Dispatches from the present
At some point in the 1870s, excavators uncovered an intricate mosaic of a skull at the center of a dining table in one of the more modest houses in Pompeii. The mosaic is almost perfectly intact in that uncanny way that so many things in Pompeii are. The skull—with broad, crooked smile—balances precariously on top of a butterfly, which in turn balances on top of a wheel. The wheel seems nearly in motion, ready to grind up skull, butterfly and accompanying symbols of wealth and power in one go.
We usually translate memento mori as “remember that you have to die,” but the grammar can be rendered more assertively: “remember to die.” We have thousands and thousands of images in this tradition, from early Greek depictions of the goddess Tyche to irreverent early modern pamphlets showing clerics and princes getting flung into the dust. What’s eerie about this particular mosaic, of course, is that sometime in the midst of its life of politely warning dinner guests about the reality of death, the apocalypse it predicted actually happened.
The nuclear age has always been vaguely fictitious for my generation. I remember having to watch Dr. Strangelove in high school English, to almost no effect. It’s not just that we were too young to get its sardonic style, but that we had never experienced the fears that it was commenting on. This remained true until about a month ago, when suddenly people in multiple group chats began asking for advice about buying iodine tablets and trying to understand the difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.
From the outside, younger generations seem immersed in obliviousness—oblivious to the scale of the events that occurred at the end of the Cold War, oblivious to the degree that those events fell in our favor, oblivious to how unique our sense of freedom and stability happens to be in historical terms. None of these structural assumptions really changed even as these generations matured and grew more disillusioned. Gen X protests about Iraq, millennial protests about capitalism and millennial/Gen Z protests about BLM have all continued to assume that the primary force worth talking about is American power, whether one considers it benevolent or malign.
This version of the story would suggest that the emergence of hot or even renewed cold military conflict between nuclear powers would come as a very difficult situation to calibrate to, and this is undoubtedly partially correct. Certainly, it has been uncomfortable to watch people struggle to recognize the potentially catastrophic consequences of benign-sounding ideas like a “no-fly zone.” But I have doubts that this story—the story of complacency shattered—is the right one.
In the first week of the Russo-Ukrainian war, the news alert at the side of my feed (a feed filled already with pictures of shelled apartment blocks and corpses) read “‘It could happen tomorrow’: Experts know disaster upon disaster looms for West Coast.” The linked article in USA Today was not about Ukraine or even about Russia’s intercontinental nuclear capacities, but about the danger of a Bay Area earthquake. Shortly before that, I had read headlines warning about dystopian scenarios that could result from AI, and before that about an “apocalyptic” inflation-induced financial crash.
In her preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt observes that the peace after the Second World War felt “like the calm that settles after all hopes have died.” Arendt worried that, in an age of “global conquest and total domination,” we might invite “the destruction of humanity.” But she also perceived something else: that alongside the possibility of total catastrophe lay the probability of total absurdity. The prospect of existential destruction couldn’t in any congruous way sit alongside the task of continuing about daily life. The stakes had become intolerable and so one’s consciousness had to split: grave seriousness at the highest level, and then “reckless optimism and reckless despair” elsewhere. As she puts it, “Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal … articles of superstition, not of faith.”
If this diagnosis captures the mood of the Fifties and Sixties—as the first generations to carry nuclear terror also created a cheery suburban hinterland—it is apt in a different way when applied to generations coming of age after the Cold War. These generations have often appeared from the outside to be innocent to the privilege of their situation, but what is often missed is the degree to which we’ve always known. The sense of a single disaster that can end the world has been transmuted into worries about a thousand small catastrophes and one enormous ecological one. As the reality of ecological degradation came to the fore, the neuroses associated with nuclear fear replicated themselves, but more personally. Perhaps deforestation could end the world, perhaps driving a Suburban could end the world, perhaps failing to recycle…
The stereotypes of Gen X (nihilism, irreverence), of millennials (indulgence, indignation) and of Gen Z (influencers, doomers) all fit this pattern. What nearly everyone knows is that there is something gravely serious about this age, and that its trappings—social media and fast fashion and global travel and economic growth—however half-successfully we may still inhabit them, are artificial.
The original memento mori tradition was aimed at reminding the proud of the fleeting nature of life. The ancient sculptors and mosaicists sought to take the heat of youth and channel it into the kind of sobriety needed to build a good life in the face of finitude.
Perhaps today we need something like the inverse of that tradition. We have plenty of sobriety—class and power are obviously hollow; not only human beings but the whole world can die. If having security and consumer goods to hand has ended up being enough to build a lifestyle, it has never quite been enough to build a life.
What we lack is a sense of what it means to be alive when the stakes truly are existential. How can it be possible to have force and vitality and innocence when the whole world has become not just finite but fragile? How is it possible to be young in this ongoing age of existential stakes?