Even in the face of human tragedy, we do in fact have somewhere to get to, and all too often, we do sail calmly on.
When we turn experience into legend, we tell stories about the world and about ourselves. We militate against that tendency. We say, ‘Hang on—a boy just fell out of the sky! That is not normal! Boys are generally found on the ground. Yes, some of them may occasionally fall from trees, but this one fell from the sky. That is to say, the part above the trees! We have questions….’
Over the centuries, stories about humans and their achievements tended to dwell on the tension between the hubris of invention and the right to strive, to master our domain, to tame the Earth.
You could argue that the ratio between Nature and human endeavour changed with well-intentioned (if hopelessly tendentious) Romantics, who celebrated the human spirit as something greater than mere flesh.
(literally, ‘higher’), some idiot ignores everyone’s advice not to cross a mountain pass, and dies in the attempt. But his exotic cry of ‘Excelsior’ carries on to the heavens. The end.
In 19th and 20th Century frontier folklore, the tension grows. For decades, western movies depicted the inexorable push of law and order, taming the inhabitants and killing what couldn’t be tamed.
Somewhere in there, the quest to strive for something higher, and the sense that our struggles exist in a vast, often uncaring world seem to dwindle and ultimately disappear. Even highly moralistic fare like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan are about the personal relationships forged in hardship rather than the virtue of fighting evil, upholding justice.
Modern legal dramas aren’t about justice, the principles of right and wrong; they’re about bad people and good people, doing bad things and good things. The law is wielded as a sword, either in vengeance or in conquest. The need for the law itself is seldom questioned.
Superhero movies are (I hope) the apogee of this personalised human narrative. Individual (super)people standing up against globe-bestriding evil, punching righteously at it until it quails and falls.
We are bigger than the world now. We have eclipsed it. Our species has reached beyond the planet. But this eclipse is metaphysical as well. We don’t dwell any more on our struggle to survive the globe’s tempests and upheavals. It’s no longer about what the world has done to us. It’s about what we’re doing to the world.
That hubristic world view of temperament and individual will as a force to rival Nature takes away something critically important. It can only be motivated to act out of self-interest, because, to use the hackneyed Hollywood phrase, it’s personal.
The world is emphatically not. In Brueghel’s painting, the same sun that was Icarus’ undoing continues to warm the ploughman’s field, and to fuel the wind that drives the ship so sedately on.
Now imagine that same painting, only it’s all of humanity plopping into the ocean, and the surviving parts of nature are placidly getting on with their lives.
The reason we can’t see it is because we’ve lost the space for it in our common culture. There is no narrative frame big enough.
Climate change and the earth’s unfathomable power are vast and impersonal. We can’t punch climate change in the jaw because it held our daughter captive. We can’t wrest our family from its clutches at the end of a furious chase. We can’t plot against it, and trap it through some ingenious twist.
Climate change is not amenable to individual human motivation. It exists in an utterly different space: That collective, species-level space that we are told again and again is irrelevant to our ambitions.
We can’t save ourselves. The only way we save humanity is if we stop trying to save ourselves, and start trying to save others.
Reflecting on her recent bout of COVID-19, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez put the matter succinctly:
It’s truly bizarre to me that giving a shit about other people is a polarizing political stance, but my dad used to say that life makes you repeat lessons until you learn them. And if there’s one lesson I think we as a country are repeating until we learn, it’s that community and collective good is our best shot through our greatest challenges - way more than discorded acts of “rugged individualism” and the bootstrap propaganda we’ve been spoon-fed since birth.
We need our news, our movies, our stories to remind us that humanity is vastly greater than the self, and that the world we live in is immeasurably greater than that.
It’s not personal. It’s bigger than that. It matters more than that.
But that’s not what we get. The weight of personalisation, of individual motivation and human character is so great now that Novak Djokovic, tennis player and anti-vaxxer extraordinaire, is not just granted equal billing with a volcanic explosion estimated to be the equivalent of a 10 megaton blast, his Australian visa antics are ranked above it.