United States: Essays 1952-1992

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Letter from the Collapse

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“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of monsters are born.” —Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (1930)

“Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go… The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.”—Bo Burnham, Inside (2021)

In our corner of Northern Virginia, we were fortunate to never see the dead birds. Yet throughout the Mid-Atlantic—a cardinal on the pebbly beaches of Delmarva or a sparrow on the Jersey Shore, a finch like an omen in front of Independence Hall or a bluebird as a threat on the steps of the Capitol—the creatures started to die by the thousands. With little sense of this new plague, experts recommended the removal of bird feeders. And so I dutifully took down the tall model where I examined mourning doves over morning coffee and listened to woodpeckers on the birches, watched the hawks who flew above, and the sleek, elegant crows speaking in their own impenetrable tongue. The Allegheny Front, an environmental show on Pittsburgh’s WYEP, posted a photograph of an afflicted robin found in Erie, Penn. Laid out in a cardboard box decorated with spruce leaves, it looked like the otherwise pristine creature was sleeping, the only sign of its illness the thick crust on her sealed eyes. An affect not unlike the wisps of cotton that escape from underneath the lids of taxidermied birds. “The phenomenon has since spread through 10 states,” writes Andy Kubis at The Allegheny Front, “including West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Delaware, and in 61 of 67 Pennsylvania counties.” Observers noted neurological symptoms, birds unable to fly or crashing into the ground; the dead animals, found framed by the brittle, yellow grass of sweltering June, with the characteristic discharge from eyes and beaks.

Ornithologists proffered hypotheses, noting that the avian pandemic accompanied the cicada Brood X. Those creatures we couldn’t avoid seeing, skeletal eldritch horrors bursting from the earth and their own bodies: red-eyed grotesqueries whose incessant droning permeated the humid air for weeks, who dropped from branches and through car windows like something out of a horror film. Between the dead birds and the cicadas, the summer had a Pharaonic glean, intimations of Exodus. A surreal poetry to these chthonic beings, the existential crisis of their lives spent hibernating for 16 years, only to emerge and then die. “Happy the Cicadas live,” wrote Charles Darwin in Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Death, though quoting Xenarchus. Our dog took to biting them in half and pushing them between the slots of our deck’s wooden planks, casting them back to hell. By the time they disappeared, without even bothering to say goodbye, I’ll confess that we missed them. But in their brittle, green bodies there was an answer to the bird pandemic, for it seemed that people had attempted to poison the cicadas, and after ingesting their pesticide-corrupted corpses the birds were killed instead. The “sense of cosmic significance is mostly unique to the human relationship with birds,” writes Boria Sax in Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds, but not apparently to those squeaked out by some bugs, the same people who undoubtedly water their lawn during a drought, or who buy the last 10 chickens during the coming food shortages.  Trillions of cicadas emerged; to avoid them was an impossibility, but you only had to bear them for a short while, and yet people unable to reason that there is no eliminating something of that magnitude and too impatient to wait decided that they knew better. Is there a more perfect encapsulation of the American mindset in these dwindling days?

I’d be amazed if you couldn’t sense it—the coming end of things. A woman sits by her grandmother in a St. Louis, Miss., ICU, the older woman about to be intubated because Covid has destroyed her lungs, but until a day before she insisted that the disease wasn’t real. In Kenosha, Wisc., a young man discovers that even after murdering two men a jury will say that homicide is justified, as long as it’s against those whose politics the judge doesn’t like. Similar young men take note. Somebody’s estranged father drives to Dallas, where he waits outside of Deeley Plaza alongside hundreds of others, expecting the emergence of JFK Jr. whom he believes is coming to crown the man who lost the last presidential election. Somewhere in a Menlo Park recording studio, a dead eyed programmer with a haircut that he thinks makes him look like Caesar Augustus stares unblinkingly into a camera and announces that his Internet services will be subsumed under one meta-platform, trying to convince an exhausted, anxious, and depressed public of the piquant joys of virtual sunshine and virtual wind. At an Atlanta supermarket, a cashier who made minimum wage, politely asks a customer to wear a mask per the store’s policy; the customer leaves and returns with a gun, shooting her. She later dies. The rural mail carrier who has driven down the winding, unnamed roads of a northwestern Oregon hamlet for over three decades notes to herself how the explosion of annoying insects on her windshield seemed entirely absent this summer. A trucker who lives in Ohio blows his airline break, and when trying to get a replacement finds that it’s on backorder indefinitely. Walking across Boston Common this October, and two men holding hands and heading toward the duck boats realize that they’re both sweating under their matching pea coats. It’s 83 degrees. On the first day of July, my family huddles in our basement; a tornado has formed in the District of Columbia, and is rapidly moving across the National Mall.     

