• Sam Jennings

May You Live in Interesting Times

In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), a tiny Bay Area town is suddenly blighted by waves of gulls and sparrows and crows, in groups so dense people can only run, fall, or be pecked into oblivion. The Birds arrive more or less just as an impossibly blonde young socialite, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), does, to play a joke on a man she’s just recently met and is now set to become romantically involved with. What she finds is as typical of Hitchcock as her icy blonde hair: the man, Mitch (Rod Taylor), at home with a young sister and his jealous widowed mother, whom he calls “darling,” as well as a school teacher who was at one time in the same spot as Melanie, having moved to this little berg after ending it with Mitch. The first half of the film is a strange, melodramatic comedy, choreographed with the chill of an art film, acted with almost purposefully stilted performance, an ambient unease slowly building beneath.

Then the Birds come. Like the whole repressed psychosexual world of these characters, come to destroy and taunt them. The town is nearly destroyed and in the worst attack, a panicked mother famously rants to Melanie—directly at the camera, and by extension, at us—saying, “I think you’re the cause of all this,” blaming her arrival for the apocalyptic mess that has descended upon them.

For over fifty years, people have argued about just what the Birds represent, here. There’s the awakening of deep repressed tensions both sexual and social. The shift in America from the Rockwell ‘50s to the chaotic ‘60s. Nature’s revenge for a century of environmental destruction. The Birds could be the mother’s bitter anger at the urban whore come to steal her son. Or they could be the very manifestation of a spirit which punishes women for daring to bring their sexuality anyway near such a conservative community.

The Birds could be all this. And they probably are. But watching the film again for the first time in a decade, I was struck by how prophetic the Birds are: how they can so easily represent the schism which the American mind was already beginning to experience in 1963, which would soon engulf the entire culture for at least a decade after. Amazing that it even occurs in and around San Francisco, the city that would become the tentpole for the cultural revolution of the rest of the 60s. Watching the film, you can sense Hitchcock’s abstract message, the vague reason for this hypnotic and horrifying story, can hear him practically saying: something’s gotta give. Somewhere. Not necessarily here but sometime, something’s gotta give.

This is the schism that people in all interesting times experience. It’s the perverse birthright which philosophers and writers since at least the late 19th century have wrangled with: we appear to have been born into an ongoing transition between worlds. Whether you call it pre-modern to modern, industrial to post-industrial, it is still so often crystalline: we are caught between epochs. Forgive me, because I’m about to poeticize a little about what it means at this minute. Because for most of us today (and I almost really do mean this very day), we’re inveigled and disabused by a culture that is attempting at all times to wish this reality away, often to the point of convincing us there is no reality at all.

Man in a Bowler Hat - Magritte (1964)

Even a brief adventure into history brings to light the real insight that we live in a kind of cocoon, conceptually far away from all cruel, ill, or disgusting things. What has COVID shown us any surer than this fact? Any living relationship with death or disease is conspicuously absent in our culture. COVID makes this doubly so, as the pandemic becomes more and more an economic or political reality than a flesh-level one: many of us know no one afflicted, and those that are, are confined to hospitals and nursing homes; the rest of us stay inside and away from others. It is a nearly invisible plague. This compounds the already present reality: sickness, death—these are things which have been for a very long time confined to specific places, specific zones, and though our society of course acknowledges the end of life, as well as the persistence of suffering, it does not allow for us to see these things or to integrate them into our lives, but instead to see them only as accidents, tragedies, and spectacles, confined to the realm of the already-sick or the dead. In our culture, death and suffering are things which are not supposed to mean anything to the living and the healthy. It starts to seem apparent that if we are to survive this newest epidemic with anything in our psyches intact, we are going to have to shore up on the history of human suffering for the strength to get through.

