Image by Jenny Ritter (ritter_maker)

“Our only wealth is seeing.”

  • Alberto Caiero

1.

Sitting on the closed toilet seat in the bathroom the other night looking at my five-year-old son sit calmly amidst the bubbles of a bubble bath, it occurred to me that the present historical moment, for the privileged in any case, is the last moment of paradise.

He turned to look at me, and then looked at his toes poking out of the bubbles. He was trying to get me to look at them, which I did, with the appreciative glance he was angling for. His toes were painted purple, white, and blue by my wife that morning, at his request. I would never have made such a request of my Mom at his age, nor would it have been granted if I had. This got me thinking.

In the Vancouver of 2018 my son lives, at this moment, in what Jews used to call “the lower garden of eden” (the upper one being metaphysical). My son is free to imagine expansive futures and also, as his toes show, free to embrace himself beyond simple gender binaries. In our cultural-historical space this last type of freedom, where a five-year-old boy can paint his toes, is both simple and profound. I know because when I was five years old I would never have left the house with painted toenails, rightly afraid that doing so would result in mockery and bullying. I know that won’t happen to him, and if it did his teachers would immediately put a stop to it. The possibility of play and identification beyond gender is written into the very curriculum for public schools of the province we live in, which requires teachers to use student’s preferred pronouns and respect their ways of relating to gender.

Vancouver is far from perfect, Canada is far from perfect -just ask our Indigenous population. No wealthy, progressive neoliberal or social democratic paradise currently on offer is just and honest; yet when I think of the freedom they hold out to many of their residents, the present historical moment seems to me like a trinket showing a peaceful little city in a glass ball. Shake it and turn it upside down and the snow falls, and it’s beautiful. The globe of my imagination is bounded on all sides because it is shatterable, however- because it will not last.

It won’t last because it has a subconscious. This subconscious is fully Freudian; repressed and dangerous. It lives in the rivers and the bay, in the forest and the mountain, it whispers among the homeless and drug-addicted. Far from being limited to these local manifestations, it actually gets stronger and bigger as it fans out farther away. It gathers in masses of armed men in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; it sleeps at night on the open sea, floating peacefully in the form of millions of tons of plastic.

This subconscious whispers as a sudden death that fells whole herds of caribou at once; it buzzes in the bellies of bees until they drop and vanish. Like all things subconscious it cannot be repressed forever; it will begin to seep out like lead in the tapwater of Flint, Michigan; it will begin to rage in storms that cross the ocean and flare up as inflammations that melt the arctic ice. At night I can hear it breathing quietly, the raspy inhalations of a patient dying of fever.

2.

My grandfather Meyer grew up in a religious Jewish family in the small town of Glemboka, in what was then Belorus. He had ten brothers and no sisters, through an odd throw of the genetic dice. If he showed up late to Synagogue his older brother Yehudah, who was a Marxist, would slap him in the face. “Show respect to Papa,” he would say.

My grandfather, when young, was also a Marxist, and when the Russian army occupied his town in the late 30s he was magnetically drawn to these romantic young men. He was perhaps sixteen or seventeen. He spent time with them whenever he could. One day they told him that the pact between Stalin and Hitler would fail; the Germans would invade and when they did, they would kill all the Jews. They would kill his family.

My grandfather went home and told his parents that they all must leave, that they should relocate to Russia. They would not listen. He told them that he would go and asked to be allowed to take his younger brother, Shepsel, who he loved. They refused. Finally, his father Shmuel let Meyer go and gave him his blessing. He left alone and joined the Red Army.

Meyer was uncommonly prescient. He felt what was coming with the cunning of an animal, a cunning that would serve him well throughout his life. He felt it, and he listened to the information in the air, and he made his decision. He ran, traveling thousands of miles by train into Russia.

Years later, having married a Jewish girl he met where she had gone to comfort her Polish father in a POW camp, Meyer returned home, again on the train, to tell his family, if they still lived. Weeks later he returned with a gift for his wife: a pair of boots the family maid had saved among his dead family’s things, just in case he ever returned to claim them.

3.

There are many kinds of fall. There is falling in love, falling from grace. There is being verfallen, in Martin Heidegger’s terminology¹, entrapped in the world of things. And there is also falling from a higher state of being to a lower one, which some would call regression. It can also manifest as chaos, not a regression to baser strategies of coping but to less order, less dependability. When World War 2 broke out in Europe, both of these forms of “falling” occurred, as both the bestial and the mad overtook human culture. Though there may be “paradises built in hell” as Rebecca Solnit has taught us in stories we should be grateful for, still for too many hell is just hell.

This falling, this hell, is all too easy to trigger. It happens sometimes when Walmart hosts a Black Friday sale and the lobby of the store becomes the Roman Coliseum, or something even more primordial- insects swarming over each other for a piece of flesh. It happens sometimes when people are under exceptional stress, and sometimes it just happens because it is allowed.

