There’s a flutter to society now, a tremulousness: young people studying yoga therapy after college instead of essaying graduate school, and their parents taking cooking very seriously, with Hummers in the suburbs but debt a major household topic, and several grandmothers I know unexpectedly becoming “primary caregivers” because of a divorce. The presidency seems to have gone quite slapstick, with another Texan mocking the two seaboards with an ill-considered, long-term foreign war. Yet our brains’ functional areas, our pharmaceutical needs and desires, in fact our genome itself, all seem to have been mapped. We look scientifically as well as affectionately at children, we think we know so much about their stages of development (about our need for them, as well). From day care to an eventual hospice, their every twitch has been accounted for.
Yet we don’t know why we are widely hated so, when America was created to be imitated and loved. Now we sometimes have to force people to love us—send in the SEALS. Our democracy, at the moment, requires other countries not to be democracies to service us with Saudi Arabian or Nigerian oil, sweatshop textiles, and electronic parts. We want authoritarian governments to preside over our suppliers, although incongruously we feel astonished at the phenomenon of “asymmetric warfare” by “those who hate our way of life.” I once met a SEAL whose mother used to spit on the floor and make him lick it up, when he was small. Thus he became enthusiastic in his twenties about a career of going in for regime change. My graduating college students don’t do that, but face a tougher vocational start than my own class did half a century ago. At our recent reunion, almost everyone who had functioned in a profession was glad to have practiced it when he did, not just because we were now grumpy old men but because the linkages have been dissolving in law, medicine, accounting, and so on, the ethics that, however imperfectly, have served as glue.
But death is easier, verging on the casual when we “go,” with less of a mysterious or religious fulcrum to launch us up or down. It pinches when another friend departs, but his pain factor was well controlled and we don’t think of him arraigned at St. Peter’s Gate for a summation, and have a starkly shrinking assemblage of relatives that we acknowledge ourselves as kin to. More stratified by age and class, we’re tethered to our beepers and screened e-mail instead. One hears a man with a cell phone talk first to his mistress, fobbing her off for another night, then to his wife, while fingering a loose pill from his breast pocket and swallowing it dry, screwing up his face at the bad taste. People had mistresses before, but didn’t want such intimacies overheard: whereas, in this jam-packed, jittery world, who will you run into again?
We learn to skitter underneath the radar nearly everywhere, in evading rush-hour highway jams or airport security shakedowns, tax audits, or a siege of downsizing or insurance cancellations. Being alert to the conveniences of anonymity, we want the camera’s eye to sweep over us without pausing, and the computer, if we’re juggling plastic. We want our numbers to be in order—Social Security, passport, Zip and PIN, area code, driver’s license, E-ZPass. Our divorce or retirement papers may be in a safe-deposit box, but otherwise most people trust in a backup hard drive somewhere to record their bank balance, etc., knowing hunger is for other continents. God’s imprimatur has been upon us. Yet we do sense that seismic changes will be necessary to address the jumbled emergencies arising unpredictably, from watering the city of Phoenix to salvaging Africa. We can map every yard of the Earth from space, telephone from moving cars, melt the shelves of Antarctica, sock a cancer radiologically, and get a hard-on from a pill. But it’s all pell-mell, novelty as an addiction. Normality implies a permanence that people doubt, although their unease may be subterranean and perhaps they find the Lord on Sundays and tidy up.
How long does it last? What happens next? People of retirement age may be relieved to be able to indulge a taste not only for laziness, but also for moral clarity. Now that they are spectators, they feel like themselves. I have a friend, a financial analyst who was on the seventy-something floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center when it was struck on 9/11, and he survived simply by descending the stairs relentlessly, regardless of smoke, heat, debris, counter-instructions, and cries for help—hundreds of cries for help. As a black person, he found the experience not so different from the rest of his life. Having scrambled to that level of prosperity from the ghetto he’d grown up in, he had been ignoring cries for help from many directions for many, many years.
Hardball versus team play, agility versus duty, these contrasts jerk in constant tension in entrepreneurialism. But we feel even less ambiguity about our self-interest now that we are so mobile. We wonder what on earth to do. Conscience doesn’t register, especially, but what is in our self-interest? Our democracy has overripened to the point where politicians poll us before they speak their minds, which creates no leaps of inspiration, but instead a circle of confusion. Agility isn’t buoyancy, doesn’t make us happy. This reliance on the common wisdom puts the cart before the horse because of course the theory was not that the people might somehow formulate enlightened national policies—rather that collectively, intuitively, they could best fathom who ought to be entrusted to do so.
