The Theme of Downfall

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the concept of “Downfall”. And I’m not entirely certain why. I assume it has something to do with the current barrage of economic doom that assails my eyeballs every time I skim over Google News. Perhaps I’m reminded of it whenever I give my aging parents a phone call. It may even be likely that I’m standing on a turning point in my life as I take stock of what I have accomplished with my limited time here on Earth, and what I haven’t.

It’s not a particularly cheerful topic of conversation, but one that is nevertheless engaging. More specifically, I’ve found myself speculating on the future of the United States, and where our current situation will lead us. I can’t shake the feeling that we have seen irrevocable change in our time, and that this change can not be described as beneficial.

It's blisteringly difficult to hear Sousa in your head when you look at this picture.

So what has changed? Civil liberties (or our perceptions of them)? Social mores? The strength of the dollar? Our assumptions regarding life, career, and prosperity?

Recently, I watched a History Channel documentary based on Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“. The following week, I found my brother-in-law reading that very book on vacation. We had a long discussion on the topic (we were in Germany at the time, giving our conversation of the States a strangely appropriate distance from its subject), after which we both drank a great deal of beer to deflate the sense of doom we managed to conjure upon ourselves. As the weeks have progressed since that conversation, the doom has condensed into seeds of inquiry. What will become of America? Will it fall, in the Roman Empire sense of the word?

What is it about the concept of “Downfall”, or “krakh” as the Russians would say (thanks, Aubra!), that stirs such imagination? I have several theories:

1. We feel we deserve it. This goes with the whole guilt complex many post-agrarian citizens feel when disconnected from the horrors of literal survival. We feel as if we have been shielded from the brutality of Nature, thanks to our increasing mastery of technology and science. And as with a protective parent, we feel somewhat suspicious of our well-meaning bubble-wrapped existence. What happens when we lose our safety net (or our Blackberries, for God’s sake)? Have we brought this upon ourselves? Should we judge ourselves?

2. We think the good guys are losing. After all, aren’t we the good guys? Doesn’t everyone fundamentally feel they are playing for the right team? What does it say when the good guys lose? Surely, there must be some Great Author in the Sky who is simply leading humanity to its Dark Moment, after which S/He will write a last minute twist of fate, we’ll pull ourselves out of the mess by our bootstraps, and all will be well. Only, we really don’t believe that. Even those of us who believe in the Great Author in the Sky have the sense that S/He is pounding on the keyboard shouting “No, no… you’re WAY off the plot outline!”

3. Death is a rebirth. Humans have a profound distaste for finality. We as cognizant beings can’t easily accept death as an end, rather choosing it to be a doorway into a new reality. After all, if there is no human soul, afterlife, or rebirth, then we are faced with a crushing weight of futility in our existence. If there is nothing after death, then what would have been the point? I think we feel the same way about our societies. If our collective American Dream fails, then what would have been the point all this time? All these lives sacrificed? All of this hard-earned liberty simply squandered? On a core level, perhaps we feel that when the system is so thoroughly broken that it can’t be repaired, we must undergo a dramatic transformation that can only come through death. Perhaps we feel that the new existence will be an improvement? In a nation that treats Bankruptcy with casual disregard, I can see how this line of thought would hold.

I’ve noticed that my two active projects both have Downfall as its central theme. Omnipotence is a post-apocalyptic tale, set in the aftermath of a recent global cataclysm. The setting of the novel is not homogenous. Rather, I paint the different settings with different brushes. Not every city is in ruins.

The Curse Merchant has to do with personal Downfall. The protagonist embarks on a journey of corruption, witnessing the recent ruins of his personal life, forcing the question “how did it come to this?” Perhaps we’re all asking ourselves the same question these days?

There’s a morbid side to my reptile brain that wonders how bad it will get before it gets better. My more socially relevant friends assure me that my prognostications of gloom are largely unfounded. But I find it oddly titillating to consider a near future where society has transformed into something barbaric, totalitarian, anarchistic, or even utopian.

Because even though change isn’t always “good”, it is always “certain”.

Image credit: Simon Howden

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