Between the idea
And the reality
Falls the shadow…
The doomsday clock was created by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947 and so I have lived my whole life in the shadow of its moving hands. Humans, it seems likely, have dreamed of their final, collective annihilation ever since they became capable of dreaming. But mine was the first generation to have to stare at the hand holding the Damoclean sword, the reaper’s scythe, the vial of poison labeled extinction – and recognize it as a human hand.
We are always hearing how unprecedented our time is – this is the one ironic constant of modernity. But really, I can think of no other aspect of our time that is determinatively unique beyond this transcendent capability. Everything else modernity has created seems only a means of distraction beside it, a way to keep from staring our at last actionable death wish in the face.
And so there is the clock, rising up like some dour ghoul, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come from the old movie, out of the insane froth of daily information hissing in our brains, pointing its creepy hands closer to midnight, seeking to get us at least to pause and acknowledge. How sad, how sad it is to know that beyond the end of my own generation, who were only the first to be shadowed, and from now on for as long as the clock and the society that keeps it, and the civilization that made it necessary – exist, the hands will always have to hover somewhere near the end of the final day. We thought it was the highest of high tech (“rocket science”) to be able to kill ourselves off by loosing the bonds of matter, but now we see it could equally just be a result of one of our crudest activities, the one we mastered before all the rest – burning.
But most unconscionable of all, from under the extending shadow, is the thought that there was no overarching necessity, that everything might just as well have been otherwise. The psyche recoils and denies this, looking for a sense of mission in religion, in progressive secular humanism, even in science. But the cosmos keeps its silence, and our pretexts seem more specious the more closely we examine reality. There were other roads. At every point of necessity, there were other roads.
Well, there is distraction, there is despair, and then there is the survival of the prophetic, the persistence of the sublime. On the radio now Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, another creation of the mid-20th century. I listen as the dream unfolds; its chill, eerie beauty, its longing, its unstoppable reaching. And I have to forgive us, temporarily. Because even if it is powerless to alter one atom of the material world, such music too exists for now and it is ours.