at us.

Because we float disconnectedly just above the living world, lurching in our metal pods from place to place, and the rest of the time breathing the filtered air of boxes made from substances wholly altered from their natural state, perhaps we don’t get that the whole template on which our lives are written is rapidly, permanently, radically shifting around us. Hottest month, hottest year on record. Again. A wildfire scorches a town built to serve the industry responsible for a huge chunk of the carbon pollution driving the disruption of the climate, and millions of acres of forest are incinerated worldwide. The fires burn for months, unstoppable now. A vast network of coral, the size of a country, dies off. Four hundred ppm carbon in the atmosphere – possibly never to go below that number again as long as humans remain on earth. The number of wild animals diminishes by 40% in twenty years. Over ninety percent of the animal biomass on earth is now livestock, pets, or people.

But those are statistics. We don’t feel them. Or we feel the baseball statistics just about as intensely.

Except in the fulcrum places, like Standing Rock, where the defenders still hold the utopian flag up against the power of nightmares. Like the visions of poets and seers, those actual places persist. And their defenders are still trying to convince us that the only alternatives really are utopia or annihilation. But what if there is another, more insidious alternative?

At this turning of the year, my cousins, who proudly produce GMO commodity crops in Indiana, wrote recently about their love of the beautiful autumn days, among the rows of sparkling corn. I felt a shudder of horror – at the possibility that most people won’t even know or care when the totality of the living world is reduced to an industrially farmed simulacrum or a majestic but lifeless backdrop, a landscape photo. The protected, the ones still given a place at capital’s table, will be profoundly grateful, like Winston Smith. In between the raging storms, droughts, fires and floods, the rising chaos of a shredded web of life, they’ll be grateful for the refuge of the dead world of chattering artifice that protects them, grateful that they have the privilege of becoming the living dead.

Let the rest of us stand with and within the living world, as long as we can.

interview at the crossroads

Posted in The Undoing: Tales from Elsewhen on August 2, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

I will try to tell you what has happened to you, says the Companion.

But before that, I’d like you to—your surroundings, your daily life; could you describe them for me? Take as much time as you want. It’s important that you remember now, even though you will see that the idea is to forget, eventually. I think the reason will become clear in time. For now, just tell me about your—self, anything you like. Anything you remember.

Eva shakes her head slightly, a twitch, as if to clear it. She reaches up with her hand, puzzled.

My hair—is loose now—I wore it—up, there… (Touching the locks that fall about her shoulders.) I had it—done, that’s the word—at a place, the same place. For a long time. In a—building. There were many of them. Long rows…

Yes, yes. Good. What else?

The buildings were tall, and made of stone and metal. And glass. There were these—engines, many of them! I moved around in them—I mean, from place to place—they took me from place to place—to get my hair—a man named—what was his name? He had very short hair himself. He did it. He said things that made me laugh. It felt good to go there. The noises were all different there: sharper, longer, louder. That was—Downtown, it was called.

Yes. And were there any birds? Did you ever hear birds?

Oh yes, I heard them. We ate them, too—not the ones we heard, I mean—there were not so many of those. Where I lived (not Downtown, a place—outside it, with smaller buildings) there were some birds. They sang. And actually that was how it first, how I first—because they were singing about—no, that isn’t right… What they were singing was here.Wasn’t it? What I mean is, it was in their singing, this place, where I am now. Because when I first began to listen…

Yes, yes…?

Not the ones we ate. They were dead too.

Yes, quite right. Well, dead, you know—isn’t exactly—we don’t—that’s to say, we just call it “other.” Because we truly don’t know about that.

Eva falls silent; birdsong and the chirring of insects pour into the stillness between her and the Companion. She looks at her surroundings: trees, shrubs, grasses, moved by the wind, gently, constantly. Clouds float above; the sky is vibrant. Its color is so intense it seems to be made of some substance other than light and air.

I can hear so many birds here, she says, wonderingly.

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the saddest prison in the world

Posted in a person, Transformations on July 8, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

Today I got my release papers from the Castle. Twenty years I served behind its shimmering walls, day after beautiful day, eating the finest food, drinking the best libations. Walking the silent parks under the great, dark trees. Each long, quiet day was an eternity. I was filled with dread and despair, and yet somehow I felt I would not die here. But I had begun to fear that the reason was that I had already died, and forgotten it somehow. And this was the afterlife, what some called “heaven,” and it was forever. Or perhaps I had never been alive.

