Thursday, January 26, 2023

'Nothing happens': Dread, relief, the lull, the rocking

Things will happen, but they won't matter anymore. "The idea was hatched in the rubble of the Second World War and set the tone of intellectual life in the 1950s," Nicolas Guilhot writes.

In Conrad’s novella Typhoon [1902], the lull is the omen of a catastrophe foretold. Everything seems to be in a state of suspension that could unravel at any moment. The lull exists only against the backdrop of a cataclysmic event, provisionally deferred and yet constantly prefigured. Nothing happens, but everything feels “tense and unsafe like a slender hair holding a sword suspended over [one’s] head.” Located somewhere over the line of the horizon, the menace remains abstract and invisible. Or perhaps it’s just a figment of the imagination, something one might have read about in navigation manuals but that reality can never quite match. At least, this is the impression of MacWhirr, the captain of the steamer in Typhoon. He decides to stay his course.

In his famous 1989 essay, Francis Fukuyama made uneventfulness the defining feature of our time. One could tell that we had reached the end of history when nothing happened anymore. Of late, it is fashionable to dismiss Fukuyama’s pronouncement as disconfirmed by recent events, but these criticisms largely miss his point. The end of history does not mean that “there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs,” as he pointed out, only that such events, no matter how dramatic they may turn out to be, would not fundamentally alter the foundations of social life, since it had reached its most accomplished form with the ideological dominance of liberal democracy.

If we don't care, Guilhot mused, that may just be "our experience of the catastrophe," a judgment call, perhaps a wrong judgment call, a "delusional phenomenology."

Independently of "the reality of the threat" is how we interpret what it means (or doesn't mean). "The early Christians," for example, "not only experienced the end as if it were really upon them" (which it was not), "but also as something more than just an end."

And yet there is more to it than whether we feel that things matter or don't matter to us.

Kojève famously wrote in the Introduction to the Reading of Hegel that even if humankind disappears, "the natural World remains what it has been from all eternity." But "today," Guilhot notes, "we know this isn’t true. The climate crisis exposes the end of history for the illusion it always was."

The German philosopher Günther Anders "knew that the end of history was not just an ideological phenomenon but the reflection of a new material and human reality: the existence of the atomic bomb and the possibility of an end to life itself." We could actually all die. We as individuals will die, of course; we could collectively die, is the point. Life itself could die.

Anders wanted to understand, as Guilhot puts it, the backstage "machinery that created the illusion of a calm surface while everything seemed about to unravel."

"In this situation of extreme discrepancy between the ever-present possibility of the end and the seemingly impassive attitude of most, what struck Anders was the absence of any signs of outward disturbance. As in Conrad’s tale, catastrophe seemed to manifest itself in uneventfulness. ... [Anders saw the atomic bomb as] the culmination of successive industrial revolutions which brought to a point of incandescence the contradiction of a form of life that was also a form of self-destruction. It was the symbol of 'an era in which we ceaselessly manage the production of our own destruction.' Yet humanity carried on unperturbed, apparently inured to the possibility of its own extinction."

"The experience of catastrophe as uneventfulness is at the center of an inspiring essay by the philosopher Jonathan Lear, which revolves around something the great Crow chief Plenty Coups (1848-1932) told his biographer, Frank B. Linderman. In the late 1920s, over the course of several sessions, Linderman recorded Plenty Coups’s recollections of a life rich with battle feats, prophetic dreams and tribulations. Asked about the life of the Crows after they were moved to a reservation, the old warrior dismissed the question with an intriguing answer: 'After this nothing happened.'

* * *

...Lear points out, 'ostensibly Plenty Coups is making a claim about the world,' not about a state of mind.

What the Crows experienced was the collapse of their lifeworld."

"The Lull: Our age of catastrophic uneventfulness." Nicolas Guilhot. The Point. Issue 28, Oct. 18, 2022.

This essay resonated with me because Nothing happened is a theme in my novel. Existential dread, or the relief thereof? Or is it the lull between the two, since feelings change all the time, and boat rocks to and fro?

A message from Amparo Dávila, used as the epigraph ("invitación primera / initial invitation") to Cristina Rivera Garza's La cresta de Ilión (2002) / The Iliac Crest (translated by Sarah Booker, 2017).

“Nada les pasa [a los libros], el agua es su elemento y ahí estarán bastante tiempo hasta que alguien los merezca o se atreva a rescatarlos.”

“Nothing will happen to them [the books]. Water is their element and they’ll stay there for a long time, until someone comes along who deserves them, or who dares to rescue them.”

My novel is Most Famous Short Film of All Time.

Hat tip to Dale Stromberg, author of Melancholic Parables, excerpts of which you may find on Medium, for sharing Guilhot's essay on Twitter and thereby drawing my attention to it.

sorting through rubble

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