the fires this time

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

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. – James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The wildfires may be out of the headlines, but they are not out. Visual images seem the only way to comprehend the scope. The cluster of little flaming circles indicating active fires, crowded over interactive maps of the Western U.S. and Canada, covering their landmasses like an infestation of cartoon bugs, and with NASA’s hallucinatory satellite imagery color-coding them among all the atmospheric wildness in Gaia’s Revenge this summer: smoke, fire, dust, deluge, typhoon. However, the sheer acreage burned requires a return to the numerical: there’s no way to capture it in a single image. And yet whatever those numbers are, they still seem utterly disconnected from the Dow Jones, or the price of eggs at the supermarket, or flights to Spain, and so they are still inadequate.

But in Canada, with 550 fires burning last month in British Columbia alone, and smoke coating the west from border to border and beyond, someone thought to write about the mental and physical anguish of being surrounded by wildfire and its consequences, watching a familiar landscape, once vibrant, benevolent, be transformed into something fearful and toxic, in which you are trapped. When the suffocating smoke covers a thousand miles for weeks on end, where is there to run?

The article mentions the concept of “solastalgia,” a word coined to describe the experience of longing for a lost place when you are still in it—when you haven’t changed location, but it has changed character, for the worse. Uprootings, migration, exile: these, and the trauma they cause, have been endemic to civilization from the get-go, because civilization has been sustained by warfare. But to see your home place transmogrified by chthonic forces into an alien and hostile environment even as it still surrounds you—this is a sea change. (Literally, for some communities.) It means, among other things, that something is happening on a scale whereby the privilege of not being uprooted by merely human imbalances of power is no longer worth much.

There is a fearful sense that “thinking globally” will always require solastalgia now. That we are, Big Yellow Taxi-style, discovering the importance of places in our lives, and of the biosphere we grew up in, even as we lose them, forever.

The Meaning of 1968

It is also exactly half a century since the “fateful fork” year of 1968. We have just passed the anniversary of the bloody police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are already assassinated, Paris’ May uprising quelled and its energy disintegrating, the Prague Spring crushed. The final phase of the Tet offensive ends with no general revolt and staggering Viet Cong casualties, preparing the way for years of mass slaughter in a military deadlock, the U.S. defeat already inevitable, the Vietnamese victory Pyrrhic. Still ahead that year: the murder of hundreds of student protesters and fellow marchers in Mexico City in October, to make Mexico safe for the Olympics. In November: the triumph of Richard Nixon, successfully playing on the fears of Southern racists to get them to abandon the Democratic Party.

We have never escaped the shadow of that year of disenchantment. Not with the formal decolonization of Africa, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the election of a neoliberal black man as U.S. President. In the ensuing 50 years, only one revolution has had the kind of cumulative, irreversible, touching-all-lives effect that we used to mean when we used the term: the technological one. Information, communication, and the means of production have been revolutionized, without in any way diminishing alienation, systemic violence, or exploitation. “Everything has changed, except the mind of man [sic],” said Einstein after the atom was split. The second half of that sentence ought to be tagged on every time the first is used nowadays as well.

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a rapture of distress: auden’s augury

icarus

This essay first appeared on The Dark Mountain Project website.

I was born into an age and circumstances in which the idea of prophecy was highly suspect. My father, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, was an admirer of the philosopher John Dewey and the scientific method. According to him, science had shown us that the only way to predict the future successfully was to identify the correct mathematical equation underlying a given relationship or activity in the physical world. The rest was blind superstition, and through the universal provision of modern education we would ultimately leave it behind.

At the edge of our town there was a flickering neon ‘Psychic Readings’ sign in the cracked window of a decaying clapboard house. I learned from him to read this synecdochically: fortunetelling practiced by hucksters was all that remained of the seers and prophets whose utterances had once guided whole societies.

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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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the end of the enlightenment: a fable for our times

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

Literary scholar and critic Walter Benjamin said that for human social progress to occur it was necessary to “dissolve myth into the space of history” but he was wrong. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, myth is back, and badder than ever. It is the ultimate Ghost in the Machine of the Scientific Revolution. And I’m going to suggest that not only will we not rid ourselves of the mythic worldview in any conceivable social formation that might actually be thought of as progress, but that it has been a great mistake even to try.

Benjamin applied a profoundly poetic insight to the critical appreciation of imaginative literature, one of the major narrative traditions that emerged from ancient myth. But he was also a follower of Marx and thus a materialist. As such he was a late product of the European Enlightenment. If any records or scholars to analyze them survive in, say, three hundred years, I believe they will determine that the Enlightenment ended sometime around the turn of the 21st century (and Benjamin’s quixotic life and death under the shadow of European fascism may provide an interesting sidelight to its demise).

