By Victor D. Infante
I’ve been looking at photographs from the ’80s, all the black clothing and wild hair. My friends and I were young then – in our teens and early 20s — but looking back, there was a sort of weariness settling into our bones, a sense of wearing the darkness as armor. You can see it in even the most joyous photos, this sense of laughing at the Devil. Cue Fishbone’s Party at Ground Zero.
People were dying of AIDS. The sky was raining acid. Ronald Reagan was president. The nuclear clock was still a few ticks away from Glasnost and Perestroika. The Middle East seemed little more than a distant rumbling, despite the ongoing Iran-Iraq War. This was before the Lockerbie bombing, before we consciously understood that nothing was really distant anymore. And yet, we knew. No matter how far away the horrors seemed, we knew in our bones the world was broken. Rock stars were raising money to fight famine in Africa, and you couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a more efficient way to do that. You couldn’t help but wonder when we abdicated our responsibilities to one another to the Boomtown Rats. That this was a serious question tells you everything you need to know about the ’80s.
“There are times, however,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson, in Generation of Swine, “and this is one of them, when even being right feels wrong. What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death? If making love might be fatal and if a cool spring breeze on any summer afternoon can turn a crystal blue lake into a puddle of black poison right in front of your eyes, there is not much left except TV and relentless masturbation. It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die.”
I’m wearing a black T-shirt in one photo for the industrial-goth band Christian Death. I look impossibly young. The photo was taken outside a late-night showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I remember how easy it was for me to be out at all hours as a teenager, only being grounded from it if my grades slipped. When I was even younger, I’d disappear for hours – vanish into the woods, into poorly constructed forts. This seems mind-boggling by today’s standards, but times were different, then. They weren’t safer, as the nostalgic will like to tell you. Crime is down in pretty much every category since the ’70s and ’80s, and medical care is faster and more efficient. If you are reading this in the United States – putting aside any hazards particular to your personal life – I can almost guarantee you are the safest you have ever been in your life right now.
But it doesn’t feel that way, does it? That’s the truthiness of the world right now: The Russians marching into the Ukraine, ISIS stoking even-bigger fires in the Middle East than we’ve already seen, an exodus of children from Central America to the United States, fleeing violence, Ebola erupting across Africa, young African-American men being gunned down by police officers in the United States.
This feeling is familiar. To me, it feels like my youth. It feels like the first drops of acid rain falling from the sky. I find it both terrifying and exhilarating, and I feel guilty and embarrassed by both impulses. In both instances, I should be old enough to know better. I can think of nothing more galling than to age into one of those old men who are terrified of the world, or worse, one who thrills at violence, so long as it’s far enough away to not touch my own life. Those are the men who rule the world, and always have, but I have no desire to bow to their cowardice or bloodlust.
But fear and violence are addictive candy. They taste delicious, and leave you craving more. They’re easy, but they’ll rot you from the inside. I think I even knew this in the ’80s, although it’s easier to be brave as a teenager, easier to laugh at the devil.
As a teenager, I turned to poetry for myriad reasons, but in retrospect, I don’t think one of them was ever to be a refuge from the world. It was a companion sometimes, certainly. It brought me some degree of comfort, but it was the sort of comfort that comes with knowing you’re not alone, that other people are seeing the cracks in the sky the same as you are. That other people are in pain, and that their pain sounds a lot like yours.
I have no need of comforting, sugar-coated lies to make me feel more safe: I have always known the world was a dangerous place, and I find my comfort these days in sunlight. I crave poems that show me what the world really is, in all of its pain- and joy-soaked glory: The cocktail of pain and glee I find in those old photographs, the ones where I see no innocence to be found, but a glimmer of something else beneath it all, something that – from this vantage – looks a lot like hope.