I’m no big fan of Bret Easton Ellis’s writing, but this time he’s smacked the proverbial nail square on the proverbial head. The essay is “Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire” and it’s a brilliant, spot-on analysis of where we are at this precise cultural moment.
Ellis, of course, is not the first to observe what he has observed, and to be frank I feel his piece suffers from a lack of vision (the cultural malaise extends far, far beyond the entertainment industry).
But he’s right. Man, is he ever right.
What Ellis has seen in Charlie Sheen & other contemporary cultural icons is what William Butler Yeats prophesied in “The Second Coming” waaaaaaay back in 1919 (another apocalyptic time).
The Empire, the Establishment, the Man, whatever ya wanna call him/it/them, has lost not only all credibility but all sincerity as well. He/it/they nonetheless continue to go through the motions that even they realize are just cynical playacting, yet insist others treat as real.
The post-Empirists intuitively know this (though some of them may not be consciously aware of what they know). They recognize that the Emperor is not merely naked but a little on the flabby side (not to mention being an imprecise ablutioner as well).
The fall has been a long time coming; Yeats caught a glimpse of the very beginning in the bloody aftermath of WWI & the Lost Generation that followed, Hitler sped it along, then the Black Century of communism vs capitalism where both sides acted like hypocrites, and then the sudden & dramatic & long foretold decline of the West.
Nikita Kruschev & his comrades might be long dead, but their heirs have indeed sold us the rope by which Nikki prophesied we hang ourselves.
And we have eagerly lunged forward to buy it.
As a Christian I see our faith’s big muddy footprints all over the scene of the crime. Instead of conquering ourselves for Christ we sought to conquer others for our own benefit, to crush sin wherever we found it (except in our own hearts, of course), to ramrod & force & coerce & threaten & PUNISH anyone & everyone who dared offend our delicate sensibilities.
We didn’t change ourselves, we tried to change others. Big mistake. Bigger failure. If we had genuinely transformed ourselves, there would be no need for any of the hot topic legislation of the cultural wars: We would have transformed society & the world through the simple act of daily living.
But, no, we screwed up on an epic scale. We made deals with the devil, gleeful deals in which we embraced the most obscene, unrighteous, unGodly blasphemies in order to suck a little more blood out of a dying cultural corpse.
A corpse we should have been more interesting in burying than is keeping alive in a brain dead zombie-esque state.
Christianity is imploding in the United States. We have poisoned our own well, we have tainted our own water, we have sown salt in our own fields. We see public figures who should be on their knees keening in shame holding themselves up as paragons of virtue & visions for the future and none of us do what we should do, which is to yell & scream & print & protest until these swine are driven from the public sphere.
The Charlie Sheens of the world may be the true prophets, the only ones who see the sick farce for what it is.
They’re prophets of transgression, taking our own sickness & reflecting it back at us, waiting for that moment of clarity, that instant of recognition like when the singer in Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” asks in horror: “My God, what have I done?!?!?” (Though one could also cite the Rev. Ivan Stang & the Church of the Sub-Genius’ dictum: “Act like a dipsh!t & they’ll treat you like an equal.”)
“The Second Coming”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards
Bethlehem to be born?
-- William Butler Yeats
(updated August 8, 2018)