What happens when people are under extreme stress and structures of restraint (and no less important, support) are absent?

A scientist working for the NOAA recently renamed the Arctic “the New Arctic”, to recognize the end of the climatological and ecological stability that has marked the last 1500 years or more. Feedback loops involving warming temperatures, melting permafrost, and deeper sunlight penetration into dark, heat-retaining ocean waters have catapulted arctic temperatures as much as 45 degrees above normal in the last few years. The warming of the arctic now seems self-sustaining, and more and more scientists are coming to the conclusion that it is likely to take a runaway path beyond human control, joining a group of other feedback loops which together will put earth on a course some call the “hothouse effect.

As the New Arctic is born, it will likely, as a first step, tear apart the human and animal communities that have made their homes there, followed by the intensification throughout the globe of the ecological chaos we’re already seeing. This slow motion wave of destabilization will cause heat stress, famine, the destruction of coastal and equatorial cities and cultures, massive migration of refugees, and of course, as the structures of civilization bend and break, crime, war, poverty and violence. What Jewish scriptures call hamas, violent exploitation, named as the cause of the mythical deluge of the Bible, will arise soon both as the cause and consequence of this chaotic wave.

4.

When the European Union was formed in 1993, the borders between countries were to become permeable and in some senses, “removed.” Yet these borders did not go away. As Reece Jones writes in Violent Borders, “The reality is that EU borders were not removed in the 1990s, but were simply moved to different locations.” The new location of the borders, or to be more precise, the new location of conflicted, contested borders, was between the more “developed” nations of the EU and the less stable and developed countries outside of it. The EU thus internalized utopia by externalizing dystopia, a pattern endemic to the formation of modern states and the “progressive”, developed world.

The idea that some countries have somehow managed to create stable, moral civilizations while others have somehow just not been able to pull themselves out of barbarism and war obscures the deeper truth that developed countries mitigated their class divisions and softened their brutal, systemic injustices in large part by outsourcing these realities to other countries. The empires drained the resources of these outside lands, tottered their ancient cultural balances, enslaved their populaces, and then used their countries to market the unmarketable, make work the unworkable and dispose the indisposable.

All of these strategies consciously or unconsciously enriched our countries and cultures and allowed us to put many social ills substantially behind us within our own borders while creating them en masse within the borders of others.

Thus far we are keeping those “on the other side” at bay, except when they sneak past our borders in the trailers of semis or drown in the sea like words never reaching an ear.

The attempt to control territories and resources is probably old as human kind, but in the era of universal humanity and universal trade it rightly strikes us as atavistic. And of course it is these very ancient impulses- tribalism and chauvinism in their worst senses- which are aroused and employed by those who benefit from borders. That’s not this nation or that, and certainly not the common worker, but rather the elites of corporations both multinational and local who use borders to control the flow of labour and currency to their own benefit through the prosthetic limbs of government. This is not just a European problem, but a feature of the modern age, where nation-states serve corporations who must be able to move freely across borders to access cheaper, more exploitable labor, not people who must be able to cross borders to access more humane and respectful employers.

By allowing each country to put the well-being of the people inside its borders before the well-being of the world as a whole, the escalation of borderedness we see in the last few years also impedes the international regulation of the human relationship with the ecology. Thus the very foundations of life, both civil and ecological, are eaten by the rich while their refuse returns to the system as poison.

Borders serve the purposes, globally, of compartmentalization and repression in the same way they do in a human mind. Yet the total global ecology, which includes both human civilization and nature as one system, will, like the mind, seek integration and a free-flow of communication. The conflict generated by the self-liberation of the repressed will be to our extreme peril on our current course, which we show no sign of changing.

Beyond the human border, we see the same pattern. Who is more poor than animals? Over the centuries animals first got smaller- giant beavers becoming the cute little critters of today, and so on- and then they retreated to smaller and smaller territories. In the last decades this process has rapidly moved from disenfranchisement to Holocaust, as we slaughter animals by the billions in agribusiness farms and their neighbors in the vanishing wilderness die in untold numbers. “From the point of view of nonhuman nature this is the disinformation age,” wrote the late conservationist Peter Warshall. Indeed, if the earth is a giant brain, whole neural networks are currently flickering and passing away into night, leaving us with what will be, in many cases, an eternal forgetfulness.

There is no escape from what we outsource and ignore. Just as when we outsource our anxiety to a growing belly of fat which overhangs our gut and will eventually pay justice on us for our ignoring it with a heart attack, so we seem inescapably due for hospitalization on a mass scale. Field hospitals it will be, with improvising doctors meeting diseases they have never seen before.