Everyone’s favorite Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek snottily gurgled it a decade ago, writing in Living in the End Times that the “global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point,” and identifying four horseman in the form of environmental collapse, biogenetics, systemic contradictions, and “explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.” Not everyone claims to see the gathering storm however, especially those who are most responsible, though if they do, they’re silent about it in their New Zealand compounds. Degenerated, chipper, faux-optimism is a grift during our epoch of dusk; Jeff Bezos expecting us to clap when he shoots Captain Kirk into space; Elon Musk mouth-breathing about cryptocurrency and terraforming the rusty soil of Mars, as if we haven’t already heated one planet too much; Peter Thiel promising us that there will be a digital heaven where all of the billionaires can download their consciousness unshackled from the material world, and we can serve alongside them as Egyptian slaves entombed with their masters, clicking on PayPal,and Amazon and Facebook for a silicon eternity. Such promises are the opposite of hope, they’re only grinning assurances of dystopia instead of apocalypse. Besides, such things are chimerical; ask not for whom the Antarctic ice shelf collapses, or for whom the ocean acidifies, or for whom the temperature rises at 3 degrees Celsius, it does all these things for Bezos, Musk, and Thiel as much as you and me. Ours is the age of Covid and QAnon, supply chain breakdown and surveillance capitalism, food shortages and armed militias, climate change and bio-collapse. We’re merely in a milquetoast interregnum as we wait for monsters to be born in a year, in three. If poets and prophets have traditionally been our Cassandras, then on some level everybody knows that a rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem right now, though despite that one sees perilously little grace, kindness, and empathy. Even the insanity of those who believe whatever conspiracy theory happens to give them scant meaning intuit that the insects are disappearing, the waters are rising, and the absence of 700,000 lives means that something is askance.

“The world sinks into ruin,” wrote St. Jerome in 413, some six decades and change before the final sack of Rome that marks the Western empire’s fall. “The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire,” he noted of the Visigoth Alaric’s siege. Hard not to imagine that some didn’t realize that the end was coming, shortages of pungent garrum made in Mauretania, a scarcity of Cappadocian lettuce and Pontic fish. In 410, the Emperor Honorius recalled all legions from Britannia to defend the eternal city from the Visigoths who would soon traipse through its burning streets. Envision that horde, ascending the marble steps of the Senate, in furs and horned helmets, brandishing their red standard and crowding through the halls of that once august and solemn space. Can you even countenance it? The Romanized Celts requested from the emperor the return of defensive legions, and in his rescript Honorius “wrote letters to the cities in Britain urging them to be on their [own] guard.” The United States Postal Service will be late in delivering packages, because of supply chain shortages there is no chicken available at the Stop & Shop, the power grid will be down this winter in Texas. You’re on your own. As civil society crumbled, Romans turned to all variety of superstitions and occultisms, cults and conspiracies. As Edward Gibbon noted in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the “zeal of fanaticism prevailed over the cold and feeble efforts of policy.” Stop the steal! Lock her up! Make America GREAT again! Living on a heating planet filled with dying animals and governed by either the inept or the insane, and it’s hard not to feel a bit strange going to work, buying groceries, saving your salary, as if everything were normal. “We live as though we are going to die tomorrow,” wrote Jerome, “yet we build as though we are going to live always,” or, as David Byrne sang, “Why stay in college? Why go to night school?… I ain’t got time for that now.”

Whenever comparisons are made between Rome and America, there’s always somebody who denounces such language as not just histrionic, but clichéd. The latter is certainly fair; ever since the founders obsessed over republican virtue we’ve imagined that the Potomac is the Tiber, and we’ve parsed (arch-royalist) Gibbon’s history for clues about our falling. Copies of Plutarch and Livy were brought to the Continental Congress, and the most popular colonial American play was a turgid script by Joseph Addison about Cato (it would be performed at Valley Forge). The young Republic declared itself to be a “Novus ordo seclorum,” a “New Order of the Ages,” in conspicuous Latin borrowed from Virgil’’s Aeneid, while the Federalist Papers were written under pen-names like Caesar, Brutus, and Publius and John Adams attributed his worldview to Cicero. Roman symbolism was replete, as in the fasces that would adorn the Senate located on Capitol Hill. When George Washington deigned not to hold a third term, he was compared to the noble dictator Cincinnatus who dropped his sword for a plow, which was enough virtue that by 1840, four decades after the first president’s death, and the sculptor Horatio Greenough rendered the general as a muscular Jupiter in a toga. By the final year of the Civil War, and the first president was depicted underneath the Capitol dome as a purple robed Roman god in “The Apotheosis of Washington”. The Lincoln Memorial, the Supreme Court, the Capitol, all of it neo-classical ridiculousness. Gore Vidal recalled in United States Essays: 1952-1992 that his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, remarked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the bloated buildings of Washington that “At least they will make wonderful ruins.”  

