By Easton Smith
I was born in 1989, the same year that Francis Fukuyama published his essay, “The End of History?” The Berlin Wall fell that year, collapsing history (such a delicate thing, after all) underneath it. It was final: Liberal democracy and global capitalism were the inevitable tide to raise all boats. My whole life was to be post-historical.
As a young boy, adults talked to me daylong about my future, but never my past. Past was irrelevant at the end of history, and I was a child anyway. I had not lived long enough to have past, it was assumed. I began in the present moment and just osmosed into my long, uncomplicated life to come.
But still, I had these odd memories. I remembered finding my mother sad, head-cocked, staring at the wall with her nasty, ice-cubed orange juice in hand. I remembered bullies saying big words that didn’t feel safe. I remembered hearing about Kosovo. Bomb sounded historical to me. I had learned of the atom bomb that ended World War II. Old history, Grandpa’s dad old, so old that it seemed too far away to touch me at all.
But then, bombs were back one day after those planes hit the towers and everyone somberly adult-agreed that history was here again. “This is history,” they said, and I believed it. War, climate change, oil, dictators, democracy, I counted the history on my fingers. The world was suddenly soiled with history. By the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attack, I was thirteen and firmly historical.
When I was fourteen, my dad sat me down, read me some of the lyrics from the booklet of a punk CD that he had found in my bedroom (“Hey, Dad, fuck you! Hey, Dad, fuck you!” he read in deadpan), and asked me why I was depressed. I wasn’t depressed, I told him, just angry and not sure that anything mattered, especially school. “But what about your future?” he asked. I retorted, “Look at the world!”
Now, 27 years to the day from the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hillary Clinton conceded the presidency to Donald Trump: “This is painful, and it will be for a long time. … I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future.” But the people have spoken, those who voted and the many more who stayed home. They are tired of having some parent tell them to just believe, to always look ahead. History is here. They are hungry for it, even if it means the death of the future.
In Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson introduces the Greek poet Stesichoros (630-555 BC). According to Carson, before Stesichoros, certain adjectives were innately stuck to their subjects, like periodic numbers to minerals. Oxygen is always 8, just as to the Greek poets blood was always black, kidneys were always white. But Stesichoros wrote to “undo the latches.” For him, “there was nothing to interfere with horses being hollow hooved. Or a river being root silver. Or a child bruiseless.” Stesichoros, Carson writes, “released being. All the substances in the world went floating up.”
Our president-elect is a pre-Stesichorosian poet. He whips up digressive tales of Crooked Hillary and Lyin’ Ted Cruz, flat characters that are shackled to their adjectives. His narrative arcs follow familiar paths: us/them, big/small, winner/loser. He is a storyteller of the oral tradition, meandering, playing to his audience, but always returning to our favorite myth, where the villain’s name can be screamed out in unison by the audience with the adjectival cue, and the good guys (our guys) always win huge. The substances of the world fall back down.
George Lakoff, linguist, suggests that Trump repeats his adjectives to strengthen word association for his audience. If he always puts radical in front of Islam, people will associate the two subconsciously, without evidence. Trump creates a common mythology with his supporters, so that thoughts can go unfinished, even unsaid, and the implication still sits ripe for the taking. If Crooked Hillary “gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.” He doesn’t know, but everyone else does. They know what happens to the Crooked one in this story.
Bruce Lincoln, historian, writes that, “myth [is] that small class of stories that posses both credibility and authority.” Myths aren’t fables, which we enjoy but know to be fantastical. Neither are they history, which we know to be objectively true, but find unmotivating. Myths are nostalgia made actionable.
Trump deals in myths and has become one himself. Trump is Phaethon, Icarus, Tereus (I’m sick of the Greek myths, too, but where else can I find such hubris?). So as not to repeat the most repeated stories, I will summarize the moral of them all: Those mortals who think that they are gods lose. Every time.
“Make America Great Again.” It’s precisely the type of slogan about which the Greek poets wrote their moralizing tales. In Hesiod’s (8th century BC) long poem, “The Works and the Days,” the poet tells of five ages of humans. Hesiod’s era was the human era, the fifth, the Age of Iron, a time of stress and labor, full of hateful people destined to be destroyed by a vengeful Zeus. This Iron Age starkly contrasts with its predecessor, the Heroic Age, the “fourth generation on the noble earth … the generation of hero-men, who are also called half gods, the generation before our own on this vast earth.” The present is bad, but the past was great. It sounds familiar.
