International Writers Magazine: Ideas
the visionary can overcome the boundaries of concrete reality, where
most of us are more or less condemned to dwell, and fly to the moon.
More than one high
flyer has said, "If you can conceive something, then you can achieve
it." Was he just talking about shrinking a submarine full of scientists
to the size of an atom and sending it through a person's blood stream,
as in Fantastic Voyage, or perhaps something a little more mundane,
like defining reality in America?
In the initial euphoria of the Iraq war where, instead of reporting
the facts, CNN was pasting the heads of American heroes on a
Wall of Honor, Judith Miller was breathlessly reporting in The New
York Times the latest White House info on WMDs, and embedded journalists
(and I use the word loosely) were happily transported as guests of the
Army, a Bush spokesman grandly put it this way, "We're an empire.
We define reality." This unfortunate hyperbole, having been put
through the stress test of physical concreteness, has fallen short of
the truth. Wishful thinking has rarely been so successful a technique
for achieving policy goals as managing hard facts.
A graphic way of imagining our brief transit through the world is a
personal corridor that opens to each person when he is born. It is a
narrow passage lined with an infinite number of doors, which are our
options. You can step through any of these doors into a room, but the
only way out of the room is back into the same corridor. A gifted person
like Casanova or Beaumarchais could step into a room and perform a set
piece of exquisite significance, but ultimately even he must step back
into the corridor of his life.
In the modern world there are infinite diversions, from air travel to
Nintendo. Writing words on a page can transport some people better than
opium. But we are subject to the corporeal limitations of physics and
market forces, though even those are not immutable, as Einstein and
Ken Lay have demonstrated.
Though, as Fidel Castro proved, large realities can be achieved in small
spaces, a large physical stage is conducive to the vast sagas that make
Americans happy. That is why the stereotypical Texan, waving his cigar
across a vast expanse and shouting "Everything's big in Texas,"
has such resonance. The transformative experience of Rene-Robert de
la Salle, almost mystical in his travails, who trekked countless times
across seventeenth century New France with a canoe strapped to his back,
fighting Indians, black flies and freezing winters, sailing the oceans
to France and Quebec, Hispaniola and Louisiana before being assassinated
in a mutiny on the plains of Texas in a drama seemingly lifted from
Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and the stories from Louis L'Amour's frontier,
where bad people and good spearheaded the European conquest of the Great
Plains, require an epic panoramic tableau of magisterial expanse to
please a people for whom once is never enough and the cameo lives of
the lesser peoples of the world have no significance.
The other large national entities of the world are also living their
passions, the Brazilians and Chinese with their space programs, the
French ever-determined to reassert world dominance, the Russians who
are our mirror image all are bursting at the seams with national
growth hormone. The emergence of Islam as a transnational entity with
a huge territorial expanse, population and resources suggests yet another
polarity. As these material and psychic spheres of influence expand
and crash into each other like blobs in a lava lamp, merging and separating
to remold in another configuration, what will be the impact on an American
psychology which centuries of isolation have conditioned to an attitude
of exclusivity, as though the lessons of past human experience are not
relevant in our circumstances. Will we reject the lessons of history,
incomplete as they are, and through childlike petulance and willfulness
allow ourselves to get bumped from the top spot, where intelligent analysis
and skillful strategic action might have kept us?
The controversy here is not willingness or unwillingness to use military
force to achieve what intellectually and diplomatically seems to be
beyond our reach, as might the skillful managing of resources to achieve
rational and realistic objectives. The doctrine of American exclusivity,
while it may have had some useful purpose in past ages, is not advancing
our interests as well as rational analysis and management of resources,
but, like many other critical cultural issues, rethinking of it is not
even on the cultural agenda.
If reality can come to seem an elastic concept to one whose immediate
needs are satisfied, so is the rationalism to discern and negotiate
the material world. This lack of immediacy is the defining factor that
characterizes our ruling class, which is centuries removed from the
means of production (now that the Chinese are manufacturing all of our
goods, nobody seems worried that soon we as a country won't know how
to do any more with our hands than type at a keyboard or push a broom,
our hands to eventually atrophy and fall off like redundant appendages).
Lacking consequences, all decisions become academic, except where the
real world so rudely intrudes, as George Bush's face on 9/11 so poignantly
expressed when told that an eventuality he had previously dismissed
as fanciful had erupted with traumatic consequences.
It's useful to have grandiose dreams. As the Roman Empire demonstrated,
imagination and audacity can produce overwhelming success. An elastic
concept of reality is fundamental to the arts and is essential for conceiving
real-world solutions. The talent for knowing the distinction between
what is real and what is not real can be the key for devising imaginative
solutions for a lovelier life.
Borok Feb 2008
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