These are Strange Days We're Living In

By J.S. Porter

Things move fast. Very fast. We’re living in hyperreality, in hypermodernism, the period beyond post-modernism, where everything shakes, rattles and rolls. If speed doesn’t kill you, it energizes you. Maybe that’s why the Beats are still popular; their words move fast. They cast out lines and reel them in fast, ranting in one of their deep unpunctuated breaths. They take snapshots of the world as it zooms by. No time to process and develop. There’s barely time to click.

Jack Kerouac cannonballs himself as a passenger into his novel On The Road with speed-freak Neal Cassady as driver. They ricochet across America in a beat-up Chevy, picking up bums and hitchhikers, stopping for chicks and booze. Who gets more kick and juice, more joy and bounce, in a sentence than Kerouac? “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” Dye that on your T-shirt. “Hee! Whee! Hoo,” as Jack would say.

The Beats speed-bump the speed; they scoop it up and slow it down. They still draw in the young with their word-jazz, their stick-and-paste. Anything that sets you free from the tyranny of the sentence, the tyranny of the paragraph, that lets you get words out without pre-poured forms seems liberating, something like email that just goes, just runs, sometimes without punctuation or conscious structure, the language equivalent of a sneeze.

It’s as if we’re living inside a Jackson Pollock action painting now, paint that paints the process of painting, or inside a Jack Kerouac “mindmovie,” writing that writes the process of writing. Kerouac seemed to keep in his head what the artist Man Ray said in a 1951 interview: “Perhaps the final goal desired by the artist is a confusion or merging of all the arts, as things merge in real life.” Maybe that’s why Kerouac threw such a broad net over the language-arts and brought letter and diary, confession and dream, poem and protest into a single chaotic form.

Who are we? We’re animals who don’t want to be animals. Animals who refuse to die, animals who want, in Bruce Springsteen’s phrase, to “slip our skins.” Where are we? We’re on the edge, on the border, in some in-between state, not fully this, not quite that, some hybrid creature you might find in a Greek myth. Where are we going? Away from flesh. Towards electrification. Digitalization.

It feels strange to be alive right now. These are Strange Days. We’re living inside James Cameron’s movie where people are drawn to other people’s stories, to virtual people. If you live with Erika Kane for twenty-five years on All My Children, isn’t she more real to you than the girl next door?

You’re not sure what’s real and what isn’t. You look at the people jumping from the Twin Towers and you think is this a Godzilla rerun? The event has all the twists of a Christopher Nolan film script. Low-tech trumps high-tech. Box cutters bring down two of the tallest towers in the world.

It’s hard to tell the reality from the movie because most of what we see we’ve already seen on the screen. You feel like the schizophrenic mathematician in A Beautiful Mind. You turn to the person next to you and ask: Is this guy real? Is he really there? You feel like the guy in Memento who writes messages on his body and takes photographs of people he meets so he can remember what just happened a minute ago.

We seem to be living in multiple realities where the tree and the dog and the thoughts in your head, along with the computer, the television and the telephone, all co-exist within what we call and structure as reality. We seem to be living in virtualities, the realities we experience vicariously through electronic and digital projections. The virtual seems more exciting, more interesting than the real…Are these the days of last flesh?

For some, isn’t the Big Game more real than their pet? The Soap Opera and the Sports Event more vital than the wind from the sea? They shake up the feelings more than a neighbour’s complaint about the spacing of a backyard fence.

How do you navigate through the muddle without running aground? You look for a seer, someone to tell you what’s going on, like B.W. Powe in Outage and Arthur Kroker in Panic Encyclopedia. We’re all students of literature now, all trying to read the world inside mazes and Rubik’s Cubes. If you can’t be comfortable with ambiguity and ambivalence, paradox and contradiction—with speed— you’re living on the wrong planet.

Maybe we’re all like Jack Kerouac, riding the road “in prose as fast and reckless as a V-8 Chevy,” trying not to crash.

  • published in the Hamilton Spectator, Wednesday, October 16, 2002.

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