Doom, Gloom, and Hyperbolic Pessimism, by Tussah Heera
Hello, people. I’m very sorry, but I can’t write about anything amusing or lighthearted today. That means no kittens, puppies, or Mozart. Yes, I know it’s the dog days of summer and something funny would certainly cool the mind, but the fact is, I have some very solemn and (literally) earth-shattering news to impart…
The world is fucked, everyone. More so now than ever before in history. Decency has been thrown to the dogs, spring chickens no longer have respect for old geezers, all the musicians, writers, and artists are possessed by demons (including me – stop reading this before I steal your soul!), and all that is moral has been irrevocably destroyed. We’re so fucked, in fact, that it’s only a matter of time before the gods decide to scrub our dirty, sinful planet right off the face of the universe.
…Just kidding. Sorry about that, too. Carry on peacefully using the Internet, fellow earthlings.
But on a more serious note, why do so many people (especially those who are older) believe that the world is “going to pot”? Nearly every generation throughout the ages has had people who think that the youth of their time were amoral, degenerate creatures hellbent on driving society into the toilet, and that they must do whatever they can to fight back. These people also have constantly sung praises of the era preceding their own – colloquially dubbed, “the good old days”. This is quite unusual, considering that every new generation has seen huge advances in science, technology, arts, and overall quality of life. Society has also become increasingly accepting of those who were treated badly or marginalized over the centuries (very proud of America for finally legalizing same-sex marriage), even though we still have a lot of work to do. So why all the misguided nostalgia, flailing arms, and fickle outrage?
When I stepped into the shower (or as I like to call it, my “inspiration cubicle”) this morning and performed my usual rite of following my constant stream of thoughts, I found myself randomly chuckling over a hilarious extract from one of my music history books. It was about the development of the ars nova musical style in France in the early 1300s, which led to clearer music notation and experimentation with rhythmic variation. Ars nova also allowed the use of 2-beat note values (known as “imperfections” at the time) for the first time in history, instead of just the traditional 3-beat note values (known as “perfections”) of the previous era. Though all these innovations made it much easier to read and write music, a Flemish theorist named Jacques de Liège wasn’t quite impressed. He argued that 2-beat note values were borderline blasphemy – a distortion of the “perfection” of 3-beat note values which were used to symbolize and glorify the Holy Trinity. Liège also waxed nostalgic about the older styles of music and panned the newfangled tastes of his contemporaries, writing:
“Let the ancient music and the ancient manner of singing be brought back to their native land…Let the rational art flourish once more…Wherein does this lasciviousness in singing so greatly please, this excessive refinement, by which, as some think, the words are lost, the harmony of consonance is diminished, the value of the notes changed, perfection is brought low, imperfection is exalted, and measure is confused?”
Let’s bring this whole thing into perspective for a second: a dude from as far back as the 14th century had claimed that the new musical methods of his time were toilet-bound, and that everyone would be better off sticking to the good old ways of the 11th and 12th centuries instead. How charming.
I guess this shows how the first and foremost reason behind the equation of modernism with permanent ruin is the ever-present fear of change throughout the ages – even if that change is for the better. Some people become so comfortable with convention that it renders them myopic – thoroughly unable to see how their comfort can be improved or extended to others beside themselves – and begin to convince themselves that any innovation would undoubtably be for the worse.
Music, like all of the arts, has long been subject to this conflict. In the 19th century, Germany’s musical scene was alive with the so-called “War of the Romantics” – a fight between “conservative” composers (led by Mendelssohn, Brahms, and the Schumanns) and “liberal” composers (led by Liszt and Wagner) about musical philosophies. Strangely enough, both sides idealized Beethoven, but the reasons for which they did varied greatly. The conservatives insisted that no new composer could possibly be worthy enough to surpass Beethoven’s genius, therefore they believed that all musicians should spend their time humbly emulating him without ever committing the deadly sins of personal growth and innovation. The liberals, on the other hand, saw Beethoven as a figure of inspiration – the beginning instead of the end of genius. They believed taking his example meant exalting their own creativity and breaking new musical frontiers.
