Our 22nd Century Mental Block

January 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Maybe it’s all the descriptions of science fiction, especially of utopian or dystopian inclination, that I’ve been reading at work lately.  Or maybe it’s the turn of another year to another futuristic number (2013, for pete’s sake!).  Whatever the cause, it’s just occurred to me recently to wonder:

Why are we not talking about the 22nd century the way that people from the fin de siecle forward (and even before) have talked about, prepared for, fetishized, longed for our 21st century?  Why have we never done so?  (I mean “we” in the broadest sense: humans, though of course I filter primarily through my Western lenses. I think it applies broadly.)

Wondering that has led me to hypothesize.  My hypothesis is that we aren’t thinking about, writing about, and planning for the 22nd century to the same extent that we did for the 21st because, deep down, on a kind of Jungian global subconscious level, we don’t think we’re going to make it that far, as a species.  Partly this is a matter of the narratives of progress and improvement and various ideologies of purity (racial, governmental, sexual, etc.) that drove so much utopian and dystopian thinking in the past 150 or so years having been dismantled and disproven.  And partly I think that numerology does have something to do with it: those 2000s always seemed so sexy as numbers.

But really, aren’t we also at a time in world history that seems deeply short-sighted, deeply unable to look more than a generation ahead?  The space program is an underfunded shell.  We’re still concerned about the price of gas.  We’re more bogged down in sectarian and political conflict than ever.  The ice is melting. Emblematic of all of this is the tired, tired gag of wondering why we don’t have the flying cars we were promised by 1999, or 2001, or 2010, or whatever date.  The tiredness is what’s emblematic: we’ve been making this joke for decades because our reality has outstripped our dreams.  We don’t believe anymore.

I’m fascinated by this idea that we’ve reached a kind of collective block on visions of the future (though of course it’s not complete, just highly noticeable).  It also seems really terrifying.  Every fictional depiction of the far future that I can think of is post-apocalyptic, and many imply that that apocalypse takes place in this century or the next.

Doesn’t it seem so much harder to look 87 years into the future and imagine anything encouraging?  Doesn’t the 22nd century seem like an impossible dream?  Wouldn’t a utopian thinker from Brazil, or China, or wherever — someone with a convincing vision that’s not utterly bleak — be a godsend?

Or am I just out of touch with all of the folks who are busy building the 22nd century’s castles in the sky?  Are these conversations taking place, convincingly?

The Dreams of Montague Tigg and Jonas Chuzzlewit

January 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Reading next: The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon.

Dickens gets really dark in the last third of this book: given how muddled the resolution of the supposed “main” plot of the young and old Martin Chuzzlewits is, I think he simply became more interested in the unremittingly dark, selfish, horrified and horrifying character of Jonas, and his path toward the murder of Montague.  (This seemed, by the way, to happen to Dickens a lot: e.g., Fagin and the Artful Dodger as opposed to Oliver, in Oliver Twist.)

Reading Dickens psychologically is tricky at best, downright dishonest at worst, especially for a layman like myself.  But Dickens, here, does seem to be more interested than in many of his books in the self, and its makeup.  There’s the whole question of how we come to care about other people, and value them as actual people like ourselves and not as obstacles, comforts, or other satellites of the self — one of the central questions of the book.  There’s also the explorations of identity inherent in the non-character of Mrs. Harris, the creation of Mrs. Gamp, who approves of Gamp’s every impulse, notion, and thought; the cipher-characters of Nadgett the detective and the porter of the Anglo-Bengalee Company, whose entire existences are based on being inconspicuous and conspicuous, respectively — entirely internal and external; and the social adventuring and posing and self-creating of Montague Tigg and Bailey Jr.

It somehow seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that Dickens was fascinated by his attraction to the worst aspects of his world and (perhaps) his self: the way his writing explodes to life when exploring London’s seedy underbelly, the way he seems most masterful — to me, anyway — when seeing the world through the eyes of those driven on by their basest instincts to horrible acts.  Did Dickens always see the miracle of his avoidance of that life, after the imprisonment of his father and his despair at going to work at age 12?

