Knee-jerk pessimism was the default response among the intelligentsia for as long as John Stuart Mill could remember. “I have observed,” he wrote in 1828, “that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”
Back then, life was short, nasty and brutish. Today, not so much for many of us. Yet the dark glass remains the lens of choice that many writers are unable to fully appreciate the deep reasons for optimism in their own work. Today’s example is A.O. Scott’s essay in the New York Times with the predictably chilling headline, “Facing a Pitiless Void.” It uses three new movies about people struggling to survive – old man Robert Redford’s battle with the sea (All is Lost), Tom Hank’s struggle with Somali buccaneers (“Captain Phillips”) and Sandra Bullock’s lost in space adventures (“Gravity”) – to explore the changing nature of moves about catastrophes.
The piece pivots on a quote by Susan Sontag who was so wrong about so much and yet influential because so many people agreed with her. Scott writes: “ ‘Ours is indeed an age of extremity,” Susan Sontag concluded in her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster.” “ ‘For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large ratios by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters.’ ”
Perhaps her quote had some resonance during the height of the Cold War, although “inconceivable terror” plummeted by orders of magnitude between 1945 and 1965. And one woman’s banality is another person’s good times.
The larger question is why would Scott trot this outdated analysis now? As his piece continues he shows how disaster movies increasingly reflect the reality that we live in a much safer world. The terrors and threats keep getting smaller. He continues: “Sontag’s essay appeared a few years before the rise of the disaster movie as a commercial genre in its own right, but if anything the arrival of “The Poseidon Adventure” and its cousins — “The Towering Inferno” and the “Airport” movies, which fed my youthful fear of flying and worship of Charlton Heston — showed the prescience of her analysis. This new genre also shifted the metaphorical terms in which disaster was imagined. … The doomed skyscrapers, ocean liners and jumbo jets were the products of human greed, hubris and corruption. Their destruction brought peril to a collection of people, a movie-star microcosm of the larger society in desperate need of rescue. Bravery, intelligence and self-sacrifice were mobilized (and celebrated) in the name of a commonwealth symbolized by a carefully balanced selection of generations, races, backgrounds and classes.”
In brief, the horrors go from Armageddon to local disaster (from World War II to 9/11). [Yes there are still many end of the world spectacles but that is not the focus of Scott’s essay].
Scott writes: “In retrospect, it is the utopianism of these films, perhaps more than their now-cheesy-looking special effects, that seems most dated.” Utopianism is the word choice of a pessimist; what these films did was describe the world as it is.
Scott makes this clear is his description of the three new movies: “They proceed from the assumption that things work pretty well: space stations silently orbit the earth; old guys relax on their sailboats; consumer goods glide through shipping lanes packed and stacked in giant, bright-colored metal boxes. When something does go wrong, it’s a temporary glitch, an accident, a dumb mistake.”
A little later Scott adds: “What could go wrong? The answers provide much of the entertainment in these movies — the suspense, the surprise, the identification with characters in distress. We enjoy being jolted out of our complacency. And we enjoy the vicarious pleasure of problem-solving that follows.”
We are not complacent; we are realists who lives are removed from such dangers. Notice the evolution Scott describes: from Armageddon to local catastrophes to personal trials. I’ll take that!
The world Sontag described is foreign to us – as Scott admits, existential threat has been replaced by “problem-solving.” Few of us stare into a “pitiless void” because we don’t have to.
At the end of the essay, Scott observes that the Redford and Hanks movies become morality tales – they suggest that well-off Westerners might be guilty of something because we have it so easy. That is serious business but it’s of a different order than nuclear annihilation.
It might seem like I am criticizing Scott for not writing the essay he actually wrote. My point is that he could have written a hopeful piece – “Armageddon gives way to personal disasters.” Instead, knee-jerk is so ingrained in so many writers that they can’t fully recognize the gist of their own argument. Hence the Sontag quote and the dark headline on what should be a sunny piece.
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