The light we live in now, then, is a false light, a lit up space of paradise which obscures, rather than reveals, what it actually is. With the collapse of the artificial elevation that holds us above what we have repressed, the shadows will come crashing in, and we will find ourselves again in the dark, dark woods. Yet maybe in that primeval, less civilized forest, we will pick out new paths and gain new knowledge that is less a lie.

5.

Fold-up escape motorcycles that can be stored in the home. Light reflecting blankets. Freeze dried food. Axes that collapse into small portable shapes; solar water boilers. Have you scrolled the survival sites lately, wondering if you should invest?

“Anyone who knows the underside of power immediately ceases to respect it. Deep down, the masters have always been anarchists.” So write The Invisible Committee, the French anarchists who have put out several publications under that nom de plume, in the book Now. To trust the government is to trust that the people in power who have all the money, all the weapons, all the armies, can be relied upon to care for justice and truth as they affect the powerless. The evidence suggests otherwise.

The degree to which we can stop catastrophic change in the ecosystem, and the civilizational chaos and suffering for the poor, both human and animal, that it will cause, at this point seems minimal. That is not to say we should not fight to minimize the damage, yet as night falls I find myself asking more and more not how I will fight against this but rather how I will stay human as it unfolds.

I’m not going to try to write a self-help guide to the apocalypse. Yes, as I stare into the twilight clearing my question opens, some voices arise into it effortlessly: strengthen your body, strengthen your mind, strengthen the skills of the organism as a whole. Do your daily meditation; start strengthening the habits of community and training your muscles to move towards those who suddenly and inconveniently appear, in need.

More than anything, though, I feel a call to tonify my power of vision. Maybe wakefulness can be a talisman against forgetting my humanity, both it’s preciousness and it’s potential for compassion in terrifying times.

6.

Heidegger wrote that humans are the “shepherds of being”. What I take him to have meant is that the dynamic unfolding of being happens only in the minds of sentient beings (He himself did not extend this beyond humans, but I would). Just as my question about how to stay human opens up a small clearing in the darkness of the future, my being as a localized illumination, as a pool of consciousness, opens up a clearing where the dynamism of being is known. Heidegger was pointing to our privileged position as “locations” where being appears, to our nature as the only place where life is known. Outside of sentient awareness, by definition, nothing is known. This seemingly trite tautology is not trite at all; it is the secret majesty of all conscious beings.

The granting that sends one way or another into revealing is as such the saving power. For the saving power lets man see and enter into the highest dignity of his essence. …Everything, then, depends upon this: that we ponder this rising and that, recollecting, we watch over it.

I don’t want to lose the radiance of this birthright, even as cities flood. Is it perverse to think of preserving my own human dignity while millions or billions die? The things for which we owe thanks are not things we have from ourselves. … But the thing given to us … is thinking. … How can we give thanks for this endowment, the gift of being able to think? Somewhere in the confluence of the shining eye and the generous hand, I hope I can find a way to stay alive as human being, whose sentience is tied to unique sensitivities to wonder and compassion, to hold fast to this amazement we’ve been given even in the midst of physical and mental trauma. This simple thing, this endlessly profound thing, of witnessing being, of being the location where being is known, never leaves us. At any moment, attention can transform the simple fact of experience into a sacrament.

My son gets out of the bathtub and I wrap him in a towel. As he fans it out like a cape and dances, I try to see him, to see this moment, to catch the radiance coming off of him and return it, like the encompassing light and the returning light spoken of in the Kabbalah of my ancestors. I see he is cold, he needs his pajamas. I hand them to him.

Outside a Pacific Northwest rain is falling; there is a faint sound of lashing and threat. I take my son to bed in his warm, lit room; he is smiling and chatting away happily. Focus, I tell myself, and I let this moment shine in the light of awareness, light resonating within itself; being lit up in the clearing.

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[1] Since I draw on Heidegger a lot in this essay, I wanted to add a brief note on Heidegger and anti-Semitism: Heidegger was very stupid with regard to the Nazis. He believed that different cultures provided different revelations of Being, and that the revelation offered by traditional rural German culture was a special one. He also believed that Jewish culture embodied a groundless, manipulative approach to being he thought was toxic and threatening. For a time he thought that the Nazis would defend traditional Germanic culture against what he saw as threats (Bolshevism, Jewish culture, technocracy), and he collaborated with them from 1934 to 1935. He then realized they were not at all on the same page as him with regard to what was of value in German culture, and he turned against them in his writings and thought, though he never apologized for what he called his “great stupidity” in collaborating with them. That is an omission others can argue about as to its moral appropriateness or inappropriateness, I myself am not that interested in these long distance moralisms. His philosophy is, to my mind, beautiful, important, useful, and like all human products, a flawed creation of a flawed creator. The only thing I would say with regard to whether we should somehow punish or expel Heidegger posthumously is: if Hannah Arendt, a Jewish anti-fascist who knew him intimately, was able to forgive him, that’s good enough for me.