This provocative post by Alec Ryrie asks an important question: Why is our culture’s dystopian imagination so absolute? Drawing on a recent history thesis by Olive Hornby that describes outbreaks of plague in early-modern England during which between a third and half of the people in some communities died. Not all but a handful, not 99%, but a little less than half, maybe. Enough to inflict profound damage on the emotional, spiritual, and economic life of a place — but not enough to destroy it altogether. Ryrie:

Most disasters are not absolute. They are real, devastating, and consequential, but they do not wipe the slate clean. Human beings are resilient and are also creatures of habit. You can panic, but you can’t keep panicking, and once you’ve finished, you tend to carry on, because what else is there? The real catastrophes of the West in the past century (world wars, the Spanish flu) have been of this kind: even as the principal imagined one (nuclear war) is of the absolute variety.

We need to learn to be better at imagining serious but non-terminal disasters, the kind which are actually going to hit us. (For a recent cinematic example, the excellent and chilling Contagion.) That way, when we confront such things, we will be less tempted simply to say ‘Game over!’ and to attempt to reboot reality, and will instead try to work out how to deal with real, permanent but not unlimited damage.

In such a case you can’t say “Game over” — he’s quoting Aliens there — because the game isn’t over. The game goes on, in however damaged a form, leaving us all forced to confront the truth taught us by the oven bird:

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.


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