Slipping loose the burdens of sanity

“Tyranny offers relief from the burden of sanity and a licence to enact forbidden impulses of hatred and violence.” (John Gray, The Silence of Animals)

The other night I settled in to watch the US mid-term election, a bottle of single malt to hand, alone in dim lamp light. This has been my ritual since 2016, the year when the Brexit vote and Trump’s presidential victory precipitated an intense but inarticulate unease, unlike the familiar disappointment of watching “my side” lose. Previously, following an election felt a bit like watching a basketball game, with tension building through the back and forth, culminating in either a momentary rising thrill or a sharp falling frustration.

But now, I indulge in the democratic spectacle in the same way I do with horror films, anticipating the feelings of foreboding, revulsion, and sudden fright. This is surely a defence mechanism. Horror’s appeal lies in allowing us to get close to a world of violence, decay and corruption, where order breaks down or proves corrupting and depraved–but all the while preserving the possibility of escape.

As a child I would lie in bed, long after I was supposed to be asleep, flipping through picture books filled with images of snakes, spiders, and nature’s many other minor nightmares. Flashlight illuminating the scales, hairy legs, slime, and teeth, I’d stare and even reach out to touch the pages, the images seemingly ready to jump to life. But this exploration of liminal feelings was secured by the knowledge I could simply close the book. Now I try to fool myself into believing the awful things I see are controllable, that I can turn off the screen and life will go on as it should. But that’s a lie.

Since 2016, an indescribable Lovecraftian horror has been steadily seeping out of our screens, spilling onto our carpets, gumming up the keys on our laptops, dripping onto our faces as we doom scroll in bed.

And I sit unresponsive, unable to sever the connection to the world producing these horrors, not knowing what to do with the undulating mass growing and filling up the space around me. Worse still, more and more of us seem at home in this condition, comfortable in, even invigorated by, the filth. Their revelry revealing an incomprehension that threatens to undo my presumption that communication and empathy is possible between us.

Wait, you say, “The mid-terms weren’t as bad as we feared.” True enough, I concede.

But the absence of defeat isn’t a victory and I’m increasingly sure electoral politics, and democracy more broadly, isn’t a game. So, what I worry about is the persistent presence of rot and decay. Ever the masochist, I’ve taken to watching documentaries on Trump supporters, the alt-right, neo-nazis, the whole contemporary compendium of political cacodaemons. My recent reading has scoured reports from intrepid explorers updating the human bestiary.

And for my sins of self-abuse, I’m haunted by a visage I see again and again, the face of our age, animated by anger, but contoured by joy. Under their red MAGA caps, young men cheer on reactionary promises that neither votes nor laws, nor even decency, will stand in the way of their inevitable victory. With impeccable hair and makeup, suburban mothers declare their determined opposition to unseen global forces intent on stealing their children’s futures. Styled and choreographed, conservative politicians struggle to imitate natural human expression as they recite talking points like chat-bots come to life in a newly discovered posthumous Philip K. Dick novel. Each figure an uncanny expression of real-world anger generated by fantastical anxieties, something in their pattern of speech calls to mind a malevolent child, dangerous and deluded in equal and reinforcing measure.

The longer I contemplate this joyful anger, the more ubiquitous it appears–and it is not confined to one side of the political spectrum, though a common condition is not a moral equivalency. I’m suggesting there are bad people on both sides, but one side is infatuated with bad actors. The anodyne language of polarisation fails to capture a more profound separation, between individuals and groups, from the idea of common reality. The construction of separate and opposed worlds encourages absolutism, which justifies tyranny for the heretical.

And at some deep level, there is fear at play here. But we should not let empathy blind us to the choice to let go of fear, with its complex relationship to order, morality, and self-control. It is the letting go of the burden of sanity and reason that keeps me watching, keeps me up at night pawing at my picture book. When people begin to delight in incoherence, to find ecstasy in their rage, we enter into a dynamic that is difficult, if not impossible, to alter–and maybe we’re at that point already.

If we are, then I worry that the antagonistic reverie will only be broken by manifest global tragedy. Less poetically, I worry we will only come to our senses once we are faced with the consequences of the fight we seem to be itching for, that it will take a proper war to sober us up, to bring home the necessity of maturity. Loss may be the only thing able to force us into adulthood.

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