Thursday, July 19, 2012

Teotwawki Blues

Last week I discovered a new word: teotwawki. It’s an acroynym, reputedly coined by Mike Medintz, that stands for “The End Of The World As We Know It.”

It’s a creepy word. Pronounced “Tee-ought-walk-ee,” it sounds like the name of some horrific night-walking monster, a gooey humanoid that eats old ladies and babies.

I stumbled upon this word in, of all places, an article published in the July, 2012 issue of Le Monde diplomatique titled “Les casaniers de l’apocalypse,” by Denis Duclos. “Casanier” translates into “homebody.” That would definitely be me. Except for my running, which is the one thing to motivate me to get outside for longer than an hour or two, I’m an inveterate, unapologetic homebody. Call me a sissy, call me a slacker, call me a couch potato, but the one thing I truly enjoy in life is lying on the couch reading a book of high aesthetic intent, say Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans, the novel about the eccentric, reclusive aesthete Jean Des Esseintes, a man with highly refined tastes and a loathing of the newly industrialized mess of late nineteenth-century Europe that became the infinitely more industrialized mess of today. Here’s a guy I totally relate to, a guy who loves nothing more than to lay about amid sumptuous folds of Florentine damask, exotic perfumes, pitchpine parquet and ebony bookcases reading texts such as Baudelaire’s prose poem “Anywhere Out Of This World.”

But this is not what is meant by “casanier” within the foreboding context of teotwawki. The term here refers to a group of diehard Christian citizens here in the good old U.S. of A. intent on surviving the end of the world by means of their own resourcefulness, stubbornness, and willingness to do just about anything to stay alive. They call themselves “preppers,”” after “preparedness,” and their numbers have grown to include followers in other parts of the world as well. Not all may be Christian, and Christianity may not be a requisite condition for a level of preparedness of this magnitude, but it seems to be a part of the culture, a major flavoring agent if not a vital ingredient. The “stay-at-home” aspect refers to their profound distrust of any government agency coming forward during a time of crisis to help and support their communities. And, after what was witnessed in New Orleans following Katrina, who can blame them?

There is a whole slew of publications available in print and online, but one of the more popular venues is a website called, which abounds in helpful advice and information about what to do when civilization comes to an end and money don’t mean squat. When breakfast means having to go out, as did our remote ancestors, and hunt something down, or gather something up, or fish something out of the local waterhole.

Did you know, for example, that if you put out a salt lick, you can attract game from miles around? Elk, deer, caribou, whatever quadrupeds might still be living and grazing on the barren hills of our post-apocalyptic world. Turns out these animals go bonkers for salt links and will travel hundreds of miles for a lick or two. Such a strategy would cut down on one's hunting time considerably.

I couldn’t help think of Chris McCandless, whose efforts to survive alone in the Alaskan wilderness turned tragic. I remember the gut-wrenching scene in the movie about him where he stands on a small gravel island in the middle of a river with his puny 22 caliber hunting rifle and shouts at the top of his voice “where are all the animals at? I’m fucking hungry! I’m fucking hungry!” If he’d put out a salt lick nearby, he would have had herds to pick and choose from. But this was not the point of the movie. We know at the outset that McCandless does not survive his adventure. The undercurrent of the movie was an object lesson in the arrogance of ignorance. McCandless refused to do the necessary research. He went off half-cocked in his quixotic search for independence. His ambitions were noble and wonderfully transcendent, and he was a good kid, the kind of guy I would have enjoyed being around, his affability and kindness were well demonstrated in the movie, as was a certain precocious wisdom, he was sage-like and uncanny when it came to insights into humanity and leading a meaningful, joyful life, but his approach to living in the wild was sloppy and tragically naïve. One can easily imagine the preppers shaking their heads with knowing sadness while watching this movie.

The preppers do not have a specific date in mind for the end of the world. They just know it’s coming. And, frankly, I’m with them on that. I can’t escape the feeling I’ve had for at least the last decade that the world is ending. When you factor in climate change (or “climate weirding,” as one prepper terms it), the exhaustion of resources, the collapse of the global banking system and the imminent threat of nuclear holocaust, to name just a few potential agents of destruction, you can’t help reach the conclusion that we’re pretty much fucked. A mere trip to the bank or grocery store reveals a population in distress. The rudeness, the deadness in people’s eyes, the weird pagan fetishes with tattoos and body art, the epic statistics of drug abuse and child prostitution, the naked brutality of the militarized police forces everywhere in the world, the breathtaking cruelty of greedy tyrants such as Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad or the baffling denial among liberals over the open criminality of the Obama administration, potholes in city streets big as lunar craters, bridges on the verge of collapse, children’s imaginations numbed and killed with testing for technocratic corporate cubicles à la Dilbert, I could go on and on. One might conclude that it’s already here. The world has ended.

