The Air-Conditioned Nightmare I

The future always seems to happen in Japan first. It was the first, and hopefully last, country to be struck with nuclear weapons. It was the first to be attacked with karaoke music. Japan has given the world otaku culture – video games, manga, maid cafes, 48-member female pop bands – the cultural products of and for a newly evolved, more autistic, infantilized kind of human being, a new species more object-oriented than people-oriented, more detached from reality, incapable of emotional response to outrages unfolding in their environment.
The latest item on this list of firsts is the fact that Japan is now the first industrialized country to hit the wall in terms of its energy supply. With no native resources, it decided to go nuclear fifty years ago, and for a while it worked. The nuclear buildup was an economic boon as it created jobs within its own sector and supplied the energy needed by industry. Economic growth took off. Nuclear fuel was believed to be carbon free, and relatively cheap, so it helped the national balance of payments. But building 54 nuclear reactors on a land of earthquakes and tsunamis was never a good idea, and now the dream has died. Nuclear is no longer a viable option. Even if Japan continues running a few plants, other earthquakes are sure to bring further problems, so the whole industry is in inevitable decline. Meanwhile, importing fossil fuels will just continue to run up a trade deficit that adds to the vicious cycle of industrial decline and contributes to global warming. Alternative energy supplies might be a solution, but for now they are over the horizon.
Public discourse on this dilemma is reaching new levels of alarm. The problem is no longer a remote disaster that might start in a few decades. It is happening all around us, but in a slow motion fashion that makes it difficult for some people to feel the sense of crisis. Paul Gilding sees it as a coming war, but a different kind of war than what we have ever known:

We can choose this moment of crisis to ask and answer the big questions of society's evolution -- like, what do we want to be when we grow up, when we move past this bumbling adolescence where we think there are no limits and suffer delusions of immortality? Well it's time to grow up, to be wiser, to be calmer, to be more considered. Like generations before us, we'll be growing up in war -- not a war between civilizations, but a war for civilization, for the extraordinary opportunity to build a society which is stronger and happier and plans on staying around into middle age.
- Paul Gilding, 2012 The Earth is Full

While contemplating such things a few weeks ago on a hot summer day (35 degrees centigrade and 70% humidity at my home in Narita, Japan), the phrase “the air-conditioned nightmare” came to mind. It is the fitting description for what this country faces every day now. We need the cool air to maintain our lifestyles and do the jobs that put food in our bellies. Junior high school students, already on the education treadmill on which they mindlessly join the chase of “good” jobs in air-conditioned factories and offices, need the cool air in the summer cram schools they attend. Air conditioning enabled places like Japan, Southern China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and the American South to catch up to the industrialized North. And we are all stuck here, unable to see any way to climb down out of the air-conditioned nightmare.
But where did this phrase come from? I knew I had heard it before, but had no idea who coined it. It turned out that it was the title of a 1945 travelogue by Henry Miller. I must have come across it when I read Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn in the early 80s, or it may just be a phrase used elsewhere as it became an effective way to allude to our alienation from nature.
Henry Miller lived as an expatriate American writer in Paris in the 1930s, and returned to his native New York in 1939. With war breaking out in Europe, he had returned only reluctantly, and did not have a nice re-acquaintance with his homeland. Nonetheless, on a trip that must have inspired Jack Kerouac a few years later, he set out on an automobile trip across the country, writing of the grim American landscape he found in Depression-era America on the eve of world war. He found only some hopeful signs for the future of humanity in a few exceptional individuals whom he encountered.
There is no trace here of “the greatest generation” that defeated fascist enemies on two fronts in Europe and Asia, except some sympathy for the young people who would be called on to do the fighting. Instead, Miller saw dictators and tyrants on all sides, saying “We have our own dictator, only he is hydra-headed.” (p. 18) What is striking for the modern reader is to see how many passages of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare resemble writing from The Occupy Movement and the environmental movement. The seeds of discontent were really born in the post-WWI era, when capitalism accelerated in the new age of the automobile, the airplane and the atom. Lately, it all seems to have been discovered anew by a generation that had no awareness of the disasters that befall capitalist economies from time to time.
Of course, Miller wasn’t the first to be discontented with modernity, but he seems to have had a keen sense of the arrival of a new kind of global dread that would follow the next war. He seems to have been scientifically illiterate – he was clueless even about what was under the hood of his car – and he couldn’t have known about the Manhattan Project and the coming atomic age as he drove through the New Mexico desert, but he knew something awful was in store:

A great change had come over America, no doubt about that. There were greater ones coming, I felt certain. We were only witnessing the prelude to something unimaginable. Everything was cock-eyed, and getting more and more so. Maybe we would end up on all fours, gibbering like baboons. Something disastrous was in store - everybody felt it. Yes, America had changed. The lack of resilience, the feeling of hopelessness, the resignation, the skepticism, the defeatism - I could scarcely believe my ears at first. And over it all that same veneer of fatuous optimism - only now decidedly cracked. (p.13)

    Seventy years before Gilding produced the quote above about ecological catastrophe, Miller preferred to talk not about war between dictators and democrats, but man’s coming war with his own nature – the need to invent a better form of social organization than the materialism offered by both communism and capitalism:

A new world is not made simply by trying to forget the old. A new world is made with a new spirit, with new values. Our world may have begun that way, but today it is caricatural. Our world is a world of things. It is made up of comforts and luxuries, or else the desire for them. What we dread most, in facing the impending debacle, is that we shall be obliged to give up our gew-gaws, our gadgets, all the little comforts which have made us so uncomfortable. There is nothing brave, chivalrous, heroic or magnanimous about our attitude. We are not peaceful souls; we are smug, timid, queasy and quaky. (p. 17)

We are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people; we say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudices and hatred. This is the melting-pot, the seat of a great human experiment. Beautiful words, full of noble, idealistic sentiment. Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment? The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat and struggle. The goal of all our striving has long been forgotten. We no longer wish to succor the oppressed and homeless; there is no room in this great, empty land for those who, like our forefathers before us, now seek a place of refuge. Millions of men and women are, or were until very recently, on relief, condemned like guinea pigs to a life of forced idleness. The world meanwhile looks to us with a desperation such as it has never known before. Where is the democratic spirit? Where are the leaders?

As Democrats, Republicans, Fascists, Communists, we are all on one level. That is one of the reasons why we wage war so beautifully. We defend with our lives the petty principles that divide us. The common principle, which is the establishment of the empire of man on earth, we never lift a finger to defend. We are frightened of any urge which would lift us out of the muck. We fight only for the status quo, our particular status quo. We battle with heads down and eyes closed. Actually, there never is a status quo, except in the minds of political imbeciles. All is flux. Those who are on the defensive are fighting phantoms.... What is the greatest treason? To question what it is one may be fighting for. (p. 21)

Man in revolt against his own cloying nature - that is real war. And that is a bloodless war which goes on forever, under the peaceful name of evolution. (p. 22)

There are experiments which are made with cunning and precision, because the outcome is divined beforehand. The scientist, for example, always sets himself soluble problems. But man’s experiment is not of this order. The answer to the grand experiment is in the heart. We inhabit a mental world, a labyrinth in whose dark recesses a monster waits to devour us. Thus far we have been moving in mythological dream sequence, finding no solutions because we are posing the wrong questions. We find only what we look for, and we are looking in the wrong place. (p. 22)

… the toiling masses of humanity look with watery eyes to this Paradise where the worker rides to work in his own car… they want the lethal comforts, conveniences, luxuries. And they follow in our footsteps – blindly, heedlessly, recklessly. (p. 33)

The worst is in the process of becoming. It is inside us now. Only we haven’t brought it forth. (p. 42)

We tell the story as though man were an innocent victim, a helpless participant in the erratic and unpredictable revolutions of Nature. Perhaps in the past he was. But not any longer. Whatever happens to this earth today is of man’s doing. Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything – except his own nature. If yesterday he was a child of nature, today he is a responsible creature. He has reached a point of consciousness which permits him to lie to himself no longer. Destruction now is deliberate, voluntary, self-induced. We are at the node: we can go forward or relapse. We still have the power of choice. Tomorrow we may not. It is because we refuse to make that choice that we are ridden with guilt, all of us, those who are making war and those who are not. We are all filled with murder. We loathe one another. We hate what we look like when we look into one another’s eyes. (p. 175)

