The Last Days?
[This piece aroused so much reader interest I copied Paul Johnson's full column to my website here. My quip about the Catholic Church was meant in fun. If I were anti-Catholic in any serious way, I would not be employed at National Review.]
I don't know what's going on. Possibly the Pathetic Fallacy is in play here. The Pathetic Fallacy is the one that goes: "I feel like this, therefore the world is (or should be) like this too." Robert Burns was in the grip of the Pathetic Fallacy when he wrote:
Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary fu' o' care!
The Doon is the river that flows from Loch Doon to the town of Ayr, in south-west Scotland. A "brae" is a slope. How, asks the poet, can all these flowers be blooming and all these birds warbling, when I'm so darn miserable?
Don't get me wrong. I have no occasion to be "weary fu' o' care," and am anyway much too busy. The only reason I am bringing in the Pathetic Fallacy is that in my bed-time readings to the children, we have reached the end of C.S. Lewis's seven Narnia books. If you haven't read these books, let me just tell you that at the end of the last volume, all the characters from the previous books — all but one, actually — turn out to have been living in shadow worlds. The shadow worlds are wound up, and they pass on in joy and glory to the real world. It's all a Christian allegory, of course, and one that especially appeals to me because of my own approach to these matters. C.S. Lewis was an Anglican, like me, and we Anglicans know the score. So perhaps it was reading Lewis that put me in this frame of mind, or pushed me deeper into it
Anyway, it didn't start like that. It actually started weeks ago with the December 7 issue of the London Spectator. For as long as I can remember, the historian Paul Johnson has been doing a weekly as-I-please column in the Spectator (unfortunately never included in the magazine's web version). These are chatty, personal pieces, one thoughtful man's view on current events, or art, or literature, or anything else he feels like writing about. Even within these wide boundaries, though, Johnson's December 7 piece was … strange. Its first sentence read as follows: "The sound of the explosion was so loud, so prolonged and so unusual that I knew at once I was listening to a historical singularity." There followed a great wind sweeping over his London house, in the library of which he was sitting, and something that felt like an earthquake.
He climbed up on to the flat roof of his house, and saw "destruction on an immense scale." He saw London being consumed by a vast swelling ball of fire and smoke. It is all described with terrific fluency and vividness, in just a thousand words, with the skill that comes easily to a man who has written a shelf-full of thick books and innumerable pieces of throwaway journalism. What he is seeing is the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, a megaton-scale nuclear weapon. "As the darkness increased and the compensating fire drew nearer, I grasped that the catastrophe would soon swallow up my house and me, too …" In the last paragraph, of course, he wakes up.
At that point I became aware that my eyes were open, and focused on family photos near the foot of my bed, all steady and correct. Behind my head, my beautiful crucifix, carved by a holy monk* in the hardest of woods, hung motionless, not a millimetre out of place. The sun was wintry, but it shone nevertheless.
Johnson's nightmare was the more striking because he normally doesn't write like that at all. A level-headed, practical sort of fellow, worldly and very knowledgable about politics, he usually has his feet firmly on the ground. Johnson's dream hung over me all through the holidays. It had been fifteen months since the 9/11 attacks, but somehow that December 7 piece brought it all back in force, much more effectively than all the one-year anniversary commentary had.
Then there was the stuff about North Korea having nukes. Thinking about that, it dawned on me, as it has on many others, that there has been some qualitative change in world affairs. For the longest time there were just five nuclear powers, or six I suppose if you count Israel. This was of course five (or six) too many; but at least, and whatever temporary aberrations Russia and China had slipped into, they were all real nations, with long histories, and ancient imperial or grand-republican political traditions — traditions, that is, of responsible governance. None of them was fundamentally nihilistic, with a desire to do mischief in the world just for its own sake. That state of affairs went on for decades, and lulled us into thinking it was permanent.
It wasn't. The genie is now out of the bottle. Now nutcase nations or pseudo-nations like North Korea and Pakistan have nukes, and the principle of deterrence, which served us so well 1949-89, will break down. Deterrence only works with responsible people, people who give a damn, and who, if they plan conquest, plan it the old fashioned way — armies, battlefields. It is useless against Mohammed Atta, or any nation that cares to use him as a proxy.
Well, those were the lines I was thinking along. Then I started to notice how many other people were thinking the same way. "Thinking" is actually the wrong word. This isn't something thought so much as something felt, something in the air. And what I really didn't like a bit was that the people who are thinking it are people I have found to be pretty reliable guides to what is going on in the world. Paul Johnson, obviously, but also Peggy Noonan, who was way ahead of me in this piece, written four years ago. Why, I even spotted the weather-vane swinging myself righthere, back in that terrible September. And the things people say in conversation nowadays! — things like: "It'll take another 9/11 … ," which I seem to hear roughly five times a day. And my friend here on Long Island, waving his arm at the busy suburban landscape beyond the window of the diner, and saying: "When New York City's been taken out, all this real estate will be worth zip." Nobody talked like that ten, five years ago. Nobody even thought those things.
Is something unspeakably horrible going to happen? I don't know. I'm only saying that there is something in the air — a grimness, a bracing. Perhaps I'm just scaring myself over nothing. I turn for relief to my oldest, dearest friends. Boswell, of course:
Edwards: "You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in."
I smile, but somehow the relief doesn't come the way it should. "The future casts its shadow into the past," said Schopenhauer, who actually was a philosopher. I can't shake off the feeling that we are living, right now, in that chill shadow. Now, I am not a fundamentalist. I don't believe I am going to be "raptured" up to Heaven, or whatever the opposite is down to the other place, in between breakfast and lunch next Tuesday. I don't even think the world is going to be annihilated. I just think that we have come to the end of a golden age of peace and security, and there are some nasty things lurking in the near future. We are heading, in Kevin Myers's memorable phrase, into the realm of chaos.
The other day I was on the checkout line at a convenience store. The people in front of me were having a conversation. One of them, a middle-aged man, was talking about his daughter, whose car had just been stolen. The girl was, apparently, inconsolable. Said her Dad: "She just mopes around the house saying, 'They stole my Camry.' The poor kid, she loved that car. It had a CD player with a 6-disk changer. Really, she just can't get over it." The man speaking looked to be no more than 45. I can't imagine his daughter was much over 20. And this was the great disaster of her life: "They stole my Camry."
Look at us! Look at the gross vulgar overflowing fat wealth we live amongst! Look at the great cars that 20-year-old kids drive 400 yards to the Mall, to buy things they don't need, gadgets to pack into houses already overflowing with gadgets, clothes to cram into closets stuffed with clothes. Look at the work we do, sitting in humming cubicles scrolling through screens full of numbers, numbers that measure our wealth. Look at the bright, airy schools our kids attend, to be taught that their ancestors were moral criminals, their parents are liars, their culture is a sham. Look at our "reality TV" programs, where people with empty heads wallow in infantile hedonism. Look at our fool diplomats, poring over their treaties and resolutions and communiqués, while young men with burning eyes slip silently into our cities with boxes, canisters, cargoes, vials, and suitcases curiously heavy. Look at this proud tower! And feel its foundations tremble.
* Johnson belongs to the so-called "Catholic Church," a splinter sect of the True Faith.