The Last Book: Footnotes to a History of Humankind

credit: Jeff Wells, Rigorous Intuition: What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Them (Trine Day, 2008), p. 251

With my novel The Last Book, Further Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, Thomas Mann’s unfinished European classic takes a speculative turn to a dystopian future, via a ’70s joyride through middle America. Precocious con-man Felix Krull meets his match in Sophie Vaughan, astral temptress and first woman president. Together they must choose sides in the looming battle between the ruling Hierarchy and the rebellious Panarchists.

Key to Felix’s awakening to the realities of the twenty-first century is his discovery of a mysterious document in a top-secret government archive, from which we are shown the following excerpts:

The Last Book: Footnotes to the History of Humankind

Technology and specialization developed hand in hand and together were responsible for the spectacular success, and correspondingly spectacular failure, of the machine called civilization. This historical irony was borne out on three key fronts, which manifested in their terminal stages as overpopulation, social alienation, and ecological destruction.

The driving force in the machine’s progress was the impulse to populate; the fuel for which was provided by the development of medical technology and the ethic of unlimited growth. Higher birth-survival rates and lower death rates were the direct result. Scientific and technological developments meanwhile made possible greater success in providing the necessities of a healthy life for increased numbers in society as a whole.

The upward curve of the population rates reached precipitous heights, however, by the mid-twentieth century. In the respective realms of rats, bacteria, or numbers on a graph, when the overpopulation curve becomes vertical, a catastrophe occurs. For rats, reproduction halts; for bacteria, the supportive organism dies, starving the parasitic culture which for a brief time has become dominant; on the graph, time stops. Survival past such circumstances depends on a dramatic shift in the predominant paradigm, into new modes of being. The number line stops trying to live in time and instead stretches upward and downward for eternity. The bacteria culture atrophies and dies, unless another nutritive environment chances upon it. The rats eat each other, primarily the newly born, until their usual rations can be restored. It is clear from these cases that “survival” does not imply an unbroken continuation of history, or of the life pattern.

The human race shared characteristics of all three nonhuman models. Conceiving of eternity, while approaching it with the power to end history. Falling prey to new epidemics and diseases, and meanwhile jeopardizing the earth’s capacity to support further life, by decimating forests, acidifying and poisoning water, depleting the ozone, and forcing erosion of fertile soil. Finally, slaughtering its own kind by the billion. As of this writing, it cannot be determined whether a successful revivification of human culture is possible.

This authorial stance, as I’m certain the discerning reader may appreciate, was unnerving. Who was the author, anyway — some alien correspondent reporting to a distant galactic superior? A militant anarchist theoretician from Georgetown University? The alien reporter writing via an astral channel through the local academician? “As of this writing…” indeed. To continue:

The second theme, alienation, stemmed from a historical process with its roots in the drive to populate and to succeed scientifically at all costs. It began to manifest on the historical plane when overpopulation took the form of imperial colonization. The early European empires gave rise to a cosmopolitanism which destroyed tribal identities in favor of individual hybrids. These new strains displayed an adaptive advantage in outlying environments; for, while the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire saw the establishment of superficially distinct nation-states, the mark of Rome was stamped upon all the governments, and they came to play the roles of rival factions in a newer European empire.

Technology, medicine and social philosophy were proceeding apace. Nations eager to play out the advantages of specialization and mechanization entered a competitive race for efficiency and dominance in agriculture, industry and warfare. The new industries, cosmopolitan tastes, and growing numbers of the Europeans demanded new resources — from gold, to coffee, to land. Even the churches had developed an insatiable need for more souls to save. And so the European human group overflowed to reap even more of the earth’s bounty on the other five continents, looking even to Antarctica, to the Earth’s moon and beyond, for the needs of the future.

The confrontation of the expanding white culture with the indigenous peoples and cultures of its exploited colonies produced disastrous results for the latter. In addition to the large-scale genocide practiced in many areas in the early periods of worldwide imperialism, cultural genocide was the de facto result of sustained contact and assimilation, even when the subjugated peoples were protected on reservations or given home-rule status under the aegis of the controlling government.

Despite the inherent racism of the colonizers, their empire-stretching served to hybridize further the white race and culture. The amalgam which civilization had already become was colored by ever new and diverse racial and cultural elements. The “melting pot” syndrome found its apogee in the mass culture of the United States, itself a direct outgrowth of the European expansion.

The resultant hybrid culture, however, spread worldwide by the very success of the American model, tended toward a new monoculture rather than a true diversity of integral traditions. It was as if the white race had forced distinctive, vibrant colors back through a prism to emerge in blinding, indistinct white light. The historical tribes had been fused into a gigantic metatribe, inhabiting a new, electronic “global village.”

