Wendell Berry, the conservative poet without a website, has a phrase for the slightly crazed exuberance of American culture in the last few decades. With a caustic shrug, he calls it the "cheap energy mind."
Problem is, our time in this mindset — and its denial — seems to have run out with $4.00 gas.
Of course, it’s not just gas prices that seem to have changed our psychology. Many have noticed, from art critics to jeremiahs to Western writers to movie-makers. Images of the end of our way of life occur to artists in many genres, many of whom have found startling success purveying the bleakest possible examples of despair. Especially noteworthy is The Joker, whom James Howard Kunstler describes vividly:
The Joker is not so much as person as a force of nature, a "black
swan" in clown white. He has no fingerprints, no ID, no labels in his
clothing. All he has is the memory of an evil father who performed a
symbolic sadomasochistic oral rape on him, and so he is now programmed
to go about similarly mutilating folks, blowing things up, and wrecking
everyone’s hopes and dreams because he has nothing better to do. He
represents himself simply as an agent of "chaos." Taken at face value,
he would seem to symbolize the deadly forces of entropy that now
threatens to unravel real American life in the real world — a
combination of our foolish over- investments in complexity and the
frightening capriciousness of both nature and history, which do not
reveal their motivations to us.
By the way, forget about God here or anything that even remotely
smacks of an oppositional notion to evil. All that’s back on the cutting
room floor somewhere (if it even got that far). And I say this as a
But in its cruel way, The Dark Knight was compelling. The museum-worthy art that comes from this perception that we have reached an end in our culture is more frightening yet. The incomparable Peter Schlejedahl explains in the fewest possible words, in a column called Feeling Blue.
The critic opens with an eloquent description of the power of Cormac McCarthy”s The Road, which confronts us with "the remains of our own civilization after its extinction."
He then moves on to describe the broader mood.
Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from
surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy,
shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the
spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit.
Unable to go to travel to see the exhibit at New Museum, I’ll have to take his word for it. But here’s my point. Lots of artists in various fields are recognizing this, but the one who has named it best is singer Eliza Gilkyson. Because she comes from Texas, I think, she’s too often ignored by New Yorkers.
They’re missing something great. Just as E.O. Wilson, one of our greatest living scientists and "environmentalists," has talked of the importance of passing through "the bottleneck" in the way we live, Gilkyson changes the rhetoric slightly…to a metaphor we’ve heard before.
it’s the bitter end we’ve come down to
the eye of the needle that we gotta get through
but the end could be the start of something new
when the great correction comes
As my significant other pointed out this evening, there’s something actually optimistic about this idea: that we will return to the right path, and move on.
But for now, we simply need to open our eyes. The image below is not the one of The Joker that haunts me most from the movie — that’s the one of him walking away from the hospital, in the nurse’s uniform.
But this’ll give you an idea, if you haven’t seen the movie…and here, if I can link correctly, is Eliza Gilkyson’s wonderful song, from her 2008 album, Beautiful World.