Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It’s The End of The World as We Know It

While paying bills yesterday, I successfully wrote 2012 on every check instead of 2011, but then forgot the banks were closed when I went to make a deposit. Well, the mail wasn’t delivered either, so the deposit I made this morning will still beat the outbound check payments.

“2012” seems an unreal number to me, as has every year after 1999. Can it be possible that someone born in 1994 is a legal adult? It seems so, even though the first time I read Orwell’s 1984, that was still a date comfortably in the future. Yet, in only three more years Marty McFly is scheduled to arrive from 1985 in his time-traveling DeLorean. Of course, that won’t really happen because there will be no 2015. Rumor has it that the world will end December 21, 2012. An ancient Mayan said so on the calendar he chiseled into stone, and he must have been right. Then again, he might have just run out of room on the stone.

I’m not sure why apocalyptic visions appeal to us so much. They always have. They were a staple of ancient prophetic literature. In popular culture, the world has been destroyed in every imaginable way: a Martian invasion in Well’s 1898 War of the Worlds, nuclear warfare in On the Beach, an asteroid impact in Impact, a supermodel robot from the future in Terminator 3, and so on. (My own post-apocalyptic novel available on Amazon, by the way, is titled Slog; my end-of-the-world short story Soot is online for free at http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/05/soot.html .)

Freud had some thoughts about it. He concluded that pleasure-seeking (or, stated negatively, pain avoidance) was an inadequate explanation for human destructiveness and fascination with violence. He eventually developed a theory of a death drive in tension with (sometimes conspiring with) the pleasure principle. (See Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilization and Its Discontents.)  This is often characterized as Thanatos vs. Eros (though Freud himself didn’t put it that way). His odd but intriguing notion of a death drive is hard to summarize in a few sentences, but I’ll try.

Animation is an unstable state.  Imagine a single celled organism (Sig’s own example). Its natural tendency through entropy is to disintegrate – to die. Yet, it will resist threats to its natural decay process from poisons, predators, or environmental conditions; it “wants” to decay – to die – in its own way and will develop defenses against any interference with that process. So, in a peculiar way, its will to live derives from its will to die – to die on its own terms. (He does not suggest anything conscious about a single cell of course; “will” in this context is shorthand for non-conscious chemical and physical processes that give the appearance of purpose to an observer.) The death drive remains integrated in the natures of advanced creatures including humans in very complex but still very fundamental ways. The drive is at the root of aggression (which often has survival value), whether it is directed toward others (sadism) or toward oneself (masochism). People can and do take pleasure in wanton destruction; witness the string of arsons this past week in LA. The suppression of such destructive acts through force and through the inculcation of moral standards in the citizenry is an absolute necessity for civilization, but this inevitably leads to unhappiness in individuals whose natural drives are thwarted – the trade-off is a worthwhile one, but all the same it is a trade-off.

The popularity of apocalypse tales, of death-mocking Halloween, and of horror movies, in this view, goes beyond facing our fear of death with graveyard humor. We are seduced by death and by destruction – all too often by the real thing in war and crime. The marriage of death and Eros in literature, myth, and film is impossible to miss (e.g. Shakespeare, the poetry of Poe, and movies such as Ghost). First person shooter games in which the player gets to wreak mayhem on a vast scale are standard fare in video games; one wonders if, contrary to usual concerns expressed by would-be nannies, the cathartic value of such games is partly responsible for the drop in violent crime since they came on the market. End-of-the-world scenarios, which take destruction to its highest level, tickle our inner Thanatos in socially harmless ways.

So, while we can’t allow arsonists to get away with setting real fires in LA, we at least can enjoy watching the whole city slide into the Pacific in a movie, damn it. Then we can enjoy Disneyland all the better.



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