Nowadays, one hears so much about innovation that the very concept has become banal. It almost seems like there is nothing less innovative than the pursuit of innovation.
This is why I found a poem I came across recently by William Bronk so fascinating. Instead of offering more of the breathless rhetoric of change, it paints a picture of a world where everything remains stubbornly the same. It's titled "We Want the Mark of Time," and it begins like this:
We know what men felt once, as if they feel
forever, as if we feel. The anguishes
of ancients, their ecstasies, recorded once
and unforgotten, even their trivial times,
are so much ours, it is as if we were
no more than ants, a bird, or any beast
fixed in a closed, instinctive pattern...
I remember reading somewhere that what supposedly distinguished humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom was our ability to create history -- through recording, remembering, and hopefully learning from it. In Bronk's poem, this capability vanishes; we are just as repetitively instinctual as the rest of living creatures.
It's almost as if we live in the type of universe once proposed by Parmenides, where all is one and static -- the changes we notice merely an illusory play of surfaces. This sense of stasis seems almost painful to Bronk's speaker. He states, a little later in the poem:
.....................................We look almost
in puzzlement at someone younger about
to feel or learn what we, as if for him,
as if for everyone, have learned, have felt.
There is no need, we think. We move as if
to stop him. Why should he do what we have done?
The poem goes on to ask, "How shall we think of time without a change?" Instead of an answer, it ends with a haunting image and a sense of longing:
Oh, it is with desire we read of suns
that some day burn themselves to darkness. At night
we search the sky for such a sign: that there
should be time, an ending. We want the mark of time.
Of course, such lines, which long for evidence of change, run contrary to the common sense of our own times -- marked by, as I mentioned, a breathlessness regarding everything from the speed of globalization, digitization, and human self-transformation, to troubling realities like the degradation of the environment. But Bronk's poem (circa 1956) must have seemed at odds with its own time as well.
Sontag and "The Imagination of Disaster"
As Susan Sontag analyzed in "The Imagination of Disaster," popular culture, beginning in 1950 and up until the time time of her essay (1963), was obsessed with images of catastrophic change, not unlike the dying stars Bronk's poem longs for, but does not witness. Sontag hypothesized that the reality of the bomb inspired this; she proposed that translating the possibility of annihilation into entertaining, fantastic films enabled people to cope with such fears better in daily life.
Reading Bronk's poem brought to my mind, for example, the classic science fiction disaster film When Worlds Collide (1951), where a "rogue star" (or burning sun, as Bronk might put it) is due to crash into the earth.
But there is another element in Sontag's essay that suggests Bronk was also right about the lack of change he registers. For she writes that her time is not only afflicted with "inconceivable terror," but also "unremitting banality" (a reference, perhaps, to the much written about conformism of the era). Thus, the other function of the films she covers is to provide a vision of relief from the humdrum:
"The lure of the generalized disaster as a fantasy is that it releases one from normal obligations. The trump card of the end-of-the-world movies...is that great scene with New York or London or Tokyo discovered empty, its entire population annihilated. Or, as in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), the whole movie can be devoted to the fantasy of occupying the deserted city and starting all over again -- Robinson Crusoe on a world-wide scale."
In light of all this, I think there's a sense in which Bronk's poem is relevant to our own time. Ever since the dawn of so-called postmodernism, there is a common complaint about the changlessness of our culture -- that we're in a mere recycling mode, with nothing new on the horizon. Only the other day, for example, I attended a show at MOMA titled: "The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World."
The same dynamic Sontag discusses may be behind the contemporary popularity of the dystopian film. Such offerings may not only help us cope with our own fears of catastrophe, but also offer a strange sort of hope that the old order will someday be gone, so that we can start anew.
Or, as Bronk would put it, perhaps we too want the mark of time.