The United States is, without question, the most religious country in the so-called developed world. If the pollsters are to…
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I am writing this on the eve of the American presidential election – an event that will soon be regarded as historical in a matter of months, let alone days. Having been shuttling between the US and Europe for the past few months I have only been half-inundated by the endless on-screen and on-line speculation about the outcome… and by the way that we are now so obsessed with pollsters, polling trends, whether a debate or a single misspent comment will recalibrate the momentum of a candidate, and whether all this mathematical data actually amounts to anything when it comes to the realpolitik of the election booth.
Now not being a political commentator, let alone someone who regards himself as a sage when it comes to electoral matters, I am not going to offer my proverbial two cents when it comes to assessing the direction of the 2012 Presidential campaign. Rather, what interests me most here is the way we are always so obsessed with knowing that which we cannot know – the ongoing human fascination with the future, and somehow being able to define that which is actually indefinable.
Back in late June I spent a riveting ninety minutes in London with my daughter Amelia at the National Theatre’s new production of “Antigone” – which set Sophocles’s tale of the self-immolating nature of pride in a police state not far off the former East Germany. Into the middle of the play marches a character who is both blind and deformed, but still held in huge respect by the dictatorial Creon. Because this gentleman happens to be an Oracle – a figure with quasi-mystical powers, for he can look into that netherworld called the future and predict the havoc that will prevail if his counsel isn’t heeded.
Of course, Creon is so drowning in his own self-righteousness – the venality of power and a Manichean world-view – that he ignores the Oracle’s entreaties to curb his hubris. And the result is that, in ordering the death of Antigone over a minor breach of law, he unleashes a floodtide of misfortune upon himself, in which his son and his wife both end up dead thanks to his all-encompassing pride.
What is intriguing in the Sophoclean world-view is the way that the Oracle isn’t really a soothsayer who can see into the future; rather someone who distentangles that very human tendency to muddle his field of vision with all his pathological baggage and, in turn, not see what is clearly so self-evident. As such the Oracle is more the detached observer who, when dropped into a psychodramatic morass, can highlight certain clarifying truths.
Of course, hubris is the sin most punished within Greek drama – because it is about the abnegation of self-knowledge, and the all-consuming nature of vanity. And the corrupting nature of pride – of self-delusion in the face of self-evident certainties – is a classic theme that has informed world literature since Sophocles and Aeschylus and Euripides. And it continues to have profound contemporary relevance. For even in our post-Freudian, self-reflective era, the fact remains that the human condition is so predicated on sidestepping the heart of the matter… especially when it comes to oneself.
Survey the marital debris around you – and the way those you know (and perhaps yourself) have made the same emotional mistake over and over again – and you have to begin to respect how prescient Sophocles was when it came to seeing, with pellucid clarity, the way we search for a sense of the future while simultaneously ignoring all the warning signs imbedded in said future.
Of course, no one can ever see into the future. The health junkie who has always adhered to a macrobiotic diet can succumb in midlife to pancreatic cancer. Just as the two pack a day smoker can live until ninety. Yes, the odds of the latter happening are not favorable – as smokers always are dancing a distinctive ‘totentanz’. But even though the statistical changes of getting lung cancer at a premature age rise with a pack-a-day habit, the truth is: no one can ever predict what will befall us.
And yet, ‘the future’ remains the ongoing human obsession. Pensions, insurance policies, astrologers, palm readers, most organized religions (who promise life everylasting), all cults… they all promise answers and/or pallatives to that most baffling and chartless of questions: what will happen next to us?
And the truth is: as it was in the beginning is now as it ever shall be… who knows?