by Barry Edelson
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Sad, Distracted Year

"Nothing is made by men but makes, in the end, good ruins."
—Maxwell Anderson, High Tor

A Dim Bulb

There's a light bulb for sale that is purported to last for 22 years and 8 months, if used for no more than three hours per day. We can hardly be blamed for viewing the claim with skepticism, and for wondering how such a precise time span was calculated. Presumably no one kept vigil over a burning bulb in a research laboratory for more than two decades, awaiting the precise moment when it finally flickered out. That is the sort of mind-numbing task to which even unpaid interns and North Korean prisoners would refuse to subject themselves. Moreover, what sort of market research was undertaken to determine that the average domestic light bulb is turned on for three hours a day, and not two or four? We can only hope that the effort and expense to which manufacturers will go to prove a spurious point, and thereby pry a few more dollars out of the customer's pocket, bear some meaningful relation to the profit and happiness they ultimately reap.

Nonetheless, if we take the bulb's advertised longevity at face value, and install it in a location — a closet, say — where it will seldom be in use for more than a few minutes at a time, it is a dead certainty that it will long outlast the space it is presently illuminating, given the modern fetish for home remodeling. More to the point, it is quite possible if not entirely likely that the bulb will outlive its buyer, and perhaps every person currently living, by many decades. It is suddenly possible to imagine generations of children as yet unborn who will never see a lightbulb changed in their lifetimes, and who would be at a total loss about what to do if a bulb actually burned out (if that term is even applicable to the technology in question).

We have become so long accustomed to the rapid obsolescence of all things made by machines that it comes as a something of a shock to confront a product that is designed to last indefinitely. What are they thinking? Surely there will come a day when the light fixtures in all homes and businesses are filled with these latest incarnations of the humble bulb, and no more are needed. How could it then be in the interests of any company to continue to make them, or for retailers, actual or virtual, to keep them in stock? Will our descendants in some distant era face an eventual light bulb Armageddon, when the lights mysteriously start going out but no one knows how to produce them any more? People will probably not even understand that light bulbs can go out, so many centuries will have passed since the last living humans with light bulb know-how will have experienced their own unexpected demise. Will there be panic and conflict, a world-wide conflagration pitting the lit against the unlit? Will there finally be a war in which the forces of light will literally take up arms against those of darkness? Will metaphor also die along with the light bulb?

The light bulb will then have achieved a kind of illusory immortality, akin to that of the species that invented it: the inevitability of death scrupulously ignored until the very moment when it can no longer be denied. James Joyce supposed that, compared to the unfathomable age of the universe, "the years, three score and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity." But this cosmic blink of an eye is somehow more than sufficient to convince the bearer of consciousness that it will go on forever. Likewise the lowly bulb, soon to earn the reputation as the longest surviving man-made object — the Japanese or Sardinian of manufactured things — will be thought, through most of its functional existence, to have no end at all. Thus the greater surprise when mortality proves to be inescapable for us all, and for all of the words and works conjured by our hungry imaginations.

Death Watch

Among the tiresome rituals of the end of the calendar year is the strange litany of the famously expired. Like clockwork, publications, respectable and otherwise, produce lists of the great and the good who happened to die during the last 365 days of the Gregorian calendar. If you missed their obituaries when they actually met their end, no worries: the newspapers will happily allow you to experience their deaths all over again. You may shed a second tear over the loss of the respected and beloved, or remark anew, "Good riddance to bad rubbish", at the departure of the unwanted and unmourned. Dozens of faces of leaders and celebrities (if those can even be counted as two separate categories any more) grace the pages of the end-of-year editions, mainly to remind us that we had more or less forgotten that they had gone in the first place. John Updike, contemplating his own death in his poem "Requiem", trenchantly captured the phenomenon of the forgotten luminary:

The wide response will be, I know,
"I thought he died a while ago."

Such is the heartfelt lament for those who were so little a part of our lives that we can barely recall if they still walk among us. Perhaps you prefer Stephen Sondheim's high regard for eminence, from "I'm Still Here":

I've gotten through "Hey, lady, aren't you whoozis?
Wow, what a looker you were."
Or better yet, "Sorry, I thought you were whoozis;
Whatever happened to her?"

Because we feel the presence of famous people only remotely, their death apparently registers only in a remote part of our awareness. The question, "Whatever happened to her?", is its own answer: she is no more gone than she was ever really here.

Pity the renowned person who died in the last weeks of the previous year, and will get no mention in this annual cycle of bereavement. When a well-known name from the past bubbles to the surface in the coming months, we may just be able remember those who were kind enough to shed this mortal coil between this New Year's Day and the last, but will be at great pains to distinguish the living from the more distant dead. But "pity" is a peculiar word for it: what do the dead gain from pity? Or from any other sentiment of the living? To the departed, obscurity has the same value as immortality, though one would hardly know it from the extraordinary lengths to which some people go to preserve their own legacies.

No major city in the world is without monuments built by powerful men to themselves. Even our democratic society is not immune to such folly. In the Trinity Church cemetery on West 155th Street in Manhattan, for example, there is a large gray stone marking the grave of Ed Koch, the former mayor. Nothing unusual about that, except that if you had visited the site before Koch died in 2013, you would have seen the stone already in place, replete with the quotations and encomiums with which hizzoner wished to be associated in perpetuity. Only the dates of his birth and death remained to be engraved (note them missing in the photo). There's nothing unusual about people of means designing their own tombs, either. Even the Pharaohs, pioneers in so many ways, were probably not the first to think of it.

