On the coming apocalypse

2017-03-14 07.59.23

Pictured above is the courtyard of my building. I cannot describe how relieved I am to see snow. Chicago has not had any significant snow through all of January and February — the first time this has happened in recorded history — and some days in February were warm enough that you could go without a coat. I grew up in Michigan and have spent most of my adult life in the Chicago area, so winter has been a constant part of the rhythm of my life. I remember walking to school as a child in the winter, and I pride myself on my skill in walking on snow and ice without slipping. Every year, I find that first blast of harsh unbearable cold weirdly refreshing. It gives me a gut-level sense of humanity’s place in this world: nature is under no obligation to us.

The irony is that as the world becomes objectively less inhabitable, it feels — at least for those of us in the Midwest — more and more pleasant. I enjoy it, despite myself. An unaccountably upbeat mood a couple weeks ago was actually easy to account for: it was the spring-like weather. But I’m consciously happier now, even though I know that this belated snow does not mean things are “back to normal,” that it’s childish to think that nature is somehow “making up for lost time.” The implicit idea that nature is fighting to retain the weather pattern most hospitable to humanity cuts against the message that I discern in the winter weather that is rapidly disappearing.

Whenever the topic of the end of the world comes up, as it so often does, I find that ironic detachment is de rigueur in the circles I run in. We are a collective Hezekiah: yes, the world is ending, but by my math there will be peace in our day…. At least “officially,” we are supposed to be happy to live out our lives in relative comfort and let future generations — if there are any, ha ha! — deal with the problems that we cannot seem to fix.

I find it hard to participate in those conversations, just as I find it hard to get into the right spirit for questions about “what would you do if you knew you had only X amount of time to live.” If there’s no future, nothing matters — and that matters for our present enjoyment, too. We human beings do not actually “live for the moment,” no matter how many motivational posters exhort us to do so. We are future-oriented animals, and even our most gut-level satisfactions carry with them the awareness that we are forming memories, that the experience will be enjoyable in a different way in the future as well.

So what would I do if the world were ending or I knew I were dying? Would I eat my favorite food? No, it would taste like ashes. Would I have sex? I would be too anxious and depressed to do so. Would I listen to Beethoven’s Ninth and enjoy a glass of wine? Kirsten Dunst’s character in Melancholia is right — I might as well just take a shit. That small relief would suffer least under the no-future regime.

One thing I worry about — as a teacher, as a scholar, as a writer myself — is cultural continuity. One reason that listening to Beethoven’s Ninth is useless in the face of no-future is that Beethoven’s Ninth will no longer be inspiring musicians to contribute to the ongoing tradition of musical experimentation. “Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious,” and the converse is also true: as long as there is a future, there is a chance that even the dead will be redeemed. Not the least damage done by the oppressor is the thwarting, devaluing, and appropriation of the cultural creativity of the oppressed. If there is no future, then that cultural creativity is extinguished and destroyed for good. Human extinction is the ultimate victory of the oppressor, who comes only to steal, kill, and destroy.

Despite my personal investment in cultural continuity, I have no inclination to have children of my own. In other words, I am quite happy to pass on some segment of the human cultural heritage by means of “other people’s babies.” Whatever the personal reasons for my lack of interest in childrearing, there is in fact nothing unusual about passing on culture through “other people’s babies.” The vaunted Western tradition has only survived through a series of transplantations — the export of Greek culture to the lands once ruled by the hated Persians, for instance, or the appropriation of Latin literature by the barbarian tribes who precipitated the downfall of Rome. Every conceivable kind of baby — every “race,” if one insists on this outdated term with no biological basis — has been educated in the Western tradition and contributed to it.

Babies don’t come pre-loaded with cultural competencies. They all need education. A cultural tradition that refuses to be passed on to “other people’s babies” is a cultural tradition with no future, a cultural tradition that deserves to die — because every authentic expression of human creativity strives only to be reactivated again and again in an unpredictable and open-ended future. And the nihilism that believes only a certain genetic profile can carry on a cultural heritage is, not coincidentally, the same nihilism that is working hard to make sure that there ultimately are no babies at all, “ours” or “other people’s.” The desire for the sheer persistence of something called “whiteness” is already a closure to any possible future, and as such, despite its protests about civilization and culture, it represents a foreclosure of what is most authentically human.

2 thoughts on “On the coming apocalypse

  1. Good thoughts. Say what you want, though, I knew they weren’t going to let us get away with that winter we didn’t have. They always take it out of you in the Spring if there’s no real winter, so I’m glad we’re getting some late action.

  2. For me, at least, ironic detachment is a refuge from feelings of overwhelming panic and utter helplessness. The situation is so dire; and there seems to be absolutely nothing one can do that is remotely adequate to the scale of the problem. For a bad health care bill, calling your congressmen seems like a worthwhile response. What do we do for climate change? When the situation requires massive change now (or five years ago), calling congressmen, going to rallies, trying to drive less, etc, seem like blowing to stop a hurricane. I try to do what I can. But there seems no real hope. So irony keeps the panic in line.

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