Of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let’s choose executors, and talk of wills
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
Although I’ve yet to see sandwich-board men on the steps of the nation’s capitol declaring that the end of the world is nigh, I expect that it won’t be long before the Department of Homeland Security advises the country’s Chinese restaurants to embed the alert in the fortune cookies. President Obama appears before the congregations of the Democratic faithful as a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, cherishing the wounds of the American body politic as if they were the stigmata of the murdered Christ. The daily newscasts update the approaches of weird storms, bring reports of missing forests and lost polar bears, number the dead and dying in Africa and the Middle East, gauge the level of America’s fast-disappearing wealth. Hollywood stages nostalgic remakes of the Book of Revelation; video games mount the battle of Armageddon on the bosom of the iPad. Nor does any week pass by without a word of warning from the oracles at the Council on Foreign Relations, Fox News, and the New York Times. Their peerings into the abyss of what to the Washington politicians are known as “the out years” never fail to discover a soon forthcoming catastrophe (default on the national debt, double-dip recession, global warming, nuclear proliferation, war in Iran) deserving the close attention of their fellow travelers aboard the bus to Kingdom Come.
If the fear of the future is the story line that for the last ten years has made it easy to confuse the instruments of the American media with the trumpets of doom, the cloud of evil omens is not without a silver lining. The tears on King Richard’s dusty paper, like the handwriting on King Belshazzar’s fiery wall, protect the profit margins of the banks and the insurance companies, serve the interests of the drug and weapons industries, allow the season’s political candidates to clothe themselves in the raiment of a messiah come to cleanse the electorate of its impurities, take America back to where it belongs, risk-free and tax-exempt, in the little house on the prairie. Adapted to the service of the Church or the ambition of the state, the fear of the future is the blessing that extorts the payment of the protection money. For the Taliban and the Tea Party it’s a useful means of crowd control, but for a democratic republic, crouching in the shadow of what might happen tomorrow tends to restrict the freedom of thought as well as the freedoms of movement, and leads eventually to a death by drowning in the bathtub of self-pity.
By way of lifting the siege of dismal prophecy, this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly draws on the teaching of history to show the future as a land of make-believe, a work of the imagination, shaped by the emotion of the present and situated somewhere over the rainbow of a deconstructed past. Time flows upstream as well as down, which is the message brought to Oedipus by blind Tiresias and by St. Augustine’s noticing that both past and future, “wherever they are, whatever they are,” exist nowhere else except in the minds of their beholders. John Crowley completes the thought sixteen centuries further along the road to who knows where, finding that “the future, as always, is now,” a reflection in the mirror as opposed to a sighting in a crystal ball.