Things fall apart

by James Somers, March 5, 2010

I remember our high school English teacher explaining to us that “it isn’t crazy to imagine pushing someone down the stairs or in front of the subway, or to think of how little it would take to steer your car into oncoming traffic. Everybody thinks like that. What’s crazy is actually doing this stuff.”

This coming from a guy, mind you, who avoided the draft by pretending to be insane: during his brief interview with military medical personnel, instead of making eye contact with his interlocutor, what he’d do was look just over their right ear—which when you try it with a friend you’ll find to be incredibly disconcerting—and sort of trail off in the middle of his sentences. A bit subtle, but enough to keep him out of the war.

Anyway, I bring this up only as a sort of disclaimer for what follows, which is itself a trail of fairly morbid thoughts—not about suddenly killing people, but about how close we are, all the time, to chaos.

Example: on public buses I often marvel at the intense respect strangers seem to have for each other’s space, and comfort, and quiet. Same thing when I walk through city streets late at night—with no one else in sight, two incredibly socially self-conscious mammals can walk past one another, practically brushing shoulders, completely undisturbed. This is bizarre.

As is the fact that I can totally reliably trade paper for food, or that I can, without a second thought, pay strangers to shave my neck with a straight razor or fly me from Detroit to Seattle. In fact nearly everything I do these days relies on layers and layers of massively complex machinery—economic, legal, mechanical, social, psychological—that is, apparently, remarkably delicate.

Consider the following from an excellent 1990 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies:

Casson…witnessed the breakdown of order in Istanbul after the disintegration of Turkish authority in 1918:

…the Allied troops…found a city that was dead. The Turkish government had just ceased to function. The electrical supply had failed and was intermittent. Tramways did not work and abandoned trams littered the roads. There was no railway service, no street cleaning and a police force which had largely become bandit, living on blackmail from citizens in lieu of pay. Corpses lay at street corners and in side lanes, dead horses were everywhere, with no organization to remove them. Drains did not work and water was unsafe. All this was the result of only about three weeks’ abandonment by the civil authorities of their duties (1937: 217-18)

Think of what would happen if our garbage men stopped coming, or if our water turned off, or if there came a sudden end to the complex illusion that keeps our law alive. What would life be like if we stopped trusting strangers?

Of course it’s easy to imagine more quotidian examples of the same sort of breakdown. My sink, for example, becomes a smelly disaster after just a few days of neglect—as does my body, now that I think about it. Fridges, beards, beds, even inboxes: without our ceaseless teeming cleaning, and shaving, and making, and reading, they all succumb to some kind of overgrowth, their own special version of a fetid parasitic mold.

Virginia Woolf must have been thinking along these lines when she penned the devastating second chapter, Time Passes, of her wonderful To The Lighthouse:

There it had stood all these years without a soul in it. The books and things were mouldy, for, what with the war and help being hard to get, the house had not been cleaned as she could have wished. It was beyond one person’s strength to get it straight now. She was too old. Her legs pained her. All those books needed to be laid out on the grass in the sun; there was plaster fallen in the hall; the rain-pipe had blocked over the study quite. …For there were clothes in the cupboards; they had left clothes in all the bedrooms. What was she to do with them? They had the moth in them—Mrs Ramsay’s things. Poor lady! She would never want them again. She was dead, they said; years ago, in London. There was the old grey cloak she wore gardening (Mrs McNab fingered it). She could see her, as she came up the drive with the washing, stooping over her flowers (the garden was a pitiful sight now, all run to riot, and rabbits scuttling at you out of the beds)—she could see her with one of the children by her in that grey cloak. There were boots and shoes; and a brush and comb left on the dressing-table, for all the world as if she expected to come back tomorrow. (She had died very sudden at the end, they said.)

…What power could now prevent the fertility, the insensibility of nature? …The place was gone to rack and ruin. Only the lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw. Nothing now withstood them; nothing said no to them. Let the wind blow; let the poppy seed itself and the carnation mate with the cabbage. Let the swallow build in the drawing-room, and the thistle thrust aside the tiles, and the butterfly sun itself on the faded chintz of the arm-chairs. Let the broken glass and the china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.

Note of course the time-worn irony of life overcoming the dead, of thistle and rats claiming an abandoned house.

It’s the exact obverse of an idea used expertly by David Foster Wallace in his occasionally hilarious but essentially depressing account of a week-long cruise, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again:

I don’t think it’s an accident that 7NC Luxury Cruises appeal mostly to older people. I don’t mean decrepitly old, but like fiftyish people for whom their own mortality is something more than an abstraction. Most of the exposed bodies to be seen all over the daytime Nadir were in various stages of disintegration. And the ocean itself turns out to be one enormous engine of decay. Seawater corrodes vessels with amazing speed—rusts them, exfoliates paint, strips varnish, dulls shine, coats ships’ hulls with barnacles and kelp and a vague and ubiquitous nautical snot that seems like death incarnate. We saw some real horrors in port, local boats that looked as if they had been dipped in a mixture of acid and shit, scabbed with rust and goo, ravaged by what they float in.

Not so the Megalines’ ships. It’s no accident they’re so white and clean, for they’re clearly meant to represent the Calvinist triumph of capital and industry over the primal decay-action of the sea. The Nadir seemed to have a whole battalion of wiry little Third World guys who went around the ship in navy-blue jumpsuits scanning for decay to overcome. Writer Frank Conroy, who has an odd little essaymercial in the front of Celebrity Cruises’ 7NC brochure, talks about how “it became a private challenge for me to try to find a piece of dull bright-work, a chipped rail, a stain in the deck, a slack cable, or anything that wasn’t perfectly shipshape. Eventually, toward the end of the trip, I found a capstan [a type of nautical hoist, like a pulley on steroids] with a half-dollar-sized patch of rust on the side facing the sea. My delight in this tiny flaw was interrupted by the arrival, even as I stood there, of a crewman with a roller and a bucket of white paint. I watched as he gave the entire capstan a fresh coat and walked away with a nod.”

Here’s the thing: A vacation is a respite from unpleasantness, and since consciousness of death and decay are unpleasant, it may seem weird that the ultimate American fantasy vacation involves being plunked down in an enormous primordial stew of death and decay. But on a 7NC Luxury Cruise, we are skillfully enabled in the construction of various fantasies of triumph over just this death and decay. One way to “triumph” is via the rigors of self-improvement (diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery, Franklin Quest time-management seminars), to which the crew’s amphetaminic upkeep of the Nadir is an unsubtle analogue. But there’s another way out, too: not titivation but titillation; not hard work but hard play. See in this regard the 7NC’s constant activities, festivities, gaiety, song; the adrenaline, the stimulation. It makes you feel vibrant, alive. It makes your existence seem non-contingent. The hard-play option promises not a transcendence of death-dread so much as just drowning it out: “Sharing a laugh with your friends” in the lounge after dinner, you glance at your watch and mention that it’s almost showtime …. When the curtain comes down after a standing ovation, the talk among your companions turns to, ‘What next?’ Perhaps a visit to the casino or a little dancing in the disco? Maybe a quiet drink in the piano bar or a starlit stroll around the deck? After discussing all your options, everyone agrees: ‘Let’s do it all!’”

This is where I have to disagree. It’s sad, sure, this fact that our world degrades, be it by microbiotic infestation or simple erosion, that, as Yeats put it, “things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” But DFW writes as though painting and repainting, and partying, and playing—or generally just constructing “fantasies of triumph over just this death and decay”—is also sad, as if to begrudge us for skating on what turns out to be the shockingly thin ice of our society. But what’s wrong with that, if it’s all there is to do before the whole thing cracks?