On the morning after George W. Bush won his second term as President, mind-bogglingly achieving, after four disastrous years, the margin of popular support that eluded him on his first ascendancy, I didn't listen to the news. Instead of absorbing the tortured analysis, the shouts and murmurs of the press, I lay in bed reading The Designated Mourner. This is a fairly recent play by the remarkable American playwright Wallace Shawn, about the creeping downfall of a comfortable, complacent, arrogant, and yet somehow indispensable, liberal humanist elite, seen mostly through the eyes of a man who watches it first from within, where he never truly belongs, and then, with an increasing sense of exhilaration in his own freedom, from without, where he experiences the rise of the new barbarian rulers as a distant backdrop to his own liberation from meaning, culture and morality. The country and the time in which this takes place is never specified. Shawn uses a wonderfully stylized type of narration, which I think is his alone, one of whose characteristics is to make elements one would expect to be specified purposely vague, and conversely what is often generalized vividly specific in his storytelling, so that you feel you have entered a shadow land of very personal allegorical figures and situations. You are always a little off balance in his world, but it is deeply and disturbingly evocative. And there seemed to be more than a little of our current or soon to be current reality in its elliptical depiction of events.
The play ends with a curious, ambivalent affirmation on the part of the surviving character, Jack, when he learns that the last of his old circle, including his former wife, have been executed by the state. He recognizes that while some human possibility is gone forever, there is a whole world of sky, earth, plants and so forth, around him, that remains fundamentally unaffected, and in which he can still take pleasure. It is a strange, new kind of nihilism that Shawn describes, which doesn't need to delight in destruction for destruction's sake, but can finally, simply and quietly, just exist, without meaning or hope.
When the US invaded Iraq, I wrote that I had an almost physical sense of historical clocks spinning backwards, of history's enormous gear-like mechanisms jamming into reverse. Beyond having failed, it's as if Marx never lived, I said. Colonialism never died. The ancient law that might makes right is still the fundamental human law. Period.
On the eve of that invasion, I sat in the poetry room upstairs at City Lights Bookstore, and listened as a group of aging, political poets looked the seemingly inevitable disintegration and annihilation of enlightened humanism straight in the face and didn't blink. They limned their utter despair with a tremendous courage and beauty. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but these folks were under no illusions that it wasn't at a significant disadvantage with regard to the cluster bomb. But you know, being in that tiny group in that dingy room full of books, was actually the most hopeful thing that happened to me during that time, far beyond the expressions of collective rage that rocked downtown San Francisco days later, of which I was a part. It felt as deep and old as human nature, listening in a small, lighted place in the vast dark to the poet-prophets, who are still, again, always, without honor in their own country.
When the Twin Towers went down, on that heartbreakingly beautiful late summer morning less than two years before, I felt that a process of decline that had already been underway in the last century was simply being made an inevitable condition of the new one. Slouching toward Bethlehem? Been there, done that. A course had already been set, a tide had been rising in the affairs of men, though it was hard to pinpoint the actual moment that the shore had disappeared, and the way back to safety (there never is one anyway) was effaced by the rising waters. Was it Reagan's election? The bombing of Cambodia? The Sullivan Acts? The Middle Passage? The Trail of Tears? Perhaps it was the discovery of agriculture.
And now as the US stumbles on, a blind bull elephant in the china shop of the world, the left-wing activists I know keep seeing the glass half full of organizing opportunities while the political space in which they operate is increasingly sealed off, while their voices full of hope and intelligence are reduced to a kind of shrill, impotent whine by mass media distortion, and marginalization increases their tendency to harden into a kind of self- caricature, just as it has for ghetto blacks and trailer trash whites and other members of perennially powerless American subcultures. But what else is there to do?
Well, how about if we just take some time to mourn before we go back to organizing? (And just to make it clear, I don't at all mean mourn the specific loss of a particular election by a caviling, compromised political party.) While San Francisco's peculiar subculture of pretty, professional and fairly comfortable perpetual activists keeps ordering us to the barricades and bombarding us with their hope, while Starhawk blogs about it and Rebecca Solnit publishes a popular book about it, I get a more enduring sense of hope from the darkest visions of poets and writers. This culture is so forcibly, exhaustingly optimistic, whether you are on the fallen left or the risen right, that it just plain makes me tired. Let me rest for awhile, like Jack, the designated mourner, in a place where it is simply irrelevant whether humanity triumphs or not.
And then I'll rally, of course. Another world is not only possible, but necessary, and I know this. I know that power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will. And yes, I know, I know, that "thoughtful, committed minorities of people can change the world" for the better, one hopes. I'm armed with truisms that I do actually believe to be true, you see. (Remember Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street? "I believe, I believe, it's silly but I believe.") Most fundamentally, though, I know that concentrated power always overreaches, and when it does, you always have a chance to alter the relations of power. Maybe our social relations won't get better, maybe ever, maybe enlightened humanism was just a candle in the wind-but you will always have a chance.
However, I've discovered it's really the eternal affirmation of the spirit of humanity in literature, to paraphrase a once reviled and exiled fellow, one of whose most beautiful phrases is "I hear the ruin of all space and time, shattered glass and toppling masonry," that alone gives me the kind of enduring hope that outlasts protests, campaigns, regimes and individual lives. So you'll have to excuse me while I take some time out to read something like The Designated Mourner at a time like this. You might want to check it out too.
Christy Rodgers is the editor and publisher of the What If? A Journal of Radical Possibilities, a magazine with a teeny weenie circulation but lots of big ideas. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.