We are presently living through the Anthropocene, an epoch of immense and often frightening change at a planetary scale, in which ‘crisis’ exists not as an ever-deferred future apocalypse but rather as an ongoing occurrence experienced most severely by the most vulnerable. Time is profoundly out of joint—and so is place. Things that should have stayed buried are rising up unbidden. When confronted with such surfacings it can be hard to look away, seized by the obscenity of the intrusion. ~Robert Macfarlane, Underland
One morning last week, I woke up in what’s become a standard state of fog.
I stretched my arms, kicked my legs out from underneath the blanket and coaxed those uneager limbs, still aching from a ten-mile run the night before, which had been punctuated by a particularly wonderful segment of up-tempo flight, when my not-so-young-anymore legs pistoned like they used to long ago and when that happens something wells up from deep inside you, maybe oxygen seeping seductively into your bloodstream, into the brain, and suddenly the song coursing through your earphones is the best song and it’s hitting you like it’s never hit you before and there you go barreling along the path. Windswept in the night.
Anyhow, into the kitchen went I, to drink a glass of water while I tried to remember what day it was.
I decided it might as well be a Thursday. Then, pushing aside the temptation to down an espresso at home, I put some air in my bike’s tires and rode a mile and a half to my favorite taqueria, where I picked up a breakfast burrito and headed back the way I’d come. After tacking on another two miles to a cafe by the sea, I ordered a depth charge (16 ounces of coffee, with a double espresso dumped into it 😬), and shuffled off to the side await its appearance in the makeshift window, crafted in response to COVID.
I collected my drink, shimmied around a woman pushing her newborn in a stroller, and sat down at the table furthest from the cafe where I ate my burrito, sipped my coffee, and, while awaiting the impending caffeinated boom, found myself looking up rather frequently from my reading of William Manchester’s second volume of The Last Lion to observe an endless stream of patrons trying to decipher the byzantine ordering system.
Well, perhaps “complicated” isn’t the apt word. It simply required a language we haven’t really learned yet. To wit: a would-be patron would amble up to the cafe, and, noticing a number of patrons assembled some six feet from each other, crane his neck quizzically as he tried to decide whether they were waiting in line to order, or had already ordered and were waiting to collect their drink. It made for a rather comical, constant refrain of “Have you ordered yet?” “Have you ordered yet?”
I finally put on my noise-cancelling Bose headphones and returned to my reading. What a blissfully banal morning, the micro of my existence in daily comparison with the macro of this nebulous existential threat of an unprecedented pandemic hanging over the city, the country, and the world.
We’re seven months in, barreling fast towards eight. There’s a presidential election today that, according to a Yahoo poll, 77 percent of Americans feel will trigger another wave of violence across the country. Strikingly sordid business as usual. Amazing, humanity’s adaptive abilities.
And lingering over it all...
The coronavirus is perfect for the Anthropocene, or the Information Age, or whatever designation you choose. When the United States of Amnesia can’t remember what happened one week ago, our gaze attuned to whatever Twitter deems worthy of “moment” status, there’s this sense that time has turned chewy, like a meddlesome bit of nougat that was fun at first bite but quickly turned into a meddlesome chore. Maybe this is the sugary straw that breaks that molar’s back.
Afternoons drag on, filled with the sort of despondency that, when you were younger, made you wonder why no one had ever been able to accurately describe its terrible depths. Then you thumb back to treasured passages in well-marked books and realize, Oh yeah, they did. Or, at least, did the best they could with words when describing something as ephemeral, but and strangely, simultaneously eternal, as feeling. Then you remember, Oh yeah, that’s what music is for.
At times, it’s felt like Mal and Cobb walking through the silent, empty world they created in Inception for their personal enjoyment. That was a world of their own choosing; I’m envisioning a society where most people are content to remain indoors and plug into their preferred electronic escapism out of fear of what’s outside. Virus, smoke descending from fire, riots, you name it.
Like the woman in Children of Men, lamenting the New Normal ushered in by that dystopian future, when (in 2027) the world was without the sound of children, and so much lesser for it, I’m going to miss the daily thrum of people out and about, enjoying their daily lives.
So we sit in our homes, and twiddle our thumbs as we hear contrasting versions about what direction our country should take. When it comes to dealing with the coronavirus, we’ve been informed that you fall into one of two camps: the irresponsible “patriots”, selfishly demanding the return of rights they feel were illegally stolen from them, or the people heeding the calls of local authorities to adhere to lockdowns of varying strength, work from home, and try not to catch this thing so hospitals can remain underwhelmed.
If you’re reading this and nodding your head in agreement at the former, before frothing at the mouth in indignation at the latter (or vice versa), then you’re pretty much right where you’re supposed to be. Everything in the current age is politicized, everything divides us neatly down the middle. As a television network famously said, “Polarization is profitable.” (I heard it during an NPR morning segment in 2015, but there’s also a few links online if you care to check my roll.) So we spend our time yelling at the heavens about what the other side is doing, in some semi-nefarious setting just out of view, while ignoring small acts we could perform on a local level that actually might make an impact. Meanwhile, the really “important” stuff gets passed through Congress—a Congress we’re incessantly told is riddled with gridlock—with nary a bipartisan hitch.
Speaking of making an impact on a far greater level…
I’d read Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History a while back, seen its premise resuscitated every now and again in an opinion piece, but since reading Adam Alter’s allusion to it in his recent book Irresistible, all about how it is a quintessential, old-as-time human trait to think that the current age is the end-all and be-all in terms of history.