But Hesiod does not give us a strongman to strong-arm his way back to the fourth age and make the fifth one great (again). The realm of the past is inaccessible to base humans; it’s a place for the gods and spirits. To try to reach back is to step out of place, to attempt the impossible and the sinful. The poets knew well that nostalgia for a simpler time, when humans were gods, is a tempting and dangerous fire.
When the early Greeks of Hesiod’s time, the pre-Acropolis and pre-dēmokratia Greeks, looked out at the ruins of the great Mycenaean civilization, the collapsed palaces at Tiryns and Pylos, what must they have thought? What could create such structures, and what could kill such giants? These are the questions underneath their mythology.
What fireside myths will we create among the ruins of the American Empire? How will we explain the fields of dead oil rigs and carcassed pipelines, the trash islands, the air thick with smut, the eyes of a wolf, the flight of a California condor, a governmental agency, a climate accord, an electoral college, a Facebook fight? This country was founded upon too proud a mythology, blood too sure. May we find humility in our ruined palaces. May we be creative in our adjectives. What might the word great mean to us in the future?
Mythology withers, and we begin to see it fraying where our remembered past too cleanly contradicts the myth. “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.” Hillary’s myths cannot console anymore. It’s in our bellies: We owe him nothing.
In my belly: We can’t think piece our way out of this one; the rules have changed; I want to hold my people close; we need the stories of the body and the spirit; we need to “release being.”
Stesichoros took risks by deviating from the standard adjectives. The unexpected adjective is a sudden world. Blood can be red rather than the traditional black. A thing that was once huge can become irrelevant, puny, insecure. A president can go from strong to child taunted, disgraced, and even forgotten. The new adjective shakes us from myth, gives the story to the malleable present.
Many who thought our country was diverse and open are awed to find it angry, white, afraid. A myth has been upended. Shocked, people scream and plead for a re-assertion of their mythology of liberal tolerance and compassionate capitalism, for history to end again. But history is our seedy uncle, the underbelly of the myth, and it shows up whether we like it or not. He coughs, snarls into his plate, and tells us slur-ridden stories from a world far beyond the reaches of our Facebook feed that we would rather ignore. It’s a family feud now, the smug against the repulsive, comfortable family myths against the uncomfortable ones.
May I be excused from the table, please?
The day after the election I saw a woman walking her child home from school. In her stern movements I saw a depth of twirling currents underneath her skin, like under mine. Our outer surfaces, unable to express our large fears. Her child, adult-quiet, pulled his weight behind him in heavy little arms. We didn’t speak to each other, just walked our tired walk past each other’s sad eyes. In that moment, I felt alone in a collectively secreted pain, and for the first time since the results came in, I cried. It felt important to cry. I walked down the street in tears to announce to the world that things are not okay and that I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know how to affix an adjective to myself these days (hopeless, motivated, angry, anxious are all insufficient). The stages of grief are all out of order and moving too fast. My relationships strain from out-of-sync mourning. It’s a funeral for the future, and we all grieve the specific death we have individually imagined. I fear that Trump has already inserted a wall between our bodies, as we police each other’s ideas, move past each other’s woe like ships in the night.
Still, a moment of hope: I watch my friend Yaya’s exposed, muscle-shining, black body dance with two others in a choreography of anguish and healing, each movement a desperate push and a constraint at once. They weave through the audience, meeting our eyes, radiating stage from their bodies. Taking up space. I feel their love of self, and it is uncompromising. I feel their love for the rest of us, for my white and masculine body, and it’s more than I deserve. Such gifts, in the wake of these national declarations of scarcity. Amid empty placations and fearful declarations, here dances the past and the future at once.
Church music plays, some choir of old power, and Yaya moves to the red-cushioned throne in the room. Sits in it, a mythology not meant for their body. They perform pain, vulnerability, deconstruction. They walk amongst us, drawing our witnessing inwards, giving us in-sight. This is what’s at stake, I think. The opposite of a wall.
Easton Smith lives in Salt Lake City, land stolen from the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute and Northern Ute people. He likes to camp, try to play the banjo, sing with his friends, talk about his feelings, and run up big hills. Sometimes Easton organizes with Wasatch Rising Tide and Showing Up for Racial Justice SLC. Sometimes he labors for wages by writing things.
Previously published by Brine Waves.
Art credit: “Fallen Angel No.2” by Michael J Bowman via a Creative Commons license.