Monday, April 6, 2009

comet kohoutek

“Will this wind by so mighty as to lay low the mountains of the earth?”
“No, it will not be quite as mighty as that.”

-- Michael Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe

Since the beginning of time, millenarians have gone to mountaintops (or in the case of Douglas Adams to a restaurant) to watch the world end. Friends of mine watched the lights of New York City from a mountain ten Decembers ago, to see if those lights would go out when the clocks turned over to Y2K. The lights did not go out, and the rickety jalopy called civilization, backfiring and shuddering, resumed its route toward new horrors and glories, none of them final.

History, alas, just doesn’t end. The doors of the car are locked, there’s no emergency brake, and somebody keeps filling the gas tank. So take a deep breath. We have to keep driving.

There are two kinds of millenarians. To one kind I am utterly impervious. To the other kind I am vulnerable as a baby.

The first kind are the ones who say the world will end because the Bible says so. All those who said the world would end last month, or last year, or the year before that, or on April Fools’ Day, or when Obama was inaugurated, or in the year 1000, were deluded heretics; but our teacher, they say, has read the Revelation in its true code and we’re right, so don’t pay off your credit cards or plan for your children’s college educations.

These millenarians are laughable – except when we invoke the law to keep them from doing harm. They misread not merely the world but their scripture as well. To liberals, such people seem not only wrong but vulgar. It’s a class thing: in our drama they are clowns.

But there is another kind of millenarian, the ones who say the world will end because some historical or physical or psychological process is careening toward conclusion. They back up their claims with diplomas and degrees, with footnotes and data, and with specialized terminologies of expertise that is not mine. They compose long sequences of evidence, that shine with scientific method and logical analysis, and prove that we’re doomed, and doomed soon, and there’s nothing we can do about it, and anyone who doesn’t accept their sentence of death is a rube. These are the millenarians who know where all my buttons are. Though I have an expertise, it is not theirs. I don’t know how to refute them. If I speak against them I am an amateur. They bind me, by my own values, to bow to their proof.

But no matter how much sense they make, I just can’t go there. I’m not Nellie Forbush: no cockeyed optimist, I know that horrible things happen, though glorious things also happen and get less press. We walk like Philippe Petit between mortal towers, putting one foot before the other to keep our nerve. The depth below attracts us. It’s the resolution of our terror.

That’s the draw of millenarianism – the end of mortal terror. But we have a duty to live; and besides, life is where the action is. Like Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep.

In the summer of 1973, when I was a Ph.D. student and my first child was conceived, the world was ending. I heard this gospel on the best authority from all my graduate student friends, who lived around me in my graduate student ghetto. I heard it in their various learned languages, from their various departments and specialties. There was famine, and you couldn’t buy a whole tank of gasoline. Wholesale prices were rising four per cent per month. The presidency was exploding. Society was collapsing. There would be martial law, then dictatorship, then nuclear war. The tail of Kohoutek, the “comet of the century,” would strike Norfolk, Virginia, and the Appalachian Mountains would be the new east coast of America. I learned all this from people with PhD’s (or at least AbD’s). Our friends across the alley had saved enough gas to drive their beetle to Georgia (why Georgia would be a place of apocalyptic safety was never explained). Did I want to buy a rifle? Did I want to buy an emergency food supply? I bought the food, a dozen cases of it, from a Mormon.

It wasn’t a great year. Worst of all perhaps was Comet Kohoutek, the disappointment of a century, barely and briefly visible for a month or two. It wasn’t the end. Of what could it have been the end? The child conceived that year is now a competent adult. Right now we’re worried that gasoline is again too cheap. Women have entered the work force (I work for women, in fact). A black man is president. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss all this.

Once again, I live amid projections of doom. I’m told that if the greedy imbeciles of Wall Street haven’t already done us in, then the pitchfork-wielding mobs who come to trash their houses will start a civil war, burning the infrastructure of Enlightenment to the ground. Wars and rumors of wars. Should I buy a rifle? Should I buy another food supply? It’s in the gospel, after all: look it up (Mt 24:6).

In 1989 Francis Fukuyama confessed his “powerful nostalgia” at the “end of history” – a benevolent if boring vision, if not exactly the victory of liberal democracy, the sclerosis at least of all alternatives. No need these days for such nostalgia: we learned on Ground Zero that individuals, empowered by basic technology and pixilating ignorance, can restart both horror and history. I can’t refute the apocalypse, but I must live in it. Few things are ever as good as we hope or as bad as we fear. Yet we must hope, and we must fear because we hope. The wind will not be quite as mighty as all that.

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