The Failure of Imagination and the Solipsistic Apocalypse

Morning Glories on Fire EscapeWhile in a movie theater last week and passing a sign advertising Snakes on a Plane, a friend of ours said, “If anything’s the sign of the coming apocalypse…” It was tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I could sense there was some real unease on the speaker’s part. Now, having seen the film last night, I can tell you that, even though snakes have long been the symbol of the Accuser, I didn’t feel any impending societal doom after I watched it. And this morning, I awoke to not one, not two, not ten, but twenty-five blooming morning glories on my fire escape (I took a picture). If anything’s a sign that we have a little more time to live on this planet, I think that might be it.

There have been several prominent events in the last few years that I believe are contributing to a highly pessimistic view of the world which is, much to my dismay, prominent and widespread. First, there was the whole Y2K scare, which, as a computer guy, I realized the concern for certain aged systems was entirely real, but the thought of the world collapsing and riots forming in the streets — well, that was just ridiculous. But it played into our millennial (and religious) fears. If anything, we should be more concerned about the year 2038 when all of our 32-bit microprocessors running UNIX which count time as the number of seconds since January 1, 1970 will reach their maximum value and flip back to zero. But by then I suppose well be running Microsoft Mind 3000 (or Linux Cerebrum 5.2.23).

Then there is, of course, Sept 11th, and Iraq, and most recently the events in Lebanon and the slow fomenting a war against Iran and you have all the ingredients for mass public fear. That might be enough to fray most people’s nerves, but we add to that mixture the symbolistic mess (and message) of the Christian Apocalypse which just so happens to occur smack-dab in the Middle East, and now you have billions of people who weren’t really all that religious before suddenly wondering if there might be some truth to the prophecies of the past. (I won’t go into the whole Mayan thing of 2012, for reasons that, if you’ve read my blog post of New Age thought, you will know why.)

I say this: any reasonably intelligent person, even 2000 plus years ago, could have deduced that there would be a time, say a few millennia from their present, when the Earth might be a pretty crowded place, and in that time many nation-states would vie for control of the Earth and thus there would be war. Suddenly, “Nation will rise up against nation…” doesn’t sound so prophetic anymore. Second: during dozens of periods of history, during times of great change, people believed the Apocalypse was imminent. There is no reason to believe our time is any different solely because the world is more crowded and connected. Third, the word “Apocalypse” means “lifting of the veil,” or more colloquially, a revealing. The modern sense of the word is taken to mean mass destruction, which I believe is a misrepresentation of the original idea. Fourth, if people are expecting a Savior to come and rescue them from the ills of the world, does this not then absolve them of personal responsibility? Does this not then make them, much like the believers in New-Age thought, little more than children? I much prefer, if I am to take the religious interpretation (which I am perennially skeptical of, but still enlightened by), the Kabbalistic view of the Tikkun Olam, or “Repairing of the World,” and the belief that any Messiah that comes is not going to save us from ourselves, but will only arrive because our collective personal actions merit it.

I am also wondering why our fantastical media as of late (say perhaps the past decade or two) has had this fascination with teenage occult power. I believe Buffy was one of the first — teenagers going to school and fighting the undead between classes. Then there was Charmed and a whole slew of movies (The Craft comes to mind), where young people have powers that border on heretical (in the Christian sense). I’m sure there are many novels, but since I don’t read that kind of fiction, I couldn’t give you a list. Now, humans have always sought power, and there are millennia-old stories of people wishing to be gods, but why the recent focus on teenagers? And why is the iconography so-often rooted in the Gothic?

There are people out there who are far more knowledgeable than me to answer this question, but I can think of a few reasons. I believe children in our American (and perhaps Western) culture are systematically disempowered by their parents, their schooling, their religion, and mass media, not necessarily in that order. The idea that one can have power over their church, their school, their parents, and their society is an incredibly appealing fantasy. If that fantasy insults the very system it trumps (glaring pentagrams to insult the church, tattoos piercings and outlandish clothing to insult the schools and parents and society), then it doubly and triply succeeds. I say that the very popularity of these types of fantasies shows that our society has failed our children. With very little real power, they latch onto a fantasy “power” which is blasphemous to the society they loathe (for it took away their power). But this process ultimately hurts them in the end because it is not a true power in any way because it derives solely from a fantasy, and by alienating the very culture they are trying to transcend our children have further reduced their effect on it. Thus, they render themselves both obsolete and impotent.

This is one more reason there is a subcurrent of Apocalypse: the sense of powerlessness. As adults, when confronted with the monstrous death tolls in Iraq, Lebanon, and other places, we feel powerless too. What can we do then except to hope for something external to come and rescue us? Yet if we revert into the fantasy of personal magical powers or the fantasy of a coming savior we thus reinforce our powerlessness. It is a vicious, negative circle.

All of this negativity, I believe, is a failure of imagination.

I recently blogged about a term called “Weltschmerz,” a German word meaning “World-pain,” or the personal pain caused by the difference between one’s ideal state of the world compared to its actual state. Why can’t we have a term that means “World-Healing?” (Tikkun Olam, I just realized, is not too far off.) Why can’t we imagine a world, fifty years from now that doesn’t fight wars for oil or threaten with nukes, that has clean skies and no threat of strange backpacks exploding on the subway? Why do we limit our perception to the negative and not open it to the positive?

Phillip Roth, the novelist, has said that in less than a decade the novel as an art form will be dead. What kind of crack is he smoking? He views the world through his own perceptual filters, and thus because he is getting older, the death of the novel is a very real event to him. But it’s also a personal death. It is a solipsism. And I use this example because I believe this is how many of us view the world, through our own limiting perceptual filters (and limited views projected on us by others) and this leads us into a very narrow path of thought and therefore down the rabbit-hole of pessimism and powerlessness.

My only hope is that people realize an infinite number of futures are possible, that we can create our future and not be a victim of it. But these futures will not come about unless we dream them first and create them second. Morning glories climbing up a black, rusty-old fire escape provide the perfect metaphor. Something ugly can be changed into something beautiful by human will. I planted those seeds myself.