Complacency and Catastrophe

IT IS ONE of the pleasanter delusions fostered by times of general stability and prosperity, that the world as we know it—the world of peace and liberty, for example, in which we of the West have come of age and are by now thoroughly accustomed to existing—is imperishable. Such delusion takes the form of a popular, unsophisticated version of the doctrine that Fukuyama laid forth (and later himself emended) in The End of History and the Last Man.
      This is all much less a question of philosophy than it is of attitude, of course, but it is an attitude which governs much of our actions nonetheless. It might be summed up as a kind of gut confidence that we really are living in the “end of history,” in the social order which has consummated all historical development, and which, one may presume, will last indefinitely. We have, it is generally felt (one should not dare to use the word thought in such a case), overcome at last those disturbances, wars, and revolutions which once wracked our Western countries with periodic regularity, and we need no longer dread those catastrophes of illness, weather, and nature, for we have instated the just social order and have harnessed the powers of nature sufficiently to stand against all but incidental difficulties. The Age of Plenty, we feel, shall protract itself across the face of the future.
      I am aware, of course, of the periodic anxiety which seems now and then inexplicably to seize the heart of our public, in which the “end of the world” is said to be drawing nigh. There have been already two such episodes in our present young century alone—first, at its very birth, with the “Millennium Bug,” and again in 2012, with the ominous end of the Mayan Calendar. It may be we are even on the cusp of a third such wave of distress, with the election of Donald Trump to the office of presidency. We are already not distant from such proclamations.
      Yet I wonder if these shrill fears of imminent cataclysm, genuine though they indubitably are, really run so deep as they sometimes seem. It appears rather to me that they are tempered finally by the more fundamental optimism of our well-fed, self-contented, pacific people. For truly, how many of those who claimed they were afraid of these disasters, actually did something in preparation of them? I mean to say—how many of them stockpiled food, medicine, or arms? How many of them cultivated survival tactics, or learned to live off the land, or prepared their houses for defense? Many, no doubt, awoke the morning of the presumably fatal day with flutterings of anticipation in their stomachs—but how many really lost sleep for it?
      More yet: I spoke with a number of those who really did believe that at least 2012 would result in a world-historical upheaval. I met some who had stored food up against the disaster, and had readied their vegetable patches for all extremes. But what most struck me about such people was this: most of them were looking forward to what was coming. They believed, genuinely believed, that some undefined event—perhaps a volcano, a meteor, a devastating reversal of the gulf stream, an alien invasion, or the coming of the Antichrist—would uproot the very foundations of our corrupt and fatigued societies, hurling humanity into a chaos from which only disease, famine, and war general could result for many long decades, not to speak of the demise of the larger part of our race—and they were eager for it.
      No surer sign could be given, I think, of the utterly naïve optimism in which most Westerners live their lives. And though there is something no doubt charming about such an attitude, and though it is disagreeable trying to wake people from such pleasant dreams, just as it is onerous to shatter a child’s illusions—yet atimes this ingenuity becomes really dangerous, to the point perhaps of preparing the very catastrophe whose possibility it so innocently and comfortably ignores.
      For about a century now the Americans—and with them, all the Occident—have lived precisely in such a balmy adolescent dream. It shows in everything they do: their irresponsible consumption of all that is consumable; their personal economies, which can best be described with the term generally employed to absolve their government of similar irresponsibility, namely, deficit spending; their general support for international military practices which favor their lifestyles to the detriment and destruction of foreign lives; and the curious complacency with which they consider the newest technologies to be theirs by right.
      None of this should surprise: we live in a world in which the most startling array of luxuries can simply be taken for granted, in which the larger part of diseases have their cure, in which the idea of war arriving at our shores—to say nothing of our front doors—is frankly absurd, the stuff of fiction or fairytale. We might be forgiven indeed for regarding the world in such an ingenuous light as we are prone to do—save that such a complacency makes us precarious, and threatens the very privileges we have learned so well to expect from and for our society.
      But the world is turning, against all our inchoate notions of an “end of history,” and events of a most disagreeable countenance are indeed come to our threshold. Whether they shall pass over is another question: but the hour is well on us that we must ask ourselves—what, is it not time at last to grow up?

• • •

On the Moral Imperative Regarding Moderation

IN THE HARSH LIGHT of recent events, the term “extremism” has come to be much bantered about in our conversations, our speeches, and our public discourse. Though this is of especial truth in the United States, the phenomenon is evident as well in Europe, where populist parties, particularly of the extreme right, have slowly been gaining in power and influence, in a surprising number of different nations. Beyond the narrow circle of those who openly espouse “extremist” positions, the growth of extremism in the public sphere is felt generally to be an ill, and an ominous harbinger of as-of-yet unprecedented trends and troubles in society and in politics. It is feared, with a still vague and hesitant fear, that this extremism could finally culminate in, among other things, the compromise or even overthrow of our democratic institutions.
      It thus becomes of urgent moment both for the people of our Western democracies, and yet moreso for those who inform and guide that public, to comprehend the nature of extremism—and, even more essentially, that virtue through which extremism is mastered: moderation.

