Monday, November 26, 2012

deep thoughts with James Atlas

The Times ran a piece of post-Sandy commentary yesterday that is clearly meant for the very advanced. Luckily I am here to help you by summarizing its major points and translating it into language you can understand.

Sometimes cities get drowned in floods. It turns out that sometimes people know about this and other disasters in advance but don't stop the disasters. T.S. Eliot told us to fear drowning in an abstract poem in 1922 but we never did until now. Also George Bush is an asshole. Freud said that we can't imagine our own deaths for very specific psychological reasons. We can't imagine the death of cities dying for reasons that are completely different and yet the same. Now please continue reading this piece that imagines the death of cities.

History is a series of random events organized in a seemingly sensible order. You can get paid to write that in The New York Times. We tend to think of ourselves as the end of history, because we are all the sorts of people who write pieces like this one. Frank Kermode wrote something complex and nuanced, which I will now gloss with great self-deprecation as "Flux is all." We see patterns but sometimes those patterns aren't real.

We should have learned this banal truism based on the event of current obsession, but we didn't. We also didn't learn it every other time the Times has run a piece scolding us for not learning a banal truism based on an event of current obsession. There is a high probability that New York will someday fall into the sea. But nothing is inevitable. You see, when there is a high probability that something will happen, there is also a low probability that something will not happen. I know this is complicated. But this is what we mean when we talk about probability, which is a very advanced concept. But even if New York City does fall in to the sea, New York City might still survive. For example, all of its people might move somewhere else. This will somehow allow us to still refer to a New York City. Maybe New York will be remade in Scarsdale! We of course understand this to be an absurd proposition, as we are New York sophisticates. (But it really might happen.)

Humans are ingenious. You can also get paid to write this in The New York Times. We fight off nature. For example, the doomed city of Venice, which is doomed, is planning to fight off nature with ingenious engineering. But still, Venice's death is inevitable. I know I said that nothing is inevitable, but I meant that nothing is inevitable but Venice's death. I know this because those stoic Eastern Islanders all died out, and these situations are comparable. Every civilization must go. It's inevitable, you see. There's a pattern we can see from history.

But it's important to say, when discussing a particular climatological phenomenon that I'm suggesting will lead to our doom, that civilizations (which are just like cities so let's just equate them) all meet their doom for multiple reasons. Anthropology populizer Jared Diamond showed that was true in his book Collapse. He actually got way more particular and specific than that, but again his work is very advanced and I don't want to confuse anyone. The point is that you can't point to one thing as the reason a civilization disappears. The Norse of Greenland disappeared because they cut down all the trees. I mean, other stuff, too, but mostly the trees. There is a joke to be made about whether there's a sound when a tree falls in the forest, which is totally appropriate in tone for this article about a hurricane that killed people and the death of civilization and stuff.

(The joke is about how there was both no trees to fall and no one to hear the tree fall for the same reason, on account of they cut all the trees down. I might have the causation or chronology there a little bit confused; remember it's hard to think about history. This joke survived several rounds of editing and my own sense of personal shame.)

Robert Frost wrote many poems, but you can only quote like three lines legally, so I'm going to quote the ice and fire one. That Robert Frost, he was very homespun. You know who wasn't homespun? Pliny the Younger. He wrote about Pompeii, which was destroyed by a volcano. I'm back on cities now, just telling you so you can keep track. Anyway Pompeii getting destroyed made some people more religious. But it also made some people atheists. But the important thing to understand is that the volcano just destroyed Pompeii, not the whole world. It would be primitive and irrational to imagine that the destruction of your city means the destruction of the world. Unless you lived on Easter Island.

Contemplating our ephemerality can be a profound experience. This, too, is a sentence you can be paid to write for The New York Times. Did you know that I have wandered lonely as a cloud through the lyric beauty of the Lycian coast, and also gone scuba diving? This is because I am quite the sophisticate. That trip was pretty deep. It turns out that Wikipedia has many facts you can read about the Temple of Artemis.

For some reason, most people use vacation as an opportunity to have fun, rather than to ponder the ineffable. Because of this, we all of us can't imagine the impact of global warming. "We" is a powerful word that I enjoy using. The funny thing is that as we continue to fix New York after Hurricane Sandy, New York continues to grow. We literally bail out Lower Manhattan as a big tower gets built. That is kind of a crazy thing to think about, that we can be fixing some things and also making new things at the same time. I say literally because there's actually a guy there with an old paint bucket, throwing the water into the East River.

Life continues until it stops. Joseph Conrad taught me that. I know everybody knows that but they did not learn it from Joseph Conrad. I don't blame them. Joseph Conrad is only understood by the very advanced. I like to go to the museum to look at the dinosaurs because it is then that I ponder the ineffable. Other times that I ponder the ineffable are when I walk through the streets of Manhattan, when I am scuba diving off of the Lycian coast, and when people are drowning in the streets of Manhattan. It is hard to ponder the ineffable when  you are on a deadline. New York city is a kind of miracle. This thought is both original and deep.

Here are some striking images, expressed in elegant prose: necklace of green-and-red traffic lights. Vertical paradise for billionaires. West 77th Street. Did you know that I have read Edward Gibbon? It is best to describe his multivolume, exhaustive history of thousands of pages as an ode to evanescence, because that was what he was really trying to get across.

You should appreciate what you have while you have it, because someday, it will no longer exist. Alternatively, you might die. You should seize the day, is what I'm saying. I know that this is a radical and deep thought, so please don't try to grasp it all at once. After all, I am very advanced.


Brett said...

What an odd op-ed for the NYT to post.

We might be able to keep New York City "dry" for quite some time, with the right engineering. Lord knows the Dutch have done that for centuries - there are inhabited parts of the Netherlands that are 20 feet below sea level. In fact, it might even be possible to "fill in" and re-direct parts of the river to increase natural barriers to flooding. Boston, for example, filled in significant chunks of its bay to create new dry land over the past 400 years.

Bartman said...

This fellow dropped more names than George Will in his prime.

Odelay said...

I love the byline:
James Atlas is a contributing opinion writer and the author of a forthcoming book about biography.

A book about biography! How droll. I can't wait for this one to hit the streets. I'm imagining a tidal wave of literary references in such a book that just might literally flood and destroy NYC, for good.

Paul Sherrard said...

This is what I'm talking about: the Onion comments are a low-rent brainless shithole utterly unworthy of your time or attention; the Times is a worthy target (if only for being a high-rent brainless shithole).

Freddie said...

I getcha!