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The Corpse Flotilla
Meditations for the coming Dark Ages
“If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.” — Sun Tzu
My daughter’s Christmas list included the book, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck’. Its author, whom I’ve not read but presume to be something of a YA guru, recently posted an essay called ‘Why I’m Not a Stoic’. The TLDR is that he thinks Stoics give no fucks whatsoever and well, sometimes you need to care a lot about your fellow man.
I’m not sure, but I am studiously walking in the bits of remaining sunlight down a dark alley. I’m given to believe we are in a slow catastrophe of some sort. It’s as if we recognize all of the things we’ve tested ourselves against and know to be throwing us off into a bit of chaos, yet we sublimate those disasters in progress. We know that the skyscrapers of our cities are hideous to look at and depressing to work in. We know that young people are starved for lives of passion and ready to throw themselves off cliffs for the thrill of the moment, if only to bungie back to sad reality, especially if nobody recorded their screams of passion. We know those cheeseburgers are going to kill us sooner or later. We know that Bitcoin payday is not for us, but for somebody who has the whole game figured out. We watch horror movies and reality shows perhaps only to take our mind off of the pandemic and the multi-trillion dollar debt the nation piles up. When I was a kid, we used to have something called a Savings & Loan industry. We had labor unions that were controlled by citizens, not by Congress, so we didn’t have to beg the government for minimum wage laws. We had men like Sammy Davis Jr, who could sing, dance, act and tell jokes. Well, maybe he couldn’t act. We had authors like Saul Bellow, not an entire dumbed down fantasy section of the bookstore. Now Marvel is our Shakespeare.
Nevermind all that.
I explained to my other daughter that there was always something about yoga and meditation that I thought I would come to appreciate in my maturity. So I’m taking that step. I started in a half-assed way 3 years ago with the Headspace app on the App Store. But I must confess that there’s something annoying about young voices telling me how to chill. As an aside, let me remind you of some of the sunshine I’m walking in when it comes to voices. Simon Prebble.
Let me tell you something remarkably sad. What is heartbreaking is watching the first people you cared about fade away. That girl who you had a crush on in the 4th grade. That boy who taught you how to grip a football and throw a bullet. The lady with the snapdragons in her garden and a bowl of candy you were always welcome to. It is also heartbreaking to remember the stupid kid who stole your bike. That evil girl who hit you and dare you to hit her back. That nasty boy who used to pinch everybody on the butt. At some point, especially as a writer, you have both an emotional distance from and intimacy with these human beings as they become subjects in your writing, different and distinct from people in your actual life. My writing in that way is somewhat indistinguishable from my memory, mutually reinforcing each other as they do. So that sadness I was infused by in my thoughts on West Adams inform my reflection on the possible eventuality of an entire flotilla of corpses floating down a big muddy river under my nose.
In this vision, I am meditating with my eyes closed by the river with my sword and shield laid down beside me. Far away the beat of war drums are dying down, like the pulse of an RSS feed gone slack, like a subscription I erased wondering what was I thinking, like the last four digits of an ex’s phone number I haven’t dialed in ages. Memories of what was fast and hot, exciting and dangerous, dimmed by distance. Over yonder are the multifarious battles of culture wars. I knew it would end in tears so I left. I slipped out the back, Jack, and got myself free. The war drums are now silent and the burble of the river has become subdued and thick with blood. This is the deadly denouement. It is quiet and it stinks. My meditation is disturbed by tears, and through them I cannot identify the bloated bodies bobbing along. There are no gators twisting the clothing off the corpses. There are only carrion birds picking up fingers from the shallows and the shores. The sun is bright, and this would be a day for rejoicing in peace, but this is the peace of desolation and the silence of depopulation. I sit unmoved, disinvested in the conflict I knew would deliver just this result.
Being at peace means accepting all of this.