But that’s what the Castle does to your mind. You stop being able to tell the difference between the living and the dead. There are others all around you, but most of them can’t see you most of the time. If you try to speak with them they frown and wince, as if there were a whining insect in their ear, or some other unpleasant thing. After a while you stop looking at them, because the blankness in their eyes is impenetrable. You stop trying to get any acknowledgment as you pass close to them in the street. I began to fling out my hands to ward them off when they came straight toward me, but my hands just passed through air.

I once read a story of a scientist who tortured a dog that he kept in a laboratory: every time it tried to leave its cage when he opened the door he would give it an electric shock. Finally when it had been shocked a thousand times or so he could leave the cage door open all the time, and the dog would simply lie inside the cage, its head on its paws, looking at the door, and never move. He left it for days without food and water, still it would not move. He had broken it. (I believe the scientist received some kind of military award for his work.)

The people in the Castle act in that way upon one another. They make you give up. Love, companionship, even the mildest amity – you can look and look but you won’t find it among them. You might as well try to befriend a rubber ball.

Whatever else you want, though, you can have. The Castle provides many pleasures. Every vista is a feast for the eyes. The air from the sea is sweet and fresh. And those pleasures are free. There are pleasures available at every price in the Castle, from low to infinite. The pleasures are all as light as air, and do nothing to make you feel alive.

I had long ago forgotten how or why I had come to the Castle. You never intend to come; you just end up here. I don’t remember now how old I was or what I was doing. The trick is that from the outside it just looks like a pretty place, where anyone might want to live. You wander in, intrigued, not realizing the Castle is built like a Venus fly-trap, and once inside you won’t find it so easy to leave again.

But I knew I would be able to leave one day. I understood it was a question of money; it’s always a question of money.

I served, I endured; I knew better than to seek release in pleasure, and so did not waste my time trying to alleviate the dullness of my existence with drugs or purchases. Every empty second yawned into eternity, but I piled them up, second after second, hour after hour, day after day, for twenty years. I grew older; everyone grows older in the Castle, although perhaps more slowly than outside. You don’t notice much outward change, you simply wake up one morning and realize that the time is gone – the time for romance, love, adventure, whatever you might have imagined life would bring. The Castle takes your time away so gently you don’t even know until it’s gone, as if your blood were being drained so gradually that all you felt was a slight fatigue that increased incrementally over time.

Then just the other day, the message came: we’ve gotten enough from you; you can leave now if you want to. Expect your papers soon.

I felt an indescribable sensation of pure joy, for one brilliant moment. And when I felt that, I knew I was still alive.

Almost immediately afterwards, however, the terror set in. Leave and go where? To do what? I knew the Castle, and how things worked here, and I was comfortable in every physical sense. I knew what each day would bring. I worked, and my work was dull, but I didn’t have to work very hard. Other than the pain of loneliness, my life was free of pain. Who was to say I wouldn’t be just as lonely outside, and suffer physical pain and deprivation too?

What would I find out there? Where would I live? How would I survive?

And today the papers arrived. I have them in my hand, and I know that if I’m to leave, I’ll have to walk away, just walk away from this place I’ve lived for twenty years, leaving everything behind, never to return. Just walk away with nothing, into an unknown world.

Now I’m standing in the doorway, with my freedom in my hand, but I can’t bring myself to step outside.

I feel only a surge of hatred for the scientist, and pity for the dog.

Or is it the other way around?


biophilia as extreme sport

Posted in Transformations on June 30, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

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

The renowned biologist E.O. Wilson gave us the term “biophilia,” which he defined as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” As the world’s human population goes on expanding and walling itself up in cities, and the Sixth Extinction gathers steam, this urge is often expressed as an increasingly desperate kind of nostalgia. It drives support for conserving wild places many will never visit, as well as pastoral landscapes in which most will never work. Not to mention the proliferation of pretty floral, animal, and landscape images on our laptops and phones.

We know we’re missing something – we just don’t seem to have the time or inclination to get out there and look for it in the natural world. We turn instead to extravagant machine-made sound and light shows and other pseudo-experiences to replace the sensory and cognitive richness of the biological affiliations we’ve lost.

