Friday, October 28, 2011

Kunstler on Tragedy

While I'm gathering resources for a critical assessment of a tragic outlook, it occurs to me to acknowledge one of the main inspirations – if that's the appropriate term here – for this project: James Howard Kunstler's Home From Nowhere, particularly the first chapter.

This is the sequel to The Geography of Nowhere, his funny, scathing, and sometimes infuriating critique of the suburbanization of the United States.

For Kunstler, tragedy has a dual aspect: life is essentially tragic and, in our efforts to avoid tragedy we have fallen into a logic that is itself tragic. As he puts it:
Everything we love and care about in this world is subject to the tragedy of eventually being lost to us, including our very selves. the easy response to this terrible condition is to create a world full of things that are not worth caring about. That is precisely what we have done in the United States. This is why the suburban housing subdivisions are so sickening in their endless, banal replication. They deny and confute the tragic nature of life because they are places not worth caring about (Kunstler 1996, p.22)
The above quotation follows hard on the heels of a quintessentially Kunstleresque diatribe against the “clown civilization” we have created in the United States:
Sustained on a clown diet rich in sugar and fat, we have developed a clown physiognomy. We dress like clowns. We move about a landscape filled with cartoon buildings in clownmobiles, absorbed in clownish activities. We fill our idle hours enjoying the canned antics of professional clowns. We perceive God to be an elderly comedian. Death, when we acknowledge it, is just another pratfall on the boob tube. Bang! You're dead! (Ibid., pp.21-22)
In sum:
We have used our unprecedented wealth and technical ability to construct a massive edifice designed to deny and confute life's essentially tragic nature, and this has made us ridiculous (Ibid., p.22)
This response to tragedy is not only ridiculous, though; it is itself tragic.
All our efforts to nullify life's tragic nature have paradoxically led us into deeper unhappiness. What we have done to the physical fabric of our country finally is not an illusion but a genuine tragedy. We have come close to making civilized life impossible in the United States (p.24)
But how ought we to respond to this doubly compounded tragedy? It would be easy enough, reading much of Kunstler's work, to conclude that the game is up: we are now locked in to a tragic course from which there is no turning. Perhaps we should just throw up our hands and despair. Perhaps we should double down on evasion and denial, and enjoy the cartoon as long as it lasts, throw an end-of-the-world party.

When I was attempting to explain Kunstler's outlook to someone over dinner recently, my interlocutor raised precisely this point: If you believe the end of the world is at hand, why hold back from pursuing every last pleasure, breaking every last vow, cutting down every last tree? My interlocutor presented this as the “James Watt argument," a especially perverse form of moral hazard.

(I would note, in passing, that it is also a variant of the “last man” argument that haunts the dreams of environmental ethicists: If there is only one person left on earth, and that person's death is immanent, why should that person hold back from acts of wanton destruction?)

It is at this point, however, that I would draw a distinction between an apocalyptic outlook and a tragic outlook. The apocalypse is a single future event, a universal cataclysm that overturns everything; it is the end of the world as such, in some significant sense.

Tragedy, as Kunstler casts it, is simply the human condition, the constant, latent possibility of loss all along the way. Even when Kunstler comes closest to foretelling the apocalypse, in his recent projections of "the long emergency," he stops short of foretelling the complete overturning of everything. The emergency is an unprecedented crisis of civilization, and we all may suffer terrible losses, but it need not be the end of the world as such.

And that's just it: the appropriate response to tragedy is to muster the resources of character to face up to the human predicament, with wisdom and maturity, and to do what we can to keep our most essential projects going. A tragic outlook is ennobling, which can manifest itself even in our ways of building and making things:
It is the effort that human beings make to put the marks of skill and love on the artifacts they leave behind that ennobles us in the face of life's tragic nature, and lifts us close to the domain of angels. To behold a beautiful building, or a beautiful painting, or a beautiful garden made by someone now dissolved into time, is to experience a residue of skill and love expended in the face of certain destruction, and this once again speaks to the tragic nature of the human predicament (Ibid., p.23).

Kunstler aims here for "enchantment in life," which cannot be gotten through illusions: "the sort of enchantment I speak of is the feeling of being in love with the world we inhabit, akin, I think, to what Saul Bellow meant when he said that love was gratitude for being" (Ibid., p.24).

At some later point, I'll have more to post about Kunstler's tragic outlook, drawing from The City in Mind and, especially, The Long Emergency, neither of which I have on hand just now.

I'll close, for now, with a brief quotation from Home From Nowhere that cries out to be the epigram of a paper:
History doesn't believe anybody's advertising. History doesn't care whether nations rise or fall. History is merciless and life is tragic.(Ibid., p.21)

James Howard Kunstler. 1996. Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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