A Digression in Pursuit of Hope

I have made reference to some terms in here that deal with concepts that would not be unfamiliar to those growing up in western society but I place a warning here that I discuss sexual assault and cannibalism (in outline) within, so feel free to skip this. This also contains some major spoilers for the work “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, so if you want to avoid those, please don’t read this post.

I realise it’s stretching a point in a learning and teaching blog to start talking about the general context of society and the nature of hope but, frankly, given how much this seems to frame the debate on how we should be teaching, what we should be teaching and, sadly, also for whom education is a guarantee, perhaps we can include this discussion under a hand-wavy framework that precedes learning and teaching.

I’ve recently finished reading the text of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and, while I can see why many found it to be moving and horrific, I deliberately approached it in a way that allowed me to see individual scenes, outside of the general narrative flow. In other words, I read from different points, picked up and jumped around. I have read all of the words in it sequentially, because I’m a bit of a completist, but I quickly realised that, for all of its potential positive outcomes in convincing people of the necessity of not blowing up the world, it’s a very gloomy read and wallows, to a large extent, in a particular type of middle-class apocalyptic fantasy. I grew up chewing on solid apocalyptic fantasy, as a child of the 60s and 70s we had much to draw upon, and I can honestly say that I’ve seen all of this hopelessness and evil before.

There are scenes in the book that, in the dire and colourless trudge towards the sea that dominates this bleak tome, stand out for both their colour and their silliness. I mean, seriously, you’re a war-tribe in a food-starved land and you have a separate cohort of “catamites” that you are dragging behind the women, in skimpy clothes and dog collars, because… ? The book trades in fear: fear of loss, fear of bestial nature, fear of cannibalism, fear of sexual assault (lots and lots and lots of fear of sexual assault) and sacrifices a lot to keep giving you the message that, ultimately, we’re all doomed. It’s over. The plants are dead. We are the motive power, the hunger, the scourge, the food source and, for a few, we are the remaining good guys. I remember when all we used to be was the world and the children…

I’m not questioning that the book is well-written and, in these fearful times, I can completely understand why such a book would have an impact. It is a book designed to have an impact. To make you check your doors and hug your children close. But, really, do we need any more books like this? We already have a growing library of zombie books and movies, TV series and games, embodying the real fear of the comfortable and settled that the all-consuming and unreasoning mob will turn on them for food. After all, if there is not enough food to go around and we have tasty people made of flesh, then whether we grab a mouthful from a passing person or eat it in sanitised Soylent Green form, we are consuming ourselves.

Fear! Fear! Fear! Hide behind your walls and stock up on food and guns. They (for various values of they) are coming to get you and sexually assault your goldfish! Then they will eat your terrapins!

You can get a discounted three-stack for only $1.99 at Denny's!

You can get a discounted three-stack for only $1.99 at Denny’s!

When I read the section on the little army, trudging with red bandannas, I though that McCarthy had missed an obvious point in his attempt to bring up the reminder that the boy in the story was desirable as both sexual object and food source to the brutish, and predominantly male, marauders of the countryside. The father and the boy encounter a rough army marching in column, towards the end:

“the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked to each other” (McCarthy, The Road, p96, Picador, 2006)

In rushing to press the catamite panic button, I believe that McCarthy missed a grand opportunity to remind us of the world that these people are really living in. It’s not Pulitzer worthy, but perhaps something along the lines of:

“the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly, too young and weak to pull the wagons and not female enough to keep, the eight or so lean and wide-eyed boys of the larder clutched at the few rags that would keep them alive for long enough to be useful as they stumbled, chained, along the road.”

Simply put, when there is nothing else to eat, I quite simply don’t believe that you will keep around extra people because it costs a lot to keep a person fed. In a book that is all about slow starvation, this stood out as either the most blatant statement of affluence (which would make sense if the army hadn’t been on the move to find new space) or a revealing statement of the manipulation of fear that is part and parcel of this work.

