By Brian George
Okantomi—you wrote, “It is pretty clear that your tongue is planted firmly in your cheek, but were you inspired somewhat prosaically by those ‘little red book’ waving Maoists of the late 60s and their latter-day wanabees? Were you maybe also casting an eye about over the political landscape of the last several years as you formulated this imaginary epic? The ‘revolutionary purity’ of the carefully chosen scouts is creepily reminiscent of a current ‘perpetual revolution’ in the making.”
Yes, events that we thought long and safely past have a way of circling around and reemerging—with all of their elements subtly rearranged. But who can tell if we are seeing the same thing in a somewhat different form or a different thing in a somewhat similar form? My head spins as I examine the most recent crop of slogans. For example: “Change We Can Believe In.” “Yes We Can.” “Our Time for Change.” “’Change’ versus ‘More of the Same.’” “Stand for Change.” “We are the change we’ve been looking for.” “Change can’t happen without you.” “A leader who can deliver change.” “It’s about Time. It’s about Change.”
And yet all of this is somehow contrary to the magical power of the word. The word can also kill, and perhaps all of this talk about change is designed, as I have said, to lead us in a circle. Then again, we must also ask: Are those who believe themselves to be leading us in a circle also pawns in a projected mass-hallucination, from which the living—upon pain of death—are no longer allowed to exit?
For the exit always seems to be somewhere else. Signs point to a multitude of sharp turns in a labyrinth—a centrifugal one—which, as it spins, stretches far beyond the edge of the known world. The true exit is no different than the entrance, and opens out beyond the circuit of the stars. Or, in other words, to a place no bigger and no smaller than one atom.
A friend said yesterday that “Four Scouts” reminded him of some utopian literature that he had read, without quite fitting into that category. You speculate that my “tongue is planted firmly in (my) cheek,” and ask if “Four Scouts” should be read as a critique of current politics. A second friend asked why I couldn’t speak more directly about the issues that I raise.
All of these statements point to a mode of argument that is complex in its movements, a kind of verbal capoeira, which attacks by indirection, and presents a different face to every reader.
As in Mesoamerican myth, an act of creation is simultaneously an act of destruction. I set up a vision to knock it down, not in favor of skeptical reductionism, but from the vantage point of a larger and even stranger reality. As a child who flirted with concepts of revolutionary violence in the latter days of the counterculture, and who, luckily, did not act on the more extreme of his views, I have ever since been cautious about being swept away by enthusiasm. Bad eyesight can be contagious. Enemies are not obstacles to be eliminated, and means have a way of turning into ends. It is important for us to embody at each moment the end we would pursue.
The main character in “Four Scouts” is not me, but rather someone who resembles me in certain respects—who plays a doctor on the screen of hyperspace. The Earth is at a crossroads and he and his planning group have some big decisions to make. As the ocean redraws the outlines of each coast, as the oil rigs stop pumping, and, on the highways of every country in the world, the trucks just stop where they are, as families move out of houses and into cardboard boxes, as opened hydrants take the place of showers, as street fights serve as substitutes for Nautilus machines and rusted bridges take the place of gyms, as stupor becomes the new normal, as a wave throws even the largest of nuclear reactors all over the place like toys, as the sky cracks like an egg, and everything is far brighter than it should be, before turning black: The suspicion begins to dawn on a few misfits here and there that the status quo has, perhaps, been suspended, and that the laws of nature may be the next to go.
Data rich but memory poor, the time scheduled for the post-industrial shadow play is up, and they must find a way to transplant the past eight thousand years of civilization.
The main character is critical of the illusions of others, but has he his own tendencies to blindness and grandiosity. At times, the reader is entitled to wonder if this character is going a bit crazy. He is not. He is only giving free rein to the forces that he and the rest of the planning group must constellate. As solar flares knock satellites from their orbits and the continents begin to tilt, they must reach a consensus on what four scouts will be sent to a new planet—a planet far distant from but in most ways an exact duplicate of the Earth.
Once there—I thought as I was writing—having been deposited in a last gasp of technology, would it even be possible to determine that such a voyage had occurred? So too: Had this happened once before, in some long forgotten age, or an infinite number of times? I saw planet after planet, each the almost exact image of its predecessor, stretching back into the fullness of one point.
Almost natural giant works pointed to their counterparts on a stage set that preceded the Big Bang. There, sitting in concentric rings around the fire—the bird tribes to the left and the snake tribes to the right—we once spoke of the transparent cities we would build. We then argued over the proper number of dimensions in the ocean. How long would each take to dig? It was difficult to determine, as was the number of throats it would be necessary to cut.
The approach that I take in this exploration comes more out of vision than ideology. I do feel that we are under a kind of ultimatum to imagine and then put into practice new ways of interacting with each other and the world. I am not, however, naively utopian, any more than I am trapped by the use of modernist irony, or by post-modern strategies of appropriation. “The I is Other.” Irrevocably. The Fates may play a joke on us—as in the past—at which they will laugh. We do not know what they day will bring, or what the arc of the story is that we must follow to the end. It is also necessary to sleep.
Most utopian projects are corrupted, early on, by an unacknowledged shadow element; love’s practitioners are driven by the shards of past creations, from behind. My goal is to consciously incorporate this element into the very structure of the vision. “We should learn from the skeletons that the gods keep locked in their closets.” The movement here is twofold: I do mean to present a radical vision of the future; on the other hand, I also want to subvert the militant concern for purity and the absolutism that can follow the intoxication of a visionary experience.
The tone of “Four Scouts” might best be described as “polyphonic”; many frames of reference intersect within the language of the essay, whose form functions as a kind of interdimensional stadium. The terms of each contradiction in my nature are encouraged to compete for dominance. Any goals, however, must be moderated by the principle of uncertainty. As I have said: “The one year plan will fall by the wayside.” “Species will devolve, allowing the new gods to play.”
The last survivor is a non-Darwinian.
(Illustration: Brian George, Child looking at globe, photograph, 2004)