The Last Temptation of Empire

Current Events, Philosophy, Politics, Pop Culture, Uncategorized
Westward the course of empire take its way;
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last
-George Berkeley

800px-Cole_Thomas_The_Consummation_The_Course_of_the_Empire_1836

What role do the arts actually play? The Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, David Mamet, thinks it’s all just for entertainment, which is fine, he says—the kids need a good puppet show to scream and cackle at. The cannibalizing weight of the world strangles us; the tropical depressions swirl like miniaturized cyclones inside. There’s nothing wrong with teasing ourselves with the beautiful and profane. Writer-director, Paul Schrader, sees it differently: the arts are tools no different than a hammer and saw, to build some edifying totem that tells us about ourselves. He wrote Taxi Driver as a story about a man colonized by loneliness in order for Schrader himself not to become that man. And it clearly struck a nerve with the public. The audience of 1976 didn’t crowd around that film with evangelical fanfare because it was simply a well-executed puppet show, only serving us piecemeal entertainment. But who’s to say where the sustained reverence comes from—is it just a necessary and immanent thing to proclaim to everyone that you saw, and you “absolutely loved it!”, no different from posting artfully stained selfies in front of The Starry Night and gloating confessions about how moved it you? You may as well accost every stranger you can on the street, gushing about Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, saying you saw them once…and they’re a-mazing!

Schrader and Mamet agree on this: the arts haven’t changed, but the audience has. Schrader’s 2017 environmental-noir film, First Reformed, received comparable critical accolades to Taxi Driver, and is almost mandatorily a more important film, but it came and went, failing to constitute a wider dialogue about faith and environmental stewardship. I happened to read Mamet’s Theatre before sitting down to write this, in which he states that when he was in acting school in New York more than fifty years ago, there were seventy-two new Broadway plays produced. Half of the forty-three plays in 2009—when he wrote the book—were revivals. Most of the modern art museums today are filled with the abstract expressionists of the 1950’s rather than any new, crusading work that fundamentally changes how we see the world.

I have asked myself this innumerable times as a painter—in the lonely, alcohol-soaked hours of the night, hunched in front the twisted splinters of an easel: what am I actually painting for? Should there be a cultural, topical relevancy, or does all anyone want is glorified hotel art? An expensive ejaculation smeared in the confines of a framed rectangle, arranged so guests can gawk at, eat their rotten cheese, letting the chihuahua lick their hand. Picasso’s Guernica inserted itself into the real world, where war, starvation, rape, general hell exists. But what does one do today, without achieving only inevitable triteness, or just being ignored? Thomas Cole painted The Course of Empire, a five-painting-series on the cyclical propensity for the rise and fall of civilizations, a masterpiece of millenarian form, foreboding the circus of bile and cruelty. It should be studied, and painted again a thousand times.

The timescale represented in the five paintings span over many centuries, perhaps millennia. They’re also single flashes over the course of a day—the rising of the morning sun in the first painting, The Savage State, where man consists of just a few subjects in an otherwise verdant, all-consuming landscape. The sun draws higher in The Arcadian or Pastoral State, where boat-building and the herding of sheep frequent a scene that is still dominated by nature. The third frame, The Consummation of Empire, at high noon, is a towering broadcast with obvious resemblance to Greek and Roman civilizations. All the human achievement collapses in Destruction, where a statue of a headless soldier careens forward with a broken shield. The city around him is burning; women are being brutalized and raped; men killed; and somehow, a child’s toy boat forcibly sunk. The day finally settles into the dreary cycle of return, as the full moon sinks back under the horizon in the last of the series, Desolation. The tangled ivies and clumping herds of trees are finally swallowing man’s phallic landmarks to himself; his bridges and temples how just crumbling relics, mere mineral deposits for mosses and lichens to slowly suck on. Birds have returned, nesting atop the lone column standing in the foreground.

Of course we have our own markers today—this week, this month, this presidency—that make the series seem like a relevant scrying stone. Yes, of course, Donald Trump is what is causing the collapse of our sacred American system, is the guttural temptation, like a pavlovian scapegoat that we can blame all our degeneracies one. But it’s always been. Thomas Cole was responding to Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party carrying out their Manifest Destiny and its slaughter of the so-called savage state. Our corrupted history, our original sin. The innumerable frames not included between The Arcadian or Pastoral State and The Consummation of Empire also necessarily include these same scenes that are shown in Destruction. An American empire built on the backs of slaves, corralling the natives into ever-tightening, sordid paddocks of spoiled land. And Thomas Cole was surely aware of this. The cyclical theory of history spins into rapidly dizzying circles the more you look at history, the more localized and personal you trace the origins of wealth and plunder.