My apologies to Mr McCarthy as I think that this book is very well-written but, again, given that we can turn the bleak up to 11, given that we are already doing so, and given that this fear of an as yet unrealised apocalypse appears to be scaring people into carrying out real actions (hoarding, gun accumulation and so on) – why? I was talking to a friend and, ultimately, the true tragedy of all of this type of literature is that, despite our forays into darkness and evil, the default action of humanity in extremis cannot be this or we would not have managed to develop civilisation in any sense of the word. Yes, dire and terrible things have been carried out, but we are seeing a swathe of natural disasters sweeping the world and the overwhelming message emerging from this is that people band together, people help each other out. Complete societal breakdown? Ok, yes, again terrible things can happen – but it takes quite a long time to get to that point and most of the fear and panic we see today is going through an amplifier of wave-after-wave of book, TV show and film telling us that we are two days and one shotgun away from having our brains eaten by our next-door-monsters.

There appears to be a thread of hopelessness, or (at best) unresolved hope, that has pervaded our culture with the onslaught of walking dead works, of all kinds, and the theme is always the same: they are legion and they are hungry, they will consume you. There is, of course, nothing new in selling fear: my teen apocalypse was always going to be nuclear but, interestingly enough, the major fear was mutation not cannibalism. Whether this was just the highly sanitised remnants of polite society not being able to think about eating each other or whether our fear has changed – I’ll leave that to the cultural historians.

I was recently listening to an old Beth Orton song and it put me in mind of a mournful reflection on times “before the fall” from a teenage girl sitting in a trailer out on the wastelands. However, the more I thought about, the more I realised how persuasive the negative narratives had become – I was thinking lazily in the same forms. The girl herself was not independently powerful and had limited agency, she was semi-literate, had little hope and was highly armed. Nooooooooo!

Argh! Argh! Argh! Argh! My friends, please forgive me because I, for a second, contemplated writing 1960s bad fiction. The problem I had, however, as I fixed the problems (she was autonomous, had received enough education and was part of a still active community, with hope for the future) the more I realised that any tension, or melancholic drive, was running out of the situation at a rate of knots. The apocalypse is fundamentally uninteresting unless a catastrophe follows that challenges, involves, threatens and consumes us enough to be invested in the story – and to want to see tension resolved.

There is an XKCD comic where the zombie menace is dispatched immediately and the movie then turns into a romantic comedy and, applying the same rule to almost every other work, it is amazing the amount of effort that has to be expended to keep us in catastrophic mode – missed chances to stop the epidemic, people ‘refusing to believe until it is too late’, or a mysteriously self-supporting group of rent boys trundling behind a wagon to up the “EEK! Your son will be USED by slavers” effort.

Education is abandoned in “The Road” because, ultimately, there is no real hope. There is no real colour except for blood and the armies of blood, the books and the art are long burned, the countries are separated, the inexorable grind is crushing everything so why learn a few letters? Perhaps I am being too hard on “The Road” because we are seeing the nadir, the lowest possible point, and this final sacrifice (notably three days before the boy’s next encounter) is the beginning of the uptick. In reality, there is no actual tension in such a moment as it happens, because our expectation is that the increasing positive is merely a false rise that precedes a much deeper trough – you don’t call something the dark ages until you’re well clear of it and looking backwards.

In terms of the description of the role of education, and the importance of hope, I found “A Canticle for Leibowitz” and “Riddley Walker” to cover ground not dissimilar to this – with dips down into hopelessness and the constant threat of the abandonment of what we would refer to as our civilisation, possibly our own extinction – but without the obsession on hopelessness that takes “The Road” from being a dark fable, and moves it towards accidental comedy at times.

Education is a statement of hope. We teach people and we give them the tools to be able to understand, record and improve upon what has gone before them. It doesn’t always work but it has, for thousands of years, proved to be resilient, in the face of war, plague, fire, famine and the constant threat that our world or ourselves will wipe ourselves out. While I can see the appeal in writing dark tales that appeal to the fears of those who have enough to lose, and I can certainly see the mind candy aspect to watching movies like “28 days Later”, “Resident Evil” and “Zombieland”, I note that almost all of those tales have far more hope than we see in “The Road”. Yes, at the very end, we see a soup├žon of hope, handed out in a familiar package, but it is a token, enough to raise pressure on the razor but perhaps not enough to take it from the wrist, and it doesn’t ring true to me. I have seen what goodness and hope look like, whether it’s the incredible bravery of Arlen Williams, or the everyday and simple generosity of helping a stranger – hope is not indestructible and goodness is not guaranteed to triumph but, over time, they must or we would all be skin-eating space zombies by now. Apart from anything else, token hope is insincere and false hope, sometimes an artefact of pompous or lazy writing, sometimes just not quite aligned with the rest of the message – and sometimes the reader doesn’t get it because they aren’t the target. You may love “The Road” but it doesn’t work for me because hope is essential to me.

If we have no hope then education is futile and let’s close the schools and go out and frolic in the fields while we still have grass, sunshine and wine. I would argue that the converse is true, that without education (which doesn’t have to be formalised or written) we have no hope and, again, let us seek a steady state pastoral existence until we are wiped out by something that could have been avoided. But reading or watching ourselves into a mental state that provides an overwhelming sense of disasters that have not yet happened? I wonder about the sense of that and, in that regard, I wonder whether “The Road” provides enough “fix the world” scare to balance its “we are all slowly doomed to starvation or consumption” message.

Well, let me be honest, I weigh it and find its bleakness unredeemed by virtue. There is no doubt that this is a good book, but there are many other books I think my students could read to get a similar message without such a depressingly persistent boot-into-the-face. Then again, I’m never going to with the Pulitzer Prize, so you should take my advice with a grain of salt.

While we still have salt!

What if we are wrong? Musings on the way home

When I was a physics student, many years ago, we would sometimes entertain the notion of what would happen if something wasn’t the way that it was. The impact of changing the Planck constant and diffracting through doorways (ignoring how much else would immediately break). What would happen if the speed of light was much slower – or much faster. What would happen if there was no static coefficient of friction. (The short answer to that last one is Wheeeeeeeeeeeee and the penguins dominate the Earth.)

These thought experiments constitute a principle aspect of physics, specifically, and science, in general. What if?

Now we are approaching another date of a so-called apocalypse and, as I have already posted, both I and the Mayans agree: being scared of the end of this ba’ak’tun makes as much sense as being worried about Sunday night.

But what if? What if, after everything, the world ends on the 21st of December, 2012?

Let’s start this by working out which 21st of December we are talking about. Is it GMT offset or the first country to officially have the time? Is it even 00:00:01 on that date or something convenient like midday? Do we all have to be in the correct day or will the world end in neat hourly blocks (half hourly for difficult time zones like Adelaide). Spain is GMT+1 but sits under England. Will there be an embarrassing absence of ocean as the seas pour into the hole vacated by the destruction of the Iberian Peninsula?

What do we even mean by the end of the world, anyway? The destruction of all life, all human life, most human life, the flooding of the land, fire, famine, pestilence or the complete obliteration of the planet itself? Is this a grand Universal extinction event or localised to our galaxy?

These are important questions! If we are talking the wiping out of only some life forms on the planet, with an otherwise intact biosphere, then we have a small but fit for purpose International Space Station. Once the disaster is over, the crew can descend and they can repopulate the Earth.

All guys?


We are really not taking this apocalypse seriously, are we? We have one opportunity for an isolated spot that could theoretically jump start our race – and looking at the pictures it’s a zero gravity moustache growing competition.

I’m being facetious, obviously, but it is amazing how far the apocalypse idea spreads without any of the questions of any detail being answered. The eschatological aspects of the Bible have been fleshed out in the most amazing detail but this current Mayan apocalypse? Meh.

We are currently seeing another, far more serious, threat manifesting in the steadily unfolding issues caused by climate change and what scares me is that people have been postulating the What If scenarios on that for decades. We are longer talking about What If for this, we are talking about What Now. Yet we still argue as if the real and demonstrable changes are as mythical as the Mayan scenario.

It would be darkly amusing if December the 21st, 2012, is revealed, decades hence, to have been the tipping point between salvageable and irretrievable. I sometimes refer to this as the Atlantis moment, the point at which your civilisation is doomed to extinction and myth.

“What if?” is not just a good scientific tool for my students, it’s an ethical and philosophical tool as well. What if we don’t tell these men that we can cure their syphilis? What if I argue in a way that suggests a reversed order of priority for key tasks? What if I take money to stay silent? What would happen if I did nothing? What if? WHAT IF?

What if all of us are wrong about apocalypses because we don’t see well enough through longer periods of time to see what a true disaster looks like?

I’m not expecting the world to end before Christmas (I have flights booked and would hate to miss the party) but it’s not a bad time to step back and think about what would happen, if we were in such dire straits. What if we are?