Unsurprisingly, the conservatives insisted that the liberals were narcissistic, hedonistic jerks who wanted nothing more than to drag the music industry down the drain and make Beethoven turn 360s in his grave. Fueled by self-righteous outrage, the conservatives did everything they could to stop this perceived travesty from happening. A manifesto was signed, countless bad concert reviews were written, and many screaming matches happened in saloons. But just as unsurprisingly, none of that stopped composers from either side from pursuing their art the way they saw fit. And I live to confirm that music certainly didn’t go down the drain.
What the conservatives didn’t realize was that change is constant. Nothing can stop progress from eventually taking place. Yes, progress can be severely slowed down by close-minded people, but at the end of the day, whatever needs to happen will eventually happen. Therefore, it’s our job as an enlightened species to make this process of change move along as quickly and smoothly as possible in order to improve the quality of life, art, and society. Slapping a label of infallibility on any entity (like the conservatives’ veneration of Beethoven as an unsurpassable genius) is an automatic damper to progress. Nothing is more depressingly fatalistic than proclaiming that things can never better from one point (or one person) onwards – moreover, nothing could be further from the truth. Humanity is naturally destined to evolve, and carry forward the findings of the brilliant minds before us to make a better world – not to worship those minds with blind devotion while deeming our own minds unworthy.
Another lesson to be learned from this whole War of the Romantics hullabaloo is that there is no single path to advancement. Brahms and Mendelssohn may not have approved of Liszt’s approach to musical discovery, but that didn’t stop them from creating music of their own that was beautiful, unique, and ultimately, progressive – even though maintaining tradition seemed to be their goal. The Beethoven-centered confinements they imposed upon themselves were part of their chosen path to take music forward, and nobody can judge them as anti-progress based on their personal decisions as artists. However, it was wrong of them to babyishly cry about how paths beside their own lead to doom and destruction. It was this imposing of their personal ideals on other composers which made them anti-progress.
As everyone knows, the desire to impose has always been prevalent throughout history. It is this desire that formed the foundations for dictatorships and theocracies. Motivated by fear of loss of power and control, various religious and political institutions have been instrumental in impeding progress through the centuries. If these oppressive forces had never existed, it is logically presumed that every field in the world would be much, much more advanced today.
The world-is-ruined trope has long been intertwined with religion, as evident in the concept of Hell and “end times prophecies“. These “prophecies” have been used as scare tactics to incite fear in the gullible masses and to create an exclusive club that ostracizes anyone who dares to think differently. Evangelicals have long been screaming about “Rapture”, warning that anytime now, God will stop taking his anger management meds and wreak havoc on everyone – except on those who insist he would do such a thing. They will get to fly business class to Paradise and maniacally laugh as they watch the rest of us sinners get tormented by bugs and bad weather back on Earth. Anytime now.
These days, end times prophecies have become somewhat of a cash cow, and the close-minded among us are still unable to give up the skewed version of morality that religious extremism instilled in them over the years. They often cite a “slippery slope” as their main cause for concern, spewing rhetoric like, “Feminism will turn women into lesbian witches and make them leave their families!” or “Marriage equality will make people start marrying their dogs and God will zap the world like he zapped Sodom and Gomorrah!”. Closed minds also tend to come with profound senses of entitlement. As our ever-transforming world predictably and peacefully challenges their dogmatic mindsets, these people resort to crying persecution, insisting that their “freedom of religion” is being taken away. Well, I wonder if they remember all the freedom from religion they let godless heretics like myself enjoy over the years. Those red-hot iron shoes they made specially for us during the Inquisition were so stylish and sexy. Also, that traitorous little shit Galileototally deserved being locked up for forty years. Of course the Sun revolves around us and the universe is designed to cater to our every whim – what are we, Pluto?
Recently, I came across a joke that summed it all up pretty well: “How many haters does it take to change a lightbulb?”. The answer is, “None, because haters despise change, even if it makes the world a brighter place!”. Try as they might, fundamentalists are never a match for the inevitability of progress. Now that they’ve lost most of the cultural and aesthetic wars, all they can do is lament the degeneration of the world and bitterly wish for its destruction.
