I wanted to write a piece about the obsessive focus on “the present” and how it obscures the Now. Here is how I decided to begin.
For the last few years, I’ve had conversation after conversation with close friends about the latest outrageous pronouncement or claim or turn of events occurring in the linked worlds of entertainment, news media, cultural presentation, politics, and academia, either spurred on or amplified (or both) by social media. At a certain point, the moment arises when they all say the same thing: “That’s it. This is the end.” The end of free speech. The end of history. The end of civility. The end of accountability. The end of freedom of expression. The end of poetry. The end of cinema. And so on.
It’s not the end of anything, I tell them, because the situation is unsustainable. Just wait. They nod their heads or murmur sounds that more or less express the thought that I might be right but… how much longer?
As long as it takes. But as long as what takes?
A description, grounded in personal experience, of daily life as it is lived by many in this country and in the West, albeit those among us with the time and the energy to consider such matters at all. And then, a cliffhanger question, to generate a little suspense and possibly keep the reader going. And throughout, a liberal use of quote marks around clichés that have yet to be fully recognized as such, a handy device that I picked up from reading the Austrian writer Peter Handke.
“Our historical moment”—the term itself is as stale and overworked as “the American people,” “the culture wars,” “no worries,” and “all good.” It is regularly and relentlessly defined, redefined, updated and counter-defined in podcasts, on radio and television, in reported pieces and on opinion pages, in TED Talks and impromptu remarks delivered from red carpets, tarmacs, and bulletproof podiums, and in worried conversations like the ones with my friends. The same words and terms are employed again and again. “Polarized,” “Gen Z,” “impactful,” “building community,” “social justice,” “partisan,” “trope,” “the elites,” “boomer,” “cancel,” “fascist,” “socialist,” “systemic,” “superpower,” “inclusive,” “profound shift”—these terms are now employed so constantly and perfunctorily that they have been stripped of meaning. Not an hour goes by that does not bring another spoken or written (usually three hundred words or less) reflection on “where we are” or “where we’re headed,” the “likely outcome” or the “wild card” possibility, supported by a limitless supply of polls and statistics charts. The unspoken implication is that we need to figure it all out right now.
The “we” whose collective condition is so constantly and relentlessly diagnosed is a dispiriting, cliché-charged construct, tacitly understood as “hard-wired” to always ultimately act and react in its own interests, in search of never-ending comfort and reassurance, impatient and easily distracted and bored, spongelike and thus susceptible to malignant “ideologies” delivered under cover of movies and books made or written before ca. 2015, historically ignorant, and, strangest and saddest of all, post-literate.
“We” is caught in a dense web of overlapping unrealities. Even now, the internet is still commonly thought of as a “democratizing” force that has liberated us from the control of elites, when its greater actual effect has been to displace exchanges of ideas and theses with exchanges of enthusiasms and hatreds, the latter far “outperforming” the former. “Call out” or “cancel” culture (per Thomas Chatterton Williams, public shaming for the transgression of “a not-yet-agreed upon norm”) is an inevitable by-product, deemed vaguely necessary, sort of courageous (despite the fact that it is often enacted behind the protective layer of social media or recounted to a third party after the fact), and utterly hateful by those with zero interest in understanding the unarticulated emotions roiling beneath the surface. Proclamations are treated as actualities: “the COVID era is over,” “objectivity in news reporting is a thing of the past,” “we have now reached a tipping/inflection point in [fill in the blank],” “we’ve had a reckoning/revolution that has fundamentally altered our way of understanding and engaging with the world forever,” and so on. Facts, recent and historical, are treated as playthings, eminently malleable and even suppressible if they get in the way of your “narrative”—the 2020 election was stolen, January 6th was a peaceful gathering, the Holocaust is a matter of opinion, the protection of slavery was a primary reason for American colonists to declare their independence from Britain, mass shootings are fictions staged by “liberal Hollywood” with “crisis actors,” and so on.
The inundation of so much information and so many ways of sharing it on social media, each platform a differently festooned variation of the same basic idea, has led to some extremely odd consequences. Social media itself is mistakenly treated as the high-tech equivalent of an ongoing town meeting, when it is actually a commercial enterprise powered by conflict, easily gamed and exploited. Enormous amounts of attention are paid to altering surfaces and appearances, numbers and percentages, to “optics,” public images, visual and dramatic representations and the success rate of the calculations and strategies behind them, all of which fits a little too cozily with corporate interests: as long as it’s in their interests, corporations are always happy to change their spots. The insistent policing of language, a sadder manifestation of the same imperative, has produced an abundance of confusion, resentment, anxiety, and fear, particularly in academia.
