Chapter Thirteen: Doom
Is there such a thing as a straight fact, and is it possible to get a fact straight? I don’t want to play into the twenty-first century’s culture of radical self-determinism, which is ever cheerfully willing to accept the totalizing of snap judgments, self-serving prejudices and ideologized physical experience as galvanizing facts, nor do I want to invoke the more recent chimera of “alternate” facts or disinformation of various other kinds. Fact has always been elusive, and one ought to be permanently wary of its provenance.
For instance, I took it for a fact that Ronald Surry’s estimate of when the Landrace Boar had crossed into the south field and (therefore) of how long the battle between the two boars had gone on before we intervened was accurate. But in the quite distant retrospect I now have, it has become clear that Ronald’s estimates were off-the-cuff, and based on a dubious assumption: that the fight had awakened him as soon as it began.
In doing so, Ronald had ignored two important and quite separate data, and I had followed like a docile sheep. The first of these was that the boars’ fighting awakened him at his normal waking time; and second, that the snowfall would have profoundly deadened sound transmission that morning, making it very unlikely that the boars would awaken him in any case—certainly their fighting hadn’t awakened me, despite my younger, more acute hearing. Even when I left the farm’s kitchen that morning to help separate the two boars, I couldn’t hear a thing out in the fields. It’s much more likely that Ronald woke up that morning when he usually did, glanced out the bedroom window, saw the boars fighting in the snow-covered field below, and assumed that their battle had awakened him.
What if the Landrace had breached the perimeter and its shorted-out electric fence around midnight or 1:00 AM, and that the battle, which Ronald estimated had begun somewhere around 7 A.M., had gone on for four or five or even six hours longer than that? Would that not mean that the Welsh boar had been doomed as soon as the Landrace discovered that the electric fences were down at, say, 1:00 AM? Or was the Welsh doomed twenty minutes later when the Landrace caught the scent of a possible rival as he approached the south shelter in which the Welsh boar lay sleeping? But maybe the moment-of-fact was mid-evening on Christmas day while Ronald, Joan, Judith, Duncan and I were sitting down to Christmas dinner and the first tentative snowflakes settled on the bare Sussex downs.
Yeah, yeah, I get it. If I follow this too far, I’d have to say that the Welsh boar’s doom was certain the moment it was born. Everything and everyone is doomed the same way, and that is among the few solid facts of the human condition—and never mind that virtually all human intellectual and spiritual dithering is designed to elide this, or distract us from it.
Two months before that Christmas night in 1962, the doom I’d grown up fearing seemed imminent. As I clambered down the gangplank of the SS Homeric onto the docks at Southampton, the skies above me were crowded with bombers loaded with nuclear weapons;world leaders were shouting at one another, and one or two of their inadvertently pushed elbows or mistaken gestures might have permanently infused the air with ashes and soot.
You and I, in the twenty-first century, are no better off. The human species didn’t blow itself up with nukes in the previous century, but it’s still close to doom, and you and I with it. Malthus is creeping up on us: the expenditure of planetary resources on war (and television sets so everyone can watch it); the thousand-and-one scenarios of energy depletion in which we run out of fossil fuels without developing sufficiently non-polluting substitutes; and now, global warming and the ominous massif of our other heedlessnesses—we’re an out-of-control troop of baboons, eight billion strong. Imagine us that way, if you’re still pretending that God or science will easily save us. It isn’t innovation or faith we lack: it’s crowd control; chaos management.
As individuals we weren’t nearly as doomed in 1945 as we are today. And here’s an interesting thing: The world leaders of 1945 who had survived the two world wars and Nazi Fascism were determined to build a world that wouldn’t lead to mutual doom by the rule of blood and blind faith. This was the world of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan, and it lasted for twenty-eight years, give or take a few. It isn’t any longer the world we live in today, by the way. It has changed in virtually every way:
1945-1973 1.) Communitarian meritocracy
1973-2017 1.) Dictatorship of opportunistic entrepreneurs
1945-73 2.) Focus on daily, ordinary life
1973-2017 2.) Festivalization of daily life and the systematic avoidance of domesticity.
1945-73 3.) Polity of the Categorical Imperative: (Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want others doing to you.) Keynesian economic responsibleness.
1973-2017 3.) Entreprenerialism, corporatism, whatever your “identity” permits. “Austrian school” corporatism, economy run for the shareholders.
1945-73 4.) Radical anti-imperialism (to the point of acting against national and individual economic and political interests), social democracy.
1973-2017 4.) Capitalism/market force as sole determinant of polity. Plutocracy in the developed nations. Kleptocracy in the “undeveloped” nations, and after 1989, in the “liberated”-Soviet bloc.
1945-73 5.) Egalitarianism, political self-determination.
1973-2017 5.) Retributivism, racialization, individual self-determination. (In all but a few countries, ethnic isolation was complete by 1947.)
1945-73 6.) Rejection of class and privilege, rejection of authoritarian police states, espousal of civil libertarianism, commonwealth of the whole, centrism.
1973-2017 6. Blanket rejection of public governance, espousal of prison state, growth of social authoritarianism inside both the far right and the far left. Economc Libertarianism. Empowerment of socio-political lunatic fringers as sources of binary ideology.
I have to confess that I’ve taught myself not to agonize over the question of what constitutes our general doom, because I can’t do anything to stop it that wouldn’t turn me into a monster: the general doom facing us is that we’re a species of eight billion living on a planet that can carry only several hundred million of us for much more than another century. The means of avoiding this doom all involve genocide or worse, and the best anyone can hope for is some sort of unthinkable viral plague that reduces our numbers to the planet’s capacity. Even that is so awful a proposition that our collective imagination brings the dead back to life. That’s why we’re up to our ears in zombie movies, television series, and dress-up jamborees.
Then what can I usefully care about? Well, there are the alternate scenarios for Christmas night and the morning of December 26th, 1962. The specific and the particular always lead back to the world, not to its doom, and not to ours: a futile fight of ninety minutes between two large male animals without any easy way to mortally harm one another is one thing. Six hours of such combat would be epic, and literally, heart-breaking. That’s interesting.
When I was eighteen I didn’t see that Ronald Surry was doomed, and I didn’t spot the signals of decline in the rural paradise of Great Crouchs Farm. Both should have been visible if I’d been paying attention. And it wasn’t just that Ronald and Joan were getting older. The vulnerabilities Ronald suppressed with Merrydown—his shrinking physical perimeter and the always-lengthening list of things he couldn’t or wouldn’t dare—were accelerating. The casual good will of others that every person must rely on was being worn away as his eccentricities became the government of his and Joan’s reality.
Now they’re both dead, and I’m the one who is doomed unless I can bring them back to life and make them real enough to challenge the world as we now have it.
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.