How can truth stand up to power? How can morality stand up to power which is thoroughly and utterly immoral? How can the creative imagination that has a unique responsibility for beauty stand up to a power, power which lacks a scintilla of sensitivity and, instead, indulges in nostalgia, kitsch and clichés, and face down its goddess of death? The most important goddess of death currently expresses her power through denial – denial of the existence of a climate change crisis.
Scientists recently announced that they had found an explanation for the Little Ice Age of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was caused by a decrease of CO2 in the atmosphere thereby creating a more frigid earth where rivers in Europe froze over. The explanation? In the imperial conquest of the Americas, so many of the native population had died, largely from the diseases brought by the conquistadores, that large tracts of cleared and cultivated land returned to their natural habitat with an abundance of trees that drew CO2 out of the atmosphere, thereby allowing heat to escape more easily from the earth.
There have been four other eras than the present when life on this planet has been threatened by an excess of carbon dioxide that trapped heat and raised the temperatures on the planet to bring about a massive extinction. Of all the thousands of lies Donald Trump has told, this is the most heinous: climate change, he said, is a “total and very expensive hoax.” It is not a hoax about the present crisis. It certainly was not a hoax about the past, in particular the geological history of earth.
At the end of the Permian Age, the lava, from an enormous number of volcanic eruptions burned through coal deposits sixty million years ago killing dinosaurs that ruled the planet for much of the 500 million years of animal life on this planet. But, as Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker (26 November 2018), the rate of temperature increase and the corresponding rate of kill off took place at one-tenth the rate of increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over the past two centuries, let alone the past five decades. The current climate change crisis is far worse than the previous four in terms of the rate at which it has developed.
1800 concentration of CO2 75 parts per million
2017 concentration of CO2 400 parts per million
2000-2018 – nine of the ten deadliest heat waves in human history
1987-2017 – twenty of the hottest years ever recorded
June 2018 – temperatures in cities in Pakistan and Iran reach 129 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperatures ever recorded
July 2018 – a heat wave in Montreal killed 70
In addition, glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate. So is the ice cap. As the permafrost that covers the land areas north of the tree line melts, methane gas is released which adds to the CO2 to help warm the planet.
It is not as if we have not been warned. Scientists have done their job. In 2015, the U. N. Conference on Climate Change reported that the earth warmed one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Planet on Climate Change warned of a further likely increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2052 and 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2200.
In a recent blog, I wrote about the abandonment of the Zapotec sacred space in Mexico from 800 BC to 900 AD several times over the centuries. The cause: drought. However, the imminent cycles of drought and floods from extreme weather will far exceed the natural cycle of rain and drought that brought about past disasters and massive refugee flows.
My grandchildren and great-grandchildren now alive will have to contend with a world of repeated disasters – floods, storms, firestorms. I have lived through a golden age and will have bequeathed them a planet with robots – Kuri, CHIP, Lynx, Ooobo and their successors taking over a large percentage of drudgery jobs, a planet with artificial intelligence taking over 40% of decision-making, a planet with prosthetic devices that can be controlled directly by the brain. However, it will be a planet which will become increasingly uninhabitable as low shore lines and areas of increasing drought expand and reduce the habitable areas on earth. Unless, of course, worldwide concerted action is taken immediately.
My family is relatively lucky. Most of my children and grandchildren live in temperate zones that are not at sea level. We will still experience more and more extreme weather. But nothing compared to those tropical areas where extreme heat, that struck one day a year on average, will be the norm, taking place 40% of the time. So why do we not change? Why does a passion not seize most people on earth to save this planet from the current climate crisis already underway?
One answer concerns our aspirations. First, unlike the image of romantic love, aspirations are implanted in us slowly. In myth, propelled by the mother of Eros, Aphrodite, Psyche may have fallen in love with Eros instantly, but that is not how our passions are usually developed. They are implanted slowly and almost surreptitiously. We often even deny they are within us at first. As Agnes Callard wrote (Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming), as in the biblical story of creation, darkness lies over the face of the deep. An aspiration may be there, but it is indiscernible at first, both because we lack the terminology to depict it and because the aspiration still lacks any nobility of purpose. On the one hand, we cannot pronounce it as “good” until it emerges with much greater clarity so, of necessity, it must be less than it will become. On the other hand, when the aspiration finally appears and is grasped, we will not initially recognize its downside.
