A meditation on Brad DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia
Is the logic of capitalism the logic of the germ cell or the cancer cell? If it actually turns out to be both, what does that augur for our future?
Social democracy demands consensus. Fascism demands obedience. Neither has much respect for the richness of human intention.
We are a mercurial species. Cats are actually easier to herd than we are. Sooner or later, this drives the zealots, ideologues, and bureaucrats of every religion and ism around the bend. If they weren’t so vicious in their disappointments, they’d deserve our sympathy.
There are echoes of an eloquent despair in DeLong’s perceptions, something prophetic, something like an eternally acerbic Brechtian irony:
Wäre es da Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung Löste das Volk auf und Wählte ein anderes?
Would it not in that case Be simpler for the government To dissolve the people And elect another?
—Bertolt Brecht, die Lösung
If in the end democracy isn’t robust enough to save us from the metastatic influence of 21st century technologies on our nastier impulses, what then? Even if human evolution were proceeding according to our fondest hopes, could it ever be quick enough to make Brecht’s tongue-in-cheek option a viable one? Clearly not.
I don’t care. I’ve just finished reading Slouching Towards Utopia, and I’m putting away my lantern. I’ve found an honest man. To return to Brecht again:
In den finsteren Zeiten Wird da auch gesungen werden? Da wird auch gesungen werden. Von den finsteren Zeiten.
In the dark times Will there also be singing? There will also be singing. About the dark times.
I feel about Elon Musk pretty much the same way the Salieri character felt about the Mozart character in Amadeus. Is this buffoon on Twitter really the guy who beat NASA at its own game, and on a shoestring, too, and almost single-handedly made electric vehicle propulsion for the 21st century a commonplace? Really? This is the guy?
Yeah, this is the guy. The Universe may not care very much about us, even less about our categories, but it does have a sense of humor, and it does deserve respect, even when—especially when—it appears to mock our most cherished pretensions….
It was October, 1955, a week or so before my twelfth birthday. My mother and I, my three year-old sister, and my grandmother — who’d been living with us at that point for several years — found ourselves on final approach to a late-night landing in Paris.
We weren’t supposed to be landing in Paris. We were supposed to be landing in Frankfurt am Main en route to a reunion with my father at his new army posting in southwestern Germany. That, at least, was what was printed in our official travel orders. Now there was to be at least another day added to our schedule. The captain of the government chartered Seaboard and Western Constellation we’d first boarded early that morning in New York had just announced over the cabin intercom that since Rhein Main airport in Frankfurt was completely socked in, he was diverting our flight to Orly, the nearest international airport still clear of fog. So, like it or not and ready or not, we were now headed not to Frankfurt but to Paris, the magical Cité de la Lumiere that so much had been written about. My grandmother had taken me to see an American in Paris when I was eight, but no one had ever so much as hinted to me that Paris was a place that I might one day set foot in myself.
It was nearly midnight when we finally touched down on the runway at Orly. After the ceremony of deplaning, the guided trudge through the terminal, and half an hour or so of rummaging in purses, fumbling for passports and travel documents, and whispered negotiations incomprehensible to my not quite twelve year old self, we were bundled onto a dilapidated bus and ferried to our hotel through a mist-shrouded, and by this late hour largely extinguished City of Light.
Our hotel turned out to be the Hôtel le Littré, a modest establishment situated on the Rue Littré, less than a mile from the heart of Montparnasse, not that any of us had a clue at the time exactly where we were, or how improbable it was that any of us should have fetched up there at all, let alone by accident, let alone in the middle of the night. Standing in the lobby, with my ears still throbbing from the noise and vibration of the engines during our long flight, my first impression was of a somewhat muffled, somewhat claustrophobic lounge, with brocaded furnishings reminiscent of pictures from one of my grandmother’s old photograph albums.
While my mother was simultaneously engaged in juggling my sister and signing the register, a tiny, ancient-looking woman at the equally tiny front desk handed my grandmother a pair of the largest keys I’d ever seen. They were formidable, these keys, as though originally tasked with unlocking some ancient fortress, an impression enhanced by the fact that each was attached to a half-pound oval of brass with a number engraved on it. Looks more like a cell number than a room number, I remember thinking.
Mais non, my grandmother explained to me as we were being led upstairs to our rooms, such keys were not at all weird. Because it was customary in France to leave your key at the front desk when you were away from your room, and to pick it up when you returned, there was no need for it to fit into a pocket or purse. Besides, she said, the bigger and heavier a key was, the less likely it would be to wander off by itself. How she came up with this, I had no idea, but it sounded plausible, and my grandmother, who had been a world traveler with her father as a young girl, had never been the sort of person to make stuff up.
