the power of nightmares: notes from the mythic year

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.

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