David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Occurrences at Owl Creek Bridge: Beyond the Zeroes

Last time, I was talking about the particularly American “Owl Creek Bridge” trope of the pre-death fantasy of survival, cut short (to the surprise of the subject) by death interrupting the ongoing fantasy. This is not anything like a near-death experience; it’s the opposite, since rather than experiencing a false death, the person experiences a false life. Their rescue is in the certainty of death. That finality is, fundamentally, eschatological, in that it requires the establishment of a definite reality that trumps the fantasy, and that reality is nothing but the end of one’s life, which is ultimate. It does not appear at first glance to be religious, but as with so many American tropes, revivalist roots run deep, and the faith that death will provide certainty and be the tipping point from fantasy back to reality is a small little religious system unto itself.

I mention this because the earlier point, at which reality veers into fantasy, is the point at which one’s faith is failed. Reality ceases to work, physical laws go haywire, and so on. What’s failed, then, is that the expected eschatological event–death–has not happened, and so there is this period of unreality that exists. And this sounds rather like the nightmare scenario of all prophets, in which the events they unwisely predicted too specifically fail to occur. For example, millennialism, when the promise of all sorts of finality and salvation led to much grief when the events did not arrive. Expert millennialist Norman Cohn says:

Millenarian sects and movements always picture salvation as:

  1. collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a collectivity;

  2. terrestrial (or immanent), in the sense that it is to be realized on this earth and not in some other-worldly (transcendent) heaven;

  3. imminent, in the sense that it is to come both soon and suddenly;

  4. total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement on the present but perfection itself;

  5. miraculous, in the sense that it is to be accomplished by, or with the help of, supernatural agencies.

Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium

[Side note: I happen to be reading Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern World, and Blumenberg uses some of these very qualities, particularly those of imminence and totality, to argue that the idea of incremental human “progress” is in no way a secularization of Christian eschatology, but in fact a new paradigm altogether.]

But when the stated arrival of salvation does not arrive, there is a problem. Just as when Bierce’s hero is hanged but seemingly does not die, the failure of this total, imminent change to occur itself produces a drastic change from what went before, as the expected outcome (death or salvation) has now been replaced with a void that must be filled by something new, and that something, whatever it is, is by definition unreal. Cults, crusades, even more superstitions than before.

I wish I could remember who suggested the idea (probably multiple people), but I give some credence to the idea that there was a collective conception of the last century leading up to the millennium. The thrill of the odometer rolling over to 2000 acquired many vague significances. And when 2000 came, there was no dominant idea of what was going to happen (excepting perhaps the minor faux-apocalypse of the Y2K bug), but the date served as a significant dividing point that just didn’t signify anything. So the idea was that people saw the year 2000 as an apogee of Western civilization, coming after so many wars and upheavals and global growth, and as some sort of point of accomplishment. And when there was, in fact, no sense of accomplishment or even any change when the year came, a similar sort of unreality (or, if we’re going to play with Musilian terms, pseudoreality) came into existence to replace the unsatisfied amorphous expectation. And this would take the form of an unreal postlude to the unsatisfied reality, rather than a new situation in itself. For me, living in the United States, the greatest sign of this unreality was the election of George W. Bush and the abandonment of sixty-plus years of relatively consistent (if brutal and expedient) geopolitical strategy for an unprecedented attack on all standards of competence and legitimacy in government. Their attacks on the “reality-based community” were not just triumphalist idiocies, but an idea that expanded to fill the void left at the branch point of the millennium.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality–judiciously, as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The rules no longer apply! History is made by those who realize that things have changed. Whatever was supposed to have happened in 2000 and seemingly didn’t will pursue us, and these men will bring it to us by aggressively denying the “reality” which no longer, in fact, exists. Much ink has been spilled over how great a role the Christian religion plays in driving the administration, but this is really besides the point, because most of it has fallen by the wayside for them, save for the eschatology of Revelations and apocalypse. Destabilization is now the goal itself, not a tool, because the supposed stability is no longer really there anyway. It faded along with “reality” for these people.

To be continued: next time, the Omega point and the real secularization of eschatology.

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