Enrique's fatal error

By Gene Miller, May 2015

Nothing works like a crisis—even if it’s someone else’s—to remind us that the true meaning of life is survival itself.

BARBIE SALES ARE PLUMMETING. According to news reports, Bryan Stockton has resigned as CEO of “reeling” toymaker Mattel Corporation. 

Mattel Corporation? Pick your jaw off the floor. You thought Barbie was made from spun love by little angels in a pink chiffon workshop in Cloudland, not factories in Bangladesh. And Barbie sales plummeting? Can you think of a crueler reminder of how fate, like a thunderstorm at a summer wedding, is indifferent to human expectation? And this anxious thought: if Barbie sales are collapsing, can Little Tykes be far behind? And what do we do when the last domino falls?

Barbie was born in 1959, in a time of cultural idealization of the suburbs and explosive cornucopian consumerism, great public optimism, and bold social activism. John F. Kennedy would soon be president. The Beatles were about to burst on the pop scene. Martin Luther King had a dream. Then, all you needed was love. (Now, you need love and 30 percent down.) Barbie had a house, a car, outfits for every occasion, beach accessories. To the best of my knowledge, there was no Welfare Barbie, no Crack Whore Barbie, no Eco-Protest Barbie, no Divorced With Three Kids Barbie. Barbie was (and remains) a days-of-plenty proto-Republican.

 

IN THE COUNSELOR, Cormac McCarthy writes in hammer-strokes: “We announce to the Darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives”—an affirmation crafted to ignite the imagination, give meaning to existence, and embolden the spirit with a sense of destiny; no matter that most of us will go two-and-a-half rounds, expire in a state of regret, surrounded by trivia, unfinished tasks and good intentions un-acted upon.

A character, a Greek, in the television series The Slap notes: “Life is too short for anything but pleasure and victory.” My, how Zorba! Of course, Greece, with a Eurozone breathing tube down its throat, is taking a long break from pleasure and victory, so the statement may be as fictional as a fortune cookie message.

The facts bearing on the brevity of our lives are these: The oldest living human being (in a clear rebuke to male folly, the five oldest are all women) is Japanese Misao Okawa, 118. She was born in 1898, during a decade that also welcomed the bottle cap, the thumbtack and the zipper. Tellingly, when interviewed, such elders are asked to whisper the secret to a long life, not the meaning of life. According to Wikipedia, “Okawa said that sushi and sleep were the reasons why she lived so long. On her 117th birthday, she said that her life seemed short.”

Which raises this interesting question: If we had infinitely longer life-spans, would we, as individuals and societies, conduct our lives in a more accountable and here-to-stay manner? 

Explicating the ideas of poet/philosopher Lucretius who, around 100 BC, authored De rarum natura (On the Nature of Things), writer Stephen Greenblat states: 

“All things, including the species to which we belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. Other species existed and vanished before we came onto the scene; our kind, too, will vanish one day. Nothing—from our own species to the sun—lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal. In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, it is absurd to think that the world was purpose-built to accommodate human beings. There is no justification for dreams of limitless power, no rationale for self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature.”

 

WHICH LANDS US AT the front door of a story this piece has been picking its way toward from the start: not Barbie’s unimportant demise, around which an enormous amount of synthetic cultural concern will be manufactured, but the real death, about a hundred years ago, of composer Enrique Granados and his wife, Amparo.

“You made pass before my eyes the passionate Spanish landscape, made me understand again the places fitted to abstract thoughts, birth of fanatic minds,” gushes an overcome commenter after listening to an online recording of Granados’ Goyescas.

Granados “ended his life in the cold waters of the English Channel after the ship on which he was sailing was attacked by a German submarine on March 24, 1916,” states a report of the day. Granados was returning from a very successful stay in New York, where Goyescas had premiered at the Metropolitan Opera.

Granados was originally scheduled to return directly to Barcelona on March 8, but when President and Mrs Wilson invited him to perform at the White House, he could hardly refuse the honour. He rescheduled his departure for a few days later on a Dutch liner which would leave New York and arrive in England close to two weeks later.

One survivor wrote a heartrending account of the submarine attack: “The scenes around us were harrowing. The water was full of men and women, swimming, sinking, drowning, clinging to spars, boards and other bits of wreckage, crying out in the agony of the last hold on life.”

People tried to persuade the Granadoses to remain on the ship (it eventually limped into port), but they were convinced that their survival depended on leaving it. The two, husband and wife, were separated in the water. He flailed toward her, she toward him. He embraced his wife—we may imagine that their eyes and souls locked—and they disappeared forever beneath the waves. 

 

IN THE PRESENT DAY, a century on from the war that brought death to Granados in his 49th year and early death or great injury to 36 million others, it seems that events are again marshalling us at one of history’s corner-points. It’s difficult to follow the news without feeling that things are…tightening. In a piece of journalistic serendipity, David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, writes: “The next era of world politics seems likely to resemble the world of 1900 more than that of 1950 or 1990—a world of multiple, mutually suspicious great powers grouped in uneasy coalitions defined much more by interest than ideology.” While the border between interest and ideology is an ambiguous and porous one, I get Frum’s point and see portents in the news daily.

Risk sets the tone. You would have to be insensible not to feel that we’re playing with matches in the dynamite factory. Your instincts and commonsense alone should alert you to a world preparing for some new and improved Götterdämmerung: self-serving and competitive economic agendas; amplifying nationalistic and religious or cultural tub-thumping; ever-more-positional alignments amongst nations; eco-cidal environmental abuse; staggering and shameless consolidations of wealth by the few (the explosion will start there, I predict); and the fracturing of any binding social narrative more meaningful than the distractions of shopping and cell phone fiddling.

 

NEXT DOOR, the current American cultural ideal of unrestricted personal freedom (reduced almost entirely to a consumerist trope) poorly disguises an ever-expanding citizenry set adrift by economic transformation, soon to be rendered entirely irrelevant by technology and automation, and forced increasingly to improvise some form of survivalist economic citizenship. 

What is galling and especially ominous is the effort by right-wing political justifiers to recast this footloose economy and its worrying consequences as a set of valid secular fables. (Keep your ear tuned for expressions of psychotic swagger as we near the 2016 US presidential election cycle.) 

The result corrals all of us in a kind of lethal funhouse, shallow-breathing in a state of risk-saturated poise, with a worried eye on the exits. Listen for the story to change constructively only when the mob throws the first billionaire out his penthouse window.

Nuanced existential pronouncements like Cormac McCarthy’s about our brief lives seem at the moment like niceties best reserved for literature. Nothing works like a crisis to remind us that the true meaning of life is survival itself.

 

HERE IN OUR CITY, as the days lengthen and nature drowns us in heartbreaking beauty, I think of Victoria—no, actually experience Victoria—as a place of extraordinary social safety and calm. “Welcome to Victoria—Social Harmony Capital of the World!” a big sign on the Pat Bay Highway should proclaim. It’s not something we promote to tourists—hell, it’s not even something we talk about locally—yet it’s our most powerful takeaway, especially for visitors who manage to break free of the Government Street tourist frog-march and go on an exploratory study of our neighbourhoods and communities.

Social structure and civic identity are inseparable; which makes it interesting that zoning deals only with measurable matters of land use—height, density, setbacks and so on—as if these things alone could deliver character, without embracing the requirement that a building also must reinforce the communitarian qualities that truly define and sustain the character and social promise of our city. 

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences. With Rob Abbott, he has launched 50x20.com.