Why is it that in America the great works of art are all Nature’s doing? There were skyscrapers, to be sure, and dams and bridges and concrete highways. All utilitarian. Nowhere in America was there anything comparable to the cathedrals of Europe, the temples of Asia and Egypt - enduring monuments carved out of faith and love and passion. No exaltation, no fervor, no zeal - except to increase business, facilitate transportation, enlarge the domain of ruthless exploitation. The result? A swiftly decaying people, almost a third of them pauperized, the more intelligent and affluent ones practicing race suicide, the underdogs becoming more and more unruly, more criminal-minded, more degenerate and degraded in every way.

The men of the future will look upon the relics of this age as we now look upon the artifacts of the Stone Age. We are mental dinosaurs. We lumber along heavy-footed, dull-witted, unimaginative amidst miracles to which we are impervious. All our inventions and discoveries lead to annihilation. (p. 228)

Other passages from The Air-Conditioned Nightmare resonate for millions of expatriates and migrants who have experienced being uprooted and feeling alienated wherever they find themselves. We want to speak about the world as citizens of it, not as representatives of governments or stale cultural molds and stereotypes. We who live in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster want to speak about it, and want Japanese to speak about it, as a problem of humanity.

Though I became what is called an expatriate, I look upon the world not as a partisan of this country or that but as an inhabitant of the globe. That I happened to be born here is no reason why the American way of life should seem the best. That I chose to live in Paris is no reason why I should pay with my life for the errors of the French politicians. To be a victim of one's own mistakes is bad enough, but to be a victim of the other fellow's mistakes as well is too much. (p. 17)

The only artists who were not leading a dog's life were the commercial artists; they had the beautiful homes, beautiful brushes, beautiful models. The others were living like ex-convicts. The impression was confirmed and deepened as I travelled along. America is no place for an artist: to be an artist is to be a moral leper, an economic misfit, a social liability. A corn-fed hog enjoys a better life than a creative writer, painter or musician. (p. 16)

I was frequently reminded of the fact that I was an expatriate, often in an unpleasant way. The expatriate had come to be looked upon as an escapist.... Nobody thought of calling a man an escapist in the old days; it was the natural, proper, fitting thing to do, go to Europe, I mean. (p. 16)

I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans - the poets and the seers. Some other breed of man has won out. The world which is in the making fills me with dread.... It is a... false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal. (p. 24)

If it takes a calamity such as war to awaken and transform us, well and good, so be it. Let us see now if the unemployed will be put to work and the poor properly clothed, housed and fed; let us see if the rich will be stripped of their booty and made to endure the privations and sufferings of the ordinary citizen; let us see if all the workers of America, regardless of class, ability or usefulness, can be persuaded to accept a common wage; let us see if the people can voice their wishes in direct fashion, without the intercession, the distortion, and the bungling of politicians; let us see if we can create a real democracy in place of the fake one we have been finally roused to defend; let us see if we can be fair and just to our own kind, to say nothing of the enemy whom we shall doubtless conquer over. (p. 25)

To end, some comments from an itinerant man at the Grand Canyon whom Miller affectionately described as a “desert rat.” This voice from seventy years ago is priceless because it sheds light on a loss that modern people are no longer aware of, and it speaks volumes about the beginnings of our reckless endangerment of the planet that sustains us.

The automobile had done one good thing, he admitted, and that was to break up people’s clannishness. But on the other hand, it made people rootless. Everything was too easy - nobody wanted to fight and struggle anymore. Men were getting soft. Nothing could satisfy them anymore. Looking for thrills all the time. Something he couldn’t fathom - how they could be soft and cowardly yet not frightened of death. Long as it gave them a thrill, didn’t care what happened... He had seen lots of cars turn over in the desert, racing at... a hundred and ten miles an hour. (p. 222)

All passages from
The Air-Conditioned Nightmare
Henry Miller
New Directions Publishing 1945

See also Part II of this article.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, I'm adding Miller to my summer reading list. This is a good reminder of a great writer.