At any rate, nothing in this book feels as personal for Dickens as the two nightmares: Tigg’s, in chapter 42, shortly before his murder, and Jonas’s, in chapter 47, right before committing the act.  You get the feeling, reading each dream, that they were real: that Dickens had experienced nightmares very like these, that they are not created but remembered.  Tigg dreams of the door in his hotel room: there’s a “dreadful secret” about this door, and it nags at him in that he feels he both knows and does not know this secret, and this aspect of the dream is “incoherently intertwined” with another, in which the door hides “an enemy, a shadow, a phantom.”  The way this door is one thing and another, and the way it maddens him with its known/unknown secret: this smacks of truth, to me.  Although it works perfectly for the fiction, it’s also much messier than it necessarily needs to be.  This is the way real nightmares work, not fabricated nightmares.

The really brilliant thing about this dream, though, is the way “Nadgett, and he [Tigg], and a strange man with a bloody smear upon his head (who told him that he had been his playfellow, and told him, too, the real name of an old schoolmate, forgotten until then)” work to drive “iron plates and nails” into the door to make it secure.  But “the nails broke, or changed to soft twigs, or what was worse, to worms,” and the door crumbles, splinters, and refuses to accept nails.  A footnote tells me that one Joseph Brogunier suggests that the “strange man” is Tigg himself, and the “old schoolmate” is Tigg, too: keep in mind that he’s known at this point as Tigg Montague, and has raised himself from a begging, swindling, scrubby scoundrel into the dandified head of an insurance company (still a swindler, but on a grand scale, and therefore worthy of respect).

The nightmare works brilliantly on different levels: for in reality, the door connects to Jonas’s room, and Tigg wakes to find Jonas hovering over his bed (which is some scary shit, frankly, and would’ve made my heart explode in that situation).  Tigg has already become ambiguously afraid of Jonas, who creeps him out in hard-to-define ways.  But besides fictionally effective foreshadowing of murder, there is also the free-floating anxiety of getting found out: of Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague always afraid he’ll be found out, both as a fraud (although I think he could deal with that alone) and as a kid, a “schoolmate.”  I think Dickens — leaving things really mysterious, ambiguous, and unresolved, here, for once in his life — taps into some of that anxiety we all feel in dreams, and it makes an incredible counterpoint to the self-centered monstrousness of both Jonas and Tigg: the fear we (or at least I) often have in dreams that we are somehow not valid people, not adults, never to escape childhood or the people we once were.

Then there’s Jonas’s dream.  This whole chapter, incidentally, is a work of genius: it’s frenzied, blood-red, taut, surreal in the way you feel surreal when you’re about to do or have just done something terrifying or climactic.  Jonas, riding in a carriage to murder Tigg, dreams he’s in his own bed and is awakened by the old clerk, Chuffey (whom he abused so often).  They go into “a strange city” with the signs written in a strange language, but Jonas remembers he’s been there before.  The streets are at various levels, connected by ladders and ropes connected to bells.  There’s a huge crowd, and Jonas learns it’s Judgment Day.  His companion keeps changing from one person to another.  A head rises up from the crowd, “livid and deadly, but the same as he had known it,” and blames Jonas for “appoint[ing] that dreadful day to happen.”  Presumably, this is Tigg.  He tries to strike him down, but they struggle without a conclusion, and he awakes.

Again — in the protean companion, Jonas’s anxiety about the way he’s dressed, and the brilliant dreamscape of streets at various levels, for the social rising and falling of urban life — we see a kind of verisimilitude of dreams, I think.  We also see anxiety about the self, about identity, about being found out.  And, while it’s easy to see the “livid and deadly” head as that of Tigg, you could also see it as that of Jonas’s father, or his own.  What’s meant by “deadly,” after all?  Is it deadly as in dead, as his father is?  Is it deadly as in potentially fatal to Jonas, as he sees that Tigg could be?  Is it deadly as in having murder on its mind, as Jonas himself does, constantly, to the brink of paranoid insanity?

I’ll write a little more about Jonas and the murder in the next post.  There’s just so much that’s great about this section of the book.  It really is very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky, especially Crime and Punishment: it’s similarly claustrophobic.

Are You Ready for Some Football?

November 10, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone.

Like a good-sized chunk of America, I have a football problem.  It’s partly geography and heredity — born and raised in Nebraska, I came of age during a span of an almost unfathomable 33 consecutive years when the University of Nebraska never won less than 9 out of 12 (or sometimes 13) games and the triple option was manifestly the perfect offensive system — partly habit, and partly a sense of obligation.  Something about the short season and the fact that the vast majority of the games take place on the weekend makes it seem somehow obligatory.  I don’t claim to know why that is.  I just know it’s so.

