Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Life is Elsewhere

Life is Elsewhere is the title of a novel by the Czech writer Milan Kundera. It is a phrase that was graffitied on Paris walls by student revolutionaries during the riots of ’68. George Carlin famously quipped, “I’m into a lifestyle that doesn’t require my presence.” In Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Clov asks Hamm, “Do you believe in the life to come.” His response: “Mine was always that.”

Oliver Sacks’s recent essay on asylums in The New York Review of Books is a reminder that not all mental institutions are snake pits, and that in the 19th century, some asylums offered the possibility of companionship and community for those who had inadvertently opted out of so-called normalcy. In The Divided Self, another ‘60s artifact, R.D. Laing argues for schizophrenia as a viable form of existence characterized by forms of expression that have value in and of themselves, and that are not only significant as manifestations of mental illness.

When the stock market moves from inflated values to values more commensurate to the equities they reflect, financial analysts call it an adjustment . Whether for reasons financial, political, or geological, the earth seems to be in the throes of something more drastic than an adjustment. It is wobbling on its axis, both metaphorically and literally. Tectonic and climatic shifts have caused massive upheavals, taking the forms of tsunamis in Southeast Asia, flooding in the Southwest United States, drought in Africa, and the melting of polar ice caps. It was recently reported that in the next 10-15 years, shipping companies may no longer have to use the Panana Canal, as they can make their way through the North Pole, thus shaving thousands of miles off their trips. But this savings has been achieved at a cost, and not only in environmental terms. Technological advancement has been met with the equal and opposing rise of fundamentalism, with triumphs of reason overshadowed by desperate millenarian passions.

Every age has its upheavals, its plagues, its inquisitions. In the twelfth century, the Arab world, now so fraught with the ravages of war and religious strife, was the seat of advanced science, with polymathss like Averroes making historic contributions. Today, globalism has compounded the effects of local upheaval. Modern transportation exports viruses and violence with equal efficiency. A once economically viable society like Iceland finds its whole financial system in danger of collapse due to the alacrity with which it leveraged its investments abroad.

Can we still refer to Imperial America when talking about a country whose deficit exceeds the trillion-dollar mark? And when and how do changes in the bulwarks of a society filter down to the foot soldiers of the everyday life? Astronomers believe that a meteor hitting the earth may have caused the ice age, eradicating a huge reptilian population. Which economic or meteorological scourge will hasten the onset of the newest stage of evolution, and where will it lead? Will life still be here—or elsewhere?

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