It’s everywhere. Of the five mass extinctions on this earth (most ecologists say we’re causing the sixth), between seventy-five and ninety-five percent of life was wiped out during each one—a near return to the origins of biological life, like a cosmic intervention that decides it’s going to start all over again and try something completely different. This time, we humans are roleplaying the astroid or the sun flare or the unstoppable plague. We have always sort of fetishized the end of the world, building billion dollar cinematic franchises to pawn off a bleak garbage munching future as something to look forward to. A romanticized version of roughened heroes battling their way through fields of angry holograms, limping pigeons, general anarchy.

The Course of Empire was created between 1833 and 1836, a time of seemingly relative innocence compared to our present-day frat party of an existence, the spongey, vomit-soaked legacy of our privileged upbringing, the mess of humanity more resembling the binary fission of some mutant cannibalizing bacteria. Today, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have repositioned the Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight (the nearest to self-annihilation it’s ever been, including this same time, positioned in 1953). It’s been maintained since 1947, when a devastating nuclear exchange was the only global threat possible to take place. Now, it includes climate change, and the innumerable threats that it includes, from decades-long drought, to flooding of major cities, to wars over dwindling resources, to billionaires clutching onto power with private armies, to the release of zombie viruses thawing in the permafrost. Clearly none of this was a concern when Thomas Cole created his series. The time of Cole was Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau—a splendorous dance of garlands, a big gay festival of erudition. It’s not what we typically think of as fodder of forewarning to our self-destruction. Nevertheless, he was aware that our death drive merely took different forms, that it doesn’t matter how we kill ourselves, because we’ll always be thinking of new, more inventive ways to do it.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and his most recent, Enlightenment Now, make the case that life in general is vastly improving over the course of our domain—that our pessimism about ourselves is more generally a self-indulgent fad. It’s cooler to pontificate some Nietzchean quip of how we’re all fucked as you smoke an American Spirit cigarette you rolled all by yourself, than to look at the encyclopedic data of why things are actually improving, why poverty, violent crime, rape, war, domestic violence, have all declined dramatically over time. And yet, still, clearly we are fucked. The consummation of misery as a ubiquitous norm may have improved; but the extent of our death drive has drowned out these superficial improvements. Killing the ecological backbone necessary for our survival—the bugs and weird bacteria in the jungle—is far more creative, psychoanalytically, than the direct slaughter of each other. War by machete still happens of course, but our death drive has evolved to outwit these antiquated ways, like a horror of mist and function that turns these hellish moth-eaten tweeds to dust.

What is happening in The Consummation of Empire that leads inevitably to the swirling chaos and misery depicted in the next panel, Destruction? Nothing is out of the ordinary: a velvet-robed king is ushered across the bridge by an enormous flock of supporters; an opulent fountain spurts its excess. Children play in its shores, splashing, pushing toy boats. Unbeknownst to them, disaster looms. It will all morph into an inferno of self-destruction, as if we are administering, perhaps unwittingly, the cyclical theory of history through periodic extinctions and new beginnings.

And here, today, at least from my vantage point, nothing is out of the ordinary. The scientific consensus may be that we have triumphantly fucked ourselves for good, but there’s nothing obvious, nothing experientially that demonstrates it such. I’m drinking a foamy latte in a sunny outdoor patio, as every other wannabe prophet of cool writes their screenplays around me. A generation raised by pornstars singing karaoke; the slow drip of dopamine easing everything to a gradual acceptance. I’m headed to surf at Malibu once I finish this piece; herds of others are performing their iterations of the same. And yet, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity stated that up to 150 species are lost every day. An ecological genocide that makes Rwanda look acquiescent, every single day; and most of us who are privileged enough to choose not to notice carry on with a passive awareness at best, our dicks shoved in some glory hole of philosophic pretension.

Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, published fifteen years before the first of Cole’s Empire paintings, famously depicted man’s will to life as the source of all our suffering. The possession of more things serves only as the representation of happiness, and quenches the Will ephemerally, this momentary escape soon evaporating like a fart on the windy ocean shores. The insatiable Will makes Destruction and Desolation inevitable. Schopenhauer thought that man’s dismissal of any reasonable stewardship of nature was a guarantor of our general moral collapse.

If Cole painted his series today, it would be ignored. Schopenauer would be ignored. Because First Reformed was ignored, the mass of attention given to the masturbatory ennui of A Star is Born and Bohemian fucking Rhapsody. Schrader strongly believes we are beyond saving ourselves, that we’ve catapulted passed every tipping point, and there’s no turning it back the other way. But he still makes films. He may be a bitter, angry doomsdayer, but he still lectures on filmmaking, teaching young storytellers how to be better, more effective in their craft. David Mamet believes everything is fine, and we should just carry more guns and let Israel conquer the entire Middle East, but he still writes drama, dosing the world with magnified versions of ourselves. That’s all we can hope to do—as an audience, to pay a little more attention, for attention’s sake; and as artists, to lash whatever wands we have, to let the world putter through us, and see what we can make of it.

