Monday Polemic

a letter

Surrealism is a premonition of a future realism; science fiction is a premonition of a future naturalism.

I think about the poet Osip Mandelstam, walking around an oily, rubble-strewn Petersburg in 1925, looking in vain for the city of 1913, which was still a 19th century city; I think about Kafka’s sister, sent to a concentration camp like the one her brother imagined; I think about William Gaddis’s 1975 novel JR, which portrays the rise and fall of a child’s penny-stock empire, which he manages through a pay phone.

The imagination is a seismograph, registering future shocks: a warning system that we not only ignore, but seek to control and manipulate and destroy. Everything bad about the present has been in the making for a long time—including the destruction of the very tool through which we can address the ravages of hyper-modern: (what I can only quaintly call) book culture (our portal to other modes of existence, to vital points of comparison with what we know through experience).

As the physical world has become increasingly sterile, barbarically new, naively artificial—the nostalgic, poetic, culture-laden mind despairs. You see people who entomb themselves with pets, plants, and used books they never read and wonder how they don’t realize that they’re essentially compensating both for the loss of the natural world and the loss of a viably intellectual social sphere (for the 19th century and the 14th century all at once); you wonder how they don’t sense the historical dark matter all around them, the shadow cast by the presence of the past.

Ask yourself: how many people do you know who have the following qualities: grace, wit, erudition, robust health, ballast? Then, ask yourself, how many people do I know who are unhappy, chaotic, isolated, drugged? I doubt the scales are equal.

Ask yourself: how many people do I know, directly or indirectly, who are employed—financially tied to—the business of selling hyper-modernity? Then, calculate the number of independent, self-reliant outsiders—critics—you are acquainted with. Again, I wager there will be a strong tilt towards former.

Ask yourself whether your desires extend past the menu of suburban comforts (no matter where you live); ask yourself whether your mind desires anything other than random, insipid stimulation.

Stalin, unfortunately for him, inherited a nation of poets and anarchists; modern Stalins, perhaps thankfully for them, do not have to liquidate anyone, because there are no (real) poets or anarchists willing to stand on cafe tables and cause trouble (or even read subversive verse in private rooms). In the strangely non-violent Stalinism of the present, there are no gulags or literary cafes—there is just the purgatory of mediocrity that extends horizontally and vertically over everything.