Looking into the Future

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?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003407115600 Andhi

    As with all issues rreigdang a social, political or philisophic nature, I suppose this is a question which spans beyond the realm of pure Socratic philosophy, as forever mankind has struggled with the difference between what we are and what we should be. Realism versus idealism, with the philisophic subtext laid in between. One can only wonder where we’ll ultimately come out.Has not radical ideology been rooted in philosophy throughout mankind’s history? To say that one lacks philisophical thought when committing an act of violence or terror I might conclude is a bit of a broad assumption. Though wicked in it’s outcome and methodology, the impetus behind the attacks, that which you have dubbed as “fanatical certitude” could be interpreted by some as a philisophy on its own.To the same extent that the nineteen hijackers carried out horrific acts which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people, one could (and this shall likely be a remark for which I am scorned, but so be it) say that the same philosophy or fanatical certitude is inherent in the patriotic soldier who submits to the whim and will of our elected leaders and will fight and kill to defend the ideas on which they have attatched themselves. By this it could be argued that patriotic certitude is on par with fanatical certitude to the extent that both will gladly and without hesitation rain death and misery down upon others in the pursuit of securing the philisophic/ideologic goals set forth by whatever side one may be on.To further that, the modern patriotic philosophy of geo-centrist thinking and nationalist pride has been instilled so deeply in many who are still afraid, that the sacrifice of the original civic virtues for which our country stood now appear virtues unto themselves. To sacrifice one’s liberty for one’s freedom is such a paradox that it denotes a complete lack of philisophic consideration to such an extent that it may very well rival the radical ideologies that our people stand against. Does the rejection of enlightenment and the adoption of one’s enemy’s level of thinking not nullify whatever good intentions or moral purity one seeks to secure in the face of such a threat?Or is the idealism of America’s spirit truely that out of touch with the realism of the modern world that our philisophic contexts count for nothing in the face of real and present dangers?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003407124299 Robert

    Now, I don’t want to sound like just another stcleikr with a Classics degree, but that is a gross simplification of Greek literature. 5th century tragedy certainly has a few themes, I’m not arguing with you there, but Sophocles and his contemporaries are complicated work, which is why it’s been the subject of scholarship for over two thousand years. Some of the themes are so inaccessible that we don’t even have English words to describe them. When you boil down Oedipus and Antigone, which have very different messages, into Great men are held so highly that they become so arrogant and make horrible mistakes you can transfer that story onto just about anything without working to hard. So Obama was on your mind, but now think about Nixon and Watergate, or Clinton and Lewinsky. Now think about Britney Spears or Tiger Woods it still works doesn’t it? If you’re going to read Greek literature, you should do so with an open mind, don’t just use it as an allegory to confirm opinions you already hold.

  • barbara

    I did comment on this immediately after I read it Nov 5, but for some reason it was never published, and now I can’t remember the pearls that I wrote!