Author’s note: What follows is a (perhaps) pessimistic rumination on 2012. It is the first of two essays, the second intending toward optimism.
There are these rumors—perhaps you have heard them—rumors of ancient Mayan calendars and galactic cycles, lots of loose talk about sunspots and geomagnetisms, wide-eyed whispers about aliens and dimethyltryptamine, knowing nods concerning crop circles and conspiracies. An emergent and presumptive science of rapture heralds an onrushing apocalypse, and shadows cast backward through time are already stretching toward our sunset.
A feathered and snakeskin gauntlet has been thrown down, it seems, by a counterculture of psychedelic cognoscenti. Don’t tell Jesus, in other words, but Quetzalcoatl is coming. An omega point looms in 2012, a transcendental object at the end of time that echoes throughout the labyrinth of human history as it draws us inexorably toward itself, or as the Tennyson inscription declares above the History statue in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress:
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event
To which the whole Creation moves.
When I first visited the Library of Congress in the 1990s, the late standup philosopher Terence McKenna, in his irresistible nasal charisma, was proclaiming this same poetry, albeit in a science fiction vocabulary. Angels or aliens, destiny or timewave zero, revelation or exponential novelty, it was a fresh rehash of the apocalyptic romanticism that has enriched Western Civilization for centuries (and a romanticism that I readily confess has possessed my own writing). Only now, for reasons that remain to be revealed, a sort of now-or-never ultimatum has been wagered, a line has been drawn in the sand spilling out of the broken hourglass of history, as if we’re daring the devil to drop his gawdamn pitchfork or else… or else… or else…
Of course, we have no else with which to fulfill this threat, but we wager nonetheless on the en masse enlightenment of humanity. It’s a long shot, doubtless the superlative of its category, for a global spiritual awakening includes not only organic North Bay yogis but also corporate criminals lounging in their seeping pits of avarice, and hey, let’s not forget the truck driver jerking off over a crumpled Hustler in a gas station bathroom outside of Vegas. The depravity of the human condition can hardly be realized, so if nothing else, the en masse enlightenment of humanity is a bold bet, and perhaps a bold bet is the only way to hit the jackpot. But if I’m not entirely convinced that it’s ludicrous, it’s only because I also suspect that the game of life is fixed and the house always wins, and anyway, such contemplation never fails to leave me in a sparkling good mood, like a Beach Boys song.
But let’s really examine this. Between the yammer of a legion of gurusional prophets and the hammer of Hollywood’s own hijack of this bandwagon, there persists an earnest belief that this really is it, that Albert Hofmann’s 1943 bicycle ride was no coincidence, that acid was the antidote to nuclear weapons, that Jesus was a mushroom, that the Beatles were the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and that Ken Kesey’s electric kool-aid Grateful Dead flower child Burning Man mass mysticism is a teaser trailer for the next epoch of human evolution.
Admittedly, there is something enthralling about this narrative. Redemption, after all, is a theme that religious institutions have regaled us with tales of for millennia. There is an undeniable longing for this, protecting as it does the naked underbelly of the human psyche, that pink vulnerability that tries not to notice that we actually haven’t a clue what the antichrist is happening. But the sense that something is missing, and the hope that this will somehow shift—these are universal yearnings of the human condition, no matter the century.
So who knows? Human history does seem determined in its violent banality, and maybe it will require the messianic intervention of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy to liberate us from our own terrifyingly obsolete social structures. Maybe Hunter S. Thompson was mistaken when he wrote about the “old-mystic fallacy” of the counterculture, “the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.” But at the risk of branding myself a braying heretic, I must confess that my credulity perished when I witnessed a jubilant throng of terrifically attractive 21st-century humans really truly honest dancing chantingly believe that a particularly striking lenticular cloud capturing the sunsetting desert sky above Burning Man was an alien mothership there to cast blessings upon our bacchanalia.
Unquestionably, it was a beautiful cloud, and that was reason enough for my own jubilation, like the moonbow that haloed the sky two nights before, or the double rainbow that graced the playa two years prior. Our blessed Earth is capable of beauty that exceeds belief, but I don’t think it ill-mannered to mention that the emperor has no clothes here, and that cloud was no flying saucer. With this in mind, perhaps you will pardon my pessimism as I wonder aloud if the latter-day counterculture has been hoodwinked by a slew of Luciferian diversions presuming to promise salvation.
