Alan Catlin: An Essay
Once the forty-sixth president took the oath of office. the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pushed the Doomsday Clock forward to two and half minutes before midnight. Midnight is Apocalypse Now. Not the movie but the time where the bombs fall and the nuclear winter starts and we begin living on a Planet that resembles the one Cormac McCarthy described in The Road. This is not dystopia. This is The End. Like the Doors song only worse.
And it isn’t a pretty place to live in. Cormac McCarthy envisioned a place where nothing grows and food is anything left alive. Anything left alive would be other humans and once the human race has, literally, consumed itself, there is nothing but the rusting hulks of the society that destroyed the place they called home.
There is no clear indication what caused the blackening of the earth and there is no suggestion that what the traveler and his son discover along the road is not the fate of all of earth. It is enough to know that happened. Why or how is immaterial.
What is not immaterial is this president refused to take the nuclear, as in the atomic bomb, option off the table in Europe? And I paraphrase, Europe! an incredulous Chris Matthews said. You might drop a nuclear weapon in Europe? I am not taking any options off the table. As if the nuclear option were just another card in a game or Texas Hold Em. What part of nuclear winter doesn’t he understand?
The answer is clear. All of it.
On a trip to England in 2015 I found a book in Oxfam by one of my favorite contemporary British authors Louise Welsh. The title is A Lovely Way to Burn and it is the first of trilogy of Plague Novels with a twist. Murders or fever are killing magistrates and assorted important people or Fever and Murder. Kind of Armageddon with a murder mystery. I had on hand Station Eleven, a dystopian novel of the highest order by Emily St John Mandel. This is a plague novel of epic dimensions plunging the world back into pre-industrialize where communication channels are established by traveling players reciting Shakespeare instead of mummers performing Miracle Plays as in Medieval times. Her vision is anew dark age of the highest order but not without a sliver of hope as pockets of knowledge are found scattered about the world, engineers still exist who possess essential knowledge that could re-energize society but what will the result be? A third plague novel, Elen Lupucki’s, California, depicts scattered pockets of civilization constructed as restrictive, walled fiefdoms of select people in hopes of isolating the germs that destroyed the world outside. Communication is limited but power struggles ensue, trade relationships between like minded communities begin and the world, becomes much like it had before only on a miniature scale. Claire Vaya Watkin’s chilling, Gold Fame Citrus, is a high energy Mad Maxian dystopia that continues the theme of man’s endless quest of self-destructive behaviors. It was a year of reading Death by Plagues and while the choices were not deliberate, they became meaningful.
I guess it was not unlike the year of unintentionally reading suicide poets as one poet’s connection to another yielded a suicide and that poet’s connection lead to another and then yet another disconnected in the sense that the poet was not in the social networks of suicide poets but was the most profoundly disturbed of all, found purely by coincidence.
There were other dystopian in 2015 on hand as well. The always reliable J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, a dystopia contained in one highly structured hierarchy in a condo not unlike the visually stunning fast paced “Snowpiercer”, a movie that reduces the world to one bullet train endlessly cycling the snow covered, nuclear winterized earth, in a train. Each car contains a small world in itself, a bulwark that prevents rebels from leaving the lower order at the rear of the train to reach the higher realms of the front of the train. Maybe not the cleverest of plots but it is stunning to see; each car a new adventure, the more mundane the setting the more threatening and horrific the results of being there. Margaret Atwood is another old standby for Dystopia Now with her vivid, The Heart Goes Last, which recalls Never Let Me Go, where people are cultivated for their organs, removed as they are needed until the host dies. Atwood’s vision is quite that cold but nearly so. There was not much cause for optimism in any of these books. Ad for good reason. Politics have become for self-interest instead of the greater good. The corporations have taken over the government and elections are for sale to the highest bidder. This was the darkest vision of all. We thought. How naïve we were.
There’s a scene near the end of Apocalypse Now where Willard has painted in jungle colors, submerged himself in the river and is quietly making his way to shore to kill Kurtz. The not so subtle, but highly appropriate Doors song “The End” is playing in the background as his head emerges from the water looking like the angel of death on a mission. And he is. In the background, the base is calling the swift boat he came into the compound on trying to tell him the bombing begins in x minutes. It’s like the just kidding moment when Ronnie Raygun said “The bombing begins in five minutes.” When you look back and realize the whole second term of Reagan’s time in office he was basically slipping into an Alzheimer’s coma confusing his movies with history and that his wife was basically offering strategic information gathered from casting horoscopes with Ruth Dixon...well it couldn’t get any worse than that, right?