Charles Foster, the author of Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, is thus a something of an atavism. An English gadabout and veterinarian with Oxfordian university credentials, he has written a memoir of his gonzo-naturalist attempts not just to observe wild animals, but to live like them, to experience their world from the inside. He is not nostalgic by temperament, but his book is likely to be read by people who are. His personal antidote to our increasing disconnection from the biosphere is not one it would be likely – or beneficial, especially to the other animals – for many of us to follow.

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the listening post

Posted in The Undoing: Tales from Elsewhen on June 16, 2016 by Christy Rodgers


This tale was published on The Dark Mountain Project blog. 

I don’t remember how old I was when I was taught to tend the listening post. The lottery was held when Good Gillem, who taught me, was an old man and ready to be replaced. All the children who were old enough to work were given a pebble; we put them in the box; mine was drawn.

So I had to leave the oasis, where the other children would work all their lives as our parents and grandparents had to shepherd the tiny spring into channels where a few fish would spawn each year among the cress and rice we planted. To tend and harvest the palms, weave their fibers into cloth, mend the screens and strengthen the mud walls. To grind the flour and bake the dry, flat bread. My work would be different from theirs. I felt sad and proud.

As I stood in the shadowed doorway of my parents’ house, ready to set out, my mother held my shoulders tightly and kissed me on the top of my head. She was not crying, but her face was twisted in sadness. We’ll see you on Year’s Day, she whispered. Be good till then. One day each year they would come to visit me, for once I was at the post, I could never leave it again.

On my shoulder I carried the little bundle she’d prepared for me. Alone I walked out beyond the storm screens, to the open desert, which I’d never seen before. I stared. Stretched before me were endless hills of red sand under the burning sky. The vastness of it made my heart jump like a netted fish in my chest. Everything I knew shrunk to nothingness before it. Carefully I followed the old markers that led over the dunes. I climbed the highest dune and looked back down on my home. The oasis looked indistinct, just a grainy shadow behind the screens, its colors, plants, and people gone. I turned my face away, twisting it as my mother had done to keep from crying, and went on.

The sand shifted and whispered around me. It was red, soft, warm, moving like a smooth-limbed body turning in its sleep. For a moment I felt tempted to leave the marked path and just walk into that great red place, join my body with its body and sleep in its softness. I thought I heard it calling me as it whispered: come and sleep with me, little one! Come and lie down in my arms! It was so great and I was so little. Why shouldn’t I do as it wanted?

Another sound woke me from my daze: the clinking of the old metal flags of the marker as I approached. I realized the sun outside the screens was too strong and it had opened a channel in my head for the whispering sand to enter. Quickly I pulled my hood up and wrapped it tight. Behind the screens I mostly forgot to wear it, unless a big storm came. I drank from my water jug until the whispering died down, and went on again.

At sunset I reached the foot of the black rock mountain, and saw the marker flashing at the entrance to the cave. Gillem waited there. He stood leaning on a great staff of knotted wood. It must have been older than he was, perhaps much older, as there were no trees from which to cut such staffs now in the oasis or any of the places we knew.

I followed him inside the cave and set down my bundle on its smooth, swept, rock floor. Gillem nodded to me in greeting but that was all. My training began at once.

He showed me the wall at the back of the cave, behind a stone outcrop that shielded it from view. Into the wall were set the devices of the listening post. They were like nothing I had seen in the oasis; I didn’t understand them at all. You don’t have to understand how they work, Gillem said. I don’t, nor has any Listener before me, as far as I know. You just have to do exactly as I show you, and the devices will sweep the skies, as they have down all the lifetimes since they were put here, for a message.

How many Listeners have there been? I asked.

I have never counted, replied Gillem. Each one keeps his archive and when he is finished, adds it to the others, to show that he has fulfilled his task. The count can be made if you want to – he waved his arm at the huge archive wall – but it would take a long time and it is easy to lose track. There’s enough to keep you busy.

And has any message ever come? I asked.

No message has ever come, he said.

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notes from the island

Posted in The Undoing: Tales from Elsewhen on June 6, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

This story first appeared in Zahir Tales Magazine (nom de plume: Diana Swift)

by becky liddiard,

Two Islands by Becky Liddiard –

I decided to start keeping a diary today. Yes, it is ridiculous. There’s no one else to read it here, of course. Nor will there ever be, here or elsewhere, if what we believe has happened since the last Visit is true. Years have passed since then; we’ve no reason to doubt our belief. So why write anything? But I’ve decided this will be company for me, of a kind. My diary will be like the invisible friend a child has, and I had once upon a time as well. With all that has happened in my life, I don’t suppose I ever imagined I’d want an invisible friend again. But there you are. Today I do.