I found this fitting when I thought of the current mainstream cultural offerings—though this Kultur might best be defined as possessing an absence of culture. It’s what Julian Casablancas said during a recent talk with Henry Giroux at McMaster University: that there is such a difference between art and entertainment, and we’re being pushed a steady stream of the latter. Cui bono?
Take Enola Holmes, a new Netflix film about Sherlock Holmes’s “forgotten” younger sister, which operates under the pretense, very much in vogue, that women in the 21st century are still shackled by the doddering remnants of the heteronormative patriarchal structure. Oh, and how the youth must always fight for freedom against the fascistic overtones of their forebears.
Society was riddled with inequality and injustice in the past; no right-thinking person would contest that. But what a student of history might note is that the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. What we can do, then, is look closely upon it, learn from it, and change for the better henceforth.
Never mind that modern society is on the mend. There are far more women than men currently enrolled in college, and given how fast things change these days, who could doubt the trend will continue? This will only trend upwards; with men opting out of higher education, women will inevitably fill more positions in the upper echelons of business, medicine, what have you. Few would argue this; most young adults have grown up with the worldview that inclusivity is far preferable to what came before.
This is not what we’re getting fed, however. Not content with growing together in the present, our betters have concluded that we must revise the past and punish some—see: straight white males—in the present for the sins of their fathers. We are seeing generations of young men cast aside; and no, this is not whining, or bitterness, it’s fact. Rather than create a better all-around society, we’re still engaged in retroactive punishment, to push some people ahead of others.
Those white men will increasingly comprise the 60 percent of the American population that is without a college education. Their future prospects will diminish, in a techno-scape requiring advanced skills. Give or take a few decades, they will be in a death spiral.
But enough with that; and back to changing the past. Enola Holmes subverted and intersected the Sherlock Holmes myth. Because, let’s be honest, Sherlock Holmes is the foremost example of what is wrong with modern society.
The idea being, of course, that since we in the present have discovered the elixir of life, that shining beacon of a way forward into a utopia of inclusivity, beauty, and grace, we are now fully able to go back and tinker and tailor with history to create an even better highway to the present. End of History state of mind, ad finitum.
There’s a great passage about modern society’s treatment of the past—particularly its more noisome aspects—in Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch was writing in the 1970s, but it is striking just how prescient he was.
Every theme in mass culture is wrapped up in a terrifying tornado; an obsession with youth, which logically means that adults (anyone over 30!) are suspect; never mind spending time with parents and grandparents and seeking their advice; they are relics of a bygone era, they are not woke, thus their experience is null and void. Only what youth has been instructed to like works. Our teachers, in the upper realms of entertainment and politics, will teach them best.
Back to Enola Holmes. Not to give too much away, but if you can’t see the red herring as to who the “villain” in the story is, about a third of the way through the film, you’re not really paying attention. But then, given that the film is a hackneyed mess…
This infantile philosophy—change the past!—belongs in Orwell’s 1984, where government employees actually do rewrite the past to fit the present. Of course there was a minister in 1984 world tasked with altering noisome bits of the past to fit the present’s predilections. Of course.
What could possibly go wrong? Eternal Sunshine state of mind—delete the worst memories and…watch as the subjects revert right back to what they did in the first place.
So back to young Miss Holmes, who in the tale has grown up without a father, under the sole tutelage of an intrepid, independent mother. She has two brothers—one of whom, Mycroft, the eldest, is an overbearing buffoon with (you guessed it) repressed sexual desires. Her other brother, Sherlock, while a talented private investigator, is only free to be so because of his white privilege, something that of course the film makes a point of informing us.
Enola is smart and savvy, and prone to breaking the fourth wall, much like the heroine in the hit TV show Fleabag, at nearly every possible opportunity. These little asides are, of course, a cheat: how can a character in the film compete with a protagonist who can readily engage the audience on a whim?Shakespeare got us cheering on villains through such a tactic, for God’s sake!
This breach of film etiquette seems like the latest fad in new feminism; that our heroines are not constricted by stodgy old dogma. Just my personal preference, but fourth wall antics get burdensome, very quickly. My favorite moment in Fleabag was when Andrew Scott, playing the sexy priest, catches Fleabag breaking the fourth wall, and, in one of the greatest meta moments, breaks it with her and asks, “Who are you talking to?”
Anyway. Contrast this story of the intrepid young heroine, who will conquer all in her path and remake society with two tales of disillusioned young manhood holding on for dear life. Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s tale about a young poet spending a year in Madrid, Spain, was a revelation. So was Rob Doyle’s incendiary new novel, Threshold.
While reading the latter, however, and heading out for walks and runs and rides when I’d work it over in my mind’s eye, or whatever, I became quite despondent. These two books are the best we’ve got to offer young men? Debauchery and disaffection, pounding punk of No Future, crippling solitude eased every now and again by a foray into experimental drugs?
If this is what we’re heading toward, I’d at least like an official proclamation that the respective ships of masculinity and femininity are passing in the night. Women are on the up and up; men, not so much. How this is a basis for a more equitable society going forward, I don’t know, because to my feeble man-mind it seems like the latest manifestation of what has always followed humanity; one group rises, another falls. Which is what’s happening now; only, we’re being fed the narrative that we’re headed toward perfection, when that’s really not the case.
Maybe, in the end, it was fitting. When it comes to tales of young men, and tales of young women, we have two different beliefs, and nary a hope that they might find common ground and amass a resistance against whomever is in power. Come to think of it, it fits right into where we are as a country.