Thus, the characteristics of both our psychological makeup as well as the nature of any new phenomenon as it first appears incline us to caution rather than an epiphany. The slow emergence of our articulateness about the climate change crisis is not unreasonable. It says nothing about our incapacity to eventually and gradually describe what an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can bring about. In that case, another developing aspiration has been emerging over the last five decades. Education is precisely the effort to describe what appears before us and to alter the ideas that we have inherited and have been planted deeply within us. Education is necessarily a struggle between the new and the old, not only because the new is initially murky, but because the new may be a chimera, an illusion, a misguided idea. Our old ideas may sometimes be a trap, but they also offer cautionary tales.
Further, aspirations are not mere matters of fact and truth, but of values of what we deem good and evil. They offer us a choice. One cannot both choose to save the planet and increase the use of fossil fuel – unless, of course, scientists come up with a better system than photosynthesis for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. In that case, one vaguer aspiration may act to subvert one that is both more proximate and much clearer. The subversive aspiration appears, not as a darkness that covers the face of the deep, but as a darkness on a distant shore. That is the real location of the hell of the Greek mythological world.
Hell is an aspiration that we seize upon and hold, but one which can condemn us to remain as white lab rats on a treadmill going nowhere. This takes place whether we are Sisyphus who rolls the boulder up the hill and no sooner approach the pinnacle than the huge heavy rock gives in to a gravitational pull to roll down the hill again. This takes place whether we are Tantalus who, as soon as he bends over to scoop up some water, the pool of water disappears in which he is standing as he screams out in Coleridge’s words, “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” for it is all polluted. Our aspirations may be a path to hell rather than to probing the deep and raising it heavenward. The problem is that frustration characterizes both the effort to probe the face of the deep and the effort to approach the darkness of a distant shore so we are often unsure of whether we are reaching for heaven or trying fruitlessly to get to hell, for hell is precisely an aspiration that proves itself to be infertile and fruitless. That is why fertility is iconic and characterizes the central symbolic value of an aspiration.
In Judaism, Gehenna is where children are sacrificed by fire, an act that Abraham was saved from committing. Abraham went on to become the founder of a civilization while many a Jewish leader went to the place of darkness, Sheol, characterized by hopelessness rather than hope.
“She’ol (/ˈʃiːoʊl/ SHEE-ohl, /-əl/; Hebrew שְׁאוֹל ʃeʾôl), in the Hebrew Bible, is a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from God. The inhabitants of Sheol are the “shades” (rephaim), entities without personality or strength. Under some circumstances they are thought to be able to be contacted by the living…but such practices are forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:10).” Wikipedia
Circumcision is the symbol of the covenant the Israelites made with their God to remind the children that even their fathers who loved them might sacrifice them in the fruitless effort to reach a distant dark attraction rather than spending their time probing and unveiling the face of the deep and pushing back the darkness. Hell is inherently an infertile aspiration. Heaven is a fertile one. The dilemma is the difficulty of knowing when to persist in a pursuit and when to give up because we have come to believe that it is a route to Hades. Aspirations are doubly confounding.
Fortunately, there is an aesthetic dimension as well as ethical and epistemological ones. The latter two focus on values and truth respectively but leave us in a conundrum. Aesthetics may help us sort out an aspiration headed towards hell through Dante’s “forest dark,” and one headed towards heaven. Which aspiration paints a picture of our suffering by being buried alive in the earth, or gasping for oxygen as poisonous gases force us to gasp for air only to make us swallow even more of a poisoned atmosphere? Which aspiration paints a picture of humans consumed in a river of fire or drowning in water that creeps up to our navels, then our mouths and then our hair? In which vision are we consumed by the ancient four basic elements of earth, air, fire and water? Which portrait opens wide to devour you and which releases you from the chains that bind?
[The following was written while I was in Oaxaca but unable to access my internet.]
Yesterday I went to see two absolutely marvellous art exhibits in a former cotton factory about 10 km. from the centre of Oaxaca in the Centro de las Artes de San Agustín in a mountain village appropriately called San Agustín Etla. On the first floor of a building, that from the exterior looked like a huge institutional edifice with a wide and long set of steps leading to the front entrance, was the most exhilarating and inspiring exhibition of graphic art I have ever seen. Oaxaca has emerged as perhaps the world’s centre for creative graphic expression.
The range of visions of hell ranged from political realism to revolutionary didactic murals of monstrous bloated white capitalists in top hats sitting at the same table as a black struggling to get free of the chains that bind him alongside women ready to heave lighted Molotov cocktails as their faces and noses were covered with kerchiefs, presumably to provide some protection from the tear gas. The futuristic depiction of a huge bird of prey with its mechanical inner workings exposed as soldiers cringe in fear at its feet seemed a throwback to the fears of the ruination of industrial capitalism.