It is beyond argument that the well-remembered are just as dead as the forgotten. The tyrant is no less mortal than the soldiers he sacrificed, the enemies he crushed, or the minions he disposed of like so much unwanted debris. But if there's a would-be despot out there who was convinced to reform his ways by reading Shelley's "Ozymandias", please step forward. There is something within us, apparently, that refuses to accept the inevitable, or to accept that we must remain gone once the inevitable happens. We can explain it biologically, perhaps, as the imperative of living being necessary to the propagation of the species, which is the only and ultimate "goal" of all life on Earth. But to our ceaselessly ambitious and self-regarding minds, this seems a paltry explanation. The serial killer who fantasizes about immortality is clearly not deterred by any reasonable argument about the utter futility of his quest. All he knows, presumably, is that other killers are in fact remembered. That he will not know the difference once he dies, too, is immaterial. Vanity knows no boundaries, including the frontier of nothingness with which all living things are sooner or later confronted.

Annus Horribilis

On a frigid, starlit night, we are more apt to notice that nothing much separates us from the lifeless void above our heads. We may appreciate how little warmth there is in the universe, and that living things even on our snug little planet shiver in the cold for much of the year. Our worldly endeavors appear suddenly if briefly miniscule, and the collective will of all mankind, living and dead, no more than a faint, failing breath in the vast reaches of interstellar space.

These feelings are hardly original or profound; they come and go with the passing of the night sky. Human beings have no doubt been wondering for many thousands of years what our little efforts amounted to, long before we figured out, a mere few seconds ago in geological time, how to write our thoughts down. But no amount of contemplation or reflection alters our propensity to act upon our desires, at whatever cost to others or to our surroundings. A smidgen of moral conscience lets us co-exist, to some degree, but not nearly enough to banish our worst inclinations. In a year in which our civilization has exhibited frightening signs of weakness, we grasp for certainty wherever we can find it. If political conviction fails us, perhaps we should consider that the answers are elsewhere. Man has endured many colossal failures, and survived the depredations of many indecent rulers. This may be new to us in America, but hardly new to our forebears, or even to the millions who suffer a miserable fate in many places in the present day, some of them (dare we say it) at our own hands.

The one outcome that is certain to prove wanting is "winning" in any political or societal sense. How would we even define it? Merely shedding the oppressive ugliness of the current regime? As desirable as that seems, what benefit would that bestow in the long run on our civilization as a whole? Defining our way forward through the feeble constructs of those we detest is a guarantee of future disappointment. Any victory on depraved terms will be irredeemably corrupted, and not worth having. We must somehow learn to ignore the simplistic dichotomies that others have set in our path and seek a different one entirely, a path that reflects an abiding belief in the society we have built, unconnected to any short-term political gains or losses. Otherwise we are condemning ourselves to a perpetual attack on symptoms, chasing our tails while failing to notice the graver threats to our welfare.

The prospect of mortality — literal or political — for those who would do us harm offers little in the way of consolation. To acknowledge the puny, pointless nature of the aspirations of those in power is also to acknowledge, if we are honest, the puny, pointless nature of our own. Perhaps it would be useful to remember how much of what we value in the world, how many artistic creations and remarkable inventions have arisen in the most inhospitable circumstances. Our brave experiment in egalitarianism arose in a society founded by Puritans, who were not exactly broad-minded in their view of their fellow creatures. It is a myth that good things come to light only in enlightened environments, where evil is banished and decent people are allowed free reign. Many wonderfully creative and productive people, who have brought extraordinary joys and benefits to our lives, have thrived under deplorable regimes and in hostile conditions. In some countries even today, being a poet is risking one's life. Further, many of our most celebrated and accomplished minds are themselves guilty of awful crimes, as recent disclosures have made abundantly clear. Misdeeds must not go unpunished, but we will not preserve what is best in our society, let alone move it forward next year and the years thereafter, by looking for heretics around every corner. That is what zealots and authoritarians do.

The will to destroy and the will to create are both part of the same humanity, part of all of us. We have lived a prosperous life in the West for a long time, and have lost any real sense of what it means to fall down, even when the signs of falling are all around us. Since the newspapers give more attention to the deaths of the famous than to the countless ill-fated souls born into strife, let us spare a moment at year-end to remember the innocents, girls and boys, lost to addiction and domestic abuse and random violence. So great is the number of our own citizens in trouble that they are at risk of being reduced to statistics, just as we devalue those lost to endless war and its consequences in the Middle East and Africa, and to gang warfare in Mexico and Central America, and to poverty and preventable disease in too many places to mention. Thus we edge, step by step, farther away from the civilization we think we are defending.

More than 40 years ago, in The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski wrote,

"It sounds very pessimistic to talk about western civilisation with a sense of retreat…We are being weighed in the balance at the moment. If we give up, the next step will be taken — but not by us. We have not been given any guarantee that Assyria and Egypt and Rome were not given…If we do not take the next step in the ascent of man, it will be taken by people elsewhere, in Africa, in China. Should I feel that to be sad? No, not in itself. Humanity has a right to change its colour."

The light bulb is dead. Long live the light bulb.

December 29, 2017


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