Beyond The Haunted Imagination

12 Feb

 

            Ever since atomic bombs were exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II end of the world forebodings have been present in Western cultural consciousness. In the background of such thinking is the religious anticipation of a day of judgment when life in earth will be replaced by the consignment of everyone then living to either the hell of damnation or the heaven of salvation. The first type of end time thinking is based on the fear that the Promethean gift of technological innovation when carried to its omega point will produce a big bang terminal moment in the human experience. The second kind of end time thinking imagines that the gift of planetary life was a testing time for the human species that would end with endless punishment for the many and eternal rewards for a few, and was divinely programmed in a fatalistic manner beyond human capacity to control or alter. We live now amid both types of end time thinking, a realization made more troublesome because such alarmist patterns of awareness while rather widespread have not generated any strong reactive movement based on prudence and preservation. Instead, all of us avert our eyes most of the time, and most manage to look away all the time often with the help of drugs and denial. Only a few are able to fix their full gaze on the impending cosmic wreck without turning away.

 

            One of those few is a poet named C.K. Williams who in an essay, “Nature and Panic,” which appeared in the October 2012 issue of Poetry magazine, acknowledged panic in response to what he observes in the world around him. In words that resonate with me Williams wrote: “Like many people I know, I often have a somewhat—no, a wholly—frightening vision of the future of humanity and of our earth. There are periods when I live in a state of acute anxiety, indeed, near panic, about what awaits our children and grandchildren. Last year, I realized one day that every poem I was writing or attempting to write, had global warming and its consequences either as its overt or implied theme. Sometime I’m depressed beyond writing or saying anything at all; I fall into a funk that threatens never to end.”

 

            Williams goes on to refer to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which paints the darkest possible picture of the desperate aftermath of a totalizing apocalyptic catastrophe that reduces human existence to the barest of survival struggles waged among roving gangs of desperate people ready to feast on one another. Such an extreme playing out of dark forebodings provokes an attitude of resentment in Williams, not because it is an exaggeration of what lies in store for humanity, but because it rings true! In Williams’ words: “I’m not the only person I know who’s expressed regret at having injested the book: I feel sometimes indignant that I have to have it in my consciousness. If there ever was a book that embodies the extremity of the emotion we call panic, this has to be it. I find it’s like having a piercing scream in my mind, one that, when the book comes to mind, which it does more often than I’d like, goes off like a siren.”

 

            From this low point of panic, Williams finds his solace in beauty as an authentic manner of not succumbing to the torments of reason and the all too realistic tremors of a beckoning end time. He takes note of the pervasiveness of beauty in all its forms—music, painting, architecture, poetry—“if not in every day then in every age” as something that lifts human experience to a higher realm of being that is no longer vulnerable to panic no matter how dire the warning signs. Williams writes “[o]ften our first experience of beauty will be the first hint of what each of us at some point will dare call our soul.’ This allows our exposure to great art of any kind to carry us beyond ourselves and whatever conditions we fear in the world. Williams notes that the first creators of painting retreated to caves so as to avoid being distracted by the lesser wonders of nature that he seems also to regard with awe, yet a lesser awe, because these wonders are there to be found rather than there to be discovered in the solitary mineshafts of the creative imagination. Williams ends his extraordinary pilgrimage beyond the realms of end time with these almost hopeful words: “Beauty saves us. Beauty will save us. The world, though, is still ours to cherish, and ours to protect.”

 

            This brave sentiment is less an act of will than a refocusing of the human spirit. While we are alive, let us be saved by beauty, and I would add by love, but let us not forget that the world is not yet alien, but contains flowers and birds and stars and moonlight and rainbows and many beautiful people of all shades and beliefs. It is worth protecting, and cherishing, and who really knows what the future will bestow? Despite sharing with Williams  “a pessimism of the intellect” I also know deep down that the struggle for the human future is far from over, that the world and all those who are being made to daily suffer close by and at great distances are both “ours to protect.”      

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6 Responses to “Beyond The Haunted Imagination”

  1. Gene Schulman February 12, 2013 at 11:29 pm #

    Lovely sentiments, Richard. But I’m afraid I have gotten to the point in my life where the reality is too devastating to allow me to entertain them. No matter how much beauty we can still find, too much of it is disappearing, and those who still make art are not creative enough to overcome my despair. Besides, even the artists of today are only expressing their own despair.

  2. Paul Wapner February 13, 2013 at 8:33 am #

    Emerson pointed out that, if the stars came out only every thousand years, we would stay up all night in awe. And yet, they shine amidst the worldly horrors each evening. How is it that our eyes too often fasten solely on the traumatic? The be simultaneously outraged and in awe seems a meaningful human practice. Thank you, Richard, for reminding us.

  3. Tom Parsons February 13, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Our mass denial does cry out for close examination, but so does our apocalyptic thinking. Both paint futures that are quite improbable. By focusing on them we forego the chance to plan realistically – and even optimistically.

  4. walker percy February 13, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    Richard,
    The Road also looms large in my consciousness, although I don’t regret being unable to un-read it. The movie is a visual masterpiece, with some indelible images, such as when a forest of massive, dead trees spontaneously falls over, with no explanation, just another effect of whatever calamity has occurred. I was especially haunted by the scene of the wife deciding she could not go on living under circumstances of continuous horror, deprivation and crushing boredom, finally deciding to end her life by walking off and, presumably, perishing alone in the wilderness, leaving her husband and child to fend for themselves. I wonder if that kind of desperation is becoming more common in real life, as we see apparently sane people, like the renegade ex-cop in LA, who would rather die than continue living with the prospect of nothing but pain over inconsolable grievances.

    Of course, there have been other episodes where it appeared that the world was ending for sure, for example, I have read many people during the second world war believed the world would soon end, and it certainly must have seemed that it had ended for the people of Stalingrad or Nagasaki. And, yet we are still here. This , somehow, feels different however, maybe because our problems are mostly self-inflicted, as if humanity is responding to some evolutionary impulse to thin the herd, like we are all part of a self-regulating, or self-extinguishing machine.
    Walker

  5. fasttimesinpalestine February 14, 2013 at 8:06 am #

    Thanks for this beautiful post. It’s something I worry about, too, and often feel I have to avert my eyes and continue both enjoying life as much as possible and being as effective as I can to figure out how to make things better.

    I really wish there was peace in the Middle East, for example, so I could spend more of my time and energy on environmental issues. It was my dream as a child to build an energy efficient hydrogen-powered car. But somehow the Middle East captured my attention for the past decade.

    Sometimes I think all these ridiculous conflicts, and the way we create and prolong them for no good reason, are actually there to act as distractions. I remember how hopeful I was in 1999 with the WTO protests. Then 9/11 and Bush’s response turned everything to rubble and put so many desperately important issues on the backburner. And the nightmare in Palestine (rightly) sucks up so much passion and energy that could otherwise be free to tackle many other terrible problems. There’s only so much energy and passion to go around, and too many crises at once.

    So yeah, the beauty of every day, the relative freedom we enjoy — none of it should be taken for granted for a minute, because we don’t know what will happen next. Maybe enough people feeling the wonder of any given moment in this universe can inspire a change of consciousness, from despair and inertia to hope and action.

    Who knows? We just have to live each moment as best we can.

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