I recently read Joan Didion’s The White Album, which was my first real extended contact with Didion, and my first experience with her explicitly political work. Predictably, it was excellent. Didion can do with remarkable consistency what only the best writers do: cast a sort of shroud of enchantment over the mundane and everyday, making it weird and dreamlike yet still wholly recognizable. You look at the Hoover Dam, orchid breeding, even shopping centers through Didion’s eyes, and sometimes it’s like you’re in the Grimm Brothers’ black woods. (Regarding shopping centers: “If I had a center I would have monkeys, and Chinese restaurants, and Mylar kites and bands of small girls playing tambourine.”)
The force is clearly strong with Joan, which is why I feel slightly embarrassed for thinking of The White Album as a disappointment. It seems like some personal inadequacy on my part, some inability to rise to the book’s challenge. Maybe it’s just my failure to immerse myself in the book’s time and place, to see through my post-Cold War baby narcissism and into the past. Or maybe the climate of 1968 and its immediate aftermath is just something beyond my comprehension. But I can’t read sentences like this and not feel a little let down: “If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.”It’s not that I don’t understand the impulse there; two pages earlier I nearly pumped my fist in the air when Didion wrote that her generation was “convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood.” But surely light and darkness exist on a gradient, and hopping to the barricades in defense of even a marginally less horrifying form of social organization is a worthy endeavor. Mind you, I’m not rejecting fatalism, which I find eminently reasonable and even sort of admirable. What I can’t get with is paralysis.
I suppose you might ask what could be more reasonable in the face of inevitable doom than just doing nothing. That’s not an idle hypothetical; nothing could be less hypothetical. After all, if you want to see inevitable doom you can just check the weather forecast. In my lifetime, and probably yours too, climate change is likely to bring a very abrupt end to the march of human progress (if such a thing ever existed in the first place). Unprecedented droughts are already mucking with crop production, and it’s not inconceivable we could be looking at serious global food shortages in the next few decades. With scarcity comes political instability, and what comes from that god only knows. We’ll probably find out soon enough, though. There’s no preventing what’s already begun.
So right now the watchword is mitigation. I try and do my part to mitigate: I recycle, for instance, albeit not as much as I should. I locate myself in a city with public transportation, so I don’t need to burn my own fossil fuels on the daily commute. I write blog posts about news and politics, hoping against hope that I’m doing my duty to inform the electorate. In my more shameful moments, I privately hope I’ll be an old man by the time things get really bad, and that I’ll be financially secure enough to insulate me and mine from the worst of it. I sometimes remind myself that I could be completely wrong, but that gesture in the direction of intellectual humility seems pretty hollow beside the terrible logic of it all.
But here’s the thing: for all of that, in terms of vulgar utility, my life is almost certainly a net loss for the world. Whatever miniscule role I play in nudging the political discourse towards recognition and action will ultimately be outweighed by the amount of resources I consume, the volume of carbon I pump back into the atmosphere. I try to balance the scales, to justify myself to the world, but when I’m being honest with myself I know I can’t ever succeed.
Futile action may sound unpalatable, but you should see some of the alternatives. After all, I like being alive, and I’m too weak to become an ascetic. Nor am I capable of just ignoring it all. The only options that remain are paralysis and action. So we’re back to the original question.
Would it be too cloying to say I honestly believe that action, even futile action, is a balm for the soul? I don’t know how much horror you can passively absorb before it curdles up inside of you, toxifies your life. Maybe the only way to clear the pores is through gestures of hope, even–especially, actually–in an unhopeful universe. Those gestures won’t change man’s fate, but they make grim thoughts about man’s fate easier to manage. And indeed, despite the sense that my own continued existence is an unpayable debt, I’m pretty happy with my life. There’s no one else I’d rather be, no time and place to which I’d rather relocate. I’m happy because I feel like I’m trying, and most times it hardly matters how feeble my attempts actually are. Even if it’s all too heavy to lift, at least I’m building muscle. You go to a barricade because you could use the sunlight and the exercise.