Notes on Eternal Recurrence

Philosophy, Short Stories

Salvador Dali - Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory - 1954

by Guy Walker

“Death created time to grow the things that it would kill, and you are reborn into the same life that you’ve always been born into.” Detective Rustin Cohle

Then they fantasize gleefully about what they would do if given one week to live, what perverse finale of drugs and hookers and assholes they’d engrave their last memories with. But it’s a useless and banal notion, revealing nothing of the human condition except for the desperate grunts of splendor we prefer to indulge in. A better question is how would we continue from this day forward if we were to learn that we’ll be reborn into this same life again and again, for eternity?

Eternal recurrence. It’s an old notion, discussed at length by the ancient Egyptians and Indians, eventually passed on to the Pythagoreans and the Stoics. But it was lonely frail Nietzsche, the same man who contracted syphilis from the only woman he fucked, a whore, who postured the notion of eternal recurrence best: one should live every day as if they will relive every detail of every second of their lives over and over and over again. Every laughter and despair and lonely insecurity, every drunken orgasm and rotten boredom will have to be repeated innumerable times, and with the knowledge that you will relive this innumerable times. So I looked around my own shuffling regimen to see if it was true, if reliving all this ephemeral dank theatre would be a heaven or a hell.

Today, like all the others, I pulled out the guts of three thousand fish, shoving them along the next step of the hallucinatory journey. Their liver and egg sacks separated into different containers, the rest of their guts eventually swept into the harbor, their heads into another container, their bodies packed neatly into styrofoam boxes, eventually shipped off to Spain or Italy or the south of Norway. The enormous machines rattling, the conveyer belt itself is a blue plastic mockery of the eternal return, the literal form of the phenomenology of nihilism—the last five seconds repeated over and over for fourteen hours, every day repeated for as many months or years as you can stand before hurling yourself into the frozen sea. Beyond the harbor where I work, the mountains erupt a thousand meters straight into the sky, and the coruscating morning fjords carve endlessly into the crust of the world. A bright wind howls against all the little red houses hoisted on their stilts in the village, and a seagull flies madly against the gusts, not gaining an inch. The sun is always low, so it’s always a sunrise or a sunset (depending on your outlook of course), and on the clear nights the northern lights rip and gnaw at the stars. They are green and violet violins, the infinity of gods amid their dazzling sinusoidal chorale. At night I get drunk alone, read Adorno and Benjamin for the company, eat a pack of soft-baked cookies and fall asleep to the hazy beautiful defeat, the intermezzo of freedom circling back on itself.

Every moment there’s a looming suggestion that you should simply scrap it all, head to the desert in your underwear, throw rocks at snakes, eat a huge portion of peyote and dive into permanent psychosis, never returning. I’ve often considered moving to some miserable dusty town on the outskirts of Las Vegas, loiter suspiciously around dank acheronian bars, meet a nice desert girl with cut off jean shorts and pink hair and three porcine children with ice cream cones melting over their fat little hands, and settle down  .  .  .  maybe start chewing tobacco. But it’s too late for any of that now. We’ve been shoved into this carnivorous orbit again and again and again, without our consent.

Here we are. We’ve been launched like a cannonball into the future, everything turning into blurs and specks of dust. Many generations go by, but they are all our own generation  .  .  .  the same one cycled around itself. After ninety recurrences—not even a measurable mark of a fraction of my eternity—my work in the harbor has gradually contorted into something else. I’m still there, with a little hunch in my back, still smoking expensive cigarettes on the edge of the docks with the twenty-something year old Chileans, the old wind-torn fishermen wearing snowflake patterned sweaters their wives knitted them, still delivering tons of fish at a time; but the fish aren’t fish anymore. In my besotted hypnosis, they’ve morphed into miniature Donald Trumps, like Chucky dolls, their heads spinning around in hysterical laughter. Coming across the conveyer belt, I hit them over the head one by one, trying more to thrash myself out of the beige hyperreality. It’s no use. He’s ruined everything, branded his name and his little dick onto every vacant surface. There was clearly a flaw in the system, some sort of entropic detour on the main highway that Nietzsche and Schopenhauer never considered. Everything is cycling back on itself, trees into mushrooms into soil and back into trees again. That’s how it always used to be. But humans were a glitch in the system somewhere. The bright chaos of animals and moss and stars gave birth to humans, and the gods trembled at the horror.

