History is speed-racing through this decade; we're queasy and anxious to get to the finish line.
Now, in a book you usually have some idea as to where you're going: One kind of work is almost always going to end happily; another kind, maybe not. Life unknown, created every day, is different. Even history, though a guide, is not a concrete draft. Over the years, we've received inane letters that begin with Plutarch's observation that "history repeats itself" and proceed to take as law that the past offers a concrete guide to unfolding events. Even accepting that assumption, let's remember that the past, now behind us, appears clearly organized -- history being a discipline for ordering and coding it. Current events (not yet organized by "history") are a chaotic, sprawling mess, with little discernable shape. In this context, better to meditate on George Santayana's observation that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" than look for any specific predictive.
Some of my concern is certainly the current political craziness, with those who overly support the administration acting as though today's news is the last chapter.
"See," they say, "you were wrong about the impact of tax cuts and excessive spending. The economy is rapidly improving.
"Look at Iraq," they continue. "Again, you were wrong: Hussein is gone, the current violence only temporary, and then there will be democracy, which will transform not just the country, but the Middle East."
Finally, they add, "Now it is proven: Less government is better; both federal and state social spending have been dramatically reduced without any negative consequences!"
Personally, I don't think we've finished the first sentence of the current chapter of our ongoing story, much less hit any substantive conclusion. All those cheery observations reflect desirable endings, but they are by no means guaranteed, nor even particularly likely. Yes, I have deep ideological differences with these ideological optimists, but my intellectual gut hasn't felt this queasy since I was a kid -- back when we all thought the government was really building concentration camps for anti-war protesters, which really didn't matter because soon we'd be using limited nuclear weapons in Vietnam, leading to a planetwide Armageddon. Sure, I was naively wrong then, but through every world event and Washington administration since, I've never come even close to returning to that sense of dread -- until the past two years. I really want to know how this chapter ends.
My friend Fred begins a new book by reading the last chapter first. He claims that, as a writer, he does this in order to appreciate the technique and understand the style. I don't buy this, but think he can't take the pressure of not knowing how things end. Now, Fred's a reporter; he's been through famous trials, plane crashes, and train wrecks. Often, in looking for a comment, he's been the one to contact a victim's family even before the authorities, breaking tragic news while asking for a reaction. Consequently, some of his narrative sensibilities are probably a little different than most of ours (take it from me, that for entirely different reasons known only to nature, some of his sensibilities are goddamn unique and were so long before he whipped out his first reporter's pad). Fred's been to too many Olympics to count, covered floods and fires. He was in Kuwait during the Gulf War (jumping the pool and getting in trouble), embedded with a tank column that pushed deep into Iraq. In Haiti he was there when our troops started firing. So maybe he likes to start at the end because it makes it so much easier then some of what he's been through.
I'm a narrative junkie; I have to know how a story ends. I may jump a few pages ahead if I suspect a beloved character is going to die or there is some unbearable tension building, but never to the ending. In the middle of a book, I'll stay up all night rather than chance sleep. An unconcluded narrative means a thousand troubling dreams that attempt resolution but are all nauseatingly inconclusive, each dream forcing another. Last night, I couldn't sleep. Early I was watching Kurosawa's Ran but faded long before the end. Vast armies battled through the night, unresolved father-and-son issues exploded like lunatic cartoon characters bursting out of a cake. Armies clashed with fathers, personal challenges were unanswered, blood gushed while everywhere colorful banners were violently whipped by the wind.
This is the reason I haven't read much Stephen King. Years ago, feeling sick and figuring it was some kind of flu, I stocked up on orange juice and vitamin C, with plans to lie around on the couch moaning for a few days until it passed. Bud Simons, a roommate who was wholly capable of intellectual sadism, offered me King's The Stand to read. When I was around the point in the book where they discover the problem is some rapidly spreading, contagious disease, an old friend visited. She seemed concerned, but I told her not to worry, it was just flu. She felt my forehead, threw me into a cold bath, and rushed me to the infirmary, where they told me I had bronchial pneumonia, and if I had continued to ignore it (as I would have), the consequences would have been serious. Through it all -- the bath, the car trip, the infirmary, the next couple of days of sickness -- I couldn't put The Stand down. When I did sleep, fever dreams raged, running deep into my subconscious, planting crops that I'm still unexpectedly harvesting.
(An aside here, a preview of a topic coming up sometime soon: The culture is alive and well, as vital as it's ever been, only it's easier to worship the fossilized past than the still-undefined, spewing present. The recent fuss over Stephen King winning a book award is a beautiful example. King's work will endure, gaining more respect in the future than it's ever received now -- with the more hardcore genre works, I'd bet, doing better than any of his more ambitious literary efforts. Comfort yourself with the thought that if King critic, outspoken pedant, and Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom had been alive in the days of the Bard, he would have dismissed him as being bloodthirsty, common, and pulp, celebrating instead some long-dead Greek dramatist as an unassailable cultural marker. As the Residents noted: "Ignorance of your own culture is not considered cool.")
Now, some of this might explain why I want to get out of this decade so badly, but some of it may just be plain superstition, the unspoken doubt that I'm destined to make it out of this decade. I was born at the midpoint of the last century, and 2000 always seemed like a concrete marker, the defining exit sign of our personal histories. Rarely did my imagination entertain any events beyond that year; it seemed so presumptuous to assume that I would live into a second century. Again, years are years -- to assign meaning to a slightly better than random system of calculations makes no sense -- but in light of current events, the ever more exaggerated American national arrogance, and the world mood, I'd just love a hint. History is speed-racing through this decade. I fear both the direction and steering.
When all is said and done, Happy New Year! Welcome to 2004! Let's hope that together we all make it through this one. See you next week.