Chapter 58: Living with Change
“The normal changes into the monstrous,
the fortunate into the unfortunate,
and our bewilderment goes on and on.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Of the many bewildering things of the last few years, one is that Billy Joel has not done an update of his hit song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (though amateurs have tried). The original spans decades. The last five years alone provide ample fodder for a follow up. The tune is a tonic for our times, and the timing of its release is telling.
As fate would have it, the song was released on September 27th, 1989, weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th. The final line of the last stanza—“I can’t take it any more”—dovetailed well with the end of the era it chronicled: the Cold War. The song stands in as a cultural artifact of what may as well be an older civilization: the world of History.
That same year, Francis Fukuyama published what would become the most important essay in modern political science, “The End of History.” Fukuyama’s narrative provided the intellectual backdrop for the cultural period that followed: the holiday from history between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, the unipolar moment in which America was the sole superpower, globalization went into warp speed, the economy went gangbusters, the internet came alive, and a new normal of peace and prosperity was established. History—what James Joyce called a “nightmare from which I am trying to awaken,” what Hegel termed a “slaughter beach”—was now something that happened to other people—in the past or the developing world. Sooner or later, we would all be what David Brooks called “bobos in paradise.”
One of the many pop culture references in Joel’s song is to the game show Wheel of Fortune. The show is a highly Americanized riff on an ancient concept: Almost all is shine and glitz, all must have prizes, Vanna White never ages and her teeth are perpetually, preposterously white, and there are only a couple of black slots on the wheel; the odds are stacked in your favor. But the original wheel of fortune, an ancient metaphor associated with the goddess Fortuna, had a dark side. It captured the ancient view of history and the world—that existence is a circle, equal parts good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow. Time has no arrow, history no arc. Arcs are the product of myopia; to get your vision corrected, you need to either zoom out or just wait awhile.
This idea of the world and history as a worm destined to turn is also captured in the yin/yang symbol. Though it’s impossible to depict in graphic form, the sphere is slowly turning, meaning that the perfect balance of harmony, perpetual peace and prosperity, is impossible. California Daoism is really a kind of Gnosticism that wants to airbrush the yang out of the photo (which is a supremely yangish thing to do). It’s Vanna’s teeth. As the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing, ”Tidal waves couldn’t save the world from Californication.”
The turning of the worm is “the monstrous,” but the term for monster is related to the word for showing, manifesting, or revealing. The monster is the bearer of bad news, but its news that needs to be heard, news that was swept under the carpet and edited out of the establishment narrative. We find ourselves now in the maw of the monster, and it may be that we have only just left the Shire. Think of the last twenty years as the gradual turning of the wheel of fortune, the “zag,” the “yang.” From 9/11 to the Great Recession to the election of Trump and, finally, the pandemic, we have been humbled and laid low by world-historical forces. After Trump was elected, much attention was devoted to the intellectual inspiration of his grey eminence, Steve Bannon. Among the hodge podge of sources that composed Bannon’s eclectic worldview was a book called The Fourth Turning, which posited that history is not linear, but cyclical. Each cycle lasts about 80 years, the length of a single human life, and concludes with a kind of catastrophe that dramatically reorders society. In America, there have been three: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II. Bannon believes we are near the beginning of the next fourth turning. As he likes to put it, “Things aren’t going to be ok.” Prophecies that we are on the cusp of a new civil war and predictions that we are entering the “Turbulent Twenties” are by now a dime a dozen. But there is another way to tell the story. If Fukuyama’s linear image of historical progress is naïve, and Bannon’s cyclical image is fatalistic, perhaps we can combine them. What results is a spiral. It’s not that there isn’t progress, but that progress proceeds in a cyclical, non-linear fashion.
We didn’t start the fire; our ancestors did. But the fire they bequeathed to us, like Prometheus, was not just a curse but a gift. We inherit the problems of our forebears, but also the tools to fight new problems they couldn’t have predicted. The fire, put another way, is not something we should want or hope to put out. It is our responsibility to deal with it: by turns fighting it, tending it, stoking it, restarting it, and reimagining it. Our great task is to “reinvent fire” by taming the sun and harnessing its power to move away from a fossil fuel-based economy. And even after we’ve done that—and we will—new fires will break out.
Fire does not just burn, but also rises.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”