I’ve evaded this issue for months; I evade it every day. I politely step around it as one might smile distantly at a visiting relative over the holidays who shows up with a cold. I don’t utterly ignore it… but I sidle away, postpone, and break off in mid-thought to address more “pressing” matters.
The future. I happened (don’t ask how) upon a collection of off-beat essays by a late twentieth-century author, now deceased, named Giorgio Manganelli. A particularly long piece comments on a just-published (back in about 1980) anthology whose distinguished contributors anticipate what life in 2000 will be like. In other words, I was reading a wry satirist’s view of several views of the near future from my own view almost twenty years later than that near future. It’s an uncomfortable experience… and the pathos is a little too keen for me to delight in the absurdity.
Forever present in the human animal, apparently, are certain projections about the future… which would lead one to believe a) that notions of tomorrow are hard-wired in our imagination, and b) that the “real future” may be shaped quite deterministically by this stubborn hard-wiring. There are the visionaries who foresee the resolution of all problems (without defining a “problem” while preserving any sense of human nature) by technology. Cancer? Cured. Illiteracy and ignorance? A computer chip implanted. Traffic congestion? An air-buggy in every floating garage. Then we have this giddy band’s dark cousins, the visionaries who see right-wing generalissimos under every bridge just waiting to blow the high-tech train off the rails. The less lyrical, more clinical prophets possessing an actual background in science will describe a society whose citizens are telepathic or semi-robotic without stirring in un-scientific words like “good” or “evil”… but one can sense their myopic eyes glowing in excitement through the print. Dour moralists, on the other hand, will point to the script of Sodom and Gomorrah and advise the hasty construction of another Arc.
I remember an edition of My Weekly Reader that must have passed through my hands when I was in first or second grade. I won’t attempt to peg the year… but let’s just say that 1980 may have been to those estimable publishers of educational matter what 2000 was to Manganelli’s elite commentariat. What I truly remember—all I truly remember—from that delightfully newspaper-scented front page is the bichromatic image of a monorail. Yep. By 1980, well within my generation’s lifetime (we hadn’t heard the word “Vietnam” yet), all of us would get from A to B by hopping aboard a whirring, slightly subsonic centipede. We’d go everywhere that way: to grocery store, to church, to ball park and movie theater. There would be no on-board crime, no risky drop-offs at midnight… and cost? What’s cost?
Apparently, a large portion of California’s current population recalls the same My Weekly Reader issue, was just as impressed by it—and has not learned in the intervening decades about factors like blown budgets, tax hikes, government waste, contractor fraud, zoning laws, and the inviolable limits of three-dimensional space. I’m surprised, frankly, that the late great Governor Jerry Brown didn’t substitute a teleportation system when his Pacific-corridor bullet-train went bust. The current governor, I believe, has in fact teleported to us from some other planet… some planet rendered uninhabitable by his race’s brilliant engineering.
Meanwhile, the future continues to arrive on its own terms. Every day, tomorrow becomes today; and every day, today preserves qualities of yesterday that we had hoped never to see again but did virtually nothing to eliminate. That’s why the future… yes, I’ll say the word: that’s why the future frightens me. Because what frightens me is ourselves. We don’t learn. We never learn. We keep turning the page expecting the tragedy to end and a comedy to carry us the rest of the way through the book—as if we were merely browsing through a book, and not writing it. The boldest (i.e., most insane) of us express a keen interest in scribbling all over a fresh page, but… but they didn’t read the earlier pages, where the tragedy was ignited precisely by a zeal for erasing everything and starting from scratch. We are held in thrall by the most incorrigible idiots among us, who also seem to have the most energy and the “boldest vision”. Why wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t you be bold, too, if you knew nothing about history, resisted acknowledging anything about your nature, and indulged your selfish whimsy as if it were the voice of God telling you how to arrange everybody’s life perfectly?
What could possibly go wrong with such “dreaming”? How many graduating high-school and college seniors have just been exhorted by impressively idiotic speakers to dream their way out of the present’s miseries?
The very act of writing these paragraphs today, as it turns out, has proved another sly evasion of the future on my part; for I have written in very general terms about the futility of forward-aimed thinking, but not about several specific details of tomorrow—or this afternoon—looming so plainly as to be almost unavoidable. I wasn’t always such an escape-artist. When I was childless and single, I used to spend hours trying to bore straight into the future’s thickly veiled face. Now that I have others to fear for, I can scarcely tolerate the misgivings that the stare-down produces in me. That cavernous gaze is too similar to the Grim Reaper’s empty sockets.
John the Gospelist writes in his first epistle, “True love hath no fear.” I’ve never understood that one, honestly. It seems to me that those who truly love are precisely those who would truly fear. The idiots with their designs unrelated to anything of the past or to any shred of common sense or practicality, in contrast, seem to be as fearless as lions… or as fearless as tripping addicts who imagine themselves lions. I understand, from the perspective of genuine faith, that all things of this world end and that all worldly devices and desires are condemned to nullification… but that, in the ultimate comedy, none of the vast desolation matters, since this world is not the real world. Nevertheless, as a traveler—a drifter, a vagabond—making his way through this futile, trivial, vainglorious, ridiculous world, I cannot completely inoculate myself against the anguish of gullible children who must watch the idiot-dreams of idiot-prophets explode one by one.
Heaven, maybe, has monorails powered by moonbeams. I’d never thought of My Weekly Reader as a proselytizing instrument… but that’s exactly what it was. Childhood dreams become reality where adult corruption is forever washed away. That location is not right here, awaiting just another sunrise or two. It never will be.