Vidal, that classical patrician, wrote that “Empires are dangerous possessions… Since I recall pre-imperial Washington, I am a bit of an old Republican in the Ciceronian mode, given to decrying the corruption of the simpler, saner city of my youth.” Hardly a postbellum pose, for critics have feared that the Republic would slide into an Empire before the Constitution’s ink was dry. Naturally there is also fear of collapse, and long has there has been foreboding about the decline and fall of the American Empire. On the top floor of the austere New-York Historical Society, there is a pentad of paintings by the unjustly forgotten landscape artist Thomas Cole, a series known as “The Course of Empire.” Rendered between 1833 and 1836, Cole was disturbed by both the vulgarity of Jacksonian Democracy and the brutality of Manifest Destiny. A member of the Hudson Valley School who reveled in the sheer grandiosity of the nation’s natural spaces, Cole imagines in “The Course of Empire” a fantastical country from its primitive state of nature, through an idealized agrarian state, into a decadent imperium, an apocalyptic collapse, and finally desolation. Overlooking each painting is the same mountain peak, roughly the shape of Gibraltar’s rock, the one consistency as Cole’s civilization follows the course of its evolution, a reminder that nature was here before, and despite how we may degrade it, will still be here afterwards. The penultimate landscape, entitled simply “Destruction,” presents the denouement of this fantastic city, a skyline of columned, porticoed, and domed classical buildings in flames, bellowing smoke partially obscuring that reliable mountain; vandals flooding the streets, murdering and raping the city’s citizens, pushing them into the mighty river that bisects it. A triumphant monumental statue is now decapitated. With its wide marble buildings and its memorials, Cole’s city resembles nothing so much as Washington D.C., though when he lived the capital was more provincial backwater than the neoclassical stage set it would become. Cole made a note that “the decline of nations is generally more rapid than their rise,” concluding that “Description of this picture is perhaps needless; carnage and destruction are its elements.”

Enthusiasm for such parallels, along with attendant breathless warnings (including the ones that I’m making) have hardly abated. In just the past decade, there have been articles entitled “8 striking parallels between the U.S. and the Roman Empire” by Steven Strauss in 2012 at Salon, Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry’s “America now looks like Rome before the fall of the Republic” from 2016 in The Week,  Tim Elliot’s 2020 piece at Politico entitled “America is Eerily Retracing Rome’s Steps to a Fall. Will It Turn Around Before It’s Too Late?,” Vox’s essay from that same year “What America Can Learn from the Fall of the Roman Republic” by Sean Illing, and Cullen Murphy’’s succinct “No, Really, are we Rome?” from The Atlantic of this year. Just to dissuade those who parse such things, Tom Holland wrote “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is” for The New York Review of Books in 2019. With an article that reprints Cole’s painting underneath the headline, a pull-quote reads “There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall.” Well, with all due respect, the second law of thermodynamics mandates that everything has to fall apart, but Holland’s point is taken that in a more immediate sense, comparisons of America to Rome tell us little about the latter and everything about the former. But for those who see the comparison as tortured beyond all reasonableness, the truth can be bluntly stated as follows: our current problems aren’t like the fall of Rome because they’re far, far worse. Would it only be that we faced the collapse of the U.S. government, or authoritarianism, or even civil war, because the rising average temperature per year, the PH of the oceans, and the biodome’s decreasing diversity are things unheard of on the Earth since the Permian-Triassic extinction of more than 250 million years ago, when 70 percent of life on land perished and almost 95 percent in the seas did.     

“It is worse, much worse, than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Wallace-Wells describes the five previous mass extinctions that shaped evolution, explaining that four of these “involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas.” Before the Permian-Triassic extinction, the land was occupied by the fin-reptile dimetrodon and the hog-shaped Lystrosaurus, the abundant atmospheric oxygen supported massive dragonflies and centipedes, and the oceans were plentiful with mollusks and trilobites. For some still unexplained reason the amount of carbon dioxide rapidly increased, which in turn triggered the release of methane, so that this feedback loop “ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead,” as Wallace-Wells writes. “We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster,” he explains. If we didn’t know what caused that warming 250 million years ago, we know what’s doing it now—us. Should the worst case scenario of the United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change come to pass, then in the coming century the exponential increase in warming will result in an ice-free arctic, obliteration of the coastal cities where two-thirds of humans live (no more Venice and Amsterdam, New York and Miami), the mass destruction of farm land, continual massive wildfires for which we will look back fondly on the summer of 2021, never-ending hurricanes and tropical storms, heat waves, droughts, desertification, new pandemics, and at worse the acidification of the ocean and the resultant perishing of most things that live beneath the waves. Short of a social or political revolution to reorient the world away from the cannibalistic capitalism which has brought us to this moment, we’ll read Gibbon as halcyon (assuming anyone is around to read).

