Letter from the Editors: Slouching Towards Megiddo

Christopher Bernard

Christopher Bernard: Slouching Towards Megiddo

Caveat Lector has always been driven by a critique of contemporary society and culture, just as art in all its forms is an implied criticism of reality. A friend of mine once said he suspected the world he’d grown up in was based on a devil’s bargain, a deal made long ago by an ancestor Faust, and that that world would eventually be faced with a disastrous bill to be paid. No one, no society, no culture, could become this rich, this powerful, this amoral, this irresponsible (he said) unless the highest possible price was waiting for it. I tried to argue him out of his dismal thoughts, accusing him of exaggeration, doom-saying, paranoia. It didn’t help that some of the strongest analysts of the modern world shared his gloom.

But now his pessimism seems justified. The modern world, with the ecological crisis, may very well be substantially over, a kind of lame-duck, or, to use a more fashionable concept, a zombie civilization: dead without quite realizing it, and hungry for the brains of the living. Modernity seems to be proving itself bankrupt, just as capitalism, its economic driver, seems to be playing out what the economist Joseph Schumpeter described as its existential drive toward self-extinction, if not toward the extinction of the human race along with the other species it has wiped off the face of the earth. Not to be sensationalist or exaggerating or hysterical.

Our era sometimes seems, uncannily, like the early 1930s in Europe. That was also a time when a dreadful future seemed on history’s doorstep, but few believed and many denied it. After all, Stalin could not possibly be massacring most of his peasants if he intended to feed the Soviet Union, nor could he be murdering the most important members of his own party. Only a hysteric could believe that.

Mussolini was a pathetic cartoon. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria, they bit off more than they could possibly chew.

And Hitler, that caricature of the superman dictator, with his shrieking speeches and idiotic moustache—only a fool on cocaine would think he could conquer all of Europe, annihilate its Jews, gypsies and other “undesirables” and enslave its peoples for the sake of Germany in the name of a pathological version of Social Darwinism – his handlers, the real powers in Germany, would get control of him in time.

No one so mad or so foolish as these gentlemen could pose any real danger. We just needed to stay calm and manipulate them to our advantage. Buy them out—that’s the idea. Only a hysteric could believe otherwise.

Those who weren’t so sure, who thought the signs spelled disaster if we didn’t act, decisively and quickly, were sometimes called Cassandras, after the poor hysterical girl, ridiculed, derided, disbelieved, murdered by Clytemnestra with Agamemnon outside his bath, whose prophecies came inconveniently true.

That was the wisdom of rational, level-headed liberals, believers in humanity, reason and pragmatism, people who discounted the power of insanity and insanity of power. Believers in the Western way of life, amoral, individualist, hedonist, capitalist. To believe anything else was to be hysterical.

Then there were the cynics and the despairers: there was nothing to be done but watch the catastrophe unfold and try to ride it out when it hit.

We know what happened. The hysterics seem to have been right.

Something similar seems to be afoot now. We cannot quite believe that great dark cloud looming on the horizon could really be heading our way. So we have the same groups forming: the deniers, the pragmatists, the good liberals, the reasonable, the cynics.

But let’s for a moment accept the notion that we are about to meet a very great challenge—in the opinion of some knowledgeable minds not given to exaggeration, the greatest challenge the human species has yet had to face—one that makes facing down fascism and communism look comparatively simple, because that just required winning a war, but the present danger is of our own curious doing, based on a way of life that has become so ingrained we have little idea how else to live.

What do we do in that case?

The “Titanic” is racing through the night, going ever faster in a drive to beat the record from the old to the New World. And that blur on the horizon is, according to our leaders on the bridge, only fog. Double-down on the boilers. We have to go faster if we’re going to break the record. Faster. Faster.

—Christopher Bernard

Image: “R.M.S. Titanic Grand Staircase”