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.
# # #
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.