Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Gyres of History: The 20th Century Finally Ends

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Yeats had a personal, complicated theory of cycles of history. So maybe it’s my Irish blood that is leading me to feel that the different gyres of history are intersecting in a special way rigt now.

I don’t usually think about the big pulses of history, but the events of the last year have been so troubling and frightening that consciously, subconsciously, I yearn for a story that will make sense of the bits and pieces of the recent world-altering moments. Fifty years from now someone will make a documentary, and with that comforting documentary voice (if it's still fashionable), will piece together a timeline that is clear and puts order into recent chaotic moments.

Maybe it will start with the subprime mortgage collapse of 2006, which set off the chain reaction of market collapses around the world. Recession, unemployment, wiped-out retirement savings. Lehman Brothers fails, GM going bankrupt. All the while the wars drag on in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is anyone still looking for Osama Bin Laden? When was the last time we heard anything about that front?

Where is this all leading? Can anyone see the big picture these pixels are creating? Surely an age is ending. What kind of age is rising in its place?

This D-Day: Ending the Last Century

Against this chaos comes what is likely the last big anniversary of D-Day with the men and women who accomplished it among us. For me, this D-Day feels like the final actual end of the 20th century.

I’m watching HBO’s Band of Brothers because Alan Sepinwall decided to lead a a rewind of the 10-part series that follows Easy Company from D-Day to the end of WWII. The community outpouring of praise for this work is quite something. This series is a stunning, realistic portrait of a platoon of paratroopers based on a book about Easy by Stephen Ambrose. It's a way in to understanding how these teenagers from across the US rose up and found strength to kill and conquer when it had to be done. It shows the brilliance of the invasion plan and the push to capture Berlin. It exposes how much went deathly wrong, and yet we won. The performances are superb, especially from Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston.

And still, it haunts, me, how amazing do you have to be to jump out of a plane WHILE PEOPLE ARE SHOOTING AT YOU.

TV also brought Into the Storm, a BBC portrait of Winston Churchill during the war years (juxtaposed against his reelection after the war). It’s not as finely done as BofB, but it’s a moving reminder of the Battle of Britain and how much the British suffered during the war. It also makes clear how much failed, how much went wrong, beyond even the reverse at Dunkirk. And yet, we won.

Against this tide of the past is the reality of 2009, where it turns out that the Queen and Prince Philip were not invited to the ceremonies of June 6 in France. WTF. There is much finger pointing between the French and the British government in the person of Gordon Brown. She and Philip are the only living leaders who actually served in WWII and they aren’t invited to the ceremony on the beaches where so many British died? In the documentary fifty years hence, that will be a small but poignant point for those who are really paying attention.

In a face-saving solution all around, Prince Charles will be attending.

Maybe this is the universe’s subtle nod to the 20th century ending. The older age passes away, and the newer cycle gets stronger and more clear. One of the centers of the new gyre is certainly Barack Obama. His visit to Buchenwald was deeply moving, as I’m sure will be his visit to the beaches of Normandy. A place where black soldiers were not even allowed to serve (except for one unit).

I’m feeling uneasy in this time, feeling the friction of the gyres rubbing up against each other. There’s nothing to be done about it, except to honor all those who delivered the safety of my suburban childhood, and to KBO, as Churchill would say.