DAYS OF SLOW-MOTION AGONY


 

tsunami

BY STEVEN T. BRAMBLE

Those were the days of slow-motion agony.

Days when we began to watch everything collapse.

Many, during that epoch, proposed that this line of thought was not new, that people of all generations going back to ancient times had envisioned the conditions and consequences of apocalypse. Such individuals clearly understood nothing. For one, it didn’t occur to us as a line of thought. The whole thing was in actuality a feeling.

One which hung low in the gut, as if an invisible gun were being constantly pressed to our heads. We could never know when the gun would fire, or if it was even there at all. A feeling unlike any other, something for which there was no word.

But that feeling, agonizing though it was, was not unbearable. The future was still a leviathan, whose shape was barely visible through an abyss of dark water, its outline hideous, overwhelming, but only vaguely distinguishable. The leviathan’s movement toward us was slow, almost imperceptible, slower than the growth of trees—and so although it was undeniable, it had also become a vision of normal, even mundane proportions, looming before us always like a cloud in the sky: meaningful, monumental, altering our behavior through its constant presence. Thus we were changed by it, but only partially. We couldn’t yet be fully transformed because it was not near enough, and because the practices of those who had brought the leviathan forth in the first place were merely shadowed rather than eclipsed.

Under these circumstances we continued to undergo the painful process of evolution, and previously unheard of characteristics began to emerge. Most prominent was the development of a type of amorphous, parasitic organism at the centermost point of our chests, whose bodies were composed of concentrated anxiety. The creatures, nebulous as they were, nevertheless took on forms. They were discovered to be grotesque, otherworldly, microscopic horrors equipped with endlessly varied arrangements of mandibles, stingers, claws and other violent attributes which would flail within their hosts. The sensation of these creatures, thrashing away within, was the tickle of ultimate dread, and to feel that tickle was simply what it meant to be alive.

In short, we suffered slowly. And all the while, even though we knew the leviathan was drawing near, or that the gun would soon fire, or whatever elegant metaphor you may have wanted to convert the whole ugly fucking mess of irreconcilable truth into, there was no longer anything we could do, and every day life slogged forward—throughout it all retaining a bizarre measure of normality.

Those of us who saw the leviathan approaching, who couldn’t deceive ourselves and feared it, sought at first to correct our fate through purity. The leviathan seemed to us the ultimate contaminant of our future, so how to cleanse ourselves? Our habits would have to change. Every perversion and pollutant would have to be identified, located, jettisoned from our behavior, until at last we would be left as wholesome, synergistic, pure.

This tendency to disinfect ourselves was our first, and most damaging, reaction. The world had long ago ceased to function as such a logical structure—its operations had been corrupted and reordered in our own image. We realized that if the earth had been remade as human, then it must function according to the rules of paradox.

Contradiction had become the defining quality of our species. We no longer possessed the ability to live harmoniously with nature or one another. Systems which had been built to be beneficial were in fact deleterious, but we saw everything as its opposite. We could not cleanse ourselves of impurities because we were impurities, and our attempts to refine ourselves only made us more poisonous. But, of course, because we had made ourselves into creatures of contradiction, we could not accept the truth. We conceived of ourselves as holy, sanctified, when in actuality we were debased and inconsequential. We followed our instincts, and our instinct was to hope we could change. We did this even as our every natural tendency hastened the leviathan’s approach.

In light of these discoveries, some of us came to the conclusion that the only reasonable thing to do would be to lose hope. Hope was the belief in our own ever-expanding potential, and the destiny of our potential was to expand until we destroyed ourselves. To hope was to believe in your own annihilation.

Although this seemed rational to us, perhaps even dangerously sane, we were once again to encounter paradox. One could not purge hope in order to gain hope. Or, if one did, all that was accomplished was an infinite vacillation between the two states. To purge hope would have to be a more permanent alteration of thought—the belief in the inevitability of our demise, and thus a complete redefinition of our instincts.

But how to go against one’s own instincts? We proved capable of giving up on virtually all other emotions before hope, even though this last thing should have been an almost effortless task in comparison to the forfeiture of the rest of the range of human emotions we held dear. The evidence for a bleak tomorrow, flat and incontrovertible as it was, should have proven hope to be a dead concept. But, on the contrary, that hollow notion was the final thing to be relinquished. So, in naturally paradoxical fashion, the first emotions to go were those vital elements which energized and animated us, leaving people as empty automatons whose only inner sustenance was an irrational, thrumming hope.

I was someone who couldn’t purge her hope, despite the fact I knew the truth: there was not just one leviathan approaching, but many. Some larger, some smaller, but all with the same purpose. My family had been devoured by one long ago. In my own country they referred to it as the American War, or the Civil War. In the United States we called it Vietnam. That horrific leviathan had left some of us alive, and my destiny was supposed to be a different one—it was to be, in a word, hopeful. But just as everyone had to, I couldn’t help discovering that the world was mired in paradox. In exchange for my future becoming hopeful, I would have to feed other families to a leviathan of my own creation, extinguishing their hope in the process. This would be the price for prosperity, one which I paid.

But the contradiction of this bargain would quickly grow so cumbersome it threatened to crush me. Not only because I witnessed the harm I was inflicting on others, even though I didn’t have to look, and was even encouraged not to look, but also because I had always thought of the leviathans as the result of other peoples’ actions, people with worse intentions than myself who benefited directly from our misery, and the truth turned out to be something much different. All of us were responsible. I was responsible. Like so many of my generation, I desperately wanted to be guiltless, blameless, pure. If our purity was true, then we could believe in ourselves, and something, somehow, would change. As it turned out, there was nothing to hope for. The leviathans had become too large, too numerous, and we had all played a role in perpetuating them.

I sought out disinfection, and when I couldn’t be cleansed I turned to a more violent means of correction. This was my first, and most damaging, reaction. I hung myself.

By chance alone I survived. As soon as I felt the noose tighten, I realized my mistake. There could be no purification, even through death. The world had long ago ceased to function as a logical structure, its operations had been corrupted and reordered in our own image. I had lost hope in everything, and I wanted to die to be rid of the pain, but the truth was that I was only in pain because I hadn’t yet lost hope in anything. My hope had not been lost, simply unrequited—and it was pointless to expect the pain to end, because hope was no longer feasible. Our fate had already been decided by history and human nature. The leviathans would overtake us, and death was coming for the species. The only thing left to do would be to live, and to come to terms with the unavoidable.

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