The Future – a Memorialist Perspective
In anticipation — as with the science fiction anthology mentioned two posts ago — of the class that I am preparing to teach, I have just taken up (and as quickly laid down, as it is very short) economist Robert Heilbroner’s Visions of the Future — a four-part essay expounding his sweeping impression of the evolution of humanity’s concept of “progress.” This term, Heilbroner explains, is of quite recent coinage, having carried nothing of its present meaning before the optimistic first days of industrialized capitalistic society, when it came to bear the imputation “that the present is in some fashion superior to the past, and, by extension, that the future will be superior to the present” (p. 43). Since that epoch, which Heilbroner calls “Yesterday,” our collective optimism has been gradually degraded into a fatalistic mistrust of those technologies and ideologies which, while retaining their domination of the present system, have left us apprehensive of a future that promises to have little place or use for the majority of humanity. He ultimately concludes that in order for humanity to have a future at all — at least one of any appreciable duration — three conditions must infallibly be met: first, the reversal of all damage done to the planet, and its preservation from further plunder; second, the abolition of war and the warlike propensity in man, along with the total dismantling of all national governments; and third, a general and uniform understanding of what he calls “human nature,” which will prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past. One turns the final leaf of the book with the sense that, not only must Heilbroner be quite correct in his conclusions, but that — the aforenamed prerequisites being hilariously unattainable — humanity as a race must shortly resign itself to its doom. In a paradox that makes sense once you stop thinking about it, we can clearly see that two inevitabilities loom grimly before us: that people will never change, but that society can always get worse.
What Heilbroner does not recognize (or, in any case, does not acknowledge) about his theory, is that in a strange and difficult-to-discern way, the present pessimistic and apprehensive humanity represents a full-circle return to its ancient condition — what he calls “the distant past” — when the best humanity seemed willing to hope for was that the world, miserable as it was for the majority of its inhabitants, would remain more or less the same until the gods saw fit to destroy it. The apocalyptic outlook secretly harbored (though only clandestinely discussed) by you, me, and everyone we know, looks dimly ahead only a few paces to a world gone crazy and a world gone dark. It is not exactly the “eternal present” experienced by our ancient progenitors, but it is a “future” so brief and deplorable as to scarcely stand up to the name. The present is a holding cell and the future is a gibbet. It may therefore be concluded that humanity has, for all intents and purposes, no future at all. Capitalism, the atomic bomb of economic ingenuity, has condemned us, and condemned us inexorably.
I have also, in my spare moments, been making my way through Robert Tressel’s didactic novel The Ragged-trousered Philanthropists (1914), in which the principle protagonist, a house-painter named Frank Owen, more than once contemplates the murder of his wife and child, followed by his own suicide, as the only feasible escape from a life of intolerable struggle and privation:
Then he remembered [his wife] Nora. Although she was always brave, and never complained, he knew that her life was one of almost incessant physical suffering; and as for himself he was tired and sick of it all. He had been working like a slave all his life and there was nothing to show for it — there never would be anything to show for it. He thought of the man who had killed his wife and children. The jury had returned the usual verdict, ‘Temporary Insanity’. It never seemed to occur to these people that the truth was that to continue to suffer hopelessly like this was evidence of permanent insanity.
As any economist will have to admit, capitalism is a system instituted and sustained upon the indispensable condition of perpetual growth — a physical and logistical impossibility. When it ceases to grow, it ceases to be capitalism, and it dies, and it takes everyone in the system (which is everyone on earth) with it. This is the best we have to look forward to as a species and as a civilization: a unidirectional fate of ever-increasing and ever-accelerating horrors, terminating in the inescapable collapse of everything that makes what we risibly refer to as “our lives” possible. We all know this, and yet we choose the death we don’t know over the death we could choose for ourselves now. I am as guilty as the rest, as guilty as the worst. I have a daughter. I stay in the world because, having put her into it, I have lost my right to take myself out of it. How silly! Even if we will each not necessarily see the other one dead, we must nevertheless watch each other one die.
Frank Owen’s dilemma is not a question of morality, but of temporality. There is no legitimate difference between murdering your wife and children with your own hands, and watching them be murdered by a lunatic society that functions as a homophagiac abattoir. It can be done all at once, out of love, or little by little, out of criminal indifference, but it must be done all the same.
My purpose in saying these things is not to induce either disgust or despair. The Memorial Society possesses few social agendas and no political ones, and indeed, we are not concerned in the least with humanity as a mass. Our whole focus is on the individual — the individual who must find the death that is his own. I cannot propose a way out of the self-devouring sausage-grinder that is global capitalism, because I don’t think there is one — though we can resist it and revile it and repudiate it all the way down the processing line, and we can hate it for what it has done to our world, and our souls, and what it must inevitably do to our children. The Memorialist perspective is not pessimistic, because its only concern is with death, which is not only the one truly good thing, but the one thing that is absolutely certain: and so, being certain of the Good and its attainment, we are content in knowing the purpose of suffering, and possessing the solution to it for ourselves. Neither is the Memorialist perspective realistic. We exist in a society which, being capitalistic, can only be called vertiginously surreal — fundamentally erroneous — suffused in every respect with insoluble self-contradictions — and which, regardless of any decision we make for ourselves, has already consciously concluded upon its own suicide, and races to it with more maniacal effervescence with every bank and factory it builds, and every bank and factory it tears down.
“THE future” is immaterial — tempted though we must be to contemplate it in general terms. As Heilbroner states, “By enabling us to see our lives as part of a great collective journeying toward some destination, however indistinct, the works of the worldly philosophers offer some kind of consolation for the all too clearly foreseeable destination of each member of the collectivity, which is death” (6). By living in such a way as to always have death immediately before us, and therefore to have life and its fussy, boorish concerns already largely behind us, we Memorialists can face any future placidly, saving our contumely for the existential condition that has made living and suffering unavoidable, if only up to a self-determined point. It is not THE dead that we memorialize, but OUR OWN deaths. It is not THE future that captivates us and occupies our waking hours, but OUR OWN future, which, being death, we cannot help but love.