The Cold War Never Ended, II

OK, so what I was saying last time was that

THE COLD WAR NEVER ENDED

Actually, from one point of view, saying that the Cold War never ended is not so far from common sense. Putin’s Russia has been pursuing the same kind of authoritarian and bellicose policies as his Soviet predessesors, and op-ed columnists are saying it’s the Cold War all over again. And maybe there’s something to that. But I’m not saying that the Cold War has returned, I’m saying it never ended.

We ordinarily understand the Cold War as a geopolitical conflict between adversaries motivated by that characteristically modern thing, ideology. Or perhaps it was not so modern at all; the conflict of social philosophies might find its echo in the religious wars of the Middle Ages. But no matter; we understand that this was a conflict over ideology between adversaries equipped with weapons that, if used, would destroy all human life forever. This, too, was a modern situation, and unarguably so: many times before had the religious imagination conceived the end of the world through the intervention of some god, but at no other point in human history had the end of the world been grasped in a scientific way.

Science is (among other things) a way to understand reality as reality. Perhaps its greatest single contribution has been the idea that there is an “objective truth” that brackets and transcends individual human experiences (which are “subjective”) and in which things exist and events happen whether or not people are there to experience them or believe in them or otherwise participate in their reality.*

And what was different about the end of the world that nuclear weapons promised was that it would take place in that realm, in objective reality. This meant mass death for real, the final death, no kali yuga and the turning of the great wheel back to the beginning, no Last Judgment and afterlife, but a kind of Satanic inversion of the Last Judgement, with the arrow of time going thunk into the end of human history but without the long sought-for goal of theophany, without any goal at all, in fact, without meaning and without redemption. The scientific worldview had given the individual this idea of death (which was hard enough), but now death-as-the-end, the true terrifying nothing of death, was encountered on the species level.

What nuclear mass death promised was very modern indeed: human death without human meaning. Death would come at random: someone somewhere in the vast military-industral apparatus would screw up, push the wrong button or something, and the missiles would fly. You would never find out what it was, of course, because you would be dead. So all you knew was that you could die at any time, with no warning, for no cause that you would ever discover, and that your death likewise would cause nothing to happen, because all causality, all the affairs of human beings, would have come to a complete and eternal stop.

And above all there was nothing you could do to stop this from happening. The Cold War created vast superstates, but it also created the possibility for its citizens to glimpse (however fleetingly and partially) their true vastness. The Cold War state was its own aesthetic, a Cold War sublime. The state had its own ends, and if they were not yours it didn’t matter, nothing you could do would budge the state one iota from its blind and irresistible movements. And if you tried to deflect the state from its course, to try your strength against this Leviathan and fight its purposes, nothing would happen except that, for a terrible moment, the state might return your gaze, and you would then see (just for an instant) the true size and strength of the animal you had just provoked.

The state, then, was the god of the new age, or rather the demiurge: a blind, cruel, destroying god that (through some meta-historical reversal or enantiodromia) had reincarnated the God of the Old Testament, “the great fuming dyspeptic God who raged round his punishment laboratory.”** But the Biblical God is bigger than any destruction He can propose; He will always outlast us. When the bombs drop, though, the state will die like everything else. The state is godlike in its power and reach but in the end is merely what Freud called the prosthetic god, the human being extended and amplified by his technologies, like Ripley in her mech suit.

Being destroyed by God is comforting, in a way: at least He noticed. At least He cared enough to kill me. But the terror of the Cold War was the possibility of death at the hands of the prosthetic god we had made of ourselves, the state, which had taken the place of God. Maybe we killed God, or sent Him packing, His services no longer required. Most likely, He never existed in the first place. But (and this is the worst thought of all) maybe He did exist, and maybe He once cared for us, but that’s over now, he’s given up on us, he’s walked out and has left us alone to kill ourselves. Deus absconditus.

*Then again, maybe you don’t think that anyone had to invent that way of thinking—it just seems unproblematically there, like clouds and feeling hungry at lunchtime. “But isn’t reality, uh, reality?” I hear you asking. Well, no, for most human beings throughout most of history this is a very strange way to view the world—actually, an unthinkable one.

**Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God, 59.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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