All accurate, and all depressingly reiterative. Reiterative in the same way that media culture is reiterative. Re-reading it now, I have the curious sensation that I have unconsciously created another example of what I’m attempting to describe. I’m reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with a San Francisco musician. The topic was the music business. His comment has always stayed with me: “I don’t feel like I need to step into the bullshit just so I can find out what the bull ate.”
I thought that this was where I should start switching gears
I could go on enumerating incidents, stories, observations both secondhand and personal, but the net result would be yet another implicitly judgmental snapshot of “the present,” perhaps read by a few but certainly destined to be tossed aside and forgotten with all the rest of the “think pieces” and analyses of the last decade, just as its apparent coherence and uniformity as a temporal unit breaks down and disintegrates altogether. This process is already well underway, as it is for everything. “The memory of all things is swiftly buried in the gulf of eternity,” wrote Marcus Aurelius. So it is for this juncture in history, whose standard-bearers know that they are destined to be judged harshly.
A quote from Marcus Aurelius. The first in a series of planned historical and literary citations. But…offered in what spirit? To invoke the presence of history … but also, as I see now, to signal my frustration with so much incivility unleashed in the name of rectification and retribution, without a shred of redemption in sight.
But what would it be to meet the moment with compassion?
It would be to recognize the loneliness I see in so many young people, the difficulty they have connecting with one another and with others, and to remember the piercing question that haunts everyone in their teens, 20s, and 30s: how do I live and conduct myself in this world with the tools I’ve been given? In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, a handmade sign went up in the window across the street: “Protect Black Bodies. Serve Black Bodies.” I found myself wondering: what if a black bus driver had stopped at a light at 2 in the morning and happened to look up at that sign? What would he or she make of such alienated and alienating academic language? Laugh? Cry? Drive on in silence? There was something touching about the impulse but ineffably sad about the execution.
To meet the moment with compassion, I would have to remember myself at seventeen with compassion, my fear of the future, my strident intolerance toward my father.
Me as a teenager: “I don’t know how anyone could fight for this country.”
My father: “If I hadn’t you wouldn’t be here.”
But before fully shifting to compassion, I decided that it was necessary to keep assuming the authoritative posture I’d begun with and look back to the more recent past for precedents.
In 1980, the Sony Walkman became available in American markets. I was given one by my girlfriend. Like millions of people around the world, I was thrilled by the ability to listen to the music under any and all circumstances. But I also wondered about the isolating effect. The Walkman was unmoored from place, and users were left definitively alone with their own musical tastes and touchstones, “free” to curate their own “soundtrack.” That was the beginning of a series of allegedly revolutionary inventions that have allowed us to step away from one another’s company, one small step at a time. They appear to have reached their culminating point with the smart phone. We have invested this machine, half very handy tool and half very cool toy, with an extraordinary amount of power. It has supposedly “revolutionized” our lives. It has altered “the chemistry of our brains.” And so on. We could probably all close our eyes and feel our way through the constantly repeated moves: idly picking up the phone, swiping to this or that app or photo that you realize you’ve just idly picked up the phone and looked at or maybe “loved,” turning it off, idly picking it up and repeating the exercise in a minute or less that has swelled and slowed in anticipation of idly picking it up again… and again and again.
I’ve found myself returning often to events and insights that reverberate through our common life, that have been so thoroughly incorporated into our sense of ourselves and the horizons of our consciousness that we no longer sense their effects but simply live them. In a 1951 essay on the American novelist William Dean Howells, Lionel Trilling wrote that then-contemporary vehemence toward Howells’s sunny optimism “tells us, I think, more about ourselves than about Howells. It raises the question of why we believe, as we do believe, that evil is the very essence of reality.” I can’t even begin to count the number of people I’ve known or encountered who reflexively espouse such a position, several generations distant from Trilling and the postwar years when the world was coming to grips with the magnitude of the Shoah and the Soviet Union under Stalin.
And I must remember that for a lengthy period in my own life, I believed similarly. Or, to be more precise about it, I told myself that I should believe it because there was no alternative.
Another precedent: the odd shift in left-wing politics that began in the 1960s. “All through the 50s and 60s, disaffiliation was a central impulse,” wrote Irving Howe, “as both a signal of nausea and a tacit recognition of impotence. I say ‘recognition of impotence’ because movements that are powerful, groups that are self-confident, do not opt out of society: they live and work within society in order to transform it.” The effect of “the great disaffiliation” is now felt throughout politics, left and right, long on agendas and far too short on concrete plans of action for anything but the seizure and maintenance of power.
