The new apocalypse


THE ROLE of television in this war has already launched a thousand cliches, their glibness and truth not necessarily contradictions of each other.

I'm dubious that television has made the war a video game or miniseries for people, but it seems indisputable that television instantly translated it into familiar terms the public could be comfortable with.

For a war that isn't really anything at all like Vietnam or World War II, for a war that may be more like World War I -- a vortex of events for which the various rationales are either too banal (oil) or abstract (new world order) to explain the enormity of what's happening -- that familiarity is important.

I know for myself, and for others, this war has never been more terrifying than when heard about on the street or the radio, away from television. The spare word-of-mouth bulletins, "We've attacked!" and "They just bombed Tel Aviv," inspired the apocalypse of my imagination in a way TV commentary could not.

Indeed, I immediately turned to the television, not simply to find out what was going on but to reassure myself that this particular apocalypse wasn't so overwhelming it couldn't be squeezed into a 24-inch screen.

What's happening in the Persian Gulf may yet test both television and our imaginations. Forty-five years ago technology one-upped the Western imagination for good: Gazing into the blossom of fission's sunflower over Japan, imagination acquiesced, incapable of conceiving anything that could match what the eyes had just seen.

Ever since, the Western imagination seems to have accepted not only its own inadequacy, but obsolescence. The bomb became the convenient out for a culture that had lost its vision; information rather than ideas became the increments of creativity.

The nuclear age produced a nuclear consciousness and nuclear psyche, but not a nuclear imagination.

Those few who have nuclear imagination not only confront the abyss but are liberated by it. Everything they do is infused with the blood of an Armageddon with no God, a judgment day in which the guilty and the innocent are damned with equal cosmic merriment.

Those few dance along the edge of the abyss to banish their dread of falling over, relishing the view that their daring affords. Billie Holiday was one example of someone with nuclear imagination; Walt Disney, another.

The new war in the Persian Gulf, and the frantic attempts of the informational culture to find parallels for it that don't exist, and then to convey it in a vocabulary that doesn't apply, confronts the limits of our imagination in ways we don't understand.

Sixteen months ago the nuclear psyche was suddenly unburdened of the prospect of apocalypse. If the nuclear age itself didn't disappear (the abyss is, in fact, not the bomb but the impulse that invented it), the age's metaphors did, crumbling in Berlin to rubble.

The effect was something like a terminal patient suddenly being told that not only is he going to recover, but he is in fact going to live forever: It's exhilarating news, but it rather trivializes the contemplations of eternity to which the patient had been giving some profound attention before receiving his full pardon.

Now, just as suddenly, the pardon is revoked. Where at least four countries have nuclear bombs, and oil fields are wired to erupt in a yearlong inferno, where the only thing that will quite match the oily black of the seas will be the smoky black of the sky, doomsday is back -- a sucker punch to our psyches that so recently entertained delusions of immortality.

The paradox of technology is that even as it has made apocalypse not only possible but easy, it has also so literalized the imagining of apocalypse as to reduce it to the icon of a gas mask. It is the business of culture to turn the events of our lives into metaphors, and if they're large and resonant enough, to turn the metaphors eventually into myth.

Nobody knows what metaphors will distill the crisis in the Persian Gulf for us or if they will be up to the job of expressing our profound and growing uneasiness about a conflict whose projected duration almost immediately leaped from hours to months. But if this war finally forces our imagination to dance along the abyss where it belongs, the images that fill prime time will not just show us what we know, but what we are.

Steve Erickson, author of "Tours of the Black Clock," is the arts editor of L.A. Weekly.

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