DeLillo made the choice, back in the early ’70s, to use football to write about some really abstract and difficult things.  He set the book at a place called Logos College in west Texas, and he’s really quite good on the football details; now, of course, the football scenes seem antiquated, but then it really was true that colleges, especially on the plains, ran and ran and ran some more.  (It’s somehow an added bonus to me that this book came out in 1972, the year that began with Nebraska winning its second straight national title, the obvious model of a successful football program.)

The book’s divided into three parts; the central part is a 25-page description of a football game, the most important of the year for Logos.  It begins with an unexpected authorial interlude, and it’s so good on sports, football, our spectator culture, and language that I have to quote at length:

…numerous commentators have been willing to risk death by analogy in their public discussions of the resemblance between football and war.  But this sort of thing is of little interest to the exemplary spectator.  As Alan Zapalac says later on: “I reject the notion of football as warfare.  Warfare is warfare.  We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing.”  The exemplary spectator is the person who understands that sport is a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible.  It’s a form of society that is… organized so that everyone follows precisely the same rules;…that roots out the inefficient and penalizes the guilty; that tends always to move toward perfection.  The exemplary spectator has his occasional lusts, but not for warfare, hardly at all for that.  No, it’s details he needs — impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.  Football… is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name…. The author… has tried to reduce the contest to basic units of language and action.

This is the best summation I’ve come across for why football (and sports in general, for that matter) works for me: “impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.”  It’s also a reason I like sports (especially baseball) on the radio quite a bit: the games are literally made of words and numbers, that way, and the rest is imagination.  The interlude also clarifies that the play-by-play we’re about to read is a kind of “sustenance” for the sports junkie — “the book as television set.”  (An early example of DFW’s good ol’ “imagist” TV fiction.  Weirdly, I don’t think he mentions End Zone in “E Unibus Pluram,” although he discusses other, later, DeLillo works at length.)

DeLillo’s a bit coy throughout that whole authorial interlude, and the talk of “exemplary spectators” does seem both ironic and mockingly faux-academic.  A lot of what follows is fairly evenly divided between the coded symbols and words and isolated moments we’re led to expect, and descriptions of more or less warlike scenes.  Bodies broken and carted off the field, a benches-clearing brawl, mentions of rape and racial and sexual pejoratives (although these, too, are sometimes broken down to the level of incantations or meaningless word-symbols).  In the thick of Vietnam, this all must have been meant to signify war.

DeLillo seems to me to have always been a writer of systems, concepts, and phenomena, but with a wide metaphysical streak.  He’s wildly anti-realist, to a surprising extent for a novelist who’s gained such wide acclaim: his people almost never talk like people, things never happen like they’d really happen, people don’t wear quotidian clothes or eat quotidian meals or discuss quotidian problems.  There are diatribes and incantations and epigrams, but hardly ever conversations.  All of this is by design, of course.  His characters seem trapped in their own concerns and concepts and thoughts: not communicating, transmitting.

A lot of this book, like a lot of White Noise, seems to be about the human (and especially the atomic-age human) need to shout down the silence, the possibility of nothingness.  Words call attention to themselves in this book, and when they don’t either DeLillo or Gary Harkness, his narrator, calls attention to them for us.  I mean, for God’s sake, the school’s name is Logos — the Word, as in the Gospel of John.  And but so also the paradoxical attraction of the apocalypse — the joy and terror of reaching the end zone.

Going SACPOP

October 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Here’s a deep thought: IJ is not a perfect book.  While I doubt DFW would have described it as a piece of speculative fiction without prompting, it nevertheless is that, among many other things: it posits a future, it speculates on what might be in store.  Its main action is probably set right about now, or maybe a few more years down the road, if you want to get specific about it (which really is beside the point).  And as a speculation on technology, it’s not actually very good.

12 (12!) years down the road, it’s easy to see how many anachronisms the book contains.  All of these “cartridges,” CD-ROMs, even the now utterly obsolete 3″ floppies which were becoming obsolete even as the book was published: these are superficial anachronisms, but nevertheless jarring in realizing how we live in the future now: we’ve outstripped expectations for our technological dependence, and also changed the nature of our addiction to “entertainment” in interesting and unforeseeable ways.  I’m thinking here YouTube, FaceBook, Twitter, the already-kind-of-obsolete personal blog, the whole constellation of 2.0 “infotainment” and exhibitionism that an awful lot of people use the Internet for, and which is more or less absent from IJ’s Subsidized Time of the future: people are still watching movies, TV, playing CD-ROM games.  (Of course we in the now still do those things, and still will; point is we do an awful lot more, as well, without really decreasing our consumption of any of the other entertainments we were already abusing.)  I’m guessing DFW wrote much of IJ in the early ’90s, perhaps even late ’80s.  It was probably impossible to anticipate how much the Internet would change things.