Well it could. It has.
We survived that mostly because the political system still functioned as it should. Now we have an administration that does not understand the system at all, has dedicated itself to “deconstructing the system” which I take to mean destroying it and replacing it with..... Well, good question, with what? A business model? By a man who has had to file for bankruptcy four times? Chaos? Who is the Manchurian Candidate here? Are they all Manchurian Candidates No need to kill anyone, just make sure one them gets elected to office. The Russians are Coming, The Russians are coming. The movie was funny. This isn’t.
This is a president who disdains information garnered by professional information gatherers of the government, preferring Fox News whose relationship with the truth is, at best, tangential. That this president is irrational, unstable, and in the words of David Letterman during the run up to the election “He needs a pill. He needs to get help.” This is a man who when he says, “Nuclear option” is not referring to changing the process for confirming a Supreme Court Justice but an actual, physical bomb. Maybe he should look at a map and see how close to the border of North and South Korea, Seoul is. We have a lot of people there. Tens of thousands of people.
With our political system heading toward anarchy, the presumed system of choice, after all, when there is no system of governing there is no way the “head of state” can be held accountable for his actions. Reading Dystopian literature becomes a necessary choice rather than a random act.
In 2016, it was nothing start off a new year like a Philip K Dick novel. Time to revisit The Man in the High Castle. Much has been said about the new made for cable series about what happens when the Nazis won the war, though, having not seen it, my understanding is that about all that survived from the original novel was the premise. If I did streaming I could find out but I don’t. Nothing like a Don DeLillo novel for an uplifting look at what life in the near future (or now, it is difficult to tell which as Cosmopolis shows or Man Falling or well any of the last ten novels) is like extrapolating the corporate greed motive and the search for a new area to monetize. The ultimate new capital project: Death. As usual DeLillo employs a surgical precision and a blade to match, as he eviscerates Dystopia Now. All, even DeLillo’s master work, The Underground, are dwarfed by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. 2016 was the twenty year celebration of its publication which suggested that there was no more putting off the inevitable, so I retrieved my paperback brick copy and began the journey to end all journey’s
If you’ve never read Foster Wallace’s book, there is no adequate way to describe a thousand-page book with well over a hundred pages of footnotes you’d better read. There is only one phrase to describe Infinite Jest: A reading experience to end all reading experiences. It is a world in and of itself and it ain’t pretty. Beware the wheelchair bound canuck terrorists for they will not be denied. Infinite Jest is not a perfect book, it is self-indulgent, leads you astray and refuses to tie up loose ends, some intentionally, some, one suspects because the author lost the thread but oh what a magnificent, unequaled masterpiece it is. And you’d better allow a couple of months to read it in. If you thought Gravity’s Rainbow, a futuristic book, set in the past, was the ultimate modernist tome of laughing-all-the-way-to-the-gallows, you haven’t read Infinite Jest. And it is funny.
There is nothing funny about Trumplandia. Once you listen to his chief spokesperson defend the president’s press secretary for lying as, presenting “alternate facts”, it was a clear indication that everything Orwell said about political language was right. Truth is a lie and governed by alternative facts. Which are, of course, not truths. Welcome to the age of double speak. Thank you, Donald Rumsfeld, for the political Edwin Corey routine of known unknowns and unknowns, knowns and so on and Bill Clinton asking what is, is. Now we don’t even have to bother with parsing, it’s simply lying with impunity. Doublespeak uber alles.
Thanks to the Trump people, 1984 appeared as number one on the best seller list, right up there is Sinclair Lewis with It Can’t happen Here and the ever-popular Orwellian fable, Animal Farm. Having recently reread Lewis, I decided to revisit Animal Farm and discovered whole passages that could be placed in the president spokesman’s mouth and no one would be able to know whether Orwell had written them or Spicer had just conjured them out of his through the looking glass brain. But the book that I most wanted to reread was not 1984, but Brave New World.
