Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rome, America, Philip K. Dick & the Lizard King

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain.

This is a lyric from Jim Morrison’s LSD induced epic The End, sung as if in a trance like state, as if tapping into some collective thing of humanity or of the earth - who''s to say of what. Here he makes reference to Rome, but the rest of the song is very much about America. Dark highways and fragmentary visions of Oedipus realised underpin the ritualistic feel to the music as it crescendos towards a shocking finale.

And all the children are insane.

This got me thinking, about the connection between America and Rome. The founding myth of Rome is of Romulus and Remus, the twins that suckled a she-wolf. Right away, we see a connection to the natural, that which lies beyond the human world, towards the spirit world even. They suckle from the fierce and noble wolf, just and right, dangerous and cunning.

The two pillars of America’s justification for certain things that have been done in its name rest on the the might and right, justice and war, the noble eagle.

It is not simply that, though. You see there are two of Romulus and Remus. It took a duplication, or as close to it as possible in the natural world, to produce the city of Rome. And once they set up their city they invited political exiles, asylum seekers, or basically anyone who wanted to settle in the fledgeling city to do just that.

This is in some ways correlative to the way ancient Rome actually functioned. Constantly slaves were set free, and incentives were given to slave owners to do so. Within a generation, the children of the freed slaves would call themselves Roman and rarely anything else. Indeed, some historians reckon that Rome could not have functioned without such a high rate of individual slave emancipation.

This echoes America’s own beginnings as a continent of outcasts, adventurers and religious utopians. It creates places of flux and innovation, harsh places sometimes too. Pragmatism seems to be the guiding virtue, and a sense of a place without a centre, a home without a heart, is created in a certain way. What is Rome, what is America? It will be revealed, or it is to come, as Derrida would say. They both hold flux at their centre.

Two twins, in the wilderness they would come to call Rome. Two towers, Baudrillard said after 9/11, that stood for the ceaseless march of duplication, assimilation of everything unique into just another commodity. Baudrillard thought that the twin towers represented the faceless march of capitalism in our modern era, or more precisely, the march of the universal and the ceaseless will to acquire and conquer everything unique and with its own substance, however ephemeral that may be. The American empire, a soft kind of empire, not like the Romulus/Remus empire which conquered many a land with the tip of a sword. No, the American empire conquered through profit and saturation. It had little to do with government or armies: business models, computer systems, game theory and the virtue of greed paved the way. 

But still, what Rome offered was a Pax Romanus. The price you paid for being an occupied territory within the Empire was that with empire came peace and stability. In some cases this was preferable. All that was at stake was your cultural uniqueness, your ephemeral identity which gave you your names, your speech, your gods. That’s all.

Democracy, that was the goal in Iraq. Democracy and Starbucks.

Waiting for the summer rain, yeeeaaaahhh.

I remember reading once that Philip K. Dick saw a vision of a Roman-style city, with all its statues, pillars and arches. He had been looking at a far-off city that rose up from that American soil. Transposed on top of this was an image of the eternal city, Rome.

Dick had been suffering from anxiety and illness towards the end of his life until one day a disembodied voice began speaking to the sci-fi writer. It soothed him. Dick was never known to be a pillar of sanity, exactly, but it is interesting all the same, and I think it is worth recounting this strange tale here. Give it as much weight as you want. Toss it to the hounds trained to weed out the lunatics if you wish. Or believe it to be the literal word, like a creationist setting up a science academy to convince you that the world is only 10,000 years old and that dinosaur bones are a test from God. But are things simply of one substance, of themselves, or is it more likely that things exist in those in-between places, in the twilight of our vision, in the purple of the evening?

The voices comforted Dick to the extent that his wife at the time noticed a marked improvement in him. His last few months were happy ones, she said, a period which coincided with the voices. Now, throughout his life, Dick had taken drugs. A lot of drugs. This certainly affected him deeply, mentally and physically. There is no doubt that Jim Morrison took a similar path, ODing in a bath in Paris ultimately. Both saw America as Rome. But both dived into the excess. And this must also be part of America. I want more, they screamed. Empire, expanding, always expanding. All roads lead to Rome, or snake away from it, paving all the land (were it only possible) towards ... towards ... towards its final end.

Philip K. Dick's  voices were accompanied by visions of strange creatures which were human but not quite human, who existed outside of time, rearranging timelines to avert some disaster or some such - possibly to make the best of all possible worlds. And in this nether-realm of the angels, Dick saw Rome transposed upon America, both strange melting pots full of shiny wonders and oddities but with a hole in their hearts and an insatiable desire to meet their maker.

To know the face of God, to see the fire inside the smallest things.

No comments:

Post a Comment