The Enlightenment was thoroughly and inevitably Trumped (a term that – for now – has the resonance of a fable) largely by the unintended consequences of the work of three of its final, and greatest, heroes. Perhaps a Ragnarök analogy is not out of place here.

What I’m about to do is present our recent history to you as a mythic fable. Bear with me, and at the end I will tell you why.

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make it new!

When the past is lost, the roots that bound you to the soil of your childhood dug out by your own hand, or withered in a drought of affection and interest and smothered in a surfeit of capital, what else is there for you? They are so far away, in their boardroom fortresses of Higher Education, Solid Investments, lawyers and luncheons and lawns that still glow green and cropped when weeds have long choked the empty lots across the tracks and crept up to surround the strip malls. Their pools still filled with water, as if it weren’t disappearing forever from the other cities Elsewhere, seen from above like eyes of turquoise set in bright green girded by the curving concrete bands of cul-de-sacs. I could never breathe there, and as the decades passed i realized they weren’t anxious to have me back anyway.

Make it new! ordered Ezra Pound, the old fascist.

So i did; with mild and distracted amity i cobbled another family of cast-offs: vivid, self-absorbed, not-quite-artists, aging divas, failed revolutionaries, people who were or would have been big but it was the pictures that got small. We lived together on the edge of nothing, carving a center for ourselves out of sheer talk, minutely attentive to the movers and shakers among us, subjecting them in our endless conversations to intelligent and detailed appraisals which would have meant precisely nothing to them, while we ourselves made nothing move or shake. We recollected heroic pasts, our proximity to history, those times in our youths when we were caught ever so fleetingly in its glaring searchlight and then passed over. Equally brief and inconclusive encounters with the sublime. And then the ongoing gripe with fate; lost jobs, lost loves, lost chances. It all came out around the table, over bottles of cheap wine and yesterday’s bread.

Around us all now (including the movers and shakers, who keep on basking in the world’s gaze even when the real story is clearly elsewhere) everything is burning or washing away; towers rise and fall and rise and will go on rising and rising until they all fall. The ocean creeps toward the dunes. The animals retreat, buffeted by too much hunger, too many deaths, blind suffering. The living world around the once-unbounded globe shrinks to backdrop, playground, or staging area. I have no footing in the unbuilt world, and yet i still feel it falling away. Generations back, i must have belonged to it, just as i must have had a family somewhere in time.

So in the clatter of ecosystems crashing, all i can do is try (and try) to make it new! My little space of breath, molecules moving together before they dissipate at last. My attention to the wild that survives, the birds that still find their way, the people in the shadows of all the great things that will still die. Some little place that thrives, home in its intimate layered depth of existence, not backdrop. The clockwork overhead, that won’t miss a beat if this blue ball goes brown and black. Unless that’s not true

Among the greatest dying in the story of this species, make the smallest, humblest, most contingent new!

This is that: to make nothing but words that vanish almost as soon as they are uttered.

what were the last good days like?

I.

In the morning i drank coffee, black from a blue mug, and stood at the back door in the eastern light. Birdsong peppered the flowering shrubs. There was no sound of cars in the street.

In a beach chair in the yard, at noon, i dozed under the whispering cabbage palm papering the ground with dead leaves, and two sparrows fluttered down to sit at my feet.

In the afternoon i walked to the top of the hill and watched clouds of fog drift in from the sea.

In the evening we ate roast potatoes with spinach and drank from our last bottle of red wine.

At night, with Alice Coltrane on the last jazz station, i lay on the sofa in the lamplight and read my grandmother’s copy of Conrad’s Youth. “Pearlescent prose,” she had written in pencil, in a perfect hand, in the back of the book, 1922.

II.

In the morning i drank coffee, black from a blue mug, and listened to Cal Tjader on the last jazz station.

At noon, i went out to the beach, sat in the dunes, and looked out at the shining sea. They weren’t any ships. Wind-tossed seagulls careened above my head.

In the afternoon, i went to the last café and had an Italian soda, peach. I read the poems of Rilke.

In the evening, i had a long talk with an old friend who was far away. Things were still okay there. They’re okay here too, i said. See you again soon, she said. There was something that sounded like a crash in the distance as she hung up.

We had a salad with bits of fresh orange and walnuts, and finished the last bottle of red wine.

There wasn’t any news.

At night, the moon hung in the window like a gigantic pearl.

III.

In the morning i drank coffee, black from a blue mug, and stood at the back door. Smoke from the fires was blowing the other way; the air was clear and fresh.

In the beach chair at noon, i dozed in the yard till sirens woke me.

In the afternoon, i got the last loaf of bread from the last market. Then it closed.

In the evening, i read old letters from dead family and thought about burning them.

We ate the bread and a rind of good cheese. A few friends came over with a bottle of wine and we sang some old songs.

At night, there were faint stars in the smoky sky. I read a book of Auden’s poems by lantern light …that must have seen something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky…

The radio went dead at midnight.