Except that it hasn’t. Every morning I want to say a prayer of gratitude to the powers that be that I still enjoy the luxuries of a flush toilet, running water, and electricity. Food in the refrigerator. Food that I don’t have to kill. Food that I don’t have to grow. Food that I don’t have to spend hours processing so that I don’t die of a bacterial flesh-eating disease. Gratitude for drinking water that is clean enough to drink without boiling it first or dissolving iodine tablets in it. Good clean sparkling water that doesn’t puts me at risk for dysentery or cholera or worms crawling out of my eyes. It all seems like some fabulous miracle. How is it possible that the same population of people among whom I see so much discourtesy and hostility and despair are able to work together with sufficient competency as to produce electricity or maintain a degree of potable water? Albeit, this is not entirely the case in places such as West Virginia or Pennsylvania where flames come out of the tap instead of water because of the local frakking.

Honesty compels me to include my computer in this amalgam of tribute, and I do confess that I am not a little grateful for this device which allows me to dispense this information and numerate my anxieties and griefs, grateful for the oceanic abundance and access it provides to information and contacts and connections on a global scale, but I must also add this gratitude is qualified by more than a little ambivalence. Computers require resources that put a heavy demand on our fragile ecology and provide a vehicle for unscrupulous bankers and investors to undermine what is left of a teetering economy with a frenzy of algorithmic trading. Algorithms that will one day swallow the world.

But fraudulent trading and technocratic complexities aside, this is not what troubles Duclos.

What worries Duclos in his article is the tendency toward isolationism among preppers, their polarizing attitude toward the prepared and the unprepared, and the assumption that they will have to take up arms to defend themselves against malefactors rabid with hunger. The “us” against “them” attitude. Infidel versus faithful. Pious versus impious. Prepared against unprepared. There is the implicit idea that those of Christian faith will be morally superior and thus in a better position to survive. It is a vision of darkness and brutality such as was dramatized in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. McCarthy did not, however, include any religious views in his book. He does suggest that the hero, who is nameless, has been able to retain his humanity, and that this is not lost on his son.

The fear of others is, according to Duclos, a theme common among preppers. It is a bunker mentality. Their post-apocalyptic vision is dark and simple: hunker down with your rifle and protect your family and cache of food. One is immediately reminded of those Cowboy and Indian movies of the 50s in which the pioneer family struggled constantly against the threat of savage Indians. Perceived from the point of view of Crazy Horse, however, it was the civilized way of the plains tribes that were decimated by the aggressions and greed of the white pioneers and miners of the Black Hills, and who appeared so mentally unstable and diseased in the eyes of the plains tribes as to be unworthy of battle.

Duclos also faults the preppers for not giving any hope or discussion to the possibility of doing something now to survive after capitalism goes bust. Why not discuss other forms of exchange or barter with a view toward maintaining some of the benefits we may continue to enjoy? The preppers are not averse to commerce. Not by a long shot. They’re not at all in the same camp as Thoreau, trying to figure out how to live simply because it is beautiful and lovely and philosophical to live simply, because leisure is where it’s at, leisure for thought, and dreaming, and loafing, the way God intended, and not go crazy with products, and industry, and working ourselves silly. Working ourselves until our eyes go dead with routine and our hands grow stiff and gnarled with arthritis and our neglected children hate us and at night when we go to bed we can’t think of a single good reason to get up in the morning other than the mindless imperative of getting up in the morning. What’s the point of that? Isn’t that mindless need to get more and more and more what led to our demise in the first place?

Duclos points out that the mania for survival products is, not surprisingly, a growth industry. Available for purchase are all sorts of survival gear and de rigueur: camouflage field jackets, ammunition clip pouches, knives, gloves, stoves, water purification tablets, portable defibrillators, pressure canners, meat grinders, and a broad assortment of guns. Basically, the kind of stuff you’d be delighted to find under the Christmas tree just before the world-as-you-know-it-ends.

As for me, I’m a cross-the-bridge-when-you-come-to-it kind of guy. Meaning, I’m one of the unprepared. But hey, who knows? Maybe the prepared will want to hear some poetry at night around the crackle of the fire when all the children have been put to bed and there is little else to do but exchange stories and gaze at the stars.

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