- Bob Marley The Real Situation
The stories of Noah and Jonah in the Bible mirror each other to the extent that they seem variations of some deeper story, one sprung from the Apocalypse that happened at the very beginning of culture.
The story of Noah is about a righteous man who is told that total destruction awaits the world. He is given the mission to save himself and his family and every living thing, which he does by building an ark. In the ark he is marooned from the deluge that destroys everything. So goes the best known part of the story. But what comes afterwards takes up as much time as the story of the ark in the Noah narrative. Once he lands, God makes a covenant with Noah and all living things to never again bring about total destruction. And then we are told that Noah planted grapes, and invented wine. On that wine he got drunk and uncovered himself in his tent. His youngest son went in andcovered him up. When Noah woke up, he cursed this son. He cursed him the way the father in Kafka’s The Judgment cursed his son. There’s a certain gleefulness, a certain casting off the mask, a psychotic seizure here, as though the darkest part of the unconscious was peeping out.
Survivor shakes, the prophet’s PTS.
Jonah’s story is that God gave him a message that Nineveh was to be totally destroyed unless it repented. Instead of relaying this message, Jonah fled the message, hiding on a boat. He, like Noah, marooned himself from total destruction on the ocean. But a storm came, and Jonah was thrown overboard, to experience an even deeper marooning as he was swallowed and remained alive in the belly of a great fish, or sea monster. It was only in this second marooning that Jonah stopped resisting the great No God had put in his head. The fish vomited Jonah up on shore, and he made his way to Nineveh and announced the total destruction of the city unless the city repented.
Survivor shakes, the prophet’s PTS. Nineveh repented, God stayed his hand, and Jonah could not accept it. He camped outside the city wall and resisted the Yes. God then had a gourd grow, which cast a shadow over Jonah and sheltered him. And then the gourd wilted, at which point Jonah cast himself down and wished to die. Then God asked Jonah whether it was well to be angry for the gourd. Jonah, clinging to the No, told the Lord it was well to be angry. And the Lord answered back:
“Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
And so the book ends, with that wonderful concern for the cattle.
Both stories deal with total destruction. Since we live in an era that is, it seems, on the verge of total destruction, I think of these two stories as emblems, cracked mirrors on either side of us.
I think, as well, that as we are passing into this era, we are being failed ethically. Failed by the philosophers. The Anglo-American philosophers, for decades, have been busy devising a problem-centered ethics that revolves around highly contrived situations that “suss out” our moral intuitions. It is a form of advice columning with a little Bayesian probability thrown in for fun. And it takes no crack at the total system.
In the twentieth century, both the Kantian and the utilitarian modes of ethics failed to understand the system – the system that can lead to total destruction. They took no crack at it: in consequence, they failed to interrogate our real moral lives, we who live in the high income states, we who live in our individual comfort zones well knowing that the future will be brutal. The concentration camps went up. The atom bomb was built. The victims were piled high in proxy struggles in the Cold war. The oceans warmed. The atmosphere shifted. The permafrost began to melt.
One of the popular topics of the day is the discussion about having children. Is it right or wrong? And if wrong, is it wrong because the child is marching into the future that we have made for it – a future of total destruction – or is it wrong because the child will grow up to be another, albeit unconscious, dronelike producer of the disaster: as a consumer and a laborer, as a user of the total energy used by creatures like blue whales, except in a 150-250 poound packet? This discussion uses the child to discuss a problem about the parent: for this is really a discussion about us: does a real sense of the disaster ahead require, ethically, that we commit suicide?
This ethical requirement, I think, has sunk into the collective unconscious. It leads not only to the phenomena measured by statistics in terms of life expectancy, suicide, overdose, etc., but as well to the violence and hatred in our politics and collective sense of ourselves.
I am a late father, a father in my late middle age. I am against the big NO, I am for my son living within a disaster averted, I am against the total disaster,. I have even spent much of my thinking life wondering how to separate the total disaster from the total system: the war system, the treadmill of production, capitalism.
This autumn, I’ve been reading a book that actually does take a crack at the system, in the shadow of total destruction: Martin Buber’s I and Thou. I prefer I and You, since the “thou” is a tonally off. Instead of going back to Kant, or starting off with happiness, Buber starts from You. It is the You – of all living things, of the earth, of god or the gods, of persons – that comes before the I. It is out of the You that the I is derived. Once the I is derived, though, it struggles with all living things, the earth, god or gods, and persons. It struggles to contain them in an “It”. This struggle does illuminate our moral “intuitions” as they are, in fact, living bits of us. The struggle of the I to recognize the you is the moral story, the story that goes against the total disaster in which everything, every little thing, becomes an it. Even the ominipotent I becomes an it, caught in its own devices. Buber wrote I and Thou after World War I, and before the Nazi seizure of power, which is to say, in the shadow of total destruction. He took from Hasidic tradition and from Daoism, and he gives us an ethical understanding of the system – he takes a large crack at it. This is not ethics as consolation, as a consumer tipsheet based on the latest pop science findings from neurology. It is not self-help.
Everyone I know is suffering, lately, from the survivor shakes. From the Prophet’s PTS.
And to everyone I would say: get ahold of a copy of I and Thou and read it slowly in the long winter season, the season of imminent fascism and plague. Cause we need to take down this system.