Our Minds Untethered

Things have been heating up with the Chinese and Russians for many years, as if by script.  Americans have been forced to demonize the Russkies since 1945 — we’ve been in a virtual state of war all those years. 76 years.  And China, after America threw away the coveted detente dumpling that Tricky Dick and Henry K worked so hard to establish in February 1972 as a gift to CREEP and the future presidential library, got put on the official updated shitlist in 2012, when the world learned that the Chinese Army had insclutabry hacked into the New York Times, WaPo, and the Wall Street Journal in search of the source of information revealing un-Commie corruption at the upper echelons of Beijing’s ka-ching-a-lings in power, according to an anonymous well-placed source.

Cybersecurity wonks Mandiant and Crowdstrike nodded their heads. (Little Mandiant went on to get bought out by CIA start-up Fire Eye for a billion bucks.  Crowdstrike is a start up of “retired” FBI personnel, including its former global cybersecurity chief, Shawn Henry.) So, the MSM, now feeling molested by Red Capitalists, published photos of the building the hacker army was working out of in Shanghai, as well as photos of the hackers in their uniforms — in absentia indictments for the lot soon followed. Then in 2016, we re-heated the Russians, in earnest, dragging them into our crooked electoral processes, accused them all kinds of hacking, said Assange was working in a conspiracy to commit arrangement with them, and eventually identified a Russian Army group ass the hackers, showed a photograph of their operations building — and, lo and behold, they, too, were indicted in absentia (meaning, no hope they’ll ever be tried or serve time). Mandiant and Crowdstrike nodded for that, too. Scripts.

Now, we are beginning to hear war drums beating for a heating up with Russia and China.  Recently we accused the Russkies of being involved (by proxy) with the Colonial pipeline ransomware hack. We are now considering the possibility that China was responsible for the severity of the pandemic by withholding origins information.  Yesterday, US demagogues in Congress were pushing Uncle Joe to dust off the pool chain he used to deal with Corn Pop all those years ago, and turn on taunting Putin, who is now targeted for regime change.  And the Chinese now have human rights issues with the ethnics and in sweatshops that Americans just can’t cope with. (Jeff Bezos had to pull his Amazon operations out of China, he was so upset; some say, he’s going to outer space to have a good cry, away from the prying eyes of MBS.)  What do modern China and Russia have in common?  One thing is: BRICS, which, strengthened, could grow into the next global trading currency, leaving the US shitting bricks and facing domestic revolution.

This brings to mind another sad recent reading from Daniel Ellsberg and his latest book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner.  That’s right, you can garner from the title that before Danny Boy broke good, he was one of the Masters of War that Dylan looked forward to grave-spittng on.  Ellsberg owns that speeches he wrote may have played a significant role in leading to the Cuban missile crisis (he’s got a whole chapter on his oops). And the stuff happening on the Cuban grounds during the crisis, especially with unknown tactical nukes, make his book a MUST read.

But more germaine to my point here is that, in his book, Ellsberg highlights the US first strike policy (which Russia has only recently adopted, in frustration), but more importantly, adds that the US plans to bomb China and Russia if nuclear war breaks out with either. Ellsberg trots out a questioner during a war planner’s conference; their exchange is telling:

“What if this isn’t China’s war?” the voice asked. “What if this is just a war with the Soviets? Can you change the plan?”

“Well, yeah,” said General Power resignedly, “we can, but I hope nobody thinks of it, because it would really screw up the plan. [p. 123]

Recent news that China is now busy installing dozens of new nuclear missile siloes is not good news. Right now, there are only two Doomsday machine — America;s and the Russians — and the planet might be a done dumpling if the Chinese go from dim sum to zero sum, too.

It hasn’t looked pretty for a long time on Planet Earth.  The 20th Century was a mess of wars around the globe.  A disgusted TS Eliot penned The Wasteland in response.  Freud left behind Civilization and Its Discontents and, perhaps more potent, The Future of an Illusion.  Erich Fromm responded to the half century of depravity he observed with The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.  Hannah Arendt waxed morosely about the banality of evil.  Then we went postmodern, and the Canonists went underground and became the Deep State. And the 21st century has so far been owned by the War on Terror. Pretty grim stuff, pretty grim.

In the lead-up to the inevitable dissolution (some argue de-evolution) of civilization, there have been major ‘optimists’ along the way who have maintained a vision of human progress. One such personage was HG Wells. He was a pacifist (war, what is it good for?), a didacticist (but if we must war, we can learn from them), a utopianist (believed in mankind), and a Nietzschean (full of amor fati and the Übermensch to come). He was called the “father of science fiction” (Mary Shelley just turned over in her grave — oh, wait). Wikipedia adds that “His science fiction imagined time travel, alien invasion, invisibility, and biological engineering. [sci-fi writer] Brian Aldiss referred to Wells as the “Shakespeare of science fiction.” He gave the world The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Shape of Things to Come, and The Outline of History, among very many publications, and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature four times.

But by the early 1940s, Wells’ infectious enthusiasm for the ‘intrepidity of the mankind’ project had dried up considerably. The Spanish Civil War, from 1936 – 1939, pitted communists against fascists, ostensibly good guys versus bad guys, proved to be lethally demoralizing to left wing ideologues. George Orwell came away from the shattering experience thoroughly disillusioned, his ideals in disarray. “The fascists had behaved just as appallingly as he had expected they would,” Dorian Lynskey writes in his Orwell biography  The Ministry of Truth, “but the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists had shocked him.” He’d come to fight in a great battle of Good versus Evil — writers like Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gelhorn and John Dos Passos had come to bear witness — but “[w]hat he found was ‘a bad copy of 1914–18, a positional war of trenches, artillery, raids, snipers, mud, barbed wire, lice and stagnation.’” The writer’s imaginot line had been crossed.