Let’s face it Trump has no doctrine, no real agenda, no plan, he is winging it. When President Obama spoke on the campaign trail asking the question, “Do you want to trust this man with the nuclear codes?” It was an existential threat. We have a president who never read a report in his life. He would have you believe he actually does now, but why change the habits of a lifetime? One thing you can be sure of, whatever Trump says, the opposite is true. That and he projects his most abject fears onto his enemy of the moment. If he fears that he is a liar he brands his opponent a liar (Lying Ted, anyone? Crooked Hillary?) and so on endlessly like a bad loop tape. Trump likes to wing it in meetings, whether it be in a board room or a “war room”, such as facing down a nuclear capable, fanatical, paranoid madman who will not back down from the corner he feels backed into but seems more likely to take the fight to Trump before he has an opportunity to land the first punch. Then what?
Take your pick which nuclear winter dystopian book you want to compare it with. If you don’t read you can always watch the Korean flick “Snowpiercer”. One man is about to challenge that order of the train and it isn’t going to be a fun ride for anyone. The details may vary but the existential threats remain the same.
The world order of 1984 implies a rigid world order, a system based on ideas and well thought out plan. It implies a code something way to sophisticated for a mind like Trump’s which doesn’t do ideas. Brave New World, however, has at its base a much more cynical, much more believable view of the human species; the biological imperative of sloth. Add the other seven deadly sins: lust, envy, greed, coveting, wrath and, of course, pride and you have the Trump personality profile. But Huxley, the grandson of a noted scientist who was Darwin’s bulldog (as in defender) a proponent of natural selection, resolutely believed in the biological imperative. He foresaw a society where people were programmed, that is created in strata to serve the needs of society. The point of biological fixity was to remove the risk of anomaly and to insure complete balance. After birth, each human was given endless hours of night time psychological sleep messaging, a kind of brain washing that fixed ideas for the greater good of society into the cortexes of the people. If you were an alpha you were intellectually elite, of the ruling class. If you were an Epsilon you were a drone, a worker. In grades in between reflected a different stratum of need. Everyone had a job, a place and was programmed biologically and intellectually to fit a need. And Everyone was Happy!
Eugenics was a theory that had some intellectual currency during the years that Huxley wrote. The theory was that if you mated peoples elected by like intelligence, body types and the like a superior race could be created. People who were mentally or physically unfit would be sterilized. What could go wrong with a theory like that?
The extreme cynicism, of Huxley’s views are manifested by the world he creates. Everyone is happy because there is no strife, no confusion, no want, no needs. Sexual intimacy is regular and promiscuity is encouraged. In fact, anyone who is not promiscuous is viewed as socially deviant and possibly from “a bad batch.” Even alphas. There is no sickness. Effects of aging are minimal. Everyone stays at a certain adult maturity level until say 50 and then dies. No lingering illness, no infirmities, just happiness, until you die. There is a soma drug for scheduled drugs induced relaxations/escapes. There is entertainment in the forms of “feelies” which are sensory heightened movies that feature innocuous conflict, motion pictures with actual tactile sensations that are fed to the body. Everyone has stylish clothes, relationships are discouraged, are unnecessary as females do not have babies. All offspring are laboratory created so why not eat, drink and be sexually merry?
Of course, there are outliers or there would be conflict, nothing to compare paradise to. On a vacation trip to the edges of the wilderness, in the outback of the American Southwest, an alpha and his date for the luxury weekend encounter a former new worlder who had been lost in the wilderness and forced to adapt to the uncivilized ways of the natives. Pregnant by a new worlder, a very high-ranking alpha, she is forced, horror of horrors, to have his child and that child is now a young adult known as the Savage. As in standard B movie scripts of the era, the alpha brings the pair back to civilization like say, King Kong or Mighty Joe Young, and the usual social conflict ensues. The Savage finds the New Worlders to be barbaric, shallow, worse than uncivilized; especially in comparison with the characters he is encountering in his intellectual awakening spurred by a reading of one of the forbidden texts, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Escaping back to the wild becomes an insurmountable object for Mr. Savage. Predictably, the ultimate solution is the obvious one, he kills himself before he is destroyed by the soulless, godless, perfect creatures of the brave new world.
That Huxley is less than serious about aspects of this novel, it began as a satire of H.G. Wells, elements of humor and satire distinguish it from most dystopian novels. Reading the bleak, We, by Zamaytin not long after, I found another prefect world where everyone is happy in their glass cubicles. Happy until a nascent revolution of outliers threatens to gum up the works, literally. The book becomes almost hallucinatory as the mathematician who is at the center of conflict, confronts unthinkable concepts: the I as opposed to the we, defying mathematical constructs that regulate life, altering one’s chemistry through alcoholic substances and so on. There is no humor in this book at all unless you find the concept of mandatory surgery to remove the soul and the imagination, whimsical.
