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Dark currents of the Pacific
The artistic voice in times of foreboding
“We are all filled with murder. We loathe one another. We hate what we look like when we look into one another’s eyes.” –Henry Miller, The Air Conditioned Nightmare, 1941
In early 2017, during a visit to Chile’s colorful old Pacific port city Valparaíso, I had the good fortune to spend a day with the bearded painter Stevens Vaughn and his entourage. Stevens is a physically imposing man, a bit like a painterly version of Walt Whitman. As we walked around the sprawling central mercado that morning picking the ingredients that his household cook would later use to prepare lunch, he held forth on the great themes of the times in flowing Whitmanesque prose.
Although he and I shared a gnawing presentiment about humanity’s fate, a belief that our species had made a mess of the world and that something tragic lie ahead, Stevens’ vision was more unrelenting than mine. I thought there was time and means enough to make meaningful change. He didn’t.
Yet I’m sure neither of us envisioned the current medicalized pandemic of cowardice as the vehicle for reconfiguring all social, political and economic life on earth.
The coordinated authoritarianism of the Covid-19 regime now being methodically implemented worldwide in the name of public health has thrown the fragility and cultural-political rot at the core of modern civilization into jarring relief. Denial is no longer an option. And the stripping away of illusion comes complete with an eerie sense of déjà vu. The artistic spirit presaged this moment long before the last global decimation.
Several months after my encounter with Stevens, I began revisiting some of the darker artistic visions that went unheeded in the years leading up to World War II and the eventual atomic clouds rising over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A few voices of literary foreboding in the emerging US imperium of the time retain special relevance and urgency today, the stark choices and moral reckoning to which they gave voice echoing down to us still unresolved nearly a century later.
THE PURSE SEINE
By December 2017, I was holed up writing in the Mexican fishing village La Cruz de Huanacaxtle on the Pacific coast. During a late night walk along the docks of the sprawling village marina, unusually turbulent currents pressed themselves on my attention. The berthed fishing boats were heaving and bumping against cushioned docks, their strained mooring lines squeaking as the normally calm water surged inexplicably with no outward sign of why.
The turbulence was just enough to bring my darker premonitions to the surface, and I thought of Robinson Jeffers’ 1935 poem “The Purse Seine” (written 1935, published 1937) about the sardine fisherman of Northern California working the night waters of the Pacific off New Year’s and Pigeon Points near Santa Cruz.
Looking at the glimmering night lights of a great city from a nearby mountain top, Jeffers recalls another occasion when he watched in the dark as the sardine fisherman drew in the cordage of the purse seine. Knowing they are trapped, the sardines, with their slender, reflective silver bodies, beat the water to a phosphorescent glow fighting their fatal entrapment, a scene that Jeffers describes as both “beautiful” and “a little terrible”.
Jeffers offers this story, in which “the vast walls of night stand erect to the stars,” as a metaphor for the illuminated city below.
We have geared the machines and locked all together
into inter-dependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet
they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children's, but we
and our children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all
powers--or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls--or anarchy,
Jeffers’ poem was written only six years before the US was drawn into World War II. His uncompromising inhumanist vision foreshadowed not only the war, but the current strain of anti-humanist catastrophism that often appears in contemporary environmental debates, now medicalized and transposed into the arena of public health.
THE AIR CONDITIONED NIGHTMARE
In 1939, Henry Miller returned to America after living nearly a decade in Paris. With a $500 publisher’s advance to produce a non-fiction travel journal chronicling his impressions of the US, he bought a 1932 Buick sedan and drove across the country with his friend, painter Abraham Rattner, first from New York to Florida, then west to Hollywood during 1940, finishing the Air Conditioned Nightmare, his journal of the trip, the next year.
As the US geared up for the great war, a steady thrum of patriotic pro-war propaganda became the backdrop of daily life. In this milieu, Miller’s gloomy book was rejected for publication. He finally found a willing publisher in 1945, yet his observations on the eve of war were prescient.
Something disastrous was in store—everybody felt it.
