*In response to this article (Why You Should Not Fear the Future ) in Medium Magazine.
The fatal flaw of the article "Why You Should Not Fear the Future" is not just the over-sentimentalization regarding anxiety of the future but in its premise based off of a historically ignorant surface scramble interpretation of a Romantic work of art. This author doesn’t demonstrate a working knowledge of the very piece from which he derives his metaphor. This is a serious issue we are dealing with today – a blatantly uninformed conceptualization and disregard for the past, which ironically, is why there is such fear for the future. If the author here wanted to use a work of art to construct a metaphorical analysis of a contemporary cultural/societal (or maybe, simply personal?) anxiousness toward the future he should have used Oedipus Rex – I’m getting ahead of myself.
This particular piece, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich is a work of Late Romanticism. Through yet another wrinkle of irony regarding the author’s choice in art-as-platform-for-article the Romantic/Late Romantic was an epoch of de-masculinization. The Romantics were overcome by their desire to return to, or repulsion of, ferociously feminine nature. Wanderer depicts a cutting human figure at the precipice of cogitation and confrontation. The vast landscape awash in a strange mist. The dominating chthonic sea. The figure appears male: the broad shoulders, masculine neck, short hair, and posture (paging Captain Morgan). The author of this article misinterprets this as a pensive explorer contemplating the uncertainty of tomorrow, waiting for “the sun [that] has abandoned him” to return and dispel the loom of his future. How uninformed this take is.
The male figure postured over the scene is at first striking, the centrical figure claiming the scene – at first. But this figure is utilizing a cane, an artificial aid; a crutch. A crutch is a construct of man, it is a creation used to support. The cane/construct is an attempt to establish order, walling out flooding chaotic nature; man’s feeble attempt to organize and distinguish himself against the all-encompassing. Upon inspecting the cane, registering its purpose, the figure's powerful presence dwindles. Notice the space above, below, and around this figure. He is immersed. The natural world began withering him down long ago. This is not a man worried about the future. The Romantics didn’t much concern themselves with the future. They were a people of the obsessing with the ever-consuming present. It is now that is terrifying. It is now that they are at conflict with. It is now that they must continuously combat or succumb to.
The Romantic era swerves away from the masculine notion of order and construct. It is the age of impotence. Interestingly the author of this article has a rather Wordsworthian desexualized and non-cruel take on nature in this piece. Much like Wordsworth, this author approaches the topic through the lens of passivity – if one passively waits nature will festoon him with rewards. Right. Here’s an experiment: go to the beach, jump into the ocean and swim out about thirty yards, turn around, look at the shore and stop treading, you’ll soon learn the brute indifference mother nature has toward your delicate, Zen-like receptivity. Romantics like Wordsworth, much like contemporary environmentalist, don’t seem to realize how colossal nature is, how resilient, how amoral, and how devouring. The mist depicted in Wanderer isn’t some brief obfuscation of the mind patiently hovering for a divine epiphany, it is self-devouring nature. This is a painting that depicts man’s feeble attempt to dominate nature, and how pathetic an enterprise that is. Simply look at the few phallic rock formations, opaque mountain outlines, and trepid trees futilely penetrating a chthonian fog; this is man trying to gain imaginative autonomy from the flux of mother nature. This is not ‘oh my future is so uncertain, tell me what to do, sunshine.' This is a man coming to terms with his insignificant battle between himself and ravenous, voracious mother nature.
There is so much wrong with this article, it’s a cobbling of mystic Tollean serenity, Rilkean mysticism, Ehrmannean spirituality with hokey contemporary superficiality and appeal to feel-good-ism. Platitudes pawned off as novel insight, “It is not understood that the more one tries to have control over things, the more things have control over you. In giving away control you receive control you wanted in the first place.” This is such a masturbatory display of perfunctory ‘check out my enlightened thoughts’, a textual self-fondling of the ego. The comments section is littered with nothing but obsequious encouragement, a cascade of digital sycophants. This is what it’s come to. Where is the depth of analysis? Where is the altruistic aggression of healthy critique? Where is the ‘call it for what it is’ default setting of the West? Paula Cole was right to ask “where have all the cowboys gone?”
