Embedded in this nervous paradox is the truth about what is, for me, the most awful form of dread--too much noise, not enough thought.
It goes something like this: On a recent morning, I found myself depressed beyond reason while reading the October 1 issue of The New Yorker, specifically a theater review by Nancy Franklin. Normally Franklin is an astute, articulate critic, but in this particular review, she found herself saddled by the September 11 attacks, and said so in language that has already become tired. "The review that follows is unfinished," she wrote. "I began writing it on Monday, September 10th.... I am not able to pick it up where I left off." I found myself somewhere sympathetic, but far south of disappointed. What good are intellectuals, I thought, if they can't lead us to new ways of looking at the world? For the rest of the day I was unable to focus and consequently unable to write.
So what happens when nothing matters anymore?
It's all connected, in my mind, to death. Western culture does a lot of fancy tap-dancing to keep the idea of death at bay. We have cosmetic surgery. We have high body-count movies that comfort us indirectly; all those bodies will pop up in another film, if only to be mowed down again. We stow our elders away in homes so we don't have to apprehend life's most simple fact: It ends.
The idea of Holy War is not just anathema, but inconceivable. To court death, to welcome it, to ensure it, these are things we simply do not do. The most frequently asked question of Secret Service agents--would you really take a bullet for the president?--betrays our fascination with death-as-desire. Kamikaze terrorism, in addition to all its more graphic horrors, puts us in awful proximity not just to death, but to the idea of death.
Here is what I have noticed about Americans who can't escape the full frontal horror of looming death: We cease to be able to exist. The large, polymorphous, shimmering, quixotic thing that is life is reduced to a small, hard, faceted object. Journalists attach themselves to issues of war and hold on like terriers. Critics, like Franklin, balk at the usual parade of cultural output. A month after September 11, you can still hear the low-grade moan of despair: None of this seems relevant.
But is it annihilation we're afraid of? Or is it a fear of survival in a diminished world? We have all grown up thinking, no, knowing that the United States matters, no matter how badly it might behave. We are stronger, we're richer, and our culture cuts the widest swath across the world. We can annihilate our enemies more times over than any other country can. I am not usually given to identify self with country, but the fears are tied: personal irrelevance to geopolitical irrelevance. There is something infinitely pathetic about the fall of an empire, the impotent giant, the bully in the dunce cap.
Perhaps all empires carry the genetic blueprint for failure--a target on our foreheads that grows larger as we devour other countries, following our blind belief in Manifest Destiny. If this is true, it makes all our endeavors not only futile, but also shot through with a hubris that, Greek tragedy-like, is invariably followed by punishment.
What follows is a litany of neuroses: Do I have what it takes to survive in such a world? Will there be a place for art and writing, the only things that occupy my field of vision, the only things I know anything about? Do I have the toughness of, say, novelist Wilton Barnhardt's character Emma, who optimistically speculates on post-apocalypse culture? She says:
I see a whole neo-Romanticism growing out of the desolation, the ruins, the scavengers, the omnipresence of death. I envision doing the country with a band of my friends, weapons in hand for protection against the radiation-mad mutated humans who pursue us for our food, or perhaps to eat us--it'll be like a science fiction movie....
And what if not?
This, my friends, is existential death, and it is the most frightening thing of all. It's the obliteration of what novelist Rebecca Goldstein called "the mattering map."
This is a failure of imagination.
This is Room 101.