Finding hope in hopeless times
Asked if I was ‘a spiritual person’ I said, ‘No, I’m superstitious.’ Got a laugh. Like most jokes, it was true-ish. I don’t walk under open ladders; don’t throw a hat onto a bed, or open an umbrella indoors. When I fly, I carry Ambien for the times when turbulence becomes severe, an engine erupts in flames, a cabin door is unhinged by a maniac, or a window gets blown out. Also, I wear the same jewellery, putting it on, in a religious ritual, before I take a cab to the airport. That’s an exaggeration. Gloomily, I follow these dos and don’ts, thinking: ‘Why take a chance?’
Not to be ahistorical, but how much worse can it get, when you know it will. As the old song could have gone, ‘The worst is yet to come.’ This virtual drop from postwar optimism and possibility, at least in the US, has been steep. Some say it was inevitable, or it’s a learning curve of consequences, and the West is getting what it deserves: such notions bear a teleology to which I don’t subscribe. I would like to propose that the 20th century never happened, except I can’t because of its monstrosities, Hitler, Stalin, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Genocide was a particularly abhorrent fact of 20th-century life. And, millions of refugees and displaced persons, whose existence came into being and was named after World War II ended.
I have never bought the idea that technology will defeat ‘the dark side’. On YouTube, Steve Jobs’s brilliant 1983 Super Bowl TV ad portraying IBM as ‘the
dark side’ is endlessly available – unlike drinkable water and clean air. Jobs pranked the world with his super-capitalist joke: a soon-to-be massive company calls out IBM, the mid-century American company, its competition, as the devil. Millions bit the Apple. Obviously, the PC was a superb idea; Apple does produce extraordinary designs, supremely sensitive to human wants, satisfying them until they create new needs. The extraordinary number of customers curving around Apple stores when the first and second iPhone hit, then the iPad, resembled queues of starving people waiting for bread. The question, admittedly rhetorical,
is: What do people want?
Whatever it may be, no matter what’s ‘trending’, what the new flavour is, people own the dark side. It’s theirs forever.
On the dark side, I saw again recently Eugene O’Neill’s 1956 play, Long Day’s Journey into Night: the cast, Gabriel Byrne, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Lange and Michael Shannon. In this production, the morphine-addicted mother’s lines and behaviour are centrifugal to her two sons and husband. They keep looking upstairs, toward her bedroom; the absent mother more present than any of them on-stage. I’ve also been watching Breaking Bad (2008–13), which, now that the series is finished, can be viewed in great gulps, or binge-watched. The protagonist Walter White’s intelligence and ego battle each other, hubris winning even over his fear of being murdered. In ‘It’s All True’, the Bruce Conner retrospective at MoMA, New York, this summer, his atom bomb movie, CROSSROADS (1976), blew up everything, a terrifying rendering of destruction. It’s like looking at the apocalypse, I thought. But then so is the US election cycle, a long day’s journey into night at the end of which a human bomb may drop.
Tragedies, it is said, are ‘uplifting’, even though, or because, they are very disturbing, their inevitability both appalling and seductive. Because, yes, we will know what’s coming. Humans like to know it all. I’m not sure about Anton Chekhov’s plays, I have never felt anything but wretched after seeing any of them, but I have several times. (His stories affect me differently.) I suppose, partly, it’s because tragedies are like life but not life, yours and not yours. There’s schadenfreude, identification, relief from catharsis, although I haven’t heard anyone use that word outside of the academy for a while. Only trauma, when there is no catharsis, since one can’t, if traumatized, experience it.
Henry James said that ‘the only reason for the existence of the novel was that it was like life’. I’ve often thought it was the opposite. To sustain myself, I read books that don’t explain the idiocy in which I exist.
There are no spells or charms to ward off a Donald Trump presidency, which should be a mountain-less valley, or something by definition that can’t exist. And way beyond an oxymoron. New kinds of empires, despots, dictators, disasters are coming down the pike. Trump won’t win, I believe. But the dark side … I’m not a thorough-going pessimist or cynic. I’m not complete or whole in any way. And life without hope is much more depressing. People do keep having babies.
Lynne Tillman lives in New York, USA. Her recent collection of essays, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, was shortlisted for th 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. She is the recipient of a 2015 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Awards in Arts Writing.