Psalm: Dystopia






From man’s blood-sodden heart are sprung

Those branches of the night and day

Where the gaudy moon is hung.

What’s the meaning of all song?

‘Let all things pass away.’

                                                WB Yeats, “Vacillation”


Once upon a time,

and a very good time it was,

before we put seeds in the ground,

the gods lived inside the snake,

inside the bush, inside of us.


After the capture of the seed,

the plants lost their souls

as the folk toiled

beneath the eyes of a watchful god —

or so they thought.


But over the centuries, as they reaped and sowed,

the sky god began to shrink, to wither

into little more than a whisper.


Later, citizens polished their pianos,

and the factories spewed their soot,

and the dead carp floated upon the lake,

and the coral disappeared from the seas,

which rose year after year –

to reclaim the trade-seared land.


America’s Dystopia Jones

Motorcycle Gang in The Wild OneOh, for those quaint days of yore when the worst your uptight cinematic town had to fear was a motorcycle gang led by Marlon Brando cutting doughnuts on Main Street, shattering the plate glass windows of hardware stores. [TRAILER HERE]

how-to-be-on-the-walking-deadNowadays, it’s brain-eating zombies upsetting the ambiance of the townships of Televisionland, shuffling like Roman Legions down Martin Luther King Boulevard, crossing the tracks, headed toward gated communities guarded by underpaid military retirees in police uniforms.

For whatever reason, we First World consumers crave catastrophe, whether we’re curling up on the sofa with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, programming our DVRs to record the latest episode of The Walking Dead, or listening to the dulcet intonations of NPR announcers bringing us up to date on Ebola and ISIS.

Horror is all the rage in Late Empire America. Walking your rescue dog past young Bentley’s house, you can hear heavy gunfire and explosions emanating from his manipulations of a video console. Hmm, sounds like he’s playing Mortal Kombat Armageddon, or is it World of Welfare: Let’s Kill the Bloodsuckers?

Edwin Butler-Bayliss

Edwin Butler-Bayliss

All of this got me to wondering when the West quit writing utopias a la Thomas More and started portraying the future world as a nightmare. Of course, my go-to unscholarly source is Wikipedia, and it anoints Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s as the first dystopian “literature “– though Oedipus Rex might lay some claim to being the first with its plague-ridden Thebes ruled by a tainted king whose sexual misdeeds make the Clinton/Lewinski dalliance seem downright wholesome in comparison. But Oedipus Rex predates empire, and I suppose you must have an empire, a nation state, or a fucked-up planet to qualify as a dystopian society. My colleague Aaron Lipka tells me the civilization must be a fallen one. I’d add that God has to be Dead.