Somewhere during the composition of the novel, Huxley seems to realize the seriousness of the world he was constructing and all its implications. Why else would he expand the topic in his non-fiction book, Brave New World Revisited where he accurately foresees a world becoming more dehumanized by technology. More than any of the dystopian books, including 1984, Huxley seems to have extrapolated man’s basest impulses and seen the results in a future society. We have no need of Big Brother for we have allowed him into our homes and lives voluntarily and have become enslaved by his machines.
Let us posit a Huxleyian world where, instead of an Orwellian screen that can never be turned off in every room of our house, we have one in our pockets wherever we go. This smart machine has all of our pertinent information on it. This information is easily accessible at all times. Everyone we know or even, ever thought of knowing, has one of these machines and is connected to a vast, central network. Our intimate lives are contained here: our family, our friends, our financial records. There is a tracking device on this machine that goes wherever you do, tells a central holding place your destination, who you visit, what stores you go to and how long you spend there. Even how long you spend considering purchases. Of course, what you buy is duly recorded.
The vehicle you drive also has a tracking device in your mandatory air bag . Many new cars can be completely controlled remotely. When you read of the preposterous idea that a whistleblower, a military general tracking news reporter died in a high speed, no chase collision that people close to him insist was triggered remotely, it no longer sound so preposterous.
At home, you have a screen which is hooked up to the Internet and you cable provider is tracking every single thing you watch. The laughable idea that your TV and your computer has a camera and is watching you may just be true. They certainly know what you do and, what you search, where you shop, who you contact, and how often and every communication is stored in a computer bank. This is not new news revealed by Snowden, it was released as news item years before as one of the features of the Patriot Act. Also provided for by this act, is the screening, as in scanning of All snail mail, first class included. The results are now routinely stored in that central bank. Maybe if you send lead lined letters you won’t be screened.
So, let’s think about the Internet of Things. During the election, someone remotely tested the idea of shutting down the grid that provides service to all things connected to the Internet. Amazing what you learn was connected to the Internet: anything electronic basically. Your thermostat, your baby monitor (ever heard neighbor’s conversations on your kid’s monitor?) your refrigerator, in fact, all of your new appliances. Have one of those Echo things that is voice activated? Boy, it was a hoot when the Super Bowl commercials activated millions of those things. Who is to say that can’t be done remotely? And all of your conversations in your own home will be listened to. And who is the Big Brother behind all of this. The Corporations. The Corporations that run our Plutocracy, the government run and owned by rich people for rich people and the rest of us be damned. Yes, it is, a nebulous statement like Them or They. Let’s narrow it down to the corporate state, the one who buys all the politicians, determines who you vote for, what laws are passed or not passed the one that believes in one thing and one thing only: the bottom line. Gives new meaning to the term What is good for GM is good for the Country. Or Trump may be bad for the country but he sure is good for ratings, as one broadcast executive said during the disaster that was the election of 2016.
I think what Huxley presumed, in addition to this nightmare state, was that humans are basically lazy. They don’t care for anything that isn’t capable of providing immediate gratification. School is boring and topics not related to war are boring. Authority figures, usually older women, who attempt to teach you are despised. All people really want to do, really, is have sex, eat junk food, get high and watch lots of bad TV. Visual stimulus devoid of content, the more explosions and mindless action, the better. Our role models are celebrities instead of a family member as one parent is likely to long gone. Reality TV, which posits its only self-involved version of reality and endless loop of fake, scripted reality, is far easier to deal with that fact-based reality. Facts are boring after all why should I learn something when I can become an expert by consulting Wikipedia and the Internet for all the facts and details I need. Everyone is an expert now, no need for actual expertise. So when they elect a someone, A Brand, who comes directly from this culture A man like the guy in the gym commercial, the one here this overdeveloped, barely vocal, Aryan dude holding a gallon jug of some colored liquid to keep hydrated in response, says in response to the question from the gym employee, “What do you do?” And his response, “I pick things up and put them down.” Why not elect a president, who when asked what is foreign policy is, could conceivably say, “I drop bombs; I blow things up.” Think about it.