From the Inside Out by
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Despite their popularity, I’ve always hated dystopian films. After years of watching — or avoiding — end-of-the-world stories that scorch, drown, freeze, melt, disintegrate, zombify or microwave our poor planet and its flora and fauna, I boycotted the genre. Who needs it? Finally, my thoughts on the lure of disaster were validated by the pre-WW II media analyst Walter Benjamin in a much earlier work, “The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction (1936).” Here, Benjamin wrote that the culture industry’s penchant for creating dystopian and disaster films (even back then) provides proof that “…[society’s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure…”

So now we have a messenger.

With a few exceptions, in which heroes and heroines alike look ridiculous in bio-protective gear, most of our dreamt-of, profitable, destruction-as-entertainment forces have come from outside. And now, how simple, how credible this real disaster seems, as it unites our precious planet from the inside out in a velcro-like embrace.

We are all afraid. We already live in dark times. In our nation alone, we suffer under a quarantine of greed and incompetence imposed by a malevolent and unpredictable narcissist who has paralyzed our values, overrun our checks and balances, and bummed our pursuit of happiness. He and his courtiers have taken our country hostage with chaos that leaps across our landscape like a prairie fire.

Long before this unelected obscenity landed in our midst, we learned of and registered alarm toward human activity that precipitates the oceans’ rise, the ozone layer’s dissolution, and the rape of our rainforests.

So clear and present are these dangers, that we have given credence to them by defining a new geologic era, the Anthropocene age, its characteristics defined by our relentless urge to rise above the ecology that birthed and nurtured us. Research has explored the existential threats posed by our new age. We have listened to Rachel Carson and Greta Thunberg and generations of scientists and activists in between. We’ve tried to hear what they say, but even when we hear them, they seem to confuse us. What is to be done? we ask amidst a litany of extenuating circumstances — time, money, feasibility, comfort.

There may be justice in climate change, justice beyond love of our lives, our families, and for the labyrinthian, beautiful, and damnable civilization we have created on the earth’s surface. Maybe the justice lies in the karma of this virus’ beginning, in a market where live creatures from around the planet were gathered, caged, tortured, murdered, bought and sold. Maybe the earth is beginning to make itself heard.

So now we have a messenger. And our first responses have been convulsive. Close the doors and windows, seal off the borders. Lie about the message, diminish its scope and scale. But maybe, with all the planes and trains and buses silenced, with the electric energy of commerce stilled, with only ourselves and — if we are lucky — our loved ones to listen, we can hear what the earth is telling us. Already, our current national obscenity has begun to shrink. Scientists, like artists and spirit-seekers, have always recognized their commonality. Now, along with technicians, research programs and laboratories, science is leaping legal and political and economic boundaries to share massive amounts of data on epidemiology, biometrics, chemistry, botany, genetics to corral this elusive mutant.

Maybe we will need, to learn this present crisis, to live inside the world, with the world, with this virus that has the potential to live inside us. Immunization may be gradual. Many may die. I may die. You may die. But we are all in this thing together and we know it as we have in no other age. Maybe, faced with this real threat to our existence, we can stop reveling in imagined disasters. If we embrace the real world, nothing can stop us from using our most exquisite skills, the broadband spectra of our knowledge, and the wealth of human experience to move beyond ourselves.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Your vicious words about the one I can’t even speak of are music to my ears.

    Dystopian stories are warnings. It is he, and his cronies, that are dystopia personified. We were warned. Now it’s too late for too many. We can only hope that something has shifted, or will soon shift, deeply and equal to this existential catastrophe. Your last two paragraphs, and particularly your last sentence, give shape to that hope. Thank you, Charles!

    • Hi, Barbara. Probably not the cheeriest of posts but I felt an urge to go deep here. Hopefully there is more light in the short run that I describe here. It’s very odd, this sensation that we are going through a fundamental change, not just in America, but around the entire planet.

      Stay in touch, stay safe.

  2. Suzy says:

    We are living in a dystopian film. I don’t like them either, but we don’t have a choice. Unfortunately we don’t know how it ends. Will the good guys win? Your last paragraphs suggest that you are optimistic. I like the sentence, “Already, our current national obscenity has begun to shrink.” I hope that you are right. Maybe the earth will survive and we will survive. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

  3. Marian says:

    Yes, Charles, at moments when despair and panic threaten to overwhelm me, I open my patio door. For the first time in the 16 years I’ve lived here, I can hear birds tweeting without the cars and airplanes drowning them out. On the levy, I can hear the ducks quack and paddle down the river. These small sounds give me hope.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    You are right, Charles, the unelected mad man has already brought us to the brink. But he takes no responsibility for this or anything else, tho he ginned up much of the anxiety all by himself. But we can’t escape this one by ourselves. Be well, stay safe, keep writing. Let this community offer a vision of sanity for ourselves.

    • Yes, and apologies for my dark post. I think the larger perspective reveals that this crisis, and the ‘pan —’ aspect of it almost trivializes this current administration. Larger forces seem to be at work here, while here at home our senate argues about whether to give money to people or corporations. Wow. Yes, lets stay in touch.

  5. And in the two days since you posted your story Charles, the WH briefings have gotten progressively more dystopian.

    Did we really hear the president say – with 40,000 Covid 19 cases in the country – that the cure may be worse than the problem?

    We all know what the problem really is, don’t we.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Charles, I share your dislike for end-of-the-world, zombie, and apocalyptic movies. I love how you describe our being attacked from within by an unseeable virus. You also summed up my feelings about #45 and his cohort. I hope in our confinement that enough of us think about climate change, the importance of believing science, and the need to rid ourselves of Trump in November (if we are allowed to vote – now there’s a dystopian thought). Excellent essay.

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