Recurring Themes, Part Five: The End of Humanity

“Through fiction we saw the birth
Of futures yet to come
Yet in fiction lay the bones, ugly in their nakedness
Yet under this mortal sun, we cannot hide ourselves”
— Isis, “In Fiction”

There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone I watched as a kid that stuck with me. I don’t remember all of it, just the end: There’s a man, a bibliophile, he’s the last person left on earth, and he’s ecstatic because he’s surrounded by books. Then he breaks his glasses.

Since first seeing Children of Men’s vision of humanity without hope about a year ago, I’ve been spotting eschatological themes everywhere. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress are a couple more examples from my recent reading. The release of the film I Am Legend marks another for the pile.

Children of MenThough both movies depict a dystopian picture of humankind’s future, Director Alfonso Cuarón said that he envisioned Children of Men as the “anti-Blade Runner.” He told the set designers, “I don’t want inventiveness, I want reference,” adding “Don’t show me the ‘great idea’, show me the reference in real life.” The result is not only a very gritty and real feeling but also a very possible one, a feeling that our world could look like the one in the film sooner than we care to realize. Wholesale infertility notwithstanding, indeed, a lot of what is depicted in Children of Men is happening right now.

In a talk that should certainly be included in future printings of his recently reissued Enjoy Your Symptom! (Routledge, 1992), philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek describes the infertility in Children of Men as “spiritual infertility.” Just as the works of art collected in the museum in the movie lack their historical context, so do the citizens lack hope. Most of their spirits are blatantly suffocated by its absence. This hopelessness is evident in nearly every aspect of the movie, from the government-sanctioned “suicide kits” to the stagnation of technology. The lack of offspring produces a society with no need for maintenance (Though national security is of the utmost concern in Children of Men, the deterioration of the infrastructure couldn’t help but evoke to me James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency [Grove Press, 2006], in which he cites strip malls, suburbs, and big-box retailers as signs that we’re building “a country not worth defending”).

Among the many visual metaphors in the film (e.g., the many animals, Theo’s lack of shoes, etc.) is the boat in the final scene. Zizek interprets the boat as a metaphor for humanity’s lack of roots in the movie. The refugees in captivity, the artwork in the museum, and — even with the hope of Kee and The Human Project — the extant populace of Children of Men’s world are set adrift on a sea of existential uncertainty and spiritual bankruptcy.

The RoadSimilarly, the man and the boy (they’re not given formal names) in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are adrift in a post-apocalyptic world with nothing but what they can carry or scavenge to live on and nothing but their wits to protect them as they trudge farther and farther down a road. The road is apparently leftover from a decimated infrastructure, a lone strip of asphalt plodding toward the sea like a geographical lifeline. Steven Shaviro pointed out a perfect example of their dire situation in the line “Mostly, he worried about their shoes” (funny that a similar metaphor was evident in Children of Men).

“There were few nights lying in the dark that he did not envy the dead.” — from The Road

The Road’s agoraphobic landscape leaves one aching for shelter. Its mise en scène is one of nonstop exposure and unknown dangers lurk seemingly at every point along the road. In the same way that silence can be deafening, McCarthy’s economy of prose only adds to the feeling of stifling openness. There are no lush turns of phrase, no whimsy in words just as there is neither lushness nor whimsy in the world described.

Wittgenstein’s MistressDavid Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress depicts a similarly desolate world, though the narrator seems much more sanguine about it. She roams from place to place, taking what she needs from abandoned households, borrowing vehicles as needed, and pausing intermittently to type her story on a typewriter. It’s a beautifully written and intricately realized story.

The end may or may not be coming, let’s just be careful with those glasses, just in case.

Car-Race Meat Spiral Chief Restaurant Snail Button

No, it’s not some new awesome, all-purpose web widget. That was the subject line of an email I just received. The next one read “Butterfly Drink Book Army Data Base Aeroplane Space Shuttle,” and “Worm Data Base Rainbow Jet fighter Compass Pocket Telescope” was after that. They were spam of course, and, as much as it still frustrates me that there’s an entire industry dedicated to intruding my inbox (and phone line, and hard drive), I’m trying to see the positive.

Mind Performance HacksThe subject lines above are perfect fodder for Mind Hack #19 [Seed Your Mental Random-Number Generator] from O’Reilly’s Mind Performance Hacks (edited by Ron Hale-Evans). I mean, you can make that stuff up, but randomness is easier if it just arrives via email.

Another one I use a lot is Hack #27 [Play Mind Music]. Though I still often play Hip-hop when I work, I’ve been listening to more and more instrumental music. Here’s a sample of my recent playlist of “mind music”:

  • Explosions in the Sky All of a Sudden I miss Everyone, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, Friday Night Lights OST
  • Cliff Martinez Solaris OST, Wicker Park OST
  • Pelican City of Echoes, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw
  • Red Sparowes At the Soundless Dawn, Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun
  • Main Hz, Motion Pool
  • Mogwai Zidane OST, Mr. Beast, Happy Music for Happy People
  • Peter Gabriel Long Walk Home (Rabbit-Proof Fence OST), Passion (The Last Temptation of Christ OST), Birdy OST
  • Brian Eno Eno Box I: Instrumentals, Music for Airports, Apollo, Discreet Music, etc.

(Brian Eno might be the best creative catalyst available, what with his cannon of ambient music and his co-creating the Oblique Strategies [Hack #23]). Mind Performance Hacks has nearly a hundred tricks and exercises to rattle your brain out of its usual patterns.

A Whole New MindI also just read The 4-Hour Workweek (Crown) by Tim Ferriss and am in the middle of Daniel Pink‘s A Whole New Mind(Riverhead), both of which have exercises that will make you think differently. The former has more for achieving personal goals, delegating responsibility, and getting free of your work, while the latter has more regarding cognitive and creative concerns. Pink contends that the next revolution will come not from left-brained engineers and accountants but from right-brained creative types like designers, teachers, and storytellers (good news for artists that want to be formerly known as “starving” — thank you, Govone), and his book is rife with exercises for your right hemisphere.

Anyway, I’m now thankful for weird subject lines in spam messages. Anything that makes me think about things in a different way is welcome.

What tricks do you have for tackling problems creatively?