• • •

On the Modern Tongue

TOWARD THE COMMENCEMENT of the last century, a silent revolution overtook the use of our English language, a fundamental alteration of our writing and our speech, which quickly became so widespread and so arrant that we of today almost universally wear its costumes. Indeed, it has become the very style of our time, regardless of what style we may more personally cultivate. We are writers of this day by virtue of this common style, and any future readers, looking back at our works, correspondences, books, and journals, will recognize us by this imprint, as the very signature of our age.
      Our style is characterized—if one may grossly generalize in a complex situation—by deliberate limitation of the vocabulary we employ, extreme simplification of our syntax, and insistence on the immediate intelligibility of our structure. Put simply, it is characterized by a will to say everything and to conceal nothing; or, negatively, by a certain most visible (when it is not vocal) aversion to ambiguity, complexity, subtlety, “confounding of sense,” and intricacy. It melds well, this new style, with our thoroughgoing democratic attitude; it is, indeed, democracy’s literary concomitant. It should be no wonder, then, that it now seeks to tyrannize the pens of all living writers, with the full authority invested in the spirit of the times. Such an outcome is the inevitable consequences of that most curious of modern contradictions, which begins with uninhibited acceptance of diversity, and ends with the most striking imposition of homogeneity.
      We wordsmiths and pensmen would do well to consider our antecedents, if for no other reason than that a little self-knowledge becomes us. Even beyond that, we might also profit from comprehending the limits of our tradition, and the ways in which it might be overhauled to the greater glory of our art.

• • •

A Note on the Subtitle to this Journal

MUSINGS from above the fray—so I have christened this journal. It is a name given with some deliberation, and I will leave the unraveling of the better part of it to whomever would try his hand. Yet as regards the last term in particular, I would like to spend a few words.
        The fray—that is what I name this day in which we live, this complex, hectic, frenetic, bustling today in which a thousand things are done, and nary a single one accomplished; in which everyone scurries hither and thither like mice in the fields, without even so much clear intent. Fray—that is chaos, and business, and much wild activity. That is the intersection of a thousand ephemeral spurts of contradictory energies, almost all of which are doomed to disperse at the first glint of tomorrow’s sun like fog. Fray—that is a madness in which it is all too easy to lose oneself, becoming one of these modern personages, dwelling easy in the flux, confronting with hunger and delight each merest alteration or altercation, and hurling oneself into each moment with all the wantoness of life itself, body and soul, corpo e cuore, to turn on like a light each time the least bit of static crackles in the air.
         And just what is the trouble with all of this, it might well be asked? For, to look no farther than the form of this journal—is the fray not essential to modern writing? Every stray blogger in all the world, after all, seems to live nowhere if not precisely within the fray, as near to its elusive and ubiquitous heart as he may. These “writers” want nothing more than to seize the “topic of the day” by its sleek fish-scale throat—to catch the dancing eyes of this or that search engine, or the restless mercurial attention of the public. And all honor to them! For they comprehend this time in which we live with all the intimacy of a citizen of the realm. I come instead as a stranger and foreigner, one marked out as separate by his taste and temperament, his custom and culture. These remarkably busy, shockingly alert commentators on the day have a thousand lessons to teach this foreigner—he will be the last to deny it! But let it not be forgotten either that atimes it is precisely from a foreigner that we might learn to look with fresh eyes upon our idioms and idiosyncracies—
      Well, and so I hope to find a thing or two to say to my contemporaries, whom I regard with wonder and even with a touch of envy. Wonder, that they should not lose their heads in all this confusion; envy, that they have learned to run at such a pace. For I do not live within the fray. I leave it in the hands of worthier journalists to describe the chaos from inside of it. I have every intent, as my subtitle not so subtly indicates, of taking an altogether different view.
         I state this without attempting to boast. Quite simply, the conditions of our day, the requirements it heaps on its exemplars, would fast crush me, or at best leave me fatigued, bewildered, and embittered. I have chosen, from an inner imperative native to me, to live far from the city, by a rhythm diverse. I have even been tempted, more than once, to cut my ties with the modern world altogether, and to go the way of the Mennonites. Yet I am here: so far from severing all bonds and burning all bridges, I have determined at last to embrace the full ambiguity of my position as one who may live here and will not live there, as a mid-dweller and middleman in every sense of these terms. Above the fray—that does not mean, beyond it…
         I leave off with a final word regarding my work here. I have stated that I come here as a foreigner. And yet, I allow for this difference between my situation, and that of the common traveler: that I will not, as a polite and guestly stranger, refrain from speaking my criticism of the nation that hosts me, nor mellow my harsher words. I will not, for the sake of mere etiquette, rob from either myself nor from my reader the most hopeful possibility that might issue from our confrontation: namely, that we depart each other, knowing ourselves a little the better. Thus my promise: I will not spare myself, good reader, because I will not spare you.
         And thus—do I not too, in my way, enter—the fray?

• • •