Friday, January 12, 2007

Fear and Loathing from the Sofa

“It is all that remains of my friend; the friend who led me on to madness and wreckage; a godlike head of such marble as only old Hellas could yield, young with the youth that is outside time…They say that haunted memory-face is modeled after my own, as it was at twenty-five, but upon the marble base is carven a single name in the letters of Attica—HYPNOS.”
-H.P. Lovecraft, “Hypnos”

The above quotation is a portion of the final paragraph from Lovecraft’s short story “Hypnos,” which can be found in the anthology The Dreams in the Witch-House. To provide a quick summary, the tale is told of a young man who takes on as his friend and teacher in manners of dark, drug-fueled, and unspeakable psycho-cosmic excursions a strange, yet hauntingly beautiful man whom he meets at a railway station. For a few years following, the pair shut themselves away in a studio apartment and embark upon a series of gruesomely psychosomatic experiments, often launching their consciousnesses into farther reaches of the cosmos than man had ever dreamt. Eventually, the teacher sees a certain vision that literally paralyzes him with fear. As you may, however, be able to gather from the quotation, everything happened in the mind of the narrator himself. It is, of course, unclear as to whether or not anything remotely resembling the described events actually transpired, or whether or not the narrator is in fact telling the truth. It is this ambiguity that entrances Lovecraft fans and frustrates his critics to no end.

In case you are wondering, this is not intended to be a review of a grisly little story written close to seventy years ago. I wish to say something regarding the nature of fear, specifically as to how it relates to this point in the course of human history.

Fear is a ridiculously powerful entity; in its most potent form, it has the ability to inspire actions that, quite frankly, seem or will seem utterly boneheaded in retrospect:

--The wiping out of Native Americans. When colonists first came to this country and began to develop it, the only serious threats at first were a lack of knowledge as to how survive in this unfamiliar land, and the presence of indigenous peoples. Well, they were able to put aside their fear of the natives long enough to learn how to work and utilize the land; after that, it’s the beginning of mass genocide and whacking babies against trees. I know full well that most of us look back at that episode and gasp at the brutality of our ancestors, but I am willing to bet that most of us think far less about the subsequent repression and marginalization of the remaining tribal Americans that still continues to this day, though by now the wheels have been turning long enough for things to simply continue running their course, so it is predominantly in a state of indifference that we deal with these people nowadays. Our initial fear, though it has since evolved into a comfortable apathy, has left our tendencies paralyzed and has held the lives of those whom we oppressed in permanent stasis.

--McCarthyism. Boy, did the Senate pull a boner with this one. I don’t need to go into a lot of details, as I’m sure most of you are perfectly aware of the highlights (or lowlights, as the case may be), but I’m sure that most of us can now agree that this is just about the most irrational cause for mass hysteria that was ever concocted. The mainstream spread of Communism…rrrrrriiiiiight. The capitalist system by that point was already well enough in place to effortlessly shrug off any attempts at cultural “insurgency.” There really was nothing to be afraid of; I suppose gray suits and pamphlets were a great threat to our society. Really, this (along with its offshoot, the Vietnam conflict) was just another way to marginalize the rest of us, to give us something to fear.

--But we can’t be afraid of the Russians forever, now can we? They’re a disheveled third-rate power now anyway, so that option is right out. So presently we are supposed to be deathly afraid of the terrorist threat. Well, 9/11 helped us out a bit with that one, though we should’ve seen it coming (again, a completely separate topic for later). So after we are attacked by groups based out of Afghanistan, we invade…Iraq. Never mind that there never was any correlation or cooperation between the two nations; at that point, Americans heard the words “terrorists” and “nuclear” in the same sentence on CNN and went completely bonkers. From there, you run into arguments like “These terrorists, these suicide bombers, could come into YOUR home and endanger the lives of YOU and YOUR KIDS!” Which is just absurd; any rational teenager can deduce that any terrorist attacks are going be geared towards a symbolic target: the towers and the Pentagon (conspiracy theories on the backburner for the time being) for instance. Not one terrorist cell has given any thought to your personal habits or has harbored any intentions of hijacking a single-engine plane to take off from Beetlestraw, Nebraska and drop a smart bomb on your head. It doesn’t matter, though; we’ve bought it for a long time, why should we stop now? That’s a notion on which those in power are counting, and rightly so, as its worked so far. We’re starting now to see some real signs of discontent with approval ratings; its always been there of course, but it started small back in late 2001 with those blessed with some foresight and has since grown exponentially, coinciding with each subsequent blunder of the current administration.

Two things could have arisen during the first post-9/11 months, based largely on official, as well as public, reaction to the atrocities: one, a stunned nation and government, totally caught with their pants down (again barring all feasible conspiracies at this time), could regroup and seek to understand what led to these attacks, or two, immediately label any and all Arabs/Muslims as suspected terrorists, and then spend tax dollars to undermine the Bill of Rights, dubbing it “patriotism.”

The former should have happened, and we would likely have moved from shocked fear to healthy caution and knowledge-seeking within a matter of months instead of a matter of years, as has been the case. The latter is what actually happened, and has left the nation as horrifically paralyzed as Lovecraft’s cosmic sojourner.

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