The Ideal Situation

A star that was ejected from the black hole at the center of our galaxy, five million years ago, was first seen recently, moving at incredible speed. The observation of gamma-ray explosions seven billion light-years away—“the highest-energy light ever seen from celestial sources”—was announced just this year.

Our time feels historic; in the realm of science alone it seems as if huge discoveries are announced every week. Meanwhile, on our poor little planet there are questions why we don’t just “plant some damn trees” instead of building spaceships to escape the mess we caused.

My younger son read about these too and felt anxious over the scale of the universe and what it means about human life. Our discussions got me thinking again: Is there an ideal human situation in this world—a way of living that is vital, sustainable, equitable, with some basis for commonality—or have we passed any hope for that? Was it ever a real possibility, apart from widely-scattered tribal populations?

On the one hand, there is the city as semi-organized situation. In Henry James’ The Ambassadors, protagonist Lewis Strether equates “the sharp spell of Paris” to novelty and history, sensuality and refinement—to the best of everything.

“Everything was there that he wanted, everything that could make the moment an occasion, that would do beautifully…the Paris evening in short was, for Strether, in the very taste of the soup, in the goodness, as he was innocently pleased to think it, of the wine, in the pleasant coarse texture of the napkin and the crunch of the thick-crusted bread.

“[T]he ancient Paris that he was always looking for—sometimes intensely felt, sometimes more acutely missed—was in the immemorial polish of the wide waxed staircase and in…some dim lustre of the great legend; elements clinging still to all the consular chairs and mythological brasses and sphinxes’ heads and faded surfaces of satin striped with alternate silk.”

It is, for a time at least, Strether’s vision of the height of civilization. (“Idea” and “ideal” appear 99 times in the novel.) Paris still is, for many, after a century and two world wars, and despite its modern challenges; 40 million visited in 2017.

But are cities the “best” situation for humankind? What do Detroit and Trenton share with the City of Light? What is “intensely felt” in American sprawl? There are other ways to think about what we share.

Native American activist Russell Means said:

There is another way. There is the traditional Lakota way and the ways of the other American Indian peoples. It is the way that knows that humans do not have the right to degrade Mother Earth, that there are forces beyond anything the European mind has conceived, that humans must be in harmony with all relations or the relations will eventually eliminate the disharmony. A lopsided emphasis on humans by humans—the Europeans’ arrogance of acting as though they were beyond the nature of all related things—can only result in a total disharmony and a readjustment which cuts arrogant humans down to size, gives them a taste of that reality beyond their grasp or control and restores the harmony. There is no need for a revolutionary theory to bring this about; it’s beyond human control. The nature peoples of this planet know this and so they do not theorize about it. Theory is an abstract; our knowledge is real. […]

American Indians have been trying to explain this to Europeans for centuries. But, as I said earlier, Europeans have proven themselves unable to hear. The natural order will win out, and the offenders will die out, the way deer die when they offend the harmony by overpopulating a given region. It’s only a matter of time until what Europeans call “a major catastrophe of global proportions” will occur.

These visions of the ideal, European and Indigenous, seem to come together in celebration this week. Even the original was only a temporary truce. As natural resources continue to be strained, the climate changes, and population grows, what news will the future bring? Can we have megalopoli and a “bison economy” both?

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.