“The historian is the herald who invites the dead to the table.“
– Walter Benjamin
In 1925, T.S. Eliot saw the writing on the wall. The world would end, he thought, “not with a bang but a whimper.” In our own time, 2012 was destined to become the year of the Great Mayan Apocalypse – a centuries-old declaration of calendrical oblivion, finally come to collect. Some, determined to secure front-row seats to the greatest show on earth, stormed the Yucatan like the vile offspring of Duane Hanson and Burning Man. Time to go out with a bang, they exclaimed. But as the sun broke the horizon on December 22, it became clear that the world, in its obstinacy, would trundle on. No apocalypse this year, Yucatan reveler. Better luck next time.
A cataclysmic letdown, one might say. Then again, maybe this is what the end looks like. Maybe this unendurable persistence is the whimper that Eliot foretold.
It’s not so hard to believe. Back in 1938 when Orson Welles made radio history with his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, naïve Americans came face to face with catastrophe. The story’s news-bulletin format was enough to authenticate the Martian invasion and provoke widespread panic. Seventy-four years later, a generation plagued by survival sickness seized upon the Mayan expiration date as a gift, an invitation to lay hold of one Real thing before finally, mercifully, perishing. Hollow and stuffed, we were denied this small reprieve. Still, the promise of oblivion became marketing gold. Over the course of one year, the ruin of the world became the image of the ruin of the world, and premonitions of our demise became a desiccated charnel waxworks.
Sensing an opportunity to be both the voice of reason and to cash in, venerable outlets like The Guardian set about debunking the myths upon which our forebodings were based. Conveying the results of his fact-finding mission among the Mayans, journalist Shankar Chaudhuri could not help but adopt the venerable postures of pious anthropology. “Throughout our trip,” he reported, “we encountered many ordinary Mayans from every walk of life to check out their reaction to the supposedly doomsday prediction.” In his estimation, “most” of the Mayans with whom he spoke were “largely baffled by the question,” while others “flatly denied that there was any reason that the world would come to an end.” Thus assuaged by his native informants, Chaudhuri concluded that “the image of the apocalypse” could therefore best be understood as a projection of “our own society’s subconscious fears, insecurities and fantasies.”
Predictably, the story wraps where it should begin. What are these subconscious fears, insecurities, and fantasies? And how do they arise from our current condition? Why have we come to long so desperately, collectively, for an end? And what would we do if we discovered we were already there, on the edge of this tumid river, enduring with a whimper? Blame the promoters, if you will, but The Great Mayan Apocalypse was a bigger bust than Woodstock ’99. Nevertheless, the fantasies it traded in were real. One look at last year’s obituaries is enough to know why 2012 made us long for final, tranquil, release.
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Neil Armstrong died on August 25, 2012. The first man on the moon fell down dead. He’d had a long life, and he saw the world as no one before him had. A lunar perspective, circa 1969: looking down on the planet at precisely the moment when the new and integrated space of global multinational capitalism began to congeal. It was the beginning of the end.
In an obituary posted on their website, NASA sought to revitalize the utopian reflex that – once upon a time – made it self-evident that space travel should happen under the sign of Apollo. By their reckoning, Armstrong’s words from the Sea of Tranquility were “the climactic fulfillment of the efforts and hopes of millions of people.” And more: “Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin were there as representatives of all humans.” All of the world, under one sun, united in reason and warmth.
A beautiful image, to be sure. But small consolation when your city’s on fire. Apollo may have been the god of light, but he also brought the plague. By April 29, 1992, Armstrong’s utopia finally succumbed to globalization’s basest form. Like a storm that could be seen from space, the L.A. riots revealed Apollo’s Janus face. And at the center of the hurricane lay Rodney King’s bruised and bloodied body, immortalized by George Holliday in a fit of scopophilia. It would be enough. The cops got off, and the city erupts. In light of what Mike Davis called “a future already looted,” the riot appeared to L.A.’s underclass like “a magic dispensation.” Consequently, the looting that followed abided by “a visible moral economy.”
A jubilee that did not last, the riot’s “bang” fell silent. Bush I, Bush II, Iraq, Iraq, Recession.
Floating in a swimming pool (the closest us mortals get to feeling like we’re in space), Rodney King dies. It’s June 17, 2012. A few months earlier, in a New York Times interview marking the riot’s twentieth anniversary, he recounted how a cop once told him that people would know Rodney King a hundred years from now. And maybe they will. But 2012 witnessed no commemorative riot, no jubilant redistribution, no revitalization of Armstrong’s naïve and distant lunar hope.
When second-wave radical feminist Shulamith Firestone died in her sweltering East-Village apartment in late August, there was no Holliday with a camera, no one to note (let alone ease) her passing, no one even to mark her time of death. Like hagiographies penned for those we’d forsaken, the obituaries that followed were cloying. “A painter by training, Ms. Firestone never anticipated a high-profile career as a writer,” wrote Margalit Fox in The New York Times. “The crush of attention … her book engendered soon proved unbearable, her sister said. In the years that followed, Ms. Firestone retreated into a quiet, largely solitary life.”
No mention is ever made of our collective failure, of the gulf between our willingness to concede Firestone’s brilliance and our incapacity to realize a single one of her goals. Under venal conditions such as these, who in their right mind wouldn’t retreat? The upstart visionary who smashed out The Dialectic of Sex as Armstrong cast wistful glances across the void had, by the 1990s, fallen victim to the empty duration that now engulfs us all. In 1998’s Airless Spaces, the problem thus became: “getting through the blank days as comfortably as possible.”
This is the way the world ends, has already ended.
The death I call my life is difficult to look at. It would be easier to accept if I could embrace it in one bleak vainglorious hurrah. Blow up the world. Cue the Great Mayan Apocalypse. But while these options – or options such as these – have not yet been eclipsed, they remain as distant as wish fulfillment. How, then, might we write our obituaryin abstentia? How shall we come to terms with our end?
One option is to embrace it. Following Christopher Hitchens and Nadine Gordimer, Jeffrey Eugenides recently suggested that, for writers struggling to make the most of their talents and avoid the perils of market and fashion, it was necessary to imagine that they were writing “posthumously.” Write like you’re already dead, he proposed, and rediscover the vital energy that led you to pick up a pen in the first place. The idea caught on and – in less than a week – more than 5000 people had recommended the procedure to their Facebook friends.
Modest beginnings, maybe. But if this movement takes off, I’ll pledge my allegiance without reservation. Besides, there’s more than art at stake. The question of oblivion is, after all, inseparable from the question of politics. “Since atomic war would divest any future of its meaning,” Camus told an interviewer in 1957, “it gives us complete freedom of action. We have nothing to lose except everything. This is the wager of our generation.”
That was before the Sea of Tranquility and The Dialectic of Sex, before the L.A. riots and last year’s deaths. Still, the sentiment resonates. At a time when the cruel and stupid and ultimately banal means by which to “divest any future of its meaning” have proliferated beyond measure, there’s only one justifiable stance: dare to embrace complete freedom of action, knowing you’re already dead. There’s no guarantee, but it might be enough, to end this insufferable whimpering.