I began the 12-volume series of novels “A Dance to the Music of Time” around Christmas and have been rushing to finish it ever since. I made it to the end about a week ago. The haste was unnecessary. There is no objective reason I shouldn’t have taken a year or ten to finish these books. It took Anthony Powell 20 years to write the things. The only excuse for haste was I didn’t want to die without seeing how it came out in the end.
I’m far from young, but I’m not exactly on a ventilator yet so this worry is not entirely rational. One might regard it as old-age morbidity, but that’s not the case either. I have been afflicted with this feeling of “time’s winged chariot hurrying near” from a very early age, as soon as I realized two salient facts about our life on this little orb.
First, we die. One fine day, it’s lights out. That’s bad enough, but we are conscious of it all the while. We know, if we are paying attention, that we are playing a bit part in the long saga of human history that began with clever creatures evolving in Africa, moving over the surface of the earth, creating languages, tools, agriculture, art, discovering science and math, creating civilization and descending into barbarism periodically.
And here’s the second fact. All that vast unspooling tapestry doesn’t end when we do. What a letdown. We all lie down, but the world’s fascinating story just keeps rolling along. It’s as if we all spend our lives understanding Act I of the play we are in, finally get to make an entrance, then an exit, in Act II, scene I, and never get to find out how then thing turns out. Death is no great honor, but this adds insult to injury.
As a child of the Cold War, I was consoled for many years, in a black comedy way, by the conviction that I probably was going to witness the conclusion. When they have you practice covering your head in First Grade as protection against thermonuclear weapons, it is pretty obvious the people in charge are not bright enough to understand Armageddon, let alone forestall it. Clearly, those fools in Moscow and Washington were certain to ring down the curtain on the whole human pageant.
It still could happen, but now climate change with its attendant plagues, famines, and bloody struggles for high ground and lebensraum looks more likely to provide a slow motion dying fall instead of the Cold War’s thermonuclear big bang.
I realize most folks don’t think this way, though quite a few of my friends as a kid did figure we’d get to be around for the final scene of the sorts of stories we grew up on – “On the Beach,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Fail Safe,” “Alas, Babylon.” The zeitgeist was half “Mickey Mouse Club,” half “Apocalypse Now.” One friend used to go around chalking on the blackboards of empty classrooms the piquant message, “The Bugs Will Inherit The Earth.”
All these years later, most of my generation seems to have gotten over a sense of imminent destruction. They are more worried about outliving their retirement accounts and the inability of their kids to get a decent job. Few I think share my particular annoyance at getting evicted from the playhouse halfway through the performance, but it still bugs me. Especially since the plot has taken such weird turns lately.
We appear to be beginning a Roman descent into a kind of medieval mindset with strange faiths and a distrust of reason, science and logic. This anachronistic turn comes complete with a rerun of the Crusades and the awareness that in the distant East an ancient empire thrives.
At the same time, we seems to be on the brink of engineering either a utopia or dystopia, take your pick. Will we become a world of serfs and nobles, Morlocks and Eloi? Will improved pharmaceuticals make us a race of artistic geniuses, pacific saints, or more efficient killing machines? Will boosted IQs put Fox News and the Kardashians out of business? Will our electric cars drive us hither and yon while robots provide all out needs? Will we fix the planet before it fixes us, or will we all end up on the set of “Mad Max?”
I’d like to find out. But I know I won’t, no matter how hard I Carpe the Diem. If I’d paid for a ticket to this Really Big Show, I’d demand my money back.