Human beings have spent most of our lives in our societies in our brief time on Earth preparing ourselves for death, for the reality of suffering, for pain, horror, and warding off despair. Our religions and rituals and cultures are negotiations with this reality. But the world as one catches it now—above all in this limited American purview—is alienated from all that practice. And so from all that reality. We suffer, die, despair, and are expected to never make too much noise about it, should it disturb the ostensible tranquility of a society which believes itself protected from most harm.

All that harm and degradation, as death, is seen as a brutal intrusion into our order—not as natural, unavoidable reality. Though we do still live with and experience these things, we are alienated from them. They do not seem real. So we become alienated from our own flesh experiences, which become loose floating bits of consciousness looking for anything to cling to. These horrors emerge rudely again, in paroxysms of hate, violence, in a deep secret fetish for cruelty, spectacle. We turn our experiences over, then, to a kind of theater enacted by movers and players: tycoons, influencers, celebrities, school shooters, politicians. Of these people, we demand a performance—a performance of the dramas which we can barely admit into our own conscious lives.

The Internet is, for us, the ultimate realization of this drama. It is not the freedom-bringing projection of ourselves once imagined in LSD-tinged utopian circles. It is the full final form of this drama, now replicated in fake social tableaus, at last entirely removed from the realm of physical sensations, subsumed into a Spirit World. But this world does not emit the hum of real spiritual experience, only the bleary-eyed midnight whine of a computer screen; digital exhaustion.

Eric and the Hawk - Dulac

I look up and I cannot see any answer. Other than, perhaps, summoning the strength to say No. What can I trust of a world which dictates to me that its performance of my own unconscious urges is both true and best? I can say, whenever possible, only: “No.”

Perhaps I can look for those whom this performance has ignored. Those whose words, actions, and beliefs are too real and complex for this poor drama. Because it is in the strange gaps—like those single tiny squares gone black in an old TV screen—that I discover what the performance, this false world, cannot itself deal with. Just as I have things in my mind which I cannot bear to make conscious, the collected conscious on the screen before me is even more susceptible to the intrusion of stark reality. Its mechanisms for avoidance are many but it is still always subject to its own constant paroxysms.

It’s in these moments that a time for reflection opens up. And we are suddenly gifted a second to think. For this moment, I am stronger than the illusion and when it inevitably returns, I’ve learned. As I learn, observing these fissures, these blank spots, I build a slow antidote to that unreality. Then as I begin to turn from my screen, I discover, blinding, the world in front of me—the true one, and it is so raw and real I am seized with anxiety and exhaustion. All at once, I am the man freed from Plato’s cave, brutalized by the sunlight, flattened by surprising gravity. But as I suffer through this, maybe I begin to grow. For real. To grow back into the consciousness that tethers me to the real world, to connect again to the invisible mind in Nature, to the idea of God that hits me when I consider other people’s minds, eventually the Collective Mind, eventually even a sense of peace, or freedom.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion - Martin (1812)

I am through the looking glass, through some hand-me-down version of the dialectic of enlightenment as it has stood for millennia, and I’m now left alone with the choice to stay this way or else reach out at last to others. I use words like Samsara, Maya. The world as it stands on the precipice of a void gives us always the chance to see it clear.

You see, The Birds have come and they have changed everything. As they always do. The schism is waxing: something’s gotta give. It is the arrival of the change—of all change—which The Birds represent, which leave me with an eternal human choice. In times like ours, we are given the most conspicuous version of this; the Internet and its relationship to unreality are only our most perfect current model for the Veil of Maya. American idealism, capitalist realism—these break down but then all at once we are granted a glimpse behind the curtain, to see the sad frail man behind the apparition which, until only moments ago, we’d believed to be Oz himself. This is the moment the mind sees its shackles and learns to slowly slide them off.

Dramatic shifts and schisms, expulsions of thought and dreams, these are our pungent realities, made viciously clear under a sudden Sun. Where are the grand visions, religious moments, the transcendent equations that are going to get us through? I cannot know—I think no one can. But the Birds will destroy us if we stand still, and every poem pushes us a little further along.

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