Lars has his music, and his solitary nature, and he has me. He never needed other company much. When he was exiled here, after the first shock, he adapted quite quickly. When I chose to follow him rather than to become one of the slave-women in the Director’s household, I, by contrast, had to relinquish my pleasure in a small society of friends, family, a circle of acquaintances. Because his preference for solitude and the sparseness of his family had not added anyone to that limited circle, the connections we lost were almost exclusively mine. I was never entirely dependent on society; in fact, I had learned to be independent of it from living with Lars. But it was still almost unbearable for a time, the loss.

It was more difficult for me, yes. But that was so long ago; it’s funny I should decide to take this up now, after twenty years of life on the island, after forgetting even to miss any other human voice, any words but his terse daily commentary. Nothing particular has happened; that’s the beauty of our situation, the strange beauty of it: we’ve grown into our routines like plants, and nothing disturbs them any more. So I really don’t know what made me do it, finally. Nothing I could name. An ancient instinct, perhaps.

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life after wartime

Posted in the country, Transformations on May 10, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

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

Burned all my notebooks
What good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive
My head is burning
Feels like a furnace
That burning keeps me alive

You haven’t been to war until you’ve learned to flinch at the sound of a traffic helicopter overhead, as your body waits for the pop of machine gun fire spattered on the crowds below.

You haven’t been to war until you fear having your back to the street as you turn your key in the lock of your own front door, because of how easy it would be to take you out from behind as you stand there.

You haven’t been to war until you look into the shit-filled toilet bowl before you flush and imagine a hand on the back of your neck forcing your head down into the filthy water. Holding it there until your lungs burst, and you gasp for air and swallow shit and piss instead. Until your fingers curl periodically with the sensation that someone is about to pull your nails out with a pair of pliers.

You haven’t been to war until you transpose any loud sound in your dreams to a pounding on your door as the troops storm in to drag you from your bed and fling you into a waiting van.

You haven’t been to war until you wait, behind the thud of distant fireworks at the ballpark, to hear the scream of the diving planes, the shriek of the guided missiles, the rumble and roar of the tanks as they roll in.

You haven’t been to war until you look around guardedly in a crowded street and know without a shadow of a doubt that anyone you see, anyone, could be about to kill you.

And because you haven’t been to war, you cower at the images on the TV screen and you say to everyone you know (all of whom, who haven’t been to war either, will nod supportively and say, yes, of course, that’s true): the police, the soldiers, they have to do whatever they must to protect us. Who are we to judge them? We are not in their place.

But if you have been to war, all of this is waiting for you, all day every day, lurking in the silence of the suburban streets where your neighbors are invisible hostiles, or the clangorous city streets where no one looks anyone else in the eye, where the suit on his phone bumps into you and moves on past without breaking his stride, in the plastic-coated food, and the gas-soaked pavement and the cheesy, piped-in music everywhere – so one day you flip out, you say no more terror, no more dread, no more waiting for the ax to fall. Not enough to go for a drive and blast the car stereo till your gut shakes. Not enough to drink yourself stupid and beat the wife or girlfriend bloody when the rage takes hold.

You plan your operation; you assemble your weaponry (so easy, that part!) Then you head for the highway, for the demonstration, for the shopping mall. You know exactly what to do, because we gave you the best training in the world. We built you, we sent you out there. Ambush. That’s how we roll. Catch the enemy by surprise.

And because we taught you what justice is: it’s kill the other guy, the one who wants to kill you. It’s as simple as that, the justice we taught you, our military justice. You don’t have to ask why he wants to kill you, what made him that way. Just take him out. Make him pay for making you afraid for your life. It’s him or you. If you learned nothing else during your stint, you learned that.

You know it’s a hopeless mission, and you will probably die in the attempt. But what kind of life can you have anyway, now that the war is everywhere?

Others will come after you, and finish what you started.

Rolling Stone, July 11, 2016: Micah Xavier Johnson, thanks to his military training, knew what he was doing, targeting and dispatching police officers with ruthless efficiency. Footage from the attack showing Johnson weaving in and out of pillars and shooting one officer from behind is a brutal testament to what powerful weaponry in skilled hands can do in the right environment, against even well-trained and armed opponents.