There’s a wonderful scene running through the opening credits of the David Lynch movie, “Blue Velvet.” It’s a long, continuous shot, which begins by displaying an attractive suburban neighborhood to its best advantage. The day is sunny and pleasant, birds are singing in the trees, and the protagonist’s father is mowing his beautiful front lawn, cheerfully greeting neighbors along the way. Suddenly, the man clenches his chest and collapses on the ground. The shot closes in on him as he experiences a heart attack that kills him. The shot doesn’t end there.
The camera continues its zoom and closes in on the spot where he is lying. Switching to macro, the scene moves into the grass itself, down to the very soil of the earth, showing now the ants at constant war with each other, and the rotting foliage, and the worms, all of the corruption and murder that form the foundation of our daily lives, the one universal truth of our earthly existence. It’s a lovely scene, and Mr. Lynch is one of our finest directors.
The scene serves to introduce the theme of the movie that follows, which will examine the dark corners of human society, where corruption and murder take place far from the lives of most people. The scene is also an apt metaphor for the true nature of life on earth.
We flatter ourselves with the belief that we are somehow special among the creatures of the earth, but we are not. We simply run our instinctive program, we play the roles into which we have been cast by evolution and fate. We believe ourselves to be more valuable than our fellow creatures, only because we have brains capable of mathematics and self-delusion. Discovering that we can differentiate between marble statues of David by Bernini and Michelangelo, we leap to the conclusion that we are a race apart, unique in all the world, going so far as to provide the narrative with a supernatural being, one powerful enough to have created us in the first place, whom we call God. It’s all so sad and squalid.
We believe our world to be beautiful, against all evidence. How should we decide whether it is beautiful or not? It’s the only world of its type with which we are familiar. Isn’t that like a world in which there is only one woman? Of course, the woman would be the most beautiful woman in that world, even if she were not beautiful at all.
No, we are not so special.
We are, in fact, filthy animals, snarling at each other and fighting over bones that have not yet been split for their marrow. We inhabit a world that is only attractive from a distance. The greater the distance, the more beautiful the world becomes. If you get too close, it’s foul enough to make you vomit.
In case you are wondering, “did he just call me a filthy animal?” Rest assured that that is exactly what I called you, and each of us. Regarding our mutual external surfaces, turning an electron microscope on any square centimeter of our skin reveals a menagerie of tiny creatures that are too horrible even for a Toho Studios special effects squad to display on any screen. Even smaller are the bacteria that infest all of us. Take a swab anywhere and send it to the lab. The result comes back: multiple organisms. Proceeding to our interiors, by any of the available routes, the infestation becomes even worse, and it’s a good thing that it does! By now, we couldn’t live without our little bacterial buddies. We’d die within hours! Each of us carries a couple of kilograms of bacteria, all the time. Good and bad; the good ones help us with everything from digestion to mood control, and the bad ones are along for the ride, waiting for any opportunity to take hold and grow out of control. You are lathered in staph right now, and only a healthy immune system and buckets of good bacterial allies keeps it at bay.
Don’t be thinking that you can wash any of this off. For one thing, you can’t do it, and besides, you wouldn’t want to try. All of that scraping and scrubbing would only create a fertile new virgin growth medium for all of the airborne microbes that surround us. We are stuck with these zoological companions for the duration.
It is also worth noting that it may not be our world in the first place. Measured by total species biomass, the earth clearly belongs to the ants. I mean the total weight of them all around the world, not only the astronomical numbers of them. Substitute “insects” for “ants,” and we humans are surpassed by an even larger factor. Ants have no need of telling apart the two statues of David, and mathematics is alien to them, but they are the geniuses of the earth at creating and managing ant societies. They can do it anywhere, with admirable energy and ingenuity, anywhere from the high ledge of a skyscraper to a patch of frozen earth under the ice of Antarctica.
Oh, you say, but we are aware! Not like the ants, who take no notice of us stepping on them, humans are aware! How aware are humans, Johnny? Not very aware, it turns out. Of all of the people who will read this blog post, and there will be fifteen at least, how many are aware that as they sit pleasantly reading away on their laptop, they are simultaneously moving through space at something approaching one thousand miles per hour? I’m pretty sure that the closer one is to the equator, the faster one is moving, to the east, I believe. That’s in addition to the entire earth tear-assing around the solar system in its yearly orbit of our personal star, the sun. How many people are aware of all of that hair-raising activity, which never stops for a moment? You sleep, you and everyone else, in one spot for eight hours, and yet you wake up at least eight thousand miles from where you first laid your head, plus whatever the directional movement would add, I’m no scientist. This comes as a surprise to most people. Does that sound very aware?
Humans are simply one of the myriad species of filthy animals that inhabit this filthy speck of dust in the middle of nowhere.
It is no coincidence that I write this impolite, ultra-cynical tirade on the day when the news cycle is dominated by our Fabulous Prezzy D-John’s first “State of the Uniom” (sic) message. As could be expected, it contained about as much common sense and human dignity as the sound of a coffee can containing one bolt being vigorously shaken.
But what’s the difference? We have learned a lot about human history up to now, and we have charted many of the arcs of good and bad societal phenomena, coming and going, and we have attempted to find therein hope for some kind of positive future for our kind. We can put “paid” to all of that now. The arc of “liberalism” began its ascent many hundreds of years ago. It really started to pick up steam in the late Eighteenth Century, during the Enlightenment. The United States of America was founded by a group of imperfect intellectuals on the basis of liberal Enlightenment principles. Liberalism had its great moments in the Twentieth Century, when it curb-stomped fascism and easily outlasted communism. The mid-century flourishing of the liberal welfare state was the best thing to happen to the working man since the Black Plague.* But that’s all over now.
The fat lady has sung. The curtain has fallen. Elvis has left the building. Welcome to the New Dark Ages. This fate befalls us at a particularly bad time, because two violent accelerants will shortly be added to the fire: the collapse of our planetary climate system and the technological singularity that will alter, well, every single aspect of our lives, and not for the better. This New Dark Age will be worse than the first, because there will be no escaping the effects. The first Dark Age, at the end of the first millennium, AD, was a time of little technology and poor communications. The mountains were high, and the oppressors were far away. This time the oppressors will be in your living room at all times; they will watch you while you sleep, and when you make love to your spouse; they will be in your pocket and on your wrist at all times, monitoring your heartbeat and hearing your very thoughts, or guessing them.
I could conceivably surprise medical science and my own expectations by living for another fifteen years, and in that case, I’d be in the thick of it right there with you. That’s a chilling thought, and I am not pleased that it came to me at all. I will probably be gone before that, however, and as the world spins ever more rapidly into chaos, that fate is no longer the terrible thing that it could have been.
*The Black Plague was a bit of “left-handed luck” for the working man, because the sudden disappearance of more than half of the work force of Europe added greatly to the value of work. It gave working people some leverage, and their situation improved rapidly. It also relaxed the tight control that had been exercised in the Medieval period by the aristocrats and the church, allowing advances in science, encouraging exploration, and providing an avenue for clever working people to move up into a new merchant class. Calling it a positive isn’t such a stretch.