• November 12, 2020 |

    the end of history

    grappling with uncertainty in turbulent times

    article by , illustrated by

    In 1992, Andre Agassi beat Boris Becker in a five-set quarter-final at Wimbledon, before going on to win the tournament. That same year, Francis Fukuyama published an expanded version of his book-length essay, The End of History?, which argued that the fall of the Soviet Union signaled the final stage of human civilization: Now unopposed, liberal democratic ideals would prevail in former communist and authoritarian countries, and the world would finally reach equilibrium.

    That might still happen, and I almost admire any scholar bold enough to risk the prediction. But these past years have taught me to shudder at claims that pretend to have mastered the chaos and uncertainty of the future at such windy heights, especially if the results seem optimistic. Then, in 2016, Fukuyama acknowledged that the present future had stumped his carefully constructed theoretical framework.

    The phrase “The End of History?” doesn’t bring to mind a free or peaceful world— Fukuyama himself regarded his conclusions with mixed emotions—but, as a vague and sinister expression, it gives a name to an especially daunting future. Us non-theorists lay our claim on the future in subtler ways. When I hear things like, “history will look uncharitably upon this,” or, more specifically, “historians looking back at this period will throw up their hands in mute incomprehension at what took place in this country,” I notice only the assumption it slides under the fence: That there will be such a future. It presumes that, not too far off, there’s some stable era resembling the status quo we’ve lost—where well-respected historians treat our volatile present with the same detachment reserved for the conquests of Genghis Khan.

    But to me, “The End of History” implies a cataclysm so great that ‘history’—as a discipline—may not survive. It challenges me to imagine a world with nobody in that role, a level of institutional decay that causes ivory towers to crumble. We rely on historians, wisely or not, to vindicate our experience of the present—to tell our story and immortalize our struggles in the annals of human achievement (re: Hamilton). I’ve heard the argument that for many secular people, history represents the closest thing to an afterlife, and the judgment of clear-eyed observers in the distant future serves as the watchful eye of god. But historical thinking also promises a sort of continuity—that we, the present, are but one part of a larger story. It’s not easy to imagine, and much harder to face, that there is no trustworthy authority, waiting somewhere down the line, to speak for us.

    I found myself reflecting on the uncertain future (along with everybody else) due to a recent, extreme episode. Last week, the future shrunk to a few hours beyond which everything important seemed in doubt. Working on assignments due the next day felt pointless with so much on the line. But the future’s been getting shorter all my life, and the world is accelerating toward uncertainty along so many axes, that questions like “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”—already silly—now strike me as absurd. I know this is not the first generation to come of age in a time of broken precedents and mounting existential threats—I still remember a video they showed us in high school of a radio announcer telling American schoolchildren in the 1950s to hide under their desks in case of nuclear attack—but the nature of today’s uncertainty makes telling yourself “Well, it’s happened before” pretty cold comfort. The investor Nassim Nicholas Taleb made his millions betting daily on events considered so improbable they’re treated as impossible (so-called Black Swans) and cashing in when the market unexpectedly crashed, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the 2008 housing crash. The belief that the future will be like the past, that history repeats itself, is a well-known bit of circular logic, but it’s impossible to live without. Instead, with the help of another thinker on the endpoint of civilization, I’ve tried to reconcile myself with a fickle future.

    H.G. Wells invented the modern practice of imagining uncertain futures, and on Christmas 1897 he published a story called “The Star.” In barely ten pages, a foreign star careens into Neptune before being flung by Jupiter’s gravity into the sun. From the perspective of the Solar System, it’s a decidedly unusual event—unprecedented, even, in the four and a half billion years since the birth of the planets. When it’s over, there’s a missing planet and the orbits of a few others have been slightly altered. From the perspective of the human race, though, it’s a final reckoning. Wells describes the tiny spot of light first appearing in the New Year’s night sky, then reappearing larger the next night, until:

     

    “It rose over America near the size of the moon, but blinding white to look at, and hot; and a breath of hot wind blew now with a rising and gathering strength, and in Virginia, and Brazil, and down the St. Lawrence Valley, it shone intermittently through a driving reek of thunderclouds, flickering violet lightning, and hail unprecedented. In Manitoba was a thaw and devastating floods. And upon all the mountains of the earth the snow and ice began to melt that night, and all the rivers coming out of high country flowed thick and turbid and soon—in their upper reaches—with swirling trees and the bodies of beasts and men. They rose steadily, steadily in the ghostly brilliance, and came trickling over their banks at last, behind the flying population of their valleys.”

     

    Wells delivers the destruction of human civilization with grace. His tone is cool, detached, as he unfolds how one process, simpler but set in motion billions of years earlier, extinguishes another—the development and growth of human civilization over mere millennia. In the final nights of their lives, most disregard the possibility of death—“use and wont still ruled the world.” But it goes no differently for those that fret. The only character mentioned more than once is a “master mathematician,” who, having laboriously calculated the damning significance of the collision, calmly presents the results to his students, and then the world.

    The therapeutic power of Wells’ story comes from the simple recognition that there are circumstances beyond anybody’s control. This almost trivial realization feels, at least for now, like enough to me because of how Wells portrays those forces: As a great and terrible cosmic symphony, in which our part is so small we cannot fathom the whole. I suddenly find I don’t mind relinquishing myself—fears, hopes, and all—for a grateful moment of awe.

    The key to Wells’ success is his brevity: No one can hold the scale of interplanetary action in their mind for long, but for those ten pages Wells sweats to sustain the illusion. There is no protagonist and no rescue effort, no sudden coming together or resolving of differences. It’s not really about us so much as it’s about that immensity which gave rise to us, and which will continue hereafter. Wells writes, “the sun, with its specks of planets, its dust of planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swim in a vacant immensity that almost defeats the imagination.” 

    The solace a story like “The Star” provides is powerful, but impermanent. This realization of our role in the universe will soon be trampled underfoot by the onrush of days, demands, and losses that seem in their own way enduring. Knowing that entropy will one day still the breadth of existence doesn’t help me figure out how to act in the world. And the stoic certainty it imbues in a seeking reader like myself is easily dispatched by some more skeptical strains of philosophy. The true terror of the future is the fact that its unpredictability “defeats the imagination.”

    Which brings me back to the 1992 Wimbledon quarter-final, Agassi vs. Becker. I know nothing about tennis, but I love this match. It’s a triumph of people imposing order on their world and their future, wrestling doubt-ridden human reality onto straight lines totally bounded by clear rules. It’s also great entertainment—a riveting narrative, each player straining to their breaking point into an unexpected fifth set. But whereas history will try to convince you of some certainty to carry you forward (or ask you to convince yourself of a narrative), this match just has a winner. It ends. I’ll probably never reach certainties with respect to life’s biggest questions, including how to face the future, but I know who won the game. I saw the whole thing, from start to finish. And I’m grateful for that.