One graphic portrait of three monsters resting on their haunches was mesmerizing. On the right sat one with his left huge hand and long fingers resting on his knee as his helmet-like head stared with interest at the central figure. The one on the viewer’s left had a very elongated bearded face with circles around his large, tired and forlorn eyes and his tongue protruding slightly; he looked disdainful. The central figure had huge sharpened teeth in a gaping mouth and wide eyes ringed with black, ready to grab any passing animated entity in its powerful jaws.
Grotesqueness in the marriage of organic, mechanical and monstrous forms provided the dominant motif. One alligator was simply a compilation of diamond shapes making up the skin of a fearful beast. The power often came from the fluidity of the mostly black and white etchings. Some of these anticipatory visions adumbrating future blockbuster fantasy action movies involving terror and death go back to the sixties and seventies. Others, such as a 1985 portrait by Edith Chávez called “Plato Fuerte” of a woman who melded and matched her background, seemed to be a great iconographic vision of the women of Oaxaca.
Another macabre figure was a curled but upright snake with small figures drawn on its skin of men in sombreros and sun umbrellas protruding above the scales. The detailing and variety were captivating. Another 1965 graphic by Abraham Torres, called “Sin Fecha,” portrayed a native runner who looked like an immense chimpanzee carrying an enormous fish, presumably a symbolic portrait of the relay runners who brought fresh fish to the ritual shamans and rulers of the people.
Of the perhaps two hundred artistic works on display, one in particular mesmerized me. It was not an impressionistic or cubist piece or one with overlays of images, but was a simple one painted in a pop art format of a little boy with gorgeous big black but very sad eyes looking despondent and downwards as his hands grasped a barbed wire fence. It is an iconic vision made more acute as one walks through the large and vital market squares filled with music and people dancing in the evening as the beautiful and clearly loved and cherished children play. The children of Oaxaca are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen.
I think of the children of Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador fleeing from violence north with their parent or parents only to end up separated from their families and incarcerated in child-detention centres in the U.S. As Vinson Cunningham ended his review article in The New Yorker, “The Bad Place: How the idea of Hell has shaped the way we think,” “here, as almost nowhere else in the visible world, the lines of cause and effect, neglect and decay, sin and punishment, are plain. You sow the coal and reap the whirlwind. Heat the air and let the icebergs roll on righteously, like a mighty stream. First comes the flood, then comes the fire. It matters, very much, what you do.”
There was a second exhibit we viewed on the second floor, William Kentridge’s lateral spectrum 15-minute video installation on a succession of wide screens on which we watched a macabre parade of silhouetted figures pass before us, first a large and stout man is a diaphanous dress whirling and dancing from one end of the series of screens to the other. This was followed by scenes of drudgery as a woman tugged a flat wheeled vehicle with a dancing skeleton again from one side to the other. In one scene, a South African Band, that shared a direct kinship with New Orleans bands, played a dirge. In other scenes, men waved huge flags presumably of revolutionary resistance.
Against the various scenes of walking and trudging, superimposed were three cartoon figures carrying skulls and two dancers at different times passed before and behind the march of death, of despair, of dread. One wore a diaphanous ballet costume while the other walked in the rhythm of a black archetypal dancer. The installation called “More Sweetly Played the Dance” was shown on 8 screens 6 m. high and 45 m. wide.
In spite of the terrible vision, this shadow theatre installation against a background of a world map and a preface of moving waves offered a glimmer of hope that the dance of death could be avoided by the lightness of becoming. I watched a video of the artist as he drew the waves, walked away to click the camera twice and returned to make small changes, repeating the exercise for scene after scene to create the movement in the video installation. As Kentridge said, the very act of walking back and forth was critical to the creative process and allowed him to create as he walked to and fro.
This blog focused on the internal inhibitions to overcoming the perils that we face. In the next blog I will attend to the external impediments. For although we have been conditioned to believe that the major impediments to salvation, to pursuing aspirations that bring light and enlightenment, is the threat that comes from within, I suggest that the far greater danger are the blockages thrown up to frustrate our desire to reach heaven. The hell of our inability to reach the distant and dark shore is our saving grace. As damaged and desperate as we are, and are encouraged to be, as depraved as we become immersed in idolatrous love that is totally unfulfilling, hope does really spring eternal. But only if we use our skills at analysis, the values of justice and mercy we have developed, and our determination to avoid the ugliness of glitter and gold.