Certain moral principles were fulfilled in the historical process which seemed to the conquerors and their assimilated subjects to justify the new world order. The ideal was expressed via different and sometimes conflicting ideologies; yet the fallacy was common. Whether by Christian ideals, or manifest destiny, or economic solidarity, it was expected that all people could share a common identity, as they had previously only within tribal groups. But however noble the concept, it was an abstract one when enforced on the national or global scale, alien to concrete human nature on an organic social scale.

Traditionally, tribal groups had relied not on the imaginary unity of specialized, autonomous strangers, but on the actual daily cooperation of congenial, well-rounded members of ancestral communities. Individual success was not narrowly specialized, but depended on a complete range of living skills. Group strength was a resilient one based on the broad abilities of its members, and did not rest therefore on spectacular material achievements.

For centuries, advances in technology allowed the white-hybrid culture to conquer the human and natural world; simultaneously its very foundations, in social structure and resource extraction, were slowly crumbling. The initial population booms and consequent expansion, along with the extermination, exploitation and assimilation of other peoples, delivered an elementary and superficial judgment of white success.

Within the overextended empire, alienation was the price of specialization. The successful individuals who made up the increasingly megalomaniacal machine, while losing contact with their own primary survival skills, were estranged as well from the wholeness of natural life. The same factors that helped the individual to survive as a cog in the machine caused the population as a whole to boom; but the result was a silent, poisonous backfire in the form of individual alienation from the faceless crowd. The so-called digital revolution sealed the fate of the imperial citizen, who would abandon the struggles of people for basic human, democratic and economic rights, to rest content behind a screen of infinite entertainment, entrainment, entrapment.

I became cognizant then of my own reflection in the screen — a phantasm of a figment of a once living, breathing, human being moving with animal grace upon the resplendent banks of the Tagus River, or the mighty Mississippi. Now ensconced in my dungeon of a cubicle, I sat riveted to these ciphers from an implied but uncertain future, an unknown vantage.
Left penniless on the fish docks in the so-called New World, I had ascended, by my own efforts and by forces still beyond me ken, to a yet newer world — one neither so brave nor so ordered as its champions might prefer to paint it — for what, to what end? To sit by the controls of another sinking ship?
I read on…

The price paid for individual and technological success proved to be more than the twin diseases of overpopulation and alienation, and more than that paid by indigenous peoples facing imperial subjugation. The final price would be the viability of the biosphere as a whole. By the late twentieth century, it was becoming apparent even in the halls of empire that unlimited growth was impossible. Overpopulation was reaching discernible proportions. Alienation was both more widespread than ever and more understood (ironically by means of specialized academic education). And energy sources for advanced technology were no longer easily or cheaply available for the taking. The energy crisis took until then to reveal itself in its full implications, owing to previously abundant supplies in the ever farther flung hinterlands, and the capacity of science to devise new methods of resource extraction. Finally the ends of the once seemingly bottomless pits of the fossil fuels came into view — recalling, for geologically astute observers, the last great race of masters of the earth, the Dinosaurs, so famously extinguished.

The chief replacement for fossil fuels promised, for a time, to be uranium. A mere twenty years of experimentation with nuclear energy instead convinced enough people of its dangers to halt its growth. Similar disappointments were played out in most areas of resource extraction and heavy industry. Growing numbers of people, and the regulatory bodies of their governments, began to see the counterproductive byproducts and side effects (including huge financial liabilities) of such activity. The pollution of other natural resources such as air and water reached untenable proportions, threatening the very human organisms the new energy and industry were meant to sustain.

Frontiers were growing too scarce and isolated to be efficiently exploited in the accustomed manner of the European industrial-military machine. At the same time, the empire’s population, in its pervasive social disaffection, was becoming less eager to sanction unlimited exploitation at its own (and the rest of the planet’s) expense. A turning point of a kind occurred when the American citizenry refused to continue its support for a government engaged in a futile military adventure in Southeast Asia. The ensuing frustration of this great power’s expansionist aims represented the forging of a new link in the chain of imperial power extending back from the United States to England, and from England to Rome.

In each case the colony responsible for the turning back of the empire became the next great world power. And so from the USA the mantle of earthly power passed to the Vietnamese people, and indeed to the under-represented American people who opposed their own government, who dared to affirm the principle of self-determination: in either case, a people whose reign may be seen not in the same terms of material expansion embraced by the imperial lineage, but rather as a symbolic coming of age of the downtrodden; as a harbinger of the pregnant upsurgence of the Third and Fourth Worlds. Those peoples, the disenfranchised, the colonized, the disinherited, shunned the empty promises of an exploitive global economy, and advocated relentlessly for regional and ethnic autonomy.

When I read these words I began to sweat, cognizant of the decentralist rivals to our own ruling Party. Was that groundswell the future? Had that future arrived — even at the gates of the White House this very morning? I touched the security camera feed for an update; saw only swirling debris on the sidewalk, drones buzzing overhead.

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