cassandra’s lament

A Sunday walk in the park is enough to leave me feeling weak with melancholy. It is a warm, sunny day— everything glows. People are relaxed, happy, their faces turned to the sun. Everything is so simple in the park. The good, the necessary things are all there: warmth, companionship, music, food, sport, play.

And I walk through it all haunted by the shadow of the rest of life, which I feel must somehow mean the end of this gentle pleasure. Once that shadow would have been a mushroom cloud billowing into the sky and a searingly bright flash of light racing over these bodies frozen in simple, peaceful postures. Now the image of our doom is more complex, more subtle, not stark contrast, black on white, but shades of muted color fading in and out. It is as if these pleasurable scenes make no sense—how can humans be this, and at the same time the creators and participants in a nightmare society based in grotesque, addictive consumption, ever bigger and more deadly machines, the daily tedium of oppression, deceit, exploitation, the death of nature… Is it really just the price of progress, too bad for the victims, or are all of us implicated in some real way? How can there be this terrifying innocence in human beings, which allows us to countenance boundless cruelty and destruction with a shrug, or even a cold smile, and yet finds us quietly happy watching children play on green grass?

Morose prophets have been raising their jeremiads against fallen man: “woe to thee, humanity,” and so on, since, well, since Jeremiah at least. And the highest price goes on being paid by those who can afford it least, and the mighty do not fall, except to be replaced by other, more rapacious rulers, and still the catastrophe doesn’t come that’s supposed to teach us all a lesson, to bring final justice.

Meantime, anyone else who is shadowed by the feeling of impending doom will share my fate: we are always right, the world is full of disastrous evil, for disaster is always striking millions somewhere, every hour of every day, but few who are not themselves struck will believe or listen to us, or care enough to work to stop it. It is not a common disaster. It is not my disaster, not this time. Who knows if it will ever be? We Cassandras are just depressed, paranoid, far too sensitive. Our vision is a pathological condition.

What horrifies me more than any final catastrophe the imagination can conjure out of our many failures, is another possible future: that things will simply worsen for centuries, perhaps millennia more. It’s been ten millennia since we began traveling down the road to this rapacious disaster we now call civilization. Our adaptability, thought to be our strength, has been our undoing, as far as stopping or significantly changing its course is concerned. We simply continue to adapt, to survive the terror and aggression at its core.

Nothing is new about the current equation, except the scale of climate shift. And even if that continues to escalate to dire effect, it is destined to count nature’s most rare and delicate, and the human poor, as its chief victims. The planetary environment can still be purged of much more of its abundance and beauty, and humans could still find a way to stay alive in it, and dominate it. Capital, in fact, is already mobilizing to that end. Triumph of the will.

So, even though I, Cassandra, saw the shadow of blackened skies, of poisonous sunlight and blasted trees slide over the laughing children and sparkling fountains in the park, it is not likely to be the lucky lands like mine that carry the greatest weight of any coming new disaster. Our fountains will go on playing, in the gated, screened, courtyard “parks” of the future, and the normalcy in which our terrifying innocence operates we will pay, and pay gladly for, as long as we can.

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