End-of-the-World Novels Are “Memento Mori” for Civilization

Why envisioning the collapse of civilization can be unexpectedly life-affirming​

by Adam Lowenstein

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas stilleven, (01640).​

“It seemed to happen gradually, then suddenly,” Candace says, describing the spread of the new pathogen. “I got up. I went to work in the morning. Outside the office windows, the city thinned out.”

At first, the New York Times keeps a tally of Americans who succumb, but eventually the “Death Knell,” as Candace and her colleagues call it, is taken down at the government’s request.

Candace’s company asks her to keep the office open, even as most employees are told to work from home. The move is temporary, they assure her. The company isn’t shutting down. “Just putting things on hold.”

As the fever spreads, Candace runs out of work to do. Soon she’s alone in the office. Calls to her family go unanswered. A call to her boss goes to voicemail. Emails slow to a trickle, until they cease entirely. “More people are leaving this city than there are staying,” a 911 operator tells Candace when she makes a futile attempt to report an elevator malfunction. “The city is curtailing all its services.

Private security guards stand in front of empty houses and department stores. Newspapers stop publishing. Plants begin to grow in the streets. Times Square is empty. “There were no tourists, no street vendors, no patrol cars,” Candace says. “There was no one.”

Candace is the narrator of Ling Ma’s Severance, a novel celebrated for its brutal yet empathetic portrayal of how humans seeking meaning in modern-day capitalism cling to the structures and expectations of work. Severance was published in 02018, but as with Emily St. John Mandel’s 02014 novel Station Eleven, in which a “Georgia Flu” kills 99 percent of humanity, anyone who picked up Severance after, say, March 02020 finds an entirely new level of resonance in its references to N95 masks and travel bans and cravings for routine as any sense of “normality” crumbles.

Reading Severance today is a powerful reminder of how much things changed, and how bad they got, during Covid-19. Yet it serves another haunting purpose: as a reminder of how much worse they could have been.

Memento Mori

Two thousand years ago, the ancient Stoics wrote of the concept of memento mori. Loosely translated as “remember death,” memento mori describes the practice of thinking about death as a reminder that life is impermanent and unpredictable. “You could leave life right now,” Marcus Aurelius wrote sometime around the year 00170. “Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

Today memento mori is usually thought of as an individual practice, as a mental tool to help you focus on what matters most to you. While it sounds depressing to regularly remind yourself that your existence will eventually end, quite possibly not at a time or in a manner of your choosing, many people find clarity in the exercise. It’s easy to get caught up in life’s pointless commitments and petty burdens and meaningless aspirations and take for granted what enables those commitments and burdens and aspirations: the remarkable fact that you’re a human being who is alive right now.

Civilization — the world as we know it — may be less precarious than our individual lives, but that doesn’t make it permanent. Many aspects of everyday existence depend not just on you remaining alive but on the world as you know it remaining alive: The work commitments and calendars that give our days structure and purpose. The smartphones and streaming services that give us connectivity and information and entertainment. The subways and roads and planes and public services that give us the ability to commute and travel. The laws and norms that give us food and medicine and clean water. The democratic principles that give us at least an imperfect opportunity for self-determination and self-actualization and justice.

To imagine losing all of that, and more, sounds like a morbid thought exercise. Picturing a major American city slowly emptying out for good (Severance) or humanity being nearly wiped out in a matter of days (Station Eleven) can indeed be pretty bleak.

But these stories can also be invigorating, even life-affirming. “There can be something reassuring about taking in a fictional disaster in the midst of a real one,” Hillary Kelly wrote in Vulture. “You can flirt with the experience of collapse. You can long for the world you live in right now.”

Books like these, as I wrote in an August 02020 newsletter that attempted to make sense of why I felt drawn to pandemic fiction in the middle of a pandemic, “let us peek over the other side to see what a worst-case scenario might look like, before retreating back to reality.”

End-of-the-world novels are memento mori — for civilization.
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The Bell and Marcus Three-Ring Circus

Years ago, Bolinas artist Terry Bell and our neighbor, craftsman Jim Marcus created a series of rubber stamps based on circus performers. They were wonderful and Lesley and I ended up buying a set.

However, they weren’t able to sell enough sets to make it a viable business. Terry passed away a few years ago.

Recently Jim decided to create some 3D objects from the drawings; here is Jim’s description of the process:

“I decided to try mounting the stamped images on 1/16″ plywood and cutting them out on my scroll saw with a very thin blade.