As much as my mind reels at the notion that our sun is a dimensional protrusion concentrated from a crackling canvas of cosmic background radiation, as fascinating as it is to consider that our neurochemistry could be influenced by meta-astrological phenomena, as thrilling as it is to contemplate that as our sun moves into some kind of geomagnetic alignment with the black hole at the center of our galaxy that our pineal glands will dump their DMT and a transcendental sunrise will sweep across the Earth as each among us gasps into a galactivation of consciousness as we awaken at last to unity undivided understood and forever fathomed—for that matter, as much as I would love to write another novel with such a bumping plot—I have to confess, I’m looking around, and I’m not really getting that impression.
What I’m getting instead is the sense that we’ve hyped ourselves for a letdown, that what passes for the latter-day counterculture has traded its prankster roots for something resembling, umm, a culture, a culture complete with ritual, status, fashion, and prophecy. The definition of counterculture accepted into the official lexicon generally has something to do with an oppositional culture rejecting the dominant culture. Etymologically, however (and historically, for progenitors of the term are known to have said as much), counterculture means exactly what it states—the opposite of culture, all culture. Despite McKenna’s ominous admonition that “culture is not your friend,” it’s unlikely that culture is necessarily your foe. It’s just that, fundamentally, culture is an illusion of security, predictability, identity, and order, and is therefore inherently false. Culture is useful, of course, and a constant human compulsion, but culture is an inevitable narrowing into a fixed perspective. Counterculture, then, is the opposite of any such reduction of reality—Mayan or otherwise—from anything other than unbounded creative potential. Counterculture, in other words, is the reveling chaos of relentless novelty that exists outside our social constructions, and as soon as we pretend to know what’s happening, it ceases to be counterculture and immediately becomes culture.
Granting for a moment a dark and hyperbolic parallel, consider that in concentration camps, rumors only as improbable as an Allied liberation occasionally overtook the imprisoned. Reflecting on his own Auschwitz experiences in Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl observed that such rumors typically resulted in elation as the starving anticipated their salvation. When liberation did not come to pass, however, Frankl also noted a horrifying die-off as hopelessness set in. Thankfully, the overall human condition is not yet comparable to that of a concentration camp. But there is an undeniable plague of spiritual starvation upon us, and I can’t help but feel some dismay when I see grandiose hopes for salvation placed at a point in the alleged future that I have no compelling reason to believe will feel any different than right this very instant right now.
The truth is stranger than fiction, Lord Byron poeticized, and as I have witnessed my own satirical endeavors outpaced by the absurdities of our commerce-begotten world, I have sometimes been tempted to exchange my storytelling for the wild fascinations of history. But then I remember that there’s really no difference, that story, history, prophecy, and the human experience itself are all made of the same carried away garble of grunts. And anyway, if the truth is stranger than fiction, then as strange as this 2012 business is, if we can contain it in words it is still only fiction, and I think that’s okay, because I think in the end the truth will be stranger still.
If you were the dreamer of all dreams conceiving the climax of human redemption, could you really satisfy yourself with a cheap deus ex machina twist, an all-at-once fell swoop shazamaranza? That is a simple fiction, and the stranger truth is that God is the sum of all histories, that there are countless billions of fractal fictions all facing our own apocalypse and seeking our own salvation. The stranger truth is that each and all of us will suffer uncontainable loss: broken hearts, shattered dreams, disease, misfortune, attachment, addiction, death. The stranger truth is that children lose their limbs to bombs, parents lose their children to ideology, lovers lose their love to resentment, soldiers lose their sanity to duty, and generations lose their hope to propaganda. The stranger truth is that our bodies will fail, our social systems will collapse, and the strangest truth of all is that there we will be, each of us alone, the protagonist of our own private fiction, until someday come doomsday, one by one across billions of lives, we give up, and we wake up, and we remember that the only thing we’ve ever really wanted to do is love, and as I pause at the close of this evening’s contemplation, it occurs to me that all of these concepts and ideas are impostors, pretending to have something to say,
other than yes.