When I was young, disaffiliation no longer seemed like a choice, but a given. To affiliate with a political party, a club, a lodge, or an organized religion seemed like a capitulation, and everything that happened in politics and religion appeared to further justify our refusal to participate. I remember admiring exactly the opposite spirit in my grandfather, a member of the Grange and the Italian-American Club; in my grandmother and her friends, all active in the Episcopal church and members of the Women’s Club; in my mother, who was a proud NAACP member alongside my father, and who became ordained as a Lay Eucharistic Minister; in my great aunts, who called us all together for reunions and Christmas parties. They had all gone through the Depression, a harrowing and uniting moment. I remember a remark made by an elderly neighbor when I was a teenager: “Everybody used to be all together. Now we’re all apart.”
My friends and I had no Depression to face and there was no longer a call to war. “You’ve led a very sheltered life,” my father told me. I heard it as an accusation.
We made our own trouble.
Add in the pull away from privacy that accelerated after 9/11 and harmonized with the push toward ever-faster and more fluid and efficient shopping “experiences,” put it all together in one gestalt, and you have what resembles nothing so much as an indifferently designed, marginally distracting, unending video game, a passionless…
Another diagnosis. Another “thoughtful” attempt to tie all the cultural strands together. “What about Obama/Trump/MAGA/progressive/pandemic and so on? And on…
I decided to…
…return to the question above: what would it be to meet this moment of such unremitting stridency with compassion? Surely the answer is not to cover it from every possible angle until it’s tied down like Gulliver by the Liliputians, and then start invoking Marcus Aurelius or Emerson’s “Circles.” What good would it do to remind everyone that it will all be over in the blank of an eye, if it’s offered in a spirit of chastisement and one-upsmanship?
One historical precedent struck me as particularly resonant. In 1969, my old friend Manny Farber put together a collection of his film criticism called Negative Space. In the introduction, he asserted that there were three types of space in movies: the visual field of the screen, the psychological space of the actor, and the area of experience and geography covered in a given film. To illustrate the second type of space, he contrasted then-modern actors with their counterparts from the ‘30s and ‘40s. In High Sierra, wrote Manny, “Bogart could swing in indeterminate space: his selfless hurt dignity overpowered, practically ran kingdoms,” while Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Stéphane Audran in La Femme infidèle, both made in 1969, “appear to own every inch of a small principality that extends about six inches to any side of their bodies, and anything else on the horizon is uncontrollable, unattainable, and therefore hardly concerns them…It is heroic acting, but it is also enclosed, inclement, and battle ready.”
Manny was also a painter, and his criticism was the reverse of everyone else’s—a minimum of judgment and analysis, a maximum use of metaphorical action images that was beautifully calibrated and aligned with the ceaseless movement of cinema. His description of Fonda and Audran’s wariness of everything beyond their immediate periphery could be reapplied to the mood I see in so many people today, who keep trying to turn further and further away from each other, to finish every action without drawing attention, to bring the world to themselves rather than going out to meet it.
I also see myself and my friends, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, floundering from impulse to impulse, like gnats “banging suicidally against the light fixture,” to borrow another image from Manny. Two crucial differences: many people today have no memory of an earlier existential freedom to lament, and no strain of real-world heroism to reject. Heroism itself is inadmissible. Nor do they seem to have much of a connection to the presence of either in cinema, which always catches the here and now, no matter what the level of artifice. To evoke Manny one last time, every movie carries the DNA of its time. It’s part of what I love about the art form and why it has been at the center of my life since I was a child. “You decided so early on what you wanted to do,” cautioned my mother on several occasions. All I could do was agree, and wonder why I would elect to betray myself by walking away from what I loved. Luckily for me, I had yet to realize that we are all cajoled, counseled, forced, or brutalized into doing exactly that throughout our lives. I was able to withstand it, for which I’m grateful. It was my love for cinema, which had already given me so much so early, that allowed me to resist. As Ben Johnson says of a long ago romance in The Last Picture Show, “I guess loving a girl like that’s always the right thing to do.”
The cinema sharpened my eyes and my senses. It led me out of the playground of disaffiliation and brought me to a real community. It opened the door to the inexhaustible. Now, immediate, boundless and eternal. As Ingrid Bergman exclaims when she reaches the top of the volcano in Stromboli and lays down under a blanket of stars, “What beauty! What mystery!”
And cinema gave me the answer to the question that I’ll repeat one last time: how do we address this moment with compassion? By speaking from love. ◆
This piece is excerpted from the Summer 2023 issue of Parabola,
THE COSMOS. You can find the full issue on our online store.