22 March 2007

Get Out While You Still Can

End Times in the American Republic

Two weeks ago, I was in a bar in the Netherlands drinking a half-and-half mix of Brand beer with a friend of mine from the States; she was out on a semester abroad. At some point during the night, she lit a cigarette and took an emphatic pull of her glass and said, "I'm leaving the country after graduation if I can help it. The entire thing's going to fall apart soon and I don't want to be there when it comes down."


In an accident of release dates that may be more symptomatic than prophetic, indie rock - that favored musical mode of the young college-educated middle class - has seconded. The Arcade Fire's Neon Bible is paranoid and clanging; when it is hopeful, it is hopeful with the sort of ecstatic despair of revivalist tent camps - praising in the teeth of horror - and no coincidence that the thing was recorded in a 19th-century church. They don't know where and they don't when it's comin', Win Butler sings on "Keep the Car Running," and then continues plaintively: Oh, when is it coming? There are vague and troubled allusions to torture, names and addresses, black tides rising, bombs that whistle down in the background - this is an age that calls darkness light.

An entire track is devoted to expatriatism: on "Windowsill," which is flawed but instructive for our purposes, Butler repeats the refrain - I don't want to live in my father's house no more - until the music crests and he can no longer tolerate even oblique metaphor: I don't want to live in America no more!

Meanwhile, on the first track of Armchair Apocrypha, violinist-turned-cryptic Andrew Bird sings quietly, I feel a premonition that we've got to envision the fiery crash.

There is something about the times that seems to say, Surely I come quickly.


It may be the feeling of gathering speed - that things are moving at a faster and faster rate, outpacing our own abilities of comprehension, that what Wendell Berry (who I quoted at length just days ago) called 'the machine of human history' is 'a huge flywheel building speed until finally the force of its whirling will break it into pieces.'

Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, also referenced here (it is a day for retrospection), is almost without a fault lucid, tightly wound, analytic, breathtaking in its compression and the connections made, even if it tends reactionary and is sometimes contestable - but when Barzun reaches the century in which he lived and worked for almost every year it lasted, he throws up his hands. The prose becomes indirect, impressionistic, exhausted, and behind it all is something lurking and unclear, like the bottom of a muddy pool: we are reaching the end of something, and the beginning; we are living in a decadent era, where 'decadent' is not a value judgement but a description of an age whose options and ideas have been evolved and refined until exhausted.

Jonathan Huebner, working from a few endlessly debatable methodologies, concluded in a study two years ago in July that the per capita rate of human innovation peaked a century ago, that knowledge has become specialized and arcane, that it takes us years and years longer just to achieve basic intellectual fluency, or to know our disciplines (Barzun puts the trend in small capitals and names it: specialization; there are no more Renaissance men, and even the notion of the educated layperson may be dying). We are, he asserts, coming to a long decline; all of this exponential progress is illusory, a busyness. Emerson wrote that progress is 'only apparent, like workers on a treadmill.' The treadmill runs faster than ever.

Even the futurists in their optimism note this speed, but for them the flywheel does not fly apart but transforms itself, spins until it becomes a singularity, an event horizon, beyond which everything is changed; in their rhetoric of nanoengineering and cheap energy and instantaneous travel one sees reflected the gleaming walls of the New Jerusalem, the jeweled streets, crystal rivers - 'new heaven, new earth.'

But all of this seems insufficient - or a little grandiose - to describe the feeling of my friend in that Netherlands bar, or the two expatriates I shared sangria with over playing cards on a rooftop in Granada this Christmas. It's not the world they see ending - though some environmentalists join the Christian right in demurring - but American hegemony: in runaway inflation, economic collapse, military defeat, political repression.


Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

- Robert Frost (December, 1920)
There is in some quarters a feeling that American power has run its course - or that American power as linked to a progress-oriented capitalist/consumerist liberal world order is an 'end of history' as temporary as the pax Romana. Maybe my privileged friends spouting expatriatism are just aping the art world of the 1920s and can afford plane tickets.

The world is always ending. As Diarmaid MacCullouch writes in his learned but quite readable history of The Reformation, that great religious convulsion would not have acquired the dimensions it did if all of the Christian Occident - wracked by unknown plague (syphilis) at the fulcrum of a millennium, threatened on every border by Turkish and North African Islamic power - had not been convinced that the Last Days were upon them, that this was the last chance for humanity to build the Kingdom of God on earth and prepare the way. The United States inherited this apocalyptic strain of Protestant thought, which was so compelling because in a very real way it screamed the world as it existed was false, the Pope was the Antichrist, we all had been taken in.

And paired with this is the idea that Protestant America is a city on a hill, an expression that has been distended far beyond its original intention as a link to a worldwide community of Protestants across the ocean in Europe. We are an example and an experiment. Our politics are perpetually, somebody has proposed, apocalyptic.

The world is always ending - read Jared Diamond's Collapse, which keeps almost suggesting a parallel between us and the Last Days of those that have come before. And what's frightening is that things fall apart so quickly, and at the height of their extravagance and sophistication. Athens (see Victor Davis Hansen's A War Like No Other, and marvel at his current politics considering) ruined itself on the heels of its Golden Age, its fleet larger than it had ever been, its buildings grander, its power at its apex.

But worlds are always ending somewhere, for someone - we all die, after all, and anybody who didn't live to see the world past 1950 or so might have thought it their last moments that it would all end shortly. It's a fluke of birthplace and property that I and my generation of indie-rock listening college peers who groove to The Arcade Fire's end times album haven't yet run into cataclysm ourselves.

Tomorrow, having piled all of this up, I'll try to make sense of it.

No comments: