limacine (limacine) wrote,

Unquiet Americans

December 21, 2012, passed with neither whisper nor boom. Possibly the apocalypse was engendered that day in a seemingly innocuous court case, laboratory discovery, or childhood emotional trauma. The next land species to become intelligent enough to decipher our language (probably a rodent, based on biodiversity in that order) may use whatever records remain to trace the origins of our demise and indeed discover that the seed was planted on that stormy Friday.

Our rodent brethren sifting through public and private records is a dramatic abstraction
and rather absurd. Whatever will contribute most to our end has doubtlessly already been flagged by a million modern Cassandras bemoaning the plastics degrading in the oceans, the proliferation of weapons of mass and minor destruction, or the incessant devouring of natural resources. Mankind is a nurse enjoying a cigarette break. We combine awful fatalism with vain hope, cycling between cynicism and heroism while chasing little pleasures.

We are, then, both Fowler and Pyle, the two antiheroes of Graham Greene's Quiet Americanclumsy idealist and cool cynic, both hungering for release (in the novel, represented by a beautiful girl, tacit and mostly compliant) and equally capable of destroying other lives. Several years ago Pico Iyer wrote a lovely piece about the political and personal relevance of this book, and why he repeatedly returns to is. (Certainly the novel's theme of nation building resonates with current geopolitics, what with the United States and other countries limping away from self-imposed obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan.) He notes the tension between idealist and cynic that exists both within and between individuals. But while this tension makes for good literature, it doesn't solve problems. That is left to the realist* who holds ground between the idealist and the cynicthe Jamesian pragmatist with a totality of outlook and willingness to act. 

* Obama's second inaugural address showed his penchant for hope tempered by a grim view of reality; it will be interesting to see if his second term effects more positive change than the beleaguered first.

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