Our responses are turning generic, too. When I see a bicyclist on the road, I’ll swing a bit wider than I need to for safety’s sake, not knowing who the person is but because I’m sympathetic in general to bicyclists, don’t want them to feel bullied by the traffic. In general is how we tend to operate, in other words: in the plural, less and less in the presence of each other as flesh and blood because so much of our gabbing is done by keyboard or conversations bounced up to a satellite and back. This means we don’t judge people by the honesty of their handshake or their visage anymore (Orwell’s yardstick was that anybody at age fifty had earned the face he wore), or even a lifetime’s reputation for integrity or its opposite, since we rarely shake hands or deal repeatedly for years with the same people now. We are zoned for housing, schooling, occupation, and so on, in hordes of interest groups, with friendship like a magic-lantern show—this one, that one hopscotching to another job on the geographic checkerboard. Nor is body language the lingua franca that it used to be. Like facial expressions, such subtleties may become vestigial, because of e-mail and what not, and go the way of the dodo bird. Nature doesn’t squander energy on superfluous methods of communication.
During this transition toward more wooden faces, however, our cities’ streets are sometimes incongruously transformed by domestic theater, with frowns of empathy or loverly exasperation—intimate, openhearted expressions—walking toward us on the sidewalk, not brusque at all, but inward, the feet of the person slowing as if in the kitchen or a bedroom, while he or she confides with a delicate succession of smiles into the cell phone. People are still used to the privacy of wired telephoning, and perhaps a world where you speak mostly face to face, still free to touch and kiss or poke and glare, and the voice, not deracinated by talking into ubiquitous answering machines, reverberates with a nuance of emotion the way that the eyes do. Will our voices, as well, shed spontaneity: the huskiness that betrays the tears on a friend’s face across a thousand miles of phone lines and makes you automatically begin to mime your distress?
We’re circling our wagons in private as well as public life—unilateralist in our gym regimens and quirky diets, in choosing pets as close companions, or soft pornography and bulky cars. Yet such a circle may add up to a zero, so that although church attendance is down, people shop around for a credo to believe in: not just Adam Smith’s atavism or New Age narcissism, but an idealism marbled with faith and logic, and a limber minister to explain the details. Although I don’t regard myself as dilettantish or unusually disoriented, within the past year I have received a Christmas communion wafer from Milan’s cardinal in his duomo and held hands in a circle of Quakers in a library basement in Vermont. I’ve knelt in Methodist, Episcopal, and Pentecostal churches in America and watched Mother Teresa beatified by the pope on the steps of St. Peter’s in Rome. Other visitors in these houses of worship, nibbling politely at the catechism and maneuvering in and out of half-remembered pews, also seemed to be sliding emotionally between aloofness and immersion in the happiness of being able to believe. Most of us have enough common sense to know there is some kind of God because joy wells in us perhaps analogously to photosynthesis in plants. The question is His location: inside, outdoors, in human guise, or every moist, synaptic charge? The serenity of devotion (and we do want to find that) seesaws with the allure of rebellious skepticism, plus our recent habit of surfing a surfeit of channels, abruptly moving on.
I liked the architecture of the pope’s basilicas, the rationality of the Quakers, and getting hugged by the Pentecostals, with whom you could at least share a good, unshamefaced cry. But jubilation, like cynicism, can be a slippery slope, and when we switch from a fillip of reality TV or Oprah to smashmouth hockey or a soap opera or three shouting heads, our own tempo slides toward a more digital than biological mode. Professional football, for example, is edited to resemble animation, fast-forwarding the natural capacities of the body, to be replayed in further stylizations until it parallels the abbreviated summary of a fashion shoot or how speeches of potential import are diced into sound bites that aren’t of a piece with real-time life. Thus, will we grow so addicted to speedy denouements and deadpan reactions that we appear like mutants to backward people who still blush on occasion or tentatively venture half a smile to express uncertainty, and part or tighten their lips in readable moods? Airport machines will scan our retinas for identification, and camera phones attempt to approximate the pungency of friendship. But will we see the picked-at nails, the pudge or scrawn, the tinge of jaundice, physical and spiritual, in the eyes that a betrayal may have left?