This summer I threw a little digital life buoy out into the whirlpool of Twitter, another one of those horseman of dystopia, and asked others what it felt like to be living during what could be the apocalypse. Mostly I discovered that my anxiety is common, but one gentleman reminded me that there were Medieval millenarians and Great Awakening Millerites awaiting their messiahs who never came, and that they were all mistaken. That is, if you’ll forgive me, exceedingly stupid. There have been times when I was sure that I was going to die—the shaky prop plane flying low to the ground between Philly and the Lehigh Valley and the erratic driver going 20 miles over the speed limit who almost side-swiped me on a stretch of I-95 in Massachusetts—but just because I survived shouldn’t lead me to conclude that I’m immortal. Armageddon isn’t any different. My critic, though, seems to be in the minority—most people have that sense of foreboding, picking up whatever cries are coming from the Earth that the summers feel hotter, the animals scarcer, the sky sometimes glazed an ungodly glow from the redness of western fires. “The piers are pummeled by the waves;/In a lonely field the fain/Lashes an abandoned train,” wrote W.H. Auden in his 1953 poem “The Fall of Rome,” perhaps about his own justified fears regarding nuclear conflagration. I imagine the poet placing his wrinkled, droopy, hang-dog face to the ground and picking up on those frequencies that are today a cacophony, the “Private rites of magic” that now mark the fascists of one of our only two parties, how “an unimportant clerk/Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK” reminding me of the striking heroes who are leaving the degrading and barely remunerated labor of late capitalism, how the “Herds of reindeer move across/Miles and miles of golden moss” in a warm arctic, and my beloved “Little birds with scarlet legs… Eye each flu-infected city.”

From the Greek, “apocalypse” means to “uncover” hidden knowledge, so for those of us anticipating what the future holds, it’s been the apocalypse for a while. What are you to do with this knowledge? Our politics operate on inertia and project onto individuals a responsibility that was always vested in the powerful themselves. Perhaps you should ditch your car, turn off your air conditioning, recycle, give up meat, and begin composting, but do that because those thing are good for your soul, not because you’re under any illusions that “Not The End of the World” is a consumer choice. Be neither a defeatist nor certainly an accelerationist, however, for avoiding the boiling of the oceans and the burning of the air must be what we put our shoulder to the door for. “To hope is to give yourself to the future,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, “and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” Waiting for transformation like it’s the messiah isn’t preferable to collectively willing that transformation, but I know not what that will look like because I’m not a professional revolutionary. The signs that are appearing in the windows of McDonald’s and Subway, Starbucks and Chipotle, from workers tired of being mistreated and underpaid is the largest labor rebellion in a generation, the totally organic Great Resignation spoken of everywhere and reported on nowhere—it gives me hope. It gives me hope because that dark faith, the capitalism that has spoiled the planet, isn’t inviolate; a confirmation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s promise that “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings.” A corollary is the welcome mocking of fools like Bezos, Musk, and Thiel. Just the widespread awareness of our situation is promising, not because I valorize despair, but maybe if there are a billion little apocalypses it will somehow stave off the big Apocalypse. The whole of the law is treat others as you would wish to be treated and don’t cross a picket line, the rest is all theory. Now, go, and study.   

Finally, I’m only a writer, and the most recondite type, an essayist. Could there by any role for something so insular at the end of the world? In The Guardian, novelist Ben Okri recommends “creative existentialism,” which he claims is the “creativity at the end of time.” He argues that every line we enjamb, every phrase we turn, every narrative we further “should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species.” I understand climate change as doing something similar to what Dr. Johnson said the hangman’s noose did for focusing the mind. It’s not words that I’m worried about wasting, but experiences. What’s needed is an aesthetic imperative that we somehow live in each moment as if it’s eternal and also as if it’s our last. Our ethical imperative is similar: to do everything as if it might save the world, even if it’s unlikely that it will. Tending one’s own garden need not be selfish, though if everyone does so, well, that’s something then, right? I’m counting the liturgy of small blessings, noting the cold breeze on a December morning, the crunch of brown and red and orange leaves under foot, the sound of rain hitting my office window, the laughter of my son and the chirping of those birds at the feeder who delight him. I’ve no strategy save for love. “The world begins at a kitchen table,” writes Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, in a lyric that was introduced to me by a Nick Ripatrazone essay. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Harjo enumerates all of the quiet domestic beauties of life, how the “gifts of earth are brought and prepared” here, and “children are given instructions on what it means to be human” while sitting at this table, where “we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and/remorse. We give thanks./Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and/crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” That, finally, is the only ethic I know of as the oceans flood and the fires burn, to be aware of our existence at the kitchen table. When the cicadas come back in 17 years, I wonder what the world will be like for them? I hope that there will be bird song.    

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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