The best section on technology in the book is the classic videophone discussion.  It’s brilliant on “a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech.”  To recap, it explains that videophones went through a vogue when first introduced, but people realized they couldn’t do all the distracted, self-involved things they do when talking on the phone if they’re on a videophone.  So products were developed to help them use these expensive devices without actually using them: filters, fake backdrops and masks and “Transmittable Tableaus” that let the videophoners show whatever “heavily doctored” image of themselves they want to present, until this fad too faded and people just pretty much went back to using audio-only phones and all their paraphernalia for transmitting doctored images of themselves were thrown away or gathered dust, except among the gauche or lower-class who still use them.  (It’s much better to read it yourself: p. 144-51.)  What’s ingenious about this, I think, is the way it highlights (wittily and succinctly, I might add) the issues of power and control at the heart of most communications-based technology.  What interactive “Web 2.0” sites focused on personal interaction and communication (including, of course, this here personal blog) allow you to do is construct a “heavily doctored” image of yourself, a view of yourself to present to the world without really presenting yourself to the world, in, you know, synchronous, face-to-face, interpersonal interaction.  A dance of veils, more or less.  The technology itself is not inherently narcissistic, which seems to be a fallacy many of us fall into.  That just happens to be how it’s been applied.  (This isn’t just 2.0 stuff, of course: you can make the same argument about e-mail.)

The worst section on technology in the book is the game of Eschaton.  I may have dreamed this, and I’m too lazy to look it up now, but I seem to remember DFW saying in some interview that Eschaton was a relic, kind of a self-contained short story, one of the earliest things he wrote that ended up in the book.  That’s how it feels, now: honest to God, he has Otis P. Lord running around on the tennis courts with a “color monitor” laptop hooked up to a more powerful computer by a giant extension cord and 200-something 3″ floppies to process the complicated computations required by Eschaton.  It’s like WarGames, for Chrissake.  Someone get the Lord a wireless connection, a battery, and a laptop built after 1995.

Despite all that: how I do love the Eschaton.  It’s hilarious slapstick, it’s philosophically and metaphysically complex, it’s a crash course in game theory or maybe why game theory isn’t the answer to everything.  (As a super-nerd side note: it’s also one of the most deliberately metafictional portions of the book, with this strange interplay between the text and the footnotes raising the question of whether Pemulis or Hal is narrating, or whether the nameless narrator is simply ventriloquizing Pemulis/Hal.)  It’s an interesting question what DFW was, exactly, trying to do with the Eschaton.  Partly I think it was simply a lot of fun: DFW clearly loved the math involved, the geometry, the vectors, and once Ingersoll hits Kittenplan with that ball to the back of the head there’s sustained comic chaos worthy of the Marx Bros, at least until things turn seriously Lord-of-the-Flies and Lord ends up with his face through a monitor.  (Too much fun, as always.)  Partly there’s the satiric intent of showing how much “fun” apocalyptic scenarios can be, how seriously these 12-to-15-year-olds take the entertainment of their abstracted ends, how easy it is for them to accept scenarios leading to nuclear holocaust.  (I love the treatment of historic consciousness here, how Canadian extremists so often factor into their explicitly nostalgic Cold War scenarios.  We have this way of filtering our present through our past, like now, as we’re reenvisioning former backwaters and bit players like Afghanistan and Islamic fundamentalism as central to our current situation and driving forces in recent history.)  And partly there’s some big-time Pynchon/DeLillo influence here, in the metaphysical concerns underpinning these endgame scenarios, in the aptly named Otis P. Lord and his total lack of control when irrational human beings start acting irrationally and his spinning beanie of doom.  Most of all, in the giggling horror of “going SACPOP”: Strikes Against Civilian Populations as a strategy in a game, a way of winning or of preventing someone else from winning.  This may have seemed a historical concern in 1996, and DFW framing this Cold War section as a kid’s game does seem like a kind of time capsule of 1996, with its sense of post-historicity and global exhale and smaller-scale conflict.  Nevertheless, he kept this section for a reason: the warheads hang around, and even if they didn’t, the knowledge does, and the desire.  (This, of course, is why DeLillo remains vital and not a kind of Cold War cultural artifact.)  DFW’s inclusion of terrorist scenarios proved, obviously, adept, and the cataloging of scenarios used in past and potential Eschatons points out all the dangers that still existed, that were still horribly frightening and imaginable and variable, in that far-away-future year of 1996.