Okay, then. Maybe French keys weren’t actually so weird after all, but they weren’t the only things French that seemed weird to me that evening, and I was far from done pestering people for explanations. Why was it so warm in our room, I demanded, why were there half a dozen pillows and almost that many rolled-up (rolled up?) quilts piled on the beds when it was already so warm, and what was that thing in the closet off the bathroom that looked like a toilet, but wasn’t? (My utterly exhausted grandmother sighed and rolled her eyes at that last question, and then, with a perfunctory nod to her daughter, got up and padded silently, shoes and overnight bag in hand, to her own adjacent room.)
The next morning — very early the next morning — we boarded the same dilapidated bus that had delivered us the night before, and set off again, still somewhat bleary-eyed, for the airport and the final leg of our journey to Frankfurt. As we crept through the slowly awakening city, there was still little to see, but I marked the cobblestones, the improbably broad streets, and the middle-aged men with rolled-up sleeves and calf-length white aprons cranking out awnings and arranging chairs and tables on the sidewalks. Sidewalk cafés, I suddenly realized, sidewalk cafés just like in the movies.
Then, as we turned a corner, there it was in the middle distance, floating above the rooftops and autumn foliage of the city, the upper two-thirds of la tour Eiffel. This, somehow, was not just like in the movies, this was more like the word made flesh of religious hyperbole, and I was motoring away from it like a soul being banished from paradise.
The moment didn’t last. I was a little more romantic, a little more literary at twelve than the average American kid, I suppose, but I was still a kid, and I liked airplanes and adventures too. I was really looking forward to trying out my ten words of German when we finally got where we were, after all, supposed to be going.
I’ve never returned to the City of Light, not once in the 65 years since I saw it for the first and only time just as the first rays of dawn were beginning to filter through the autumnal branches of the trees lining its famous boulevards. Even so, I suspect that I’m as glad as any Parisian is that it’s still there, and that it’s still Paris. Some places, Grâce à Dieu, are eternal. Paris is one of them.
2020. Not anybody’s fault in particular, despite all the blaming and shaming, despite all the rage and despair. Still, everyone I know will be glad to see the end of it. We resolve never to forget its victims, nor fail to honor the good people who went to work every morning or afternoon or evening through the worst of it, who risked their lives for the rest of us every single day of this accursed year.
The modern engines of distraction turned out to be something of a mixed blessing, but as we beeped and booped our way through seemingly endless landscapes of streaming video, or succumbed to compulsive nocturnal doomscrolling on twitter, we counted ourselves lucky to have them. Let us pray that in the coming year we won’t need them as much as they need us. Amen.
You already have your plans your image of the women coming to you blond and used to the water you smell salt in the air and money when you close your eyes and you decide to come
You pack your toothbrush
you try it on your friends
you stop for cigarettes in a gas station
And it takes you coming out again
the way the trucks pass
I think how you stand there
feeling for your wallet or your breathing
striking a light then
as you step down off the curb
They do it the same way in the movies first with the wind and then
a Greyhound sign a kid with a botched haircut and a dufflebag maybe two girls seen only once laughing and turning away outside the terminal
Inside a drunk and his paper suitcase get tagged and separated one ticket apiece someone puts his last nickel in the pinball machine They get it right the producer the director thin as it is and sad as it is they get it right
And we sit there
watching the places we start from
the places we wind up in
sooner or later
pass over us
and no one blinks
no one wakes up afterwards
Everyone but everyone a moviegoer Even the drunk great once at following the hero and the waving grass at stepping over the derelict lightly with the rest of us Before the bottle took him and the fog inside him rose and left him a six-part ticket to the coast and forty maybe fifty cents The westbound express is now boarding passengers at gate five Places everyone
It was just like in the movies the way I remember it There was hardly anything left of him then except for the eyes except for the way he sat there with the light on him looking out and me across the aisle the whole time thinking
“It all comes easy to him the storefronts and railroad crossings here the lumber yards car bodies bars it all comes easy” But for me this is how it is in the towns The children run and you pass them At the crossroads faces women’s faces most of them turning away from you inside the glass outside the glass the same
I have never found it easy I find it the way it is the land like a flatiron there to here the towns small and broken at the hinges and wind and too much light all of it out of our reach now anyway no matter what my friends tell me who rub their hands together and the dust escapes them who walk through looking at scenery
I have no respect for the land I think
I think of you
shielding your eyes when you travel
the sun at noon
standing on the broken ridgelines
“Half chalk” you think
standing like that…”
But you go on following electric wires
letting your eyes glaze
shift a little
and when the weather changes
you watch the Indian beside you
the one with the crewcut and bow tie
fold his hands
He’s made the trip before this Indian or his uncle has or his sister Forgetting the hawk the shadow where their horses go to water forgetting the slap of the wind and the broken rock standing like that they pack overnight and make their way here with you