Whatever happens to this earth today is of man’s doing. Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything—except his own nature. If yesterday he was a child of nature, today he is a responsible creature. He has reached a point of consciousness which permits him to lie to himself no longer.
The worst is in the process of becoming. It is inside us now. Only we haven’t brought it forth.
Destruction now is deliberate, voluntary, self-induced. We are at the node: we can go forward or relapse. We still have the power of choice. Tomorrow we may not. It is because we refuse to make that choice that we are ridden with guilt, all of us…
Miller’s sensitivity to the social-pyschological undercurrents of the day made it clear to him that there would be little to check the advance of the destructive forces being nurtured in secretive government weapons labs amid a political atmosphere of pre-war fear-mongering.
How could it end other than tragically?
Today the labs are being run by government funded bio-tech firms. The technology may change, but the same destructive forces rooted in mass fear and mass violence are still being lovingly nurtured by soulless technocrats at humanity’s expense.
SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
When W.H. Auden left England for the US in 1939, his departure was seen as a betrayal by many in Britain and was reportedly debated briefly in Parliament. Yet his poem September 1, 1939, written in New York City shortly after immigrating, is perhaps the most direct and telling artistic premonition of WW II to be published.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Although Auden saw a jumble of conflicting desire on the faces of patrons gathered in his dive bar – to be loved alone while rejecting universal love, relying on alcohol in order to cling to euphoric dreams based on impossible capitalist fantasies – he ends with an affirmation.
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
A PURIFYING PURGE OR AN AFFIRMING FLAME?
If one believes with the anti-humanists who have adopted Jeffers as their patron saint that nature will eventually purge itself of the putrescence that is humanity, perhaps there is little reason to struggle against the fate that this view implies.
Yet the opposite is also true. Auden has been characterized as “a Christian humanist sage.” If one shares his belief that civilization and the humanitas ideal have transcendent value to human survival and should continue, there is great joy in fighting for that survival with as much dignity as we can summon, perhaps following Auden's advice to Dr. Oliver Sacks.
“You’re going to have to go beyond the clinical… Be metaphorical, be mystical, be whatever you need.”
The fight today, however, is not only against a medicalized tyranny threatening the fabric of civilized life. The old threat of nuclear war, this time on an even more catastrophic scale, still looms as an expeditious option to end it all.
In both the quest for permanent pandemic and the lust for thermonuclear annihilation, the voices of Thanatos and his murderous sisters the Keres can be heard urging a great cleanse, the illusory Sirens’ song of a new beginning beckoning in the background.
The current claque of humorless anti-humanists and trans-humanists miss the fact that even Jeffers saw humans as “one of the nobler animals” when given the chance to live with dignity. His anger at the political folly that led to WW II was palpable.
We have blood enough, but not for this folly;
Let no one believe that children a hundred years from now in the future of America will not be sick
For what our fools and unconscious criminals are doing today. (p. 74)
Humanism needs to be grounded by and within nature, not extinguished. Any possible victory over the technocratic nihilism of the current pandemic starts by recognizing what is at stake, by not being lured onto the treacherously rocky shores of Sirenum scopuli.
The daily struggle now is not for individual survival alone, but for civilizational survival. Each of us must decide whether it is possible to illuminate the path toward an open future with “an affirming flame” or succumb to negation and despair.
During the height of the Cold War, Czech philosopher Erazim Kohak wrote that “If humanity were no more than a biological species, it would deserve no more concern than the dinosaurs.”
Kohak’s preoccupation was with the preservation of an always fragile “moral ideal of humanitas, humanity as an ideal rather than a fact.” The new pandemic regime has scrapped this moral ideal completely in favor of a purely biological vision of humanity.
If a civilized order is to survive the wave of brazenly aggressive evil rending the earth during this pandemic, a reckoning with our true nature can no longer be demurred. Of necessity, humanity’s moral ideal of itself must be built on the bedrock of something akin to Jeffers’ inhumanism.
We are both inhuman and moral beings. To deny either is to fall into the void. And that void is staring us in the face right now.
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