September 12, 2022
This issue's contents Current issue My Back Pages Search The Ethical Spectacle

Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

The Queen

Elizabeth became Queen two years before I was born. She died a month after I turned 68. It seems extraordinary that she was there my entire life. I am and have always been anti-monarchy in concept, and if ten thousand of us were sitting on a hill on a new planet, writing our constitution, I would never suggest one. I never enjoyed the romanticized hype of royalty, stayed away from the romance and the scandals. And I found her personally bland and almost absent as a personality. But now that she is gone, I find myself giving her credit for several things. First, she did a job for seventy years when I can hardly stay in one for ten without going crazy. Second, she never became corrupted, engaged in the attacks, grandstanding or manipulations which Donald Trump manifests every five minutes. Third, though never one I would have selected, she served admirably as an organizing principle, an icon around which a nation grouped itself. Ernst Renan said in What Is a Nation, one of the Books That Wrote Me, that we consist of the things that we remember, and forget, together. In my endless, shapeless Mad Manuscript on the Idea of Free Speech (now exceeding 13,000 pages, no shit), I coined a defined term, "Renanesque Binder". The Queen was one of the best ever, in a benign way, through some very hard times. Though Britain is disintegrating now, so is everybody; not her fault.


Believing, as I finally told you, that Our World is Ending, I saw a Cliff coming up in two elections, 2022 and 2024, after which I expected the Batshit contingent to control all three branches of government and our democracy to be effectively over (it's already, to quote a Lucinda Williams cover, like a man who's "shot and didn't fall down"). Now the glimmers of analysis that say the Republicans may not take both houses in November are giving me some hope--but based on what? Are they "real" or driven by the same misunderstandings that inspirited the constant "Trump can't win" and "Trump is finished" articles? As a general human rule, the worst happens, sooner rather than later.

Climate Denial and Reality

In Watership Down, Woundwort, a brutal rabbit general, insisted that "Dogs aren't dangerous"; he last uttered the line leaping into the jaws of an attacking mastiff. I think we can definitively say that all of the climate denial contingent are already experiencing their Woundwort moment, or will soon. In my own environment, nine inches less rain has fallen in my Long Island area than normal at this time, and when I spent three nights on the Appalachian trail recently, the majority of brooks marked on maps as water sources were dry. I found the summer's heat debilitating. In other places it is much worse-- wildfires, deadly water emergencies, flooding. But we are also now shading into hurricane season.

The "necessary" television murder

Everything connects to everything; television ethics are at least a product of those pertaining in a World that is Ending. My whole reading life, with no more than mild interest, I have followed the literature which blames TV, or explains why not to (McLuhan, Mander, etc.). Today, there are two kinds of television dramas, those in which people don't get away with murder and other terrible crimes, and those in which they do. Vince Gilligan's two shows which are among the best television ever, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, had their protagonists pay for their actions, in a satisfying "What goes around comes around" kind of way. This is actually Shakespearian, what Macbeth and Richard III experience. The Sopranos, on the other hand, seemed to construct its arc and especially the last season on the understanding that a large part of the audience liked seeing Tony get away with murder. That inane, question-begging ending, in which, despite all speculation, Tony did not visibly die, was the result.

Another quite good show, a sort of Breaking Bad imitation, which I have followed for six seasons, wanted to have it both ways. Animal Kingdom followed an intense California crime family led by a matriarch, one of the brothers, Pope, who has been a dutiful soldier killing people at his mother's command, dies of bullet wounds (and arguably, also of a death wish) by the family swimming pool. The youngest (a cousin, actually), J, who emerged as the arch-villain of the series, is last seen in a hell-paradise in Asia, stern, dismal and completely alone, like Michael Corleone at the end of the first two Godfather movies. He has just killed, from what he describes as necessity, a woman of whom he was actually very fond, when she decided not to accompany him. This is done with a classic Hollywood sadomasochistic dishonesty: instead of killing her with a hammer, he happens to have a potion handy which he puts in her drink, which puts her to sleep permanently, still looking beautiful. An act which should have been, given the presence and basic likeability of the somewhat underwritten character across the season, a moment so disturbing as to make one wonder whether the writers should have chosen to tell that story, is made glossy, for the benefit of a part of the audience which doubtless agrees that he had to kill her: law enforcement would have bullied her into ratting on him if he left her behind. She had it coming (this character who never did evil to anyone) because she should have gone with him. Audiences which raged against Skyler in Breaking Bad and Starlight in The Boys,can't stand women with scruples. It is a symptom of our general Late Capitalistic spiral that prime time shows cater to that demographic.