I was surprised at the different presence they had, and am enjoying making more of them.

The bases seem to give them an importance that they didn’t have on sheets of paper … but the forms are so beautifully drawn, that seen in this way, I think they can be ‘seen’ as the beautiful pieces they are.”

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Remote Living on High Altitude Lake on Xeni Gwet’in Land in Canada

Today I got an email from Jakub Amler in British Columbia, describing a 75-year-old man named Chendi, who has been living on the shores of the high altitude (4200 feet) 50-mile-long glacier-fed Chilco Lake in west central British Columbia for over 50 years. This is on the land of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations tribe. From Jakub (edited):

“It’s hard to believe he has been here for such long period of time since he hasn’t cut down a single tree — for firewood or structures. He collects all his wood, mostly with his rowboat on the wild and windy Chilco lake.

It is totally off grid, no road access. His “truck” is a rowboat which he uses to carry all the logs from the lake. He doesn’t use any power tools (lover of japanese tools, of course), the craftsmanship is unique, his buildings are charming like most of the buildings in your publications.”

Chendi allows people to come stay there (one month minimum), and says:

“Volunteers sleep in simple and old log cabins, carry water, use an outhouse and rustic bath or sweat house. This is a very difficult and isolated lifestyle, requiring volunteers to be physically fit. You cannot function here if you are not up for the challenge. The wind is quite intense for much of the year. It is also as majestic a place as you ever will see.

Kayaks are available with access to pristine wilderness, hiking, rowboat, fishing from a kayak, gathering wild roots and hunting or snaring.

I also only want people who are serious about going forward from this experience to lead a different life. This is not just a place to have an adventure, but a place to learn a meditative lifestyle (yoga). I want people to come here with intention and mindfulness.”

www.workaway.info/en/host/438711758842

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Cottage in Australia Inspired by Our Book Home Work

Hi Lloyd 🙂

I’m a long time reader and lover of your wonderful books — thank you so much for sharing the treasures you find and inspiring so many builders out there. You have a great eye for beauty in natural and built form.

Here is a structure I built inspired by works I have seen in your books (Home Work is still my fave!).

Thanks again for bringing positivity and sharing the joy.

Be well.

Ben Anderson,
Wollongong, Australia

Cuttlefish Cottage: Latest build. About 50 tons of soil on the roof, all glass (apart from louvres) was destined for the crushers, so I built windows and doors to fit the glass. Mud brick walls covered in local white clay ‘paint’ I made, all furniture & kitchen from hard rubbish piles or off ‘Gumtree’ (like Craigslist), local made steel beams (we have a steel mill in town). All hardwood timber from salvage, e-crete floors (using clan, fly-ash & recycled aggregate), trombe wall, passive solar design, vegetable garden on the roof (makes amazing watermelon!!!), solar hot water, amazing ‘landscape tanks’ for retaining walls and water storage combined, outdoor kitchen for our market garden (check out ‘Popes Produce‘ on Instagram/F-book) and heaps more!

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Paul Krassner on the Spiritual Revolution of the ’60s

In starting back to work on my book on the ’60s, I ran across this:

It was sex, drugs and rock and roll, and those were all fun. But at the core of the counterculture was a spiritual revolution, in a sense of leaving the Western religions of control, and exploring the Eastern disciplines of liberation.

There was meditation. There were workshops in advanced breathing. The counterculture represented a certain economic threat, because here were several people sharing a car, or not getting insurance, but taking care of each other, making their own clothes, using less electricity, making candles.

The Justice Department was trying to infiltrate communes. I spoke to a friend of an ex-FBI guy who said they had the FBI hippie squad. And they had to learn how to roll joints, the better to infiltrate with. Originally, the CIA intended LSD to be used as a means of control, but all these young people deprogrammed themselves from the mainstream culture, and then reprogrammed themselves with a more humane value system.

All the people I know from that time have, whatever their profession, they brought that same sense of idealism and compassion with them. Socrates said, “Know thyself”, then Norman Mailer, said “Be thyself” and the unspoken mantra of the counterculture was “Change thyself.” And the psychedelics — but not necessarily them, it could’ve been meditation or Zen or whatever —served as vehicles for people to change themselves. And that included protesting against the war, which meant that the CIA’s plan had backfired.

See:

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