No one had a greater influence on Orwell’s generation than the literary colossus, H.G. Wells. Prolific, prescient, extraordinarily innovative, in some ways Wells was the perfect tonic for an age that had torn humanity apart with world wars, tyranny, and economic misery disseminated across the globe. “Wells predicted space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power, identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs,” writes Lynskey, “and popularised in fiction the time machine, Martian invasions, invisibility and genetic engineering.” He also developed notions of a “World Brain” and anticipated the World Wide Web (sorry, TimBL). Further, he was a force behind the establishment of the League of Nations.

But Orwell had seen what he’d seen in Spain, and knew the dark heart of Uncle Joe Stalin, and was, writes Lynskey, like “many writers [of his generation] consumed by the idea of decadence and decline.” H.G. Wells’ cautionary utopianism didn’t quite cut it for the lot of them. “It is no exaggeration to say that the genre of dystopian fiction evolved as it did because so many people wanted to prove H. G. Wells wrong,” Lynskey writes.  There seemed to be something of the Wagner-Nietzsche competitive intimacy in Orwell’s approach to the Genius; while Wells emphasized Siegfried, Orwell and friends were all about the Götterdämmerung.

Toward the end of his life H.G.Wells lost his mojo for mankind.  In his last published work, Mind at the End of its Tether, Wells wondered aloud, as it were, if it wasn’t time to replace the human species with something more evolutionarily desirable.  Like Nietzsche, Wells seemed to long for a Zarathustrian Übermensch; he tired of being a tightrope walker in the largely indifferent marketplace of conventional ideas. The very short work (44 pages), written in the years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was presciently published in 1945, the year Utopia was vaporized, seemingly leaving only the shadow of Man behind.

In the opening chapter, The End Closes in Upon Mind, the former idealist is now startled by a sense of a coming paradigm shift.  He writes,

The writer finds very considerable reason for believing that, within a period to be estimated by weeks and months rather than by aeons, there has been a fundamental change in the conditions under which life, not simply human life but all selfconscious existence, has been going on since its beginning…If his thinking has been sound, then this world is at the end of its tether. The end of everything we life is close at hand and cannot be evaded.

Bleak as bleak gets. And nothing’s been the same since the Big Bang of human gods. Wells spends much of the rest of the book divulging his reasoning and extrapolating on the causes and effects of human evolution’s end.

First, he shores up his vision by bringing the projected intuition of others. Everybody Knows, he seems to say, like Leonard Cohen hoarsely whispers decades later. He writes,

The reality glares coldly and harshly upon any of  those who can wrench their minds from the comforting delusions of normality to face the unsparing question that has overwhelmed the writer. They discover a frightful queerness has come into life. Even quite unobservant people now are betraying, by fits and starts, a certain wonder, a shrinking and fugitive sense that something is happening so that life will never be the same again.

It sounds an awful lot like one of his novels, but this time he’s untethered for real. He further looks for familiar signs his optimism has always provided in his vision of human progress through history:

It was merely a question, the fascinating question, of what forms the new rational phase would assume, what Over-man, Erewhon or what not, would break through the transitory clouds and turmoil.

But the tea leaves ain’t coughing up their ancient wisdom this time. Back to rationality, hypotheses.

Wells was smoking some good stuff, and came up with a vision many of us had in the 60s when we first lit up and considered the world at hand, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the turntable.  Wells gives us:

The more strenuous the analysis, the more inescapable the sense of mental defeat. The  cinema sheet stares us in the face. That sheet is the actual fabric of Being. Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles, are no more than a phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, themselves as unsubstantial as a dream.

Wells is in EA Poe territory now, A Dream Within A Dream. Opium bongulations.

Wells looks and looks for the trouble with Man.  He sees behind all of “normal” man’s cosmological reasoning, and teleology, what he calls The Antagonist. (This brings to mind, as a reader response, Wim Wender’s film, Until the End of the World, and the Crime & The City Solution song, “The Adversary.”) It worries him night and day, even to the point of suicidal ideology.  In the chapter Recent Realizations of the Nature of Life, he observes,

…from dates immemorial, introspective minds, minds of the quality of the brooding Shakespeare, have conceived a disgust of the stresses, vexations and petty indignities of life and taken refuge from its apprehension of a conclusive end to things, in mystical withdrawal…The question “Is this all?” has troubled countless unsatisfied minds throughout the ages, and, at the end of our tether, as it seems, here it is, still baffling but persistent.

Is that all?  Then let’s keep dancing and break out the booze.

Wells posits all of his remaining optimism in one last-ditch Vision of adaptability, having come to the conclusion that we have lost our joy in evolving.  We need a new way forward, a way that sounds keenly like our hurtling approach toward the Singularity, the coming merge of Man and Machine.  “Our doomed formicary is helpless as the implacable Antagonist kicks or tramples our world to pieces,” he writes.  He continues with far more gusto:

Man-must go steeply up or down and the odds seem to be all in favour of his going down and out. If he goes up, then so great is the adaptation demanded of him that he must cease to be a man. Ordinary man is at the end of his tether. Only a small, highly adaptable minority of the species can possibly survive. The rest will not trouble about it, finding such opiates and consolations as they have a mind for.

Oxycontinentalists. Dozey-doh.  A good man, Wells at the end of his days is broken.

Even the photographic shadow images of Hiroshima are a bizarre reminder of human depravity — we are taking snaps of the snaps Nature left us to see, Man as Shadow in his demise.  Such self-referentiality still hasn’t hit home.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.