Here they all come here to California where everything stays close to the heart everything works so they think and they come I know the way they come to it finally leaving the smell of sweat and alcohol behind the uneasy breathing They roll their magazines and step down blinking in their new sunglasses they get picked up or walk toward town against the wind in pairs alone And when I look again cypresses and redwoods cover them girls with copper earrings lemon groves earthquakes fire in the hills money (if they’re lucky) money I know I have been here ten years now doing what they all do when they need to eat or stop for a smoke or be remembered
I check the mail put the water on for coffee find my way downtown I come home at night and open up my curtains over California palm trees California-loving-the-water
“And when it’s like this” I think “I could come to it still the way they do the way you do all heart and teeth”
But after ten years the suntan oil and chlorine and success run in me like a river cheap thrills cheap thrills on signs burning under the offramps acres of carpeted hallways doors with numbers on them and regret something like regret always part of it come morning
It weighs too much with me the traffic and the leaden air love the way my neighbors work at it upstairs with the lights on and the TV going all this time and it never changes
There’s a swimming pool in Burbank like they say a yacht a white sand beach in Venice lettuce in the desert
And in Hollywood a man I admire stumbles in his bedroom Drunk undoubtedly drunk again and I think “Night and his arms around it night and the wind in it making something for his middle age and mine” while people pull up in their cars outside and park and walk away while I sit up half the night with a light on still and curtains blowing listening to the palms outside my window bend and rattle and it weighs with me
*The Yanks have colonized our subconscious (A quote from Wim Wenders’ film Im Lauf der Zeit)
Well, you may be old now, I told myself at sixty, but at least you haven’t started reading obituaries. Now that I’m past seventy, I know damned well that it doesn’t matter whether we read them or not. We have Twitter, we have Facebook. Unwelcome news will get to us.
When the unwelcome news of Harry Dean Stanton’s passing arrived on my iPhone a few mornings ago, just ahead of the overnight summary of White House twitter atrocities, I did what we do — I winced and scrolled up to breathless estimates of impending nuclear war. That evening, though, I poured a second beer, dimmed the lights in my living room, dug Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas out of my essential films library, and watched it again after who knows how many years.
The Sam Shepard screenplay was as laconic, as precise as ever, Ry Cooder’s guitar licks were as haunting as ever, and there, at the center, the Old Man was as magnificently himself as ever, even though he wasn’t nearly as old as I’d remembered. When he died, I said to myself, something about what it means to be an American died with him.
But what is it about these Germans? Wim Wenders, Percy Adlon — who gave them permission to put Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinsky together in the lonesome American Southwest, or Jack Palance and Marianne Sägebrecht, for that matter? What kind of muse, what kind of genius is this?
Yeah, well…. It’s a long story. If you live in Arizona, as I do, it’s impossible to miss the German cousins in our midst. Go anywhere around here in the summer months and there they are, seemingly impervious to sunstroke, peering into their guidebooks for directions to the local Sehenswürdigkeiten, more familiar with our landmarks — even the ones they haven’t seen yet — than we are ourselves. I used to wonder, now and then, if there could possibly be as many Germans in all the other deserts of the world — the Sahara, the Gobi, the Kalahari, the Atacama, the Negev — as there were in the Sonora and Mojave.
With all due respect to the insatiable German curiosity about the world we share, I doubt it. For all sorts of historical reasons — never mind the two world wars — our national mythologies harbor semi-disclosed affinities that appeal to both our populations more or less equally. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re constantly in and out of each others’ pockets, sometimes with a pessimism bordering on the morbid, but more often than not with the kind of cross-cultural fertility that levels empires, confuses dialects, and assists in the birth of things no single individual could ever have dreamed of.
Case in point: Wim Wenders. The French famously lead the rest of Europe in complaining about us, but Wenders, who knows us far better, gives us the benefit of a doubt that admittedly we don’t always deserve. It’s not exactly a get-out-of-jail-free card, though, this Paris, Texas of his. It’s an admonishment, if a gentle and sympathetic one, of our chimerical American dreams. Fair play to him. Having colonized the German subconscious, as Wenders himself so elegantly put it, we can hardly complain when a German artist of his stature returns the favor.
Someone should arrange to show Paris, Texas to the pig* vile creature currently posing as our president, not that it would do any good. He’s as American as I am, but he’ll never have any idea what that actually means, let alone honor it in his actions. How much better off would we be, do you think, if the qualities that Harry Dean Stanton embodied in his best performances informed the day-to-day actions of our politicians? In the meantime, all I can say is that I’ll miss that grand old man, and so will a lot of other people, Wim Wenders fans or not.
*It’s long after the fact, but I just can’t let this stand as originally written. Pigs have good reasons for being how they are. Trump doesn’t. I’m not sure he deserves all the blame for what he’s become, but at this point how he got to be what he is matters less than putting him in a place where he can’t do any more harm to anyone who hasn’t volunteered for his abuse.