Monday, March 14, 2011

Facing things we'd rather weren't so

Wednesday night, the Wisconsin state senate voted to further empower the wealthy by straitjacketing the only organized counterweight to their focused, self-interested influence. (If this were a political rant, I might go on to say that this amounts to a corporate coup orchestrated by a reclusive pair of billionaire brothers and executed by their hired-lapdog governor. But that's not where I'm going. Not today.)

On Thursday evening I saw an original stage interpretation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, written and performed by mostly-fifteen-year-old students of the Oakland School for the Arts. It was the opening night of a performance that's headed to the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer. The review concisely summarizes the classic this way: "Josef K., "without having done anything truly wrong," is arrested, tried, convicted and executed -- on a charge that is never disclosed to him." The student artists situated their vibrant rendering of this posthumously-published work as Joseph K's dream of a world of social constraint, as oppressive in 2011 as when it was written in Prague nearly a century ago.

On Friday evening I saw Ruined at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Ruined is Lynn Nottage's 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning play that has been staged in New York, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, in Boston, and in La Jolla before making its way to the theatre where I volunteer as an usher. From the BRT's program notes: "This powerful new play provides a bleak yet beautiful look at the lives of women in a land ruled by whiskey and bayonets. As civil war ravages the Congo, the lucky ones find a home—and a regular meal—in a ramshackle building that serves as both brothel and refuge. Whether merchant, miner or soldier, the man you meet in the morning may be your enemy by sundown. Yet all of them come through Mama’s door for booze and a bit of comfort. Mama Nadi protects her girls with rough compassion, even as she profits from their bodies." The performance made want to climb out of my skin. Tonye Patano and her fellow-players confronted their audience stage front-and-center for two riveting hours with the most cruel and debased things that people are doing to other people right now, present tense.

In-between these two performances, a massive earthquake rocked Japan. A devastating tsunami followed. As anyone even distantly connected to the news cycle knows, the tsunami caused death and destruction whose scope is still emerging; then crossed the Pacific to kill at least one man and cause millions of dollars in damage to boats and harbors up and down the California coast.

On Saturday morning (California time), as the farmers of Wisconsin rolled into their state capitol in Madison to rally in support of organized labor, two reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station were leaking radiation and threatening meltdown after cooling systems failed due to earthquake damage.

On Saturday afternoon engineers flooded the reactors with seawater in an attempt to avert catastrophic meltdown of the reactor cores.

By Saturday evening word was that partial meltdown had occurred; and engineers were battling serious cooling problems in three more reactors at the Danai plant.

By Sunday morning the NY Times reported that "22 people outside the [Fukushima Daiichi] plant showed signs of radiation exposure and about 170 other people near the plant had likely been exposed, but it was unclear if they had received dangerous doses. Early Sunday, the government said three workers were suffering full-out radiation illness." By Sunday evening experts were predicting that radioactivity would have to be released from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors for weeks or even months as they slowly cool.

Today: a second explosion and a third failed cooling system, with the NY Times reporting that "Operators fear that if they cannot establish control, despite increasingly desperate measures to do so, the reactors could experience meltdowns, which would release catastrophic amounts of radiation."

The mind reels.

The aggregation of power. The abuse of power. Those abused by power. Mortal helplessness in the face of geophysical power. The lethal risk inherent in harnessing power to seemingly benign ends.

Politics, art, news. There's no getting away from facing things we'd rather not have to in these tumultuous times.

Some months back I wrote about Dystopias in fiction. The other day I finished reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, dystopian fiction if any was ever written. I stand in awe of Mitchell's acrobatic literary feat, the novel is a masterful construction. I am sympathetic to the novel's bleak sensibility and moral frame. On the other hand, I'm not usually enamored of setting stories (or parts of stories) in distant, speculative, technologically elaborate futures to paint a moral lesson about our present. There are certainly exceptions to my preference, including novels I cited in that post of mid-November: Huxley's and Orwell's classics, Brave New World and 1984. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. And full disclosure requires that I acknowledge there have been times in my lifetime of reading when I was more deeply touched by speculative fiction than I am now.

Perhaps Mitchell leaned too heavily for my current taste on fictional science. Perhaps he fast-forwarded a few too many centuries, even after taking into account the historical anchoring of his arc by episodes set in the mid-1800s and between the World Wars of the twentieth century.

He did score a bullseye in naming humankind's fundamental tragic flaw: "a hunger in the hearts o'humans, yay, a hunger for more." But I'm left thinking that there's plenty of material in this vein to be mined from the 21st century and those that have gone before. Fabricating future global consequences, it seems to me, makes it too easy for a reader to dismiss clairvoyant vision as "eh, that's not really going to happen" fantasy.

Sometimes I think the best argument for dystopian fiction, present or future, is utopian (and I use the word loosely here) advertising produced today. Look at what people are instructed to want, and you know, sure as calving glaciers, there's trouble around the next bend.

A video shared by Nathan Bransford in his Saturday afternoon post makes this point in spades:

Why are people transfixed when confronted with things we would rather not face? Why are we distracted by unattainable fantasies? And why do our fascinations seem to change nothing, or too little, or too late?

And yet. And yet.

On Sunday evening I attended a performance at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus: the tenor Jonas Kaufmann singing Lieder by Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss. Kaufmann was accompanied by Helmut Deutsch at the piano. A virtuoso performance, the singer was called back by an enraptured audience for five encores. (It is impossible to resist an aside: by the fifth encore Deutsch had apparently run through the printed scores he'd prepared for the evening, and so brought an iPad onto the stage, from which to read as he played. That was a first for me: watching a pianist in a live classical performance flip a page with a touchscreen gesture.)

From Schumann's Stille Tränen, verses by Justinus Kerner, a German medical doctor and poet:

Just roused from sleep,
You wander through the meadow;
From east to west the sky arches,
Miraculously blue.

But while you were lying careless in untroubled slumber,
That same sky was weeping down
Tear after tear the whole night through.

So in the silent night
Many a man weeps out his sorrow;
Though in the morning you may think to look at him
That his heart had always been gay.

The NY Times now reports that "The fragile bipartisan consensus that nuclear power offers a big piece of the answer to America’s energy and global warming challenges may have evaporated as quickly as confidence in Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors. Until this weekend, President Obama, mainstream environmental groups and large numbers of Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed that nuclear power offered a steady energy source and part of the solution to climate change, even as they disagreed on virtually every other aspect of energy policy. [...] Now, that is all in question as the world watches the unfolding crisis in Japan’s nuclear reactors and the widespread terror it has spawned."

The world turns.

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