More fear in and of the 1980s.
They will take this world from ocean to ocean
they will turn on each other
they will destroy each other
in these hills
they will find the rocks,
rocks with veins of green and yellow and black.
They will lay the final pattern with these rocks
they will lay it across the world
and explode everything.
“Long Time Ago,” Leslie Marmon Silko
Story format: Interactive Fiction Plus (Z4)
File size: 225.9K
Takeable objects: 49
Eventually, When We’re All Turned to Ash
It’s hard to remember, let alone explain, the extent to which many Americans (others too, I’m sure, but I speak of my own experiences) internalized one of the twentieth century’s most outlandish promises: annihilation in a rain of fire and ash. That used to be the kind of thing only our gods got up to, but we humans had moved up in the world. We could end everything; we could make our planet unlivable. I’ve talked about this before: I was taught to expect nuclear war, to prepare for it. In early grade school, there were two types of tornado drills. For the first kind, we followed our teachers into mostly windowless hallways made of painted cinderblock. For the second, we hid under our desks. There, we waited on our knees, clasping our hands behind our necks, making ourselves small.
The Abrahamic God made promises in scripture: this world and its creatures were ours to do with whatever we wished. It seemed that one of the possibilities was ruining everything that had ever been or might be. It might be said that, with this power, we had risen to the station of a god, but I’m not sure that’s true. While Yahweh did not return Job’s daughters to him, He did at least call in some understudies. In the wake of atomic annihilation, we could not promise the same.
Ours was not the power of creation or destruction on a divine scale. We could only ruin things.
I had a desk in my bedroom at home, and I sometimes held drills of my own. We called this practice “Duck and Cover.” The cover image for last week’s post featured Bert the Turtle, a character created by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, a likable and probable survivor meant to appeal to schoolchildren. That’s something we adults still do: make children a part of our very adult idiocies, even daring to assign them responsibilities. “Here’s some things you kiddos should do if grownups destroy the world.”
Death by fire was a preoccupation in our media: Missile Command was a popular game in arcades. I’ve said this before: no matter how good you were at Missile Command, it always ended the same way: annihilation. An incredible variety of songs concerned with man-made apocalypse pervaded our popular culture. Films, books, and television were no different. We laughed nervously at films like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Laughed, because they were absurd. Nervously, because World War 2 taught us that absurdity afforded us no protection.
What was it like to live in anticipation of such an event? It’s been so long since the fall of the Soviet Union that it may be hard, even for those of us who were around, to recall that mentality with sufficient force. Does this distance mean that we are safer? Can we be trusted to know? Certainly, the bombs are still around, and more countries have access to them. It may be that we struggle to appreciate danger unless it is made manifest by our ideological opposite, by a suitable enemy. They weren’t just nukes, after all, they were Soviet nukes. What is our perception of danger when its dramatizing framework falls away?
Take that classic American western High Noon. It might as well be nothing, or less than nothing, without Will Kane’s nemesis, Frank Miller.
Many children my age accepted the coming fire as inevitable. This was a helplessness we could either ignore or accept, but fighting seemed impossible. I belabor this point because this is the condition of Trinity‘s production. Inevitability (I will resist the word “futility” for now) is a central thread running through the entirety of Trinity.
As promised last time, I’m interested in the relationship between art and history. I don’t assume that historical fact is necessarily an aesthetic virtue, but I think some features of historical fact are. For instance, it can be said that tragedy in a classical (or Shakespearean) sense deals with the inevitable. The tragic is what must be, and it is structurally geometric. This is a trait shared with history, which asserts itself to be a truth about the past. The past is, like tragedy, unchanging and therefore inevitable. It can be reinterpreted, but each new interpretation insists upon its own inevitability. While Trinity is not a tragedy, it uses inevitability–the inevitability of history–to evoke a tragic atmosphere. This feature will require a much more exhaustive reading in a future post.
Putting history aside, I think that new conditions have made the crisis of Trinity feel pressing in our time. In truth, they were present in 1986, but they have grown harder for thoughtful persons to ignore. I’m speaking, of course, of the climate crisis, in which feelings of helplessness and resignation threaten to similarly overwhelm. Even if the oven isn’t so hot this time, the end-state is ruin on a lesser yet more embarrassing scale. Lesser, because we will probably still be around to fight wars over water in a few decades. I say more “embarrassing” because it will all happen to preserve or increase the wealth of a very small–and I mean bafflingly small–portion of the world’s population. There is no Soviet boogeyman to blame. This time, we can’t even pretend to be ready by hiding under our desks.
I suspect that Moriarty was not indifferent to the underlying issue–our relationship with the whole of creation. Consider the important role that animals play in Trinity. More than anything else, the portrayal of animals in Trinity demands a vital, urgent, and contemporary interrogation of our assumptions–our hubris–regarding our place in this world.
Our coverage of Trinity continues with a survey of the critical landscape: reviews, criticism, and other media.