The Superlative Now: how anxiety about the present blinds us to the past

Ve Sidra Magni - The Superlative Now, from Billy Corgan's Everything from Here to There - Ve Magni

A repost from my series of posts on Billy Corgan’s blog in ’09-’10, Everything From Here To There:

The Superlative Now

I just finished reading In the Days of the Comet, written by H.G. Wells over one hundred years ago, which is a before and after description of the world and relationships around the time of a great Change. Without giving too much of the story away, I’m amazed by the similarities in the anxiety ridden lead character’s description of the “before” world, the bad world that everyone was so happy to see disappear, and our anxiety filled world today. Aside from the dated vocabulary and writing style, quite a lot can be adapted to describe the world as it is now.

On the economy:

“Here… we’re on the verge of the biggest lock-out in the history of this country-side; here’s distress and hunger coming, here’s all the capitalistic competitive system like a wound inflamed…”

On war:

“On no conceivable grounds was there any sense in modern war. Save for the slaughter and mangling of a multitude of people, the destruction of vast quantities of material, and the waste of innumerable units of energy, it effected nothing.”

On economic inequality:

“…Through the private ownership of land that had resulted from the neglect of feudal obligations in Britain and the utter want of political foresight in the Americas, large masses of property had become artificially stable in the hands of a small minority, to whom it was necessary to mortgage all new public and private enterprises, and who were held together not by any tradition of service and nobility but by the natural sympathy of common interests and a common large scale of living.”

On religious extremism:

“You can no more understand our theological passions than you can understand the fancies that made all ancient peoples speak of their gods only by circumlocutions, that made savages pine away and die because they had been photographed, or an Elizabethan farmer turn back from a day’s expedition because he had med three cows.”

“Suffice it that we lost our tempers very readily in pursuit of God and Truth, and said exquisitely foolish things on either side.”

On the environment:

“Young people nowadays can scarcely hope to imagine the enormous quantities of pure litter and useless accumulation with which we had to deal…”

On health:

“…A large part of the physical decline that was apparent in our people during the closing years of the nineteenth century… no doubt due in part to the miscellaneous badness of the food they ate…”

On popular culture:

“…Penny fiction, watery, base stuff, the dropsy of our nation’s mind… warped and crippled ideas and contagious base suggestions, the formulae of dull tolerances and stupid impatiences, the mean defensive ingenuities of sluggish habits of thinking and timid and indolent evasions.”

And so on.

While reading this book, I’ve been reflecting on the idea that we seem to be convinced that now is always the greatest challenge, the most dramatic time, the superlative moment, and it continues to be. But if we have felt that way in the past, why do we keep feeling that way going forward? And why do we continue to have reason to feel that way?

There are whole schools of philosophy and ideology around the concept of focusing one’s energy and attention exclusively on now, not living in the past or in the future. I’ve studied the ideas and been convinced of their merits, but I feel that something is being left out. If we don’t reflect on the past or consider the effect of today on the future, how can we have any perspective on the present?

Here’s a silly example: as I write this, I’m recovering from what is, in reality, a very minor cold. I hate being sick, as do most of us, so I tend to feel a bit pathetic and dramatic whenever it happens, probably because of the feeling of helplessness and lack of control over my body. That and it just feels nasty.

Amazingly enough, however, I have to go out of my way to remind myself that I’ve been much more sickly in the past—in fact, I know that the worst flu I’ve ever had happened about a year and a half ago—and that in just a few days I’ll be fine again. Even though I completely understand those facts, it still feels just a little bit false because I can only really experience the way I feel right this second.

As a broader example, if I look at my life objectively then the lowest point has to be when I was 15 years old. Even now I go back and forth between feeling like it was all a horrible nightmare, and feeling like I’m reliving everything I went through all over again. But somehow, even though intellectually I see that as the worst of the worst, it still feels as though the pain I feel today, now, in this moment is somehow bigger; even though I objectively know that whatever trials I face today are trivial by comparison, it’s sometimes hard to muster the energy and motivation to face them.

H.G. Wells’ protagonist, on his former life:

“…Has not some queer nightmare spirit out of dreamland slipped a pseudo-memory into the records of my vanished life?”

Comet demonstrates this “Superlative Now” idea on the large scale, that we, as a global community, seem to understand intellectually and have some perspective on the challenges we face today based on the trials of the past, but in practice, that understanding sometimes feels false.

I’m currently living in Berlin [at time of writing, 2009], a place with some obvious dark points in its past. Everyone still talks about the Wall all the time, but it’s very romanticized and glamorized the way people tell the story now. Then there’s the Nazis, which Germans on a personal level try their hardest not to talk about, but on a national level take a stern, confrontational stance to talk about publicly.

But the anxiety people have these days is about taxes, the Deutsche Bahn, the welfare system giving people too much money, the welfare system not giving people enough money, the weather, how lame the Berlin club scene has gotten, etc. I’m generalizing, but the point is that I have never once heard anyone say, “Y’know what? This is nothing compared to WWII.”

I’m not suggesting that we all start living in the past, or to take the problems we face today—both personally and globally—less seriously, but rationally, the present can’t always be the worst time in history. It’s just not possible.

When we feel that now is the most difficult time ever, I think it can seem like an extremely daunting task to try and improve things. So maybe having just a bit more perspective could help us put our energy to practical use, as if to say, “We’ve gotten through other challenges. We can do this.”

The characters in Wells’ book figure this out as well. After the great Change, everyone is immediately struck with horror and guilt over what they now considered to be a lifestyle based on utter insanity and cruelty. But they don’t allow themselves to dwell, knowing what work there is to be done to make the world the place they envision from their new perspective.

“I was doing nothing to prevent it all! …And it’s fools like us that lead to things like this! …But this is being a fool. Talk! I’m going to stop it.”