Some Epochal Echoes
This isn’t a post about the The Wire. But everything is connected, albeit via subterranean channels, and this is about what, in a sentence, my paper was about: the fact that times keeps moving forward steadily, while the basis on which we understand that temporal texture, that historical steadiness, gets eroded or transformed by the very things we do to reproduce ourselves and our societies, or by the dissonance between our institutions and our vocations, the world we make and the way it makes us. This is broad, and vague, but that’s because I’m broadly interested in the broad and heterogeneous ways we aestheticize, dramatize, and negotiate change, the basis on which we lean on certain verities (asserting, falsely, that they are eternal) as a way of changing them, or others.
I’m interested in the harmony and dissonance, for example, between Dylan singing “may you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift” and urging his listeners to “admit that the waters around you have grown…If your time to you is worth saving, then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone…” It isn’t the same harmony, but it’s a related one to the ways that neo-conservatism is an inherantly unstable beast, the ways a conservative faith in Laissez Faire cannot help but chew itself to interesting and horribly destructive fragments, as Karl Polanyi and Adam Smith have been quietly reminding us for a long time. And that’s different, but related, to the problem of how we narrate the crisis of right now, how we dream the past as we imagine a new kind of future. Or, less optimistically, what kinds of dreamwork we’ll need to survive the nightmare of whatever’s coming.
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Put most simply, the one thing you have to know about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is that the title is deceptive and ambiguous, that precisely because it means so many different things, it opens up the question of its meaning along the particular channels we need to think about. It isn’t “Things have fallen apart,” because that would be the present perfect, the implication that the falling apart process has ended, or that it has reached some state of completion. This is not what it says; it says it in the tense which signifies indeterminate temporal location; things fall apart, now and/or at other times. They are still falling apart, they have yet to fall aprt, they fell apart once and and will fall apart again, yes, yes, and yes. Why do they fall apart? Is it an immanent movement? An external influence? Yes. What falls apart? What are things? Everything. Everything falls apart.
The title, of course, comes from the Yeats poem “The second coming” and since that work of quotable verse must alsways be quoted, let me quote a few lines:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
But the certainty of this passage goes away very quickly, dissolving amidst the ambiguity of its referent. “The Second Coming,” after all, is the end of the world because it’s the beginning, the advent of something fundamentally new because it’s the return of something old. Folk wisdom reminds brides to wear something old and something new, and Achebe reminds readers that a a thing can’t end without something else beginning. The work is usually taught as if it stands alone, which leads readers to share (with their teachers, I imagine) the easy faith that the novel is a eulogy, or a piece of salvage anthropology. But not only is that wrong — the novel is clearly embedded in a narrative movement that leads us to No Longer at Ease, the story of the next generations — it misses the point of the Yeats reference: “Surely some revelation is at hand,” the poet tells us, but what is it? “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” There is no answer to that question because that’s how time works. We have to wait and see; an event only becomes meaningful long after it’s over. But we live through that history as we make it, and the point of remembering the past is not to bury it but remake it, to re-member it as it needs to be for the future. Which is Okonkwo’s suicide isn’t the end of the novel, or rather, the point is that whether it’s an end or a beginning — and how and why and for who — are the important questions, and open ones.