Advertisers, paying by the second to grab a handle on us, keep goosing the technology to crowd more images into our attention span, snapping us into and out of focus faster, as automation, on the other hand, makes us pause a dozen times a day for rote procedures that allow us clearance into our previously recorded thoughts and assets, as if we too have become decimalized. We are not digits, however, and have fuses that may blow if a disarticulation sets in. Cities have always worked because behind the imperturbability on the thoroughfares were expletives, kickbacks, impromptu generosity, and improvisation. If you had a fender bender or locked yourself out of your apartment at 1:00 A.M., a friend was going to pick up the telephone and take you in. It wasn’t turned off for voice-mail screening. People cut and pasted a life out of the parade of freebies on the street. Experience wasn’t virtualized from a memory bank of eclipsed realities, voyeuristic patinas, electronic simulations (although it’s true that in the past half-century movies became more memorable for many people than their own humdrum lives). Information is fun, but this is a matter of distortion instead, while in the meantime our secularism powers our recent obsession with longevity, hypochondria, and the like. If there is no afterlife, by all means go for the Prozac, Viagra, Botox.
The instantaneous transmission of churned-up data may burst our eardrums for the natural to-and-fro of emphasis: what should or ought not to be in italics. Not just warfare has become asymmetric. Hired therapists lend an ear to our lamentations in place of friends, and domesticated animals are factory-farmed as squeeze toys, lovebugs. Chaos had been a frequent theme for artists since the buildup to the last world conflagration, but when the dizzy spiral turns centrifugal, it’s not Chaplinesque or Dada anymore. It’s not Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol—we don’t laugh or dither with Woody Allen and Federico Fellini, or wait with Samuel Beckett, because the social breakdown no longer seems to resemble the random sort of self-correcting physics of Brownian motion, a metaphor that democracy has depended on, by which deceits and incompetencies are nullified and made up for. During the 1960s three charismatic American leaders were shot and killed, yet even so, because we assumed the Kennedy and King assassinations were an outgrowth of evil, not chaos, they were bearable as tragedies, indeed bore some political fruit. The nuts and bolts of the system obliged us in that way, as, subsequently, when both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon voluntarily withdrew from public life after hashing up their presidencies.
But we are seasick now. So many loyalties are being atomized, would a call for idealism permeate far through the anthill of Web sites? We are careening as a nation as if on tires that have lost their tread, bald tires that get no traction in a skid. What we have assumed about ourselves—what is ethical, perennial, versus the spam-jam sort of greedfest we are fearfully anticipating—is thrown into question. After bootstrapping an amalgam of immigrants from nearly everywhere into a superpower, we have incubated within ourselves an astonishingly dismissive attitude toward other cultures, other countries. Besides that, there’s the blind faith that our melting pot will continue to cast up, whenever necessary, a leader of the stripe of Washington, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt during any grave emergency. With the primal genius of the ballot box, popular wisdom, like some artesian force of rectitude, will well up and, balancing the alternatives, shove aside the run-of-the-hill blowhards, choosing the single individual who can coalesce a Constitution, gel a Union, or institute New Deal reforms that diffuse a meltdown. You wouldn’t have a Harding in the White House during the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, and George Marshall will be around, with the support of Harry Truman, if Europe ever needs to be rebuilt.
The trouble is we’re not so sure right now. Democracy and dogfight capitalism, billed as free-market economics, have not been panning out for many countries, from Russia to Latin America. Remembering the galas of decolonization in Africa, the gaiety in various Soviet possessions as dictatorship fell, it’s hard to square such hopes with crestfallen reality. We’re not awash in AIDS orphans here; we’re tinkering with boutique genetics, fertility drugs, and fretting about childhood obesity. But the constant question people ask in greeting one another—“How’re you doin’?”—has acquired a provocative edge, as if any more equivocal reply than “Good!” might undermine the entire edifice of grinding commutes, multitasking laptops, exercise machinery that substitutes for being outdoors, and TV film loops winding extraneously through one’s head. With sex becoming apoplectic, will we have room for global warming? Beyond that, as the king of beasts, don’t we need the rest of them for scaffolding? Aren’t we kneecapping ourselves, cutting our legs out from under us, by killing off everything else? What will our apishness do without grasslands and trees: spin like a monkey in a cage too small for it? Do we cradle house cats, loot coral reefs for tropical fish, and grow quaint rodents like gerbils because our family lives are splintering, or nature is shattering?