With each cycle, cleanliness and normalcy degrades. I moved back to Los Angeles, the rusty homes are abandoned, the churches and bowling halls and porno studios of the San Fernando valley degrading further every time we pass through it. After the hundredth recurrence, there’s only something vaguely familiar about this world, the landscape completely lifeless. It’s now too hot to step outside for more than a few minutes, the sky is opaque and causes prurigo, and our politicians strangely enough, are porcupines, hundreds of them shuffling around in the ramshackled Capitol building, sweetly fidgeting about controversial bills, such as, ‘Should we bomb Antarctica for melting on us so quickly?’ and ‘What do we do with traffic lights, now that yellow is illegal?’

I begin watching porn just for the entertainment, if you can even call it that. No, for the nostalgia, for the high aesthetic appeal, the natural lighting and baby-blue duvet covers. A pornstar with big glossy tits is riding a completely shaven man, their naked bodies humping in crude geometric configurations. Thwak! Thwak! Thwak! Her gluey pink flesh slaps against his. Arrghhh! Uh! Uh! Roooo! the man grunts—this makes me smile sweetly, the way people used to watch films by Truffaut or Fellini or Kurosawa just for the black and white sentimentality. The Fury of Verschwindens was here all along. I lean back in my rocking chair, the floorboards creaking under me, the aleatory ennui sweeping by with the red wind.

Everyone stays indoors, trolling celebrities on the internet, binge-watching several seasons of television shows, taking pictures of our own asses and submitting them to purveying masses online, everyone hunched behind their own glowing screens. In other words, not that much has actually changed. The last remaining priests are scribing the antiethnologies of symparanekromenoi, a practice that brings us brilliantly graphic standup comedy. I finish my glass of milk, and sit up from my flower-printed vinyl couch, its sticky adhesive binding to my skin, slowly peeling off my back, and emerge from my gloomy track house, and across my lawn of dust. It’s two in the afternoon, so I head to the nightclub.

My entire generation meets in the air conditioned nightclub during the day, drinking expensive cocktails, sweating, dancing for hours. I see a few kids squatted on all fours, striking pieces of flint together. Another group is huddled around a dying campfire, trying to keep their fingers warm. A man who has dropped acid everyday for the last seven hundred years is dancing with a lady with one arm, dressed in pink linens, her bulging fat swishing from side to side. They shake and push violently, the floor of neon squares flickering sporadically under them.

‘This is all so absurd,’ I think to myself. And I pick up a stone and throw it at the DJ, everything stopping for the first time in eternity.

Baudrillard was right: ‘the masses themselves are caught up in a gigantic process of inertia through acceleration. They are this excrescent, devouring, process that annihilates all growth and all surplus meaning.’ Yes, eternal recurrence will shove us back into the squalid days and nights until there are no fond memories and no bad ones either. But the spectacle of hyperreality is degrading further and further until there is nothing left. Eventually it’s just a chimera of gold dust, a strange dream with the sounds of young laughter echoing in the background. Schopenhauer discussed the ultimate nature of reality as being driven and defined by the Will. We are trembling mannequins of meat, driven entirely by the need to satisfy desires. Our ephemeral fury to make something of ourselves, to attach some purpose to all of this, to build a little legacy—whether it’s a man raising his children or Trump erecting his coruscating phalluses—is a symptom of the Will, pushing everything further and further into the absurdity of existence.

What eternal recurrence fails at considering is the nature of the Will. Desires can never achieve their satisfactions  .  .  .  once the Will attains some momentary triumph, it gets bored with it, and banters off to some other colorful frontier. We humans are the only animal who will never attain true satisfaction  .  .  .  the restless torpid bodies of this recurring dream try again and again to achieve something tolerable, scratching at the sky to make all this worth it, until death finally swallows us, soothing all of our desires and illusory sense of purpose. This is why people have children—they want to destine their own blood to the endless cycle of suffering and defeat. We willfully orchestrate the eternal recurrence for ourselves.

Schopenhauer said the only reasonable response to the absurdity of existence was to denounce the Will everywhere possible, especially that of sexual desire, in order to not reproduce little replicas of ourselves that will have to carry on further into the absurd of the eternal. But denying yourself face-sitting, 69-ing, long spouts of ecstasy-induced fucking, is surely the most miserable and absurd of all existences, some sort of cruel illusory asceticism that will only cause you to hate sunsets and everything beautiful.

Eternal recurrence was beaten by the Will. There is nothing certain anymore.

At the end of it all, we’ll have a few rusted accruements above the fireplace. We’ll have our various degrees and conquests, like seashells of legacy that we can rub with our thumb. Most of all, we’ll have memories of our lovers. When we were young, and we loved without consequence—at least we’ll have that. One day, we’ll find a fresh bubbling spring, and we’ll bathe with the native choirs all around us. One day the vines will swallow everything. A cool breeze will move the grasses and we’ll smile with the sun on our faces.