Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Ontological Examination...

"Live or die, but don't poison everything..."
—Anne Sexton, Live

"Asked to cease and desist what aggravation preordained; it feels so good laying down, I won't (ask to) get up again; where's my—my life?...you're in control like you don't know; don't say you're along for the ride."
—Fugazi, By You

Crossing the 14th Street Bridge while pedaling into work this chilly morning, I risk a long glance to my right and through the railing that separates pedestrians from motorists. The long lines of oncoming cars, stalled or creeping almost imperceptibly, resemble nothing so much as an interminable funeral procession: a shiny, self-referential prefiguration of the death of the internal combustion engine as we know it, coming soon to an interstate near you. Lemmings heading toward the cliff.

Oddly, it isn't so much the cars that evoke death, but the people inside them. Each driver wears the same facial expression, a tired mask reflecting the combined weight of the work-a-day world and the transportation hell they find themselves in day after day after day. It's an immeasurable burden, an invisible mass that nevertheless takes a visible toll, slowly, like a poison given in small doses, a shaman's anti-philter that leaves the victim drained of energy and just a little bit less alive today than on the day before. Like a zombie. When there's no more room in hell, the dead shall jam the streets. It's a macabre and dismal image.

So I flash a huge shit-eating grin as I roll past, to rub in this fantastic sense of freedom I feel, this form of play that—with something like three miles left in my commute—will end soon enough. For today, anyway.

On my left, beyond the opposite railing, the Potomac River quietly passes through the forlorn gap between buttresses. Here and there, ribbons of marine fuel shimmer on its surface in the morning sun like anorexic ghosts, forging a tenuous link between this moving river and the stagnant one above it. It's a neat little metaphor: the natural world, wounded, but still sliding unnoticed beneath the surface of a simulation almost completely achieved. A world dying for a comeback against its plastic double.

There are times when I join the living dead, when I slide behind the wheel and fire up the engine. It happens much less these days than it did in the past, partly because my circumstances have changed favorably, partly because my mind has changed favorably. I bike more and drive less; doing my small part. And knowing that the occasional gallon of fuel I save will sooner or later be burned by a stranger who won't think much about it all beyond the loss of another $2.50 from his coffers.

[There's an interesting tenet among some social critics. It holds that every salutary gesture, every altruistic band-aid, every feel-good act of charity, simply helps keep the status quo alive and well, helps keep business-as-usual from exploding (or imploding) by acting as an escape valve. By offering false hope that something good will eventually happen, that sooner or later, things will systemically improve, that if we just keep plugging away on a small scale—on an individual scale—at the shadow of the beast, that somehow the beast itself will topple, felled by the língchí of countless concerned citizens quietly doing their small parts. It is a conceit, the tenet goes, reinforced by the press, by politicians, by businesses, schools, churches—in short, by everyone and everything that has a vested interest in prolonging the misery and pain that one day might otherwise be destroyed at once by an angry gestalt that reaches the flash point of frustration.]

Does biking—a revolutionary act in a country that overwhelmingly still views bicycles as the playthings of children—help save the world? Or simply prolong its abuse? Does a species that willfully exchanges the natural world for one of its own creation, one with a conflicting set of laws and priorities, one ostensibly within its command, deserve a second chance?

Hard to say. Perhaps another beer holds the answer.

"Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one's shoulder to the plough; one destroys."
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power

"Maybe partying will help"
—Minutemen, Maybe Partying Will Help


Tim Wise said...

GREAT post.
I think It simply prolongs its abuse.So I am gonna go fill my pint glass.

AteMrYeats said...


Read some poetry, and not the troubling kind ;). A difficult post, but worth reading as usual.

iconoclasst said...

Tim, thanks, hope that pint was good to you. Picked up a big boy from Great Divide over the weekend: Fresh Hop pale ale. Haven't tried it yet, but I bet it's good.

atemryeats, poetry indeed, no better advice, thanks! Hope all is well with you. We need to get together for a ride, man. Been far too long.

JMH said...

Great blog man, well said regarding commuting. I had to join the living dead today, can't wait to get back on the bike tomorrow, even though it is looking like it might 15 degrees. Brrrrr...

Keep on keeping on.