Party Out of Bounds
Seeing as we have a master’s in philosophy and all that, it’s not like we haven’t given sustained thought to mortality and consciousness.
The two are conjoined, at least as we know it: Life is consciousness, our awareness of ourselves, our world, the continuum of our experience. We may live in an eternal Now, but Now for us includes stories of Then, and dreams of Later. Which is where language comes in, since language is the articulation of our consciousness, our stories, our past participles and future perfects. Without language, our lives are just one damn thing after another. With language, our lives have shape.
Both our parents endured dementia near their ends. It wasn’t movie dementia, the complete absence of everything. There was the forgetfulness, the growing inability to recognize close relatives, but there was also, especially with our mom, a reversion to childhood, a fresh, vivid recollection of her oldest stories, if not the newer ones.
With our dad, the end amounted to total checking out after mom died in his nursing-home room. The grief was too much to bear — they had been married sixty years — so he just jettisoned everything. Some days he would think Mom was in another room, doing some chore before returning to him. Other days he would imagine recent boat trips he hadn’t taken. He had no remaining stories to tell himself, so he just made them up on the fly. He was gone months before he died.
Our pets, our domestic critters, live in our stories. They seek not just our affection, but our context. They may not understand our language as we do, but they love the world it creates for them. Our language gives their lives meaning, felt meaning if not rational. Dogs are all in, of course; cats fascinate us because their nature precludes pack behavior, but they’ll take what they can get. We once had a rat, in our early 20s. Her consciousness may have been severely constrained compared to ours, but she got it, too. Our friends loved her.
One of those friends we had met in the dorms. As a Nice White Boy from Oregon attending the local university, it’s not like we had much experience with folks from different backgrounds, racial or religious, but this newly arrived Chicago Jew explained to us few things about the fragility of culture, how easily its continuity — the continuity of stories — could be disrupted, how memory was an active task, not a passive result.
This was thirty-three years after the Holocaust. It’s been forty years since then. The lived memories, the stories, of the survivors and liberators has been receding, leaving just historical evidence, itself not as fresh as the stories that deniers prefer telling themselves. Cultural dementia is setting in, the truth too painful to bear, for reasons far more sinister than Dad thinking Mom’s still around.
Far less ominously, but telling in its own way, is the fate of Johnny Carson. As we were growing up, Carson ruled the culture, not just late-night television. We may have gotten our Watergate news from Doonesbury, but everyone else got it from The Monologue. Carson dominated so heavily that an entire generation of standup comics — including David Letterman — yearned for that career-making Tonight Show break.
Carson’s last show was in 1992. Unless you were one of those comics, or watching him during his heyday, he means nothing now. Culture is fragile. It lasts only as long as our stories. We ignore Ozymandias at our peril — starting with the understanding that the Ozymandias we know is really Shelley, and only two hundred years ago.
We know that because we have a date for it: First publication January 11, 1818. It could have died right there, so much rotting paper, but it endures — so far — through preservation and repetition. You can look it up online, like we just did.
Language may be the breakthrough achievement of our species, but the preservation of language through writing, as stories, is our most enduring accomplishment. In that respect, what we know of ourselves, our collective consciousness, our culture, only goes back three or four thousand years at best. That is all we have. At the rate things are going, that may be all we ever have, and not for much longer.
Dystopian futures are stories, too. Did you hear the one about that statue buried in the sand? We think its name is Ozymandias.
We’re not going to be around for that story, the Story to End All Stories. We heard many versions if it growing up, watched the Destroyer of Worlds played out in many different settings.
“You blew it up!” was meant literally, given the preoccupations of the day — a preoccupation we never felt, as our schools didn’t run Duck & Cover drills. But metaphorically, sure — our species has a special talent for overrunning and destroying its habitat, squandering the resources that sustain us, ignoring the warnings of natural limits. Global warming has been one of our stories for thirty years, and the limits of dead critters we can burn a story for fifteen years before that. For almost all our conscious life, we’ve been aware that the stories we tell may vanish by our own hand.
We’re seeing it now, the foretold signs of the endtimes, but we doubt we’ll see it through — that’s for the critters born today, the babies born into the hell we’ve created just for them, whose stories about us after we’ve gone will be less than kind, knowing we could have done something about it and didn’t.
We give our own story another twenty years at best, figuring that what claimed our parents will claim us, that our memories will flag and then crumble, our continuity disrupted, our context collapsed into the Eternal Now we started with.
We can only hope that’s not the story for everyone else. We need someone around to tell it.