Notes on the End of the Summer

After a violent June and July, August and the beginning of September seemed relatively calm. Then a bomb went off not far from where I live. I was rattled, and felt confused as people I knew on social media objected to the use of the word “bomb” initially, while memes claiming that New Yorkers are unruffled, brave, and equanimous became instantly (and lastingly) popular. I was told that people like me just brush things off — I can hear an explosion a block away and barely miss a beat on my stroll to the pizzeria… This manic denial of the horror that my city had experienced bewildered me, and I was angry that the suffering of those who were injured and traumatized by the blast was erased by preening and snobbery.

Then I thought: this is how we are built, to go into automatic denial when things are terrifying and beyond our control. Maybe it’s okay, and I should follow. But my next thought was — or is it just that we want, with full awareness that we are doing so even if we don’t admit it, to deny the reality of violence? And what is lost when we do that?

Though August was a less tempestuous time in my psyche than the early summer was, I was distraught by the deaths of two people I knew: Jim Houghton, founder of the Signature Theatre, who died at the beginning of the month, and Max Ritvo, a poet, who died towards the end.

Shortly before Max died I had a dream that an artistic director of another theatre went to see a play at the Signature and called to tell me about it. In therapy I spoke about my dream as if it were my way of asking myself how I might remember Jim now that the immediate outpouring of public grief had subsided and people weren’t talking about him as much. Where would he go within me? How could I remember him? Now I am asking the same about Max. I’m frightened I’m forgetting, repressing. Again, I tell myself — this is just how we are built, we mourn and automatically move on. But then I think — this is really a way of deliberately denying not only the lives of those we have lost, but their suffering and their agony too.

I don’t want to forget just to make my life easier.

This election is surreal. Both major candidates appear to have basic human parts missing. I want to believe this was just “bad luck” and that if Republicans had had fewer candidates run and Democrats more, we’d have different nominees, with greater empathetic and ethical grounding. But is that the case? Where are the values dear to me in this culture? I can see them in the behavior of individuals of course, but when I take a step back and look at our society, self-aggrandizement and self-obsession appear to be our fundamental values.

If you go back to the infamous debate between George HW Bush and Bill Clinton where supposedly Bush demonstrated a startling lack of empathy, you actually see a gentleness and concern from him that feel almost otherworldly at this point.

What if America is becoming worse? Is my desire to not believe this further evidence of a denial that I deliberately deploy, however ambivalently?

The two best multiplex movies of the summer for me were Don’t Breathe and Hell or High Water. The former is a horror/thriller hybrid and the latter is a kind of modern-day western. The movies share a plot and a landscape: they are about immoral people in an economically ravaged community trying to illegally extract a “reward” for the deprivation and exploitation they have suffered. I don’t think Hell or High Water is much of a hit, but I would argue that Don’t Breathe’s success has a lot to do with the bleak universe it inhabits: everyone feels betrayed and abandoned and everyone is out to get what they feel is theirs, by any means necessary.

Both films have weak redemptive energies directed towards a younger and still innocent generation. That is a little hope to hold onto, but it feels more like a concession to Hollywood optimism (and box office anxiety) than an organic choice. The best films I saw this summer, Indignation and Wiener-Dog, represent a world in near-total flight from truth, depth, feeling, and vulnerability. Both are almost unbearably sad and yet I found a genuine hopefulness in them: our emotional realities are still capable of effective representation. Art hasn’t totally ceased choosing to investigate what it means to be human, even if it often feels like our broader culture refuses to do so.

The end of one season and the start of another used to feel so distinct and monumental to me. I don’t think it’s only because seasons bleed into one another now that the transitions feel more amorphous than they once did. Where is our world headed? As I’m filling out the hundreds of questions of an online dating service and scanning through infinite profiles, it is not hard to imagine a future in which we become our devices, endlessly interacting with one another from a place of total isolation, in a world in which time and change no longer are central to human life. Don DeLillo’s unsettling and moving novel Zero K suggests such a future, one that will work for many people, the rich at first and then maybe everyone — a new kind of subjectivity that is easy, unencumbered. If we do ultimately arrive at a deathless technologically-mediated reality, maybe it will reveal the comforts and pleasures, embraced by an increasingly post-human subject, that DeLillo is so skeptical about. But I imagine that the slow objectification of our humanity will be messier and sadder and more full of refusal and fight than the novel suggests.

Why do I think that, given how unreal our world already feels to me, how few of us seem to want to hold onto the suffering and anxiety that I find so vital and precious? Isn’t it more likely that we will just slowly progress into an engineered, medicated, manufactured bliss?

I hope not. But my hope may just be nostalgia. Perhaps we’ve already made the leap.