But perhaps what surprises me the most about doomsayers is how morally misguided they are. What they consider “immoral” or “destructive for society” never is. It is not the real evil in the world that outrages them, but the evil they create in their preconceived minds. If one wishes to talk about the dark underbelly of humanity, there is already enough material to look to without having to demonize innovators, freethinkers, and good-hearted people fighting for their rights. Gay people getting married won’t hasten the end of the world, but climate change certainly could. Empowered women taking control of their bodies and lives don’t cause the deaths of children, but starvation, disease, abuse, and slavery certainly do. Atheism isn’t tearing apart the Middle East, but religious warfare certainly is. Many parts of the world are still rife with toxic discrimination and violence. As a privileged American girl writing this after having taken a hot shower and eaten a hot meal in a fairly large, safe, temperature-regulated house, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that the world is perfect just because I don’t see its horrific flaws directly in front of me. I’m also not going to deny that humanity’s bloodlust and desire to exploit and subjugate sicken me to the core.
Let’s face it: humans can be twisted, psychopathic scumbags. But losing faith in the good of the world wouldn’t make the evil in it disappear. To work towards solving our problems, we must get past our beliefs and embrace truth to quicken the processes of change, acceptance, and inclusiveness. We do need to be inspired by the good in all historical figures and philosophies, but we also must live in and cherish the moment. As the great philosopher J. Krishnamurti said, “All ideologies are idiotic, whether religious or political, for it is conceptual thinking, the conceptual word, which has so unfortunately divided man.”
Disdain for the present isn’t always so dangerous and dividing, though. Some people innocently long for the days of typewriters and horse-carriages without an agenda to rule the world and make people’s lives miserable. They just naïvely believe life was better in the days of yore, without realizing that the comforts they enjoy in this era far outweigh the beauty and artistry of the time they (and I, too) so deeply adore. Let me just say this: the past was not a bed of roses. It was actually more like a bed of smallpox and cholera. Yes, it was full of brilliant people, transcendent discoveries, and milestones that continue to inspire us to this day, but it was also equally full of blood, vomit, piss, and shit. I greatly respect the visionaries of the past for being so driven and committed to their passions amid such chaos and disease, and could not be more grateful to be alive in the 21st century, pursuing my goals in a free, comfortable, and hygienic environment, thanks to all the scientific discoveries we’ve made. To be honest, I don’t long for the past one bit, even though its music and art deeply inspires me and I aspire to learn as much from it as I can.
Woody Allen shows the realities of nostalgia very wonderfully in one of my favorite films of all time, Midnight in Paris. The hero Gil longs to live in the Roaring Twenties after being confronted by the sheer mundanity of his present-day life. After being magically transported to the 1920s on a midnight, he meets Adriana, a lover of Picasso, and grows closer to her. Much to his surprise, she eventually tells him that she hates living in the ’20s, and would much rather be alive in the 1890s. Gil suddenly has an epiphany that members of each and every generation seemed to be disgruntled with their own era and longed for the past, much like himself. He then vows to make his present life more enjoyable, instead of clinging to the conceits of a bygone century.
If the evolution of humanity has taught us anything, it is that nothing is ever absolute besides the laws of nature. Gautama Buddha figured out ages ago that transformation is the very essence of life, and that ignorance and non-acceptance of change lead inexorably towards suffering. No man-made convention is absolute and everlasting – be it morality or a musical style – and to treat it as such is a great disservice to our hopes for the future and the improvement of the present.
So if you happen to think the world is on a path of ruin, please ask yourself why you came to such a depressing conclusion. Is it because you’re offended at another’s life choices or paths towards innovation? Is it because you’re too lazy to Google-search before you form your opinions and instead believe everything you hear from your biased and limited sources? Whatever your reason may be, it would be much more beneficial for all of us if you would look on the bright side for a change and help the rest of us put together all the pieces of this monumental, beautiful puzzle of life we share. The whole world may not be fucked, but there are still plenty of fucked-up parts of it that we need to fix as soon as possible. And I, for one, have a lot of faith in the fact that we certainly can if we all try hard enough together…
First published on July 30, 2015 in Tussah and the Wolf