We are in an era where a stern ‘back to the basics’ mentality needs to be encouraged; a serious ‘first principles’ practicality is necessary, dire even. One’s anxiety over the future comes from simply that, one’s anxiety about the future. The future is simply a parturition of the present. There is a keen authenticity to the concept of manifest destiny, as archaic and cliché as it sounds it is cliché for a reason – it works. The future is this weird god-like realm of desired outcome. Sacrifice of our comfortable now to manifest a positive later is a form of foreseeing the future, a practice of personal prophesy. I understand where the author of this article is coming from. I empathize with the attempts to reassure folks but doing so at the expense of art and history and acknowledgment of the psychological, biological evolution of the human psyche – this is what creates a future to be anxious about.
The author does touch on some genuine, albeit bromidic, nuances of this disconnect we have with the future, and thus with our surroundings, “when one acknowledges that they are of this world and not separate from it and that the only moment we have is the present, you liberate yourself from the need to find certainty. Instead, you are able break from the mind’s frustrating proneness to know the unknown.” I believe the author here has stumbled upon a sloppy profundity. I would say it redeems the article except for the fact that a couple paragraphs later the article ends with no reference to what has just been revealed – this could have been a truly inspiring and novel detour from trope: to recognize we are “of this world” is an incredibly powerful discovery of mankind, and is challenged in the New Testament when Jesus prays to God asking he protect his disciples from “the evil one”, announcing “They are not of the world, as I am not of the world.” In a Romantic sense, our bodies belong to this world, our bodies are of this world, subject to nature’s indifference but there is something divine about the spirit of man, the Romantics fought with this idea, and lost. Each time the Romantics tried to close their works with a transcendent religious message the work felt truncated, it fell flat. The author of this article naively taps into a paradoxical centering, like the figure in Wanderer he has reached his own precipice. The figure in the painting is aware of this, the author here is not. Believing he has reached a “break” with “the mind’s proneness to know the unknown” he has simply ceased thinking the moment he arrived at a truly chthonian epiphany; not one that is anxiety-inducing but one that is revelatory, edifying even. A latent message imbedded unconsciously within his text is not a goal to rid oneself of anxiety, but to rid oneself of circumspection. The Romantics were awful solipsists; self-completing cells. This is the issue with the upcoming generations. They are thinking but not paying attention. Eric Weinstein mentioned a tendency of younger academics to approach “high level points with low level interpretations”, a demonstration of thinking but not thoroughly, not paying attention to their thoughts nor their actions, solely reacting out of attentiveness to their interests, projecting their virtuous inner-self by way of action without prior cogitation. Youth is reactionary. The burden of society is to temper youthful paroxysm – integrate natural aggression into mannered, productive action. A large portion of anxiety of the future stems from a currently ill-realized sense of self, which results in a set of values in flux, rendering one quick to act against any and all things, including good things, that seem to conflict with one’s currently inflated sense of identity.
Everyone encounters sublime nature and therefore confronts their own littleness, their own inefficacy. Obsessing over the future is like obsessing over nature, it’s simply destabilizing. Give yourself time to gestate your thoughts, formulate ideas; make room in that busy head of yours to study yourself by ingesting the history of mankind. Art, religion, philosophy, science, math, literature, culture, architecture, society, politics – these are the building blocks of civilization. There is a wealth of human history to marinate in. The moment one begins to take up the responsibility of educating oneself on the origins and evolution of mankind one finds the insatiable thirst for knowledge and problem solving will obliterate any anxiety of the future. Even if the future the data predicts is bleak one can rest assured the future is still in production. With a cultural, convocational effort of individual, informed, introspective, and willful minds working in the present to conjure an ever-refining now there will be no proneness to know the unknown, but a collective willingness embrace one’s blessed uncertainty. An impetus to move toward our natural, default setting of continual refinement.
As I said before, the author should have chosen Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex if he wanted to build on a suitable platform for anxiety of the future. Everyone seems to regard this tragedy as a play about a man who kills his father and marries his mother – they are mistaken. It’s a play about a man who finds out that’s what he’s already done.