Things Get Weird Past Cathay

April 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Mandeville’s been in cartographic/touristic/historian mode for a while, but he really lets it all hang out near the end of the book. After he’s described the Mongol lands and China, he just starts repeating whatever he’s heard (or embellishing whatever he’s read, perhaps). A couple of choice examples from chapter 29:

Maybe the most famous cock-and-bull story here is the one which the editor speculates might be hearsay about Korea: “There there grows a kind of fruit as big as gourds, and when it is ripe men open it and find inside an animal of flesh and blood and bone, like a little lamb without wool. And the people of that land eat the animal, and the fruit too.” Even weirder, Mandeville gets all world-weary and says it’s no big deal, since in England they have trees whose fruits bear geese if they fall on water. Uh, yeah, sure.

An interesting apocalyptic story, too: according to Mandeville the Gog and Magog references in Revelation are to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, which are trapped in a mountainous land. When the Antichrist appears, a fox will dig a hole into this land from just outside the gates that were built by Alexander the Great to hold these Jews in, and since they don’t have foxes there they’ll be so intrigued that they will chase him and dig after him and thereby escape their prison. It’s got a very old, very Freudian, very ugly-early-medieval-folklore feel, this story.

Horsemen, Bikers, and Psychopaths, Oh My!

January 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Good Omens, Gaiman and Pratchett.

The apocalypse nears: the Four Horsemen have met at a roadside diner and are riding their hogs toward Armageddon. Now, I was reading this in the Carolina Theatre here in Durham tonight, waiting for There Will Be Blood to start. Something about the setting bounced a pinball around my head; the chain of thoughts was nicely completed by TWBB itself. Indulge me:

The jokey treatment of the Horsemen in Good Omens–War, Famine, Pollution (taking over for the prematurely retired Pestilence), and Death as bikers of the Hell’s Angels variety–reminded me of one of my all-time favorite movie villains, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona. That dude–you probably remember; how could you forget? Tex Cobb as Leonard Smalls, a snarling, ugly bounty hunter–was a kind of half-joke, like a lot of Coen Bros. characters. GO was published in 1990, merely 3 years after RA‘s release. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to posit a lineage there.

The Coens used the Lone Biker as a half-joke, but the dream sequence in which he is introduced is no joke. Brother, what a dream sequence! Hurtling through a desert landscape; delicate flowers catching fire in his wake; picking off jackrabbits with his sawed-off from his bike; going faster and faster, driving up to the Arizona mansion, right up the wall, into the nursery.

The virtuosity of that sequence–Nic Cage’s earnest declaration that nothing could survive in its path, the brilliant, wild angles and the quick cuts to a fevered, panicked H.I. in bed–leads me to see the Lone Biker as a precursor to the Coens’ depiction of Anton Chigurh, in No Country for Old Men. He’s the only character remotely like Chigurh in the Coens’ work (well, except for maybe Peter Stormare’s character in Fargo, but he was really more of a golem with a bad creator than anything). Nothing can survive in his path, either–unless the coin says it can.

And then the movie started; and without being a total spoiler, I’ll say that the phrase “I am the Third Revelation!” led me to think of a certain someone as the Lone Oilman of the Apocalypse. Arid, windswept landscapes; lone figures of pure (or nearly pure, in Daniel Plainview’s case) malevolence; intimations of existential despair and political allegory. The end times are certainly on our minds, these days (although, as far as the current cinematic variants go, these films seem a little eight-months-ago to me; I’m too jazzed about Obama now to completely buy into the circa Winter 2007 bleakness that seems to be captured here).

Now, as a side note, none of these are my own personal favorite depiction of the Horsemen. That would have to be reserved for the utterly terrifying, utterly unexpected Four Mannequins of the Apocalypse dangling from the ceiling at House on the Rock in Wisconsin.  Some might say they seem out of place at an amusement park-cum-museum-cum-funhouse; I say, if you’re an eccentric millionaire who’s built weird collections of dolls, instruments, models, and other bric-a-brac, and who’s built his own building to house them, using no architectural plans, then you’d be crazy not to leave your visitors with the sense that the end is nigh.

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