Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Von Tal in the Ice

Ice Storm, February 2021

Lo ’mperador del doloroso regno
da mezzo ’l petto uscia fuor de la ghiaccia

The deep forest is gone. I made the mistake, fifteen or twenty years ago, of taking a shortcut home from the beach, through what I foolishly thought was still the deep forest, along old logging roads and such analogs to country lanes as we have here. There was no forest. It was ugly slash, the remains of multiple clear cuts, stumps and scrawny miserable third- or fourth-growth Douglas firs: the scars everywhere, and the junk logs, detritus, and brush dumped into the creeks. Nothing left. There is no deep forest now. A few parks: in Joni Mitchell's phrase, tree musee-ums. And even the closest of those have been burnt over in the seasonal wildfire romps, now. Why should I care about further losses? It's all been trashed. If you didn't know what a real forest was supposed to look like, I suppose you could take these places for forest. I can't. 

In this mood, I am probably as close as I will ever get to understanding the hearts and minds (loosely speaking) of Trump supporters. They too think everything has been ruined: though why they loved what they loved makes no sense to me. To my mind, suburban America has always been hideous and its pastimes have always been ridiculous. I still feel that way, and I have less inclination than ever to apologize for it. But they loved it, or thought they did, and now they've lost it, or believe they have, and they've found someone as stupid and hostile as they are to be a focusing-glass for their rage. Go for it, guys. Tear the country apart. The chances of making it worse are small. 

Of course, I don't believe that people in this mood can hang together or take constructive action. I have only to look at myself in the mirror, to know that. You can't cooperate if you think other people are stupid losers. You can't build anything without hope. So the Trumpists will roll through like the wildfires from time to time. But the idea that they could actually build something -- a third party, for example -- is absurd. Nihilists don't build. They don't trust each other any more than they trust us. So you want to keep tabs on them enough to get out of their way during their brief flares. For the rest, relax. They may commit random acts of terror, but that's about all they're up to. I don't worry about them any more than I worry about lightning strikes on a clear day. Could happen: will happen to some unfortunate soul: but who cares? Plenty more human beings where we came from.


So the question -- this is me again -- is not whether von Tal is right. He probably is, given his premises and his point of view. But there's the dizziness, the flash of nausea, in moving from his point of vantage to mine. Am I to trust people? Am I to regard myself as one of them? As a Buddhist? As an American? As a Democrat? As a Portlander? What's at stake, and how deep is the trust to be? And do I even have any say so, really? You can't actually decide to trust people. You just do or you don't, and your conscious mind scuttles to keep up, supplying excuses, suspicions, or extenuations, as required.

The facile reply is that we don't have any choice. We have to trust people, or we die. That's the human condition. Choosing universal distrust is choosing to die: always has been, always will be. But that leaves a wide space for maneuver. We don't have to trust very many people. I don't have to accept every designation that my busy neighbors may assign me. I don't have to regard myself as a member of any of these tribes: with a little flexibility of mind I can just wriggle past the obvious, brute-force ones. Pay such of my taxes as would be readily garnished, because according to others I'm an American, an Oregonian, etc.; beyond that I can just go my own way, avoid law enforcement and lawyers like the plague, and mind my own garden. Not so bad. Who cares what the other human beings do? Who cares what they assume about me? With minimal camouflage I can be whatever they expect me to be in public. Nowadays, while wearing a mask, I don't even need to produce the required facial expressions. I walk stony-faced down the sidewalk, peering briefly into every set of eyes that goes by me. Unintelligible flickers; counterfeits of consciousness. Who cares?

Really, it's the universalizing religions that challenge us to a wider sympathy, a wider identification. And  they are subject to immediate wear and tear: it doesn't take long for the story of the Good Samaritan to be encysted. Pretty soon you can slaughter all those other odious Samaritans with a good conscience. For every Blake insisting that everything that lives is holy, there are forty snide commentators pointing out that all Republican (Democrat) lives are worthless.

So, I don't know. Was Rush Limbaugh's life infinitely precious? Why?

And there are such huge things in motion, carrying me with them. One very valuable part of having lived for a couple generations is that I can see, clearly, that many of the things I thought were manifestations of my special snowflake perceptions, when I was a teenager, were just broad cultural currents that happened to sweep me up early because I was directly in their way. For example, my love of Tolkien and high fantasy -- my impatience with gender roles and acceptance of varied sexualities -- my contempt for  authority -- were all just in the American air and water. I was bobbing along in a current that was gradually going to sweep up everyone. I was not specially discerning: I was just spun into main channel a bit early.  It gives me a little twinge of distress, now, when I see the Lord of the Rings appear in lists of "one hundred books that everyone should read." No! Only special weird people love the Lord of the Rings! I remember vividly the first time I met actual other living human beings, in person, who loved the book. It was 1971, and it seemed miraculous. Soul mates! I was not alone in the world after all! 


But back up a little. You can't decide to trust people: but you can practice it, if you want to. Do I want to? I don't know.


Or maybe people are not the point. I always think of Fermi's supposed paradox -- if there is alien life, why hasn't it contacted us? -- with some amusement. The assumption that alien life would want to contact other alien life is so very much the assumption of an uneasy, semi-hierarchical social animal, one that dreads yet is fascinated by strangers. We are a weird species, in that regard. Other intelligent species are probably either not social at all, or perfectly social: either content as individuals, or content as a hive. Who cares what other species are doing, so long as they're not trying to catch us and eat us? Wandering around perpetually trying to gain the approval of strangers is practiced, so far as I know, only by a couple very weird species of primates.

So let that go. Let other people go. I am still here, shaggy and unbrushed, blinking in the new sunlight. I have a family and a few treasured friends. I'm fine. 


Nevertheless: I am missing something obvious. There are wheels within wheels. I can taste it: there is a deliberate stupidity in all that I'm thinking right now, a falseness. I have been telling myself stories in a dark corner for too long. It's time to get out for a walk, if it's possible. It's time -- speaking as one of those weird primates -- to ask a stranger for help.


am said...

For some reason what comes to mind is Ishi, the last of his tribe in California, who took the risk of approaching strangers for help in August 1911. Yes, wheels within wheels. "... Little wheel spin and spin / And the big wheel turn around and around ..." (Buffy Sainte Marie)

Dale said...

Oh my, yes. Yes. Thanks, Am.