It turns out that there is a moment of Shakespearean profundity in the Marvel Universe. In order to backfill my WandaVision, I watched Age of Ultron, which is that cautionary parable of the man who builds a machine to be the perfect security guard to rid the world of evil men, and it turns on him. That machine however is outwitted by yet another machine that understands humans a bit better and ends the first machine’s life. Before that moment they have a bit of a discussion about the fate of humans. Both agree they are doomed, but the sympathetic machine says that it’s still an honor to be in their presence. If you’d like, there is a 20 minute meditation on this scene. Yes of course there is. In my conceptual universe this is what I call the chocolate cake problem. The question is “If life is going to end, if we’re all going to die, what is the point?” Then answer is chocolate cake. You eat it, and you enjoy it until it’s gone. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow and you had a chocolate cake in front of you, why deny yourself the brief moments of pleasure? It turns out that Vision has such a brilliant insight.
In my stoicism is a certain measure of indifference to the fate of my contemporaries, yet it goes without saying that they have an abundance of chocolate cake, puppies and babies. If one cannot take one’s mind off debt and deficit spending even to buy a slice of cake on credit, that’s the bloodless one. That’s the machine-man who has lost his soul for the sake of some scheme to save mankind.
I say mankind is doomed to a bloody drama. We’ll watch 10,000 hours on the screens until we’re ready to do it for real. Steven Pinker wants to believe that we have seen the last war. I think the term of art is wars between great powers. We have forgotten, I think, the inspirational beauty of mankind unleashed even in great paroxysms of destruction. It has always been within us, and it cannot be suppressed. It is the will to live, the unquenchable desire for more chocolate cake until at last one’s hubris brings one to the realization that the battle is lost and one desperately seeks a horse. Your kingdom for a horse. And there you are at last, staring at the blood in your palm as the din grows softer and you find peace at last in death.
Several months ago, I read something that was so profoundly brilliant that I called it the Secular Polestar. It had the ethical proportions of a perfect religion designed for the faithful and the faithless as well. It was complex and artful but it worked out that it simply rearranged all priorities. It asked us to systematically evaluate the value of any and all civilizational efforts based on its effect on children, something we all have been and thus need little sophisticated education to appreciate (not to mention that there are millions of them around we could ask if we forgot). The author was Vinay Gupta, a man who probably knows more about the inside of refugee camps than anyone sane ought to. One day I’ll read it again and present some fraction of it here. Even so, I know there must be a complicated game engaged to implement such a drastic departure from the status quo. It would require huge amounts of geopolitical power to enable such ethics, something Mr. Gupta might worry himself sick trying to evangelize.
Everything doesn’t happen for a reason, but the stability of the now has millions of correlations and causations. Any way things move tensions some strings and adds slack to others and power vacuum cleaners never seem to run out of juice. You can’t get to there from here without sweat and effort. You certainly cannot change the world without bloodshed. Stakes are high in your blind spot. But you could be kind today without much effort. You could play the meta game as I do here. I abstain from politics - I don’t listen to those kinds of arguments, and I’m happy about it. Still, I’m interested in man, his energies, his plans, his fate. His hope and his hubris - they reinforce each other when he is convinced. He signs his life over to the angel or the devil on his shoulder and he is lost when he commits to the supernatural, or to the utopian vision of secular genius, or to whatever is a risk beyond his ken.
Being at peace means accepting all of this.
I’ve always been a strategic thinker, but I’m not what I was and I’m surprised at how I think today. I hope not to count my friends and family among the flotilla, but I might have to. Somebody might have to fish me out and bury me. Who knows which way the conflict will go? I hope to meditate so that I might see everything for what it is and nothing more. I’m surely going to learn something no matter what happens. I’m not sure it’s about ‘giving a fuck’. Can I appreciate what is without signaling ethical intent or moral discernment? Can I hypothesize and synthesize contradictions over time without being led by bias? These are the challenges I expect meditation to help me resolve. I’m working on the 1st order epistemics so I don’t get in my own way. There may be Dark Ages ahead of us. It will be useful to accept that eventuality even if my acceptance of it today only manifests in my children’s memories of me.
That’s where I’m at. I aim to get to that peace. Let my epitaph read “He ate the chocolate cake.”