At what point—to take it to a tangent—will the churchgoer cease to regard human life as a diamond chip off of the divinity, on a planet not half as green? Will we be so lonesome we finally grieve, when leafing through the tens of thousands of images of extinguished creatures, in their galaxies of shape and ritual and color—that magic roster of the dead? People will come back to the photo archives, marveling, and what will monotheism say? A society being transformed at warp speed is bound to become warped, with many of us withdrawing into a jumpy mode of privacy but the blowback of the new technologies piercing that privacy with unpredicted surveillance techniques. Existentialism, fifty years and more ago, was kind of fun, when hedonism and pessimism still boasted of their novelty, plus the cachet of anti-fascism because the Nazis had just been unstrung. It was deemed intriguing, not frightening, that God was dead, by a movement less playful but more intellectual than Dada, after the First World War, had been. Nor was the planet speckled with hunger and civil hate like ringworm, as it is today. Decolonization was to be a straightforward process, and atheism perhaps a bit comparably liberating—whereas we would regard some peppy new idea that we are alone in the world now as adding to the delirium. With our twelve-step programs and church hopping, we’re like characters in search of an Author (although meanwhile converting our trees into paper). Turn in the direction of your skid is the instruction for driving on ice. And so that would mean more greed, more sex and scatterbrained flapping about, and ever-speedier transmission of data, until we slide to a halt—unless we discover that, by eviscerating nature, we have changed the rules unwittingly.
I do find at most of the houses of worship I’ve dropped in on an old-fashioned spirit of communing with the other parishioners that is comforting, nevertheless: of God as a current that radiates impartially through everybody, even those who try to block it off, and through the rest of life. But the days of walking to church, not driving, used to add cloudscapes, birds’ songs, the weather’s bite, or wildflowers, and a milk snake rustling, all the panoply of green curvaceous terrain, with the grass springing up, the leaves doubling in size on the same May Day when the toads, as well, begin to sing. Nature is spontaneous in that, although we know approximately what’s going to happen, not when—whereas we’re growing accustomed to an alternative universe of coy and spooling graphics, automated geometrics, cute-ified beasties, and a prismatic palette. If we are city folk we hear backfires rather than Hart Crane’s “choiring” bridge strings, but even a farmer’s tractor-altered ears may have quit distinguishing a doe’s bark from a vixen’s yap, when each is warning her young, or change-of-weather susurrations, running water burbling, blue jays hollering enviously at a box turtle beaking a slug. These may be the decades of unintended consequences, as when one drops a pair of eyeglasses in a field and the lenses bend the sunlight to ignite a wildfire. The droughts, floods, and hurricanes of global warming may amount to that, but as if to counterbalance our inattention to outdoor nature, the itch of indoor sex seems to have magnified into a kind of cultural epilepsy, not so much endocrinal as autistic and peevish. At the Solid Rock Gospel Church, middle-aged worshippers weep as inconsolably as if they had been virgins last night, submitting to a first Fall.
It used to be that if the town’s professed freethinker happened to live next door to a local potentate of the Knights of Columbus, their families would share essentially the same ethics. But with such flux, and marriages in both camps turning squishy or ad hoc, freethinking produces, for example, a retired ibm executive I know who preaches under a hard-shell revival tent that the pernicious theory of evolution, if accepted, will cause rape to be legalized as conducive to “the survival of the fittest.” All bets are off as to what your next-door neighbor may believe. Indeed, it’s hard to guess who might in the longer run be fittest. Ideology, technology, and political entitlement groups have combined to create a blur. Nor would I want it otherwise; master races don’t do well. And yet egalitarianism can foster myopia also, and dissolve our previous benchmarks of normalcy, integrity, without suggesting what should replace them. Will our grandchildren be able to look up on Google a tabulation of whether we lived honorably? Will it even remain a matter of pride that a given person died “an honest man”? Hometown opinion, when we had hometowns, though not infallible, assisted summings-up, which are startlingly less common now, as we mill about in search of an Author. Chaos isn’t Groucho Marx or Sartre—it’s scarier; and the masked anxiety inscribed on so many faces testifies to nerves being stretched past customary limits.
It’s the velocity, however, that’s worrisome, not some novel kink human nature has descended to. The cruelties of the ordinary school yard are simply broadcast worldwide as professional wrestling, while helicopter gunships give every Goliath a slingshot. Our moorings may have been rather diaphanous to begin with: the epicene Christ Child perched in the Madonna’s lap; or the presumption that Jews were somehow singled out by God to be His own; or that there can be no other deity except Allah. But almost any canon might verge upon the suicidal now. The prophets who invented them lived in a tactile, fortuitous world under the rain and sun, with behemoths in the rivers, lions in the swales, and leprosy a commonplace along the donkey tracks. They used the stars for navigation, not just a minute’s diversion, and grew or killed their food or bartered for it with those who did, and lived enveloped in the wind, the stony footing, the temperature’s fluctuations, with kinship more important than a career. A matrix of mysteries then underpinned so much of religion—groundwater bubbling from a hot spring hieroglyphed with lichen, or sundogs, dust devils, a banshee gale, particular comets, the dentition of flames devouring a bush, a white peak concealed in the moon-drenched clouds, hallucinatory fumes seeping from the earth’s geological navel, as at Delphi—that it must have seemed more approachable. People lived alongside sheep and goats, like an undertow from the prelapsarian currents of life, while watching massive flocks of birds, such as we can’t conceive of, migrate overhead as the seasons changed. The manner of one’s death hinged on more decisions than how much cholesterol one might have chosen to eat or what health insurance to pay for.
We don’t quite know ourselves lately: whether in a pinch we would be brave or cowardly, kind beyond the routine courtesies or perhaps a quisling. People here don’t die for a belief or even resign from their jobs on principle anymore, and social workers and the police are paid to assume some of the tasks a bystander’s conscience or self-respect would once have accomplished. Their interventions oil our way so smoothly that I’ve seldom seen big-city faces look so brutal, or the crucifixes dangling in young women’s cleavages appear more like a dollar sign. Our rancid politics, flotsam mores, the festival of covetousness being hawked by our pacesetters, our bathroom cabinets full of pills—none of these please us. But how to break through to each other? Go door-to-door like a Jehovah’s Witness, telephone like a fund-raiser, inaugurate a blog? When the world was created, we weren’t intended to be left alone with ourselves, according to both common sense and Noah. I was puzzled at first by the photographs of the Abu Ghraib atrocities because they reminded me of something, but I couldn’t think what. Then I stumbled on a bout of TV wrestling—that staple of cable sports—and realized its pretend tortures were a burlesque of what American MPs had been inflicting on their Iraqi prisoners, which might have seemed natural to any Jesse Ventura fan. Will our loneliness, in other words, undo us? Who will we turn upon after we have finished hacking nature into slivers?
I believe in revelation and reformation—the tick of altruism versus the tock of avarice—and therefore that we can stabilize the biology of the planet once we have sickened of augering it, if our attention span and reverence for reality have not been virtualized. Too glib a pessimism would ignore how well Mozart is being performed—much better, infinitely more often, than he could possibly have dreamed. Ignore also the undiminished revulsion we continue to feel for suffering inflicted upon other people across the world; or the possibility that some gawky scientist may stumble sideways, twist his ankle, and, in falling, attain a plane of consciousness sufficiently out of kilter with the rest of us that he will plumb the question of our Author. (Or that the plants, when we have deciphered their methods of communication, will indirectly inform us of the same.) In the lasciviousness of a gun shop, men lean over the counter, thumbing their clips of fifty-dollar bills, and handle every barrel. Yet we focus more and more upon our children, as if to patch the fissuring forces. In politics we still do cherish the notion of a Jeffersonian continuum that says, “If this guy isn’t doing any good, the next one will,” though we wish now for a prenuptial agreement. The sheen is off war lovers and junk-stock entrepreneurs for the moment, and our celebrities have become so mercenary or chameleon that some are fading as folk heroes. The brimming, slithering ads in TV simul-color continue to advocate a hall-of-mirrors redoubling of lifestyle choices, but the thrust seems a bit more claustrophobic.
Nature is fiber, moistened, interlaced, as sounds are, too, in the woods. Mammals can catch a warning of a hunter’s stalk from the birds, or the reverse, and the whisk broom of the wind may instigate a thousand pollinations while making a few boughs sough. Yet we don’t go in much nowadays for unaugmented sound, being accustomed to the modulations of engineers who titillate our ears with juiced acoustics that imply in their ubiquity, at least to me, the mush of chaos underneath. How long can fossil fuels sustain the buzz? And—engineering aside—are we really wired for it? Like painted apples in a supermarket bin, how red can we get? Will we gradually flatten, like the taste of corn and salmon, as our genes are trifled with? Or, like that car with tires with no tread, will we flip?