I love Peggy Lee’s smoky voice, especially in the later years of her life, when the laughter that was audible all along became more rueful and compassionate. But I hate this song, “Is That All There Is?” I cannot bear to listen to it (although I forced myself to before writing this). “I remember when I was a little girl, our house caught on fire . . . and I stood there in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames, and when it was all over, I said to myself . . .” We all know what she said to herself because she says it to us too, over and over. She says, Meh? You call this a fire, you call that a home? Puh-leeze! (This little girl is Joan Rivers?) Instead of grief or sorrow, horror, or even a pyromaniacal frisson, she feels . . . nothing. “Is That All There Is?” is the great ballad of shrugged shoulders. The passages of sprechstimme sound fake and maudlin to me, like a junior high school student reading a poem of his or her own creation at a memorial service for an unpopular classmate who died of cancer.
The origins of the song, as may be easily discovered in Wikipedia, lie in the Weltschmerz of fin-de-siècle Europe channeled through the despair of German Jews at the unimaginable triumph of National Socialism.
But the languorous sigh of ennui that is “Is That All There Is?” was written and became a popular hit in the late 1960s. This makes its meh even more irritating. Many Americans were driven in these years to engage the urgent issues of their times, forsaking the comforts of a prosperous society and putting their lives on the line to protest racial injustice, economic inequality, and the war in Southeast Asia. The song’s popularity was coincident with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and with the massacre of the village of My Lai by US soldiers, to put this into perspective. But all it has to offer is the tepid melancholy of a spoiled American child.
* * *
When the little girl (or boy, when it is Tony Bennett on stage) sings of her disappointment with the circus, I think of the eight-millimeter family movies in bright Kodachrome that a friend of mine picks up for change at yard sales around the country. A momentary flickering of a sequence of shadowy numbers . . . and there are the overfed children in pajamas or Halloween costumes or bright party clothes, the adult women in shiny dresses and cat-eye glasses, the adult men in ties and suspenders, surrounded by the debris of birthday parties and holiday meals, everyone bouncing up and down at the command of a cameraman whose presence is evident only in the glare that makes everyone squint in their frantic gaiety. Occasionally, someone following a silent command stops to pick up a gigantic new toy or a fifth of scotch and holding it up over his or her head returns to the dance. The only sound is the threading of film through the rapidly overheating projector, ticking away like a stopwatch. I know such scenes well because I was a featured performer in many of them, my fake coonskin hat and plastic lever-action Western rifle connecting me there in the Italian Bronx to an American destiny that was not as far off as it may have seemed to my immigrant grandmothers, who sat there smiling stoically at the camera, their arms crossed defensively across their great bosoms.
Nostalgia for a lost white utopia of abundance that seemed to be disappearing even as it was being recorded was built right into these films by a color palette at once vivid and washed out; so white was this world that for a long time it was erroneously believed that African Americans did not make home movies. These documentaries, in other words, belong to the archive for making America great again and for taking back our country. And so too the song, which likewise looks from the future into the present in such a way as to render this white utopia always-vanishing as it is being lived. Some dance; others rage. I imagine a table of goodfellas with their wives and mistresses at the Copacabana in the fall of 1968 sentimentally recalling the days when you did not have to lock your doors in East Harlem or the Bronx, when everyone knew everyone, when there was respect, then turning with wet and angry eyes to listen to Miss Peggy Lee asking from the stage, “Is that all there is?”
* * *
Most of the adults in these films are dead today and the overstimulated children, if we have made it this far, have grown old, sadly for us, in a world in which the prospect of the extinction of life on this planet has become more than thinkable, more and more probable. The apocalypse is no longer the preserve of religious outcasts, and it has lost its status as myth or metaphor. It is upon us. In the near term, however short or long this turns out to be—and we do not know because climate change is happening at a pace much faster than scientists not that long ago had anticipated—massive population dislocations; local environmental disasters; mass starvation; the extinction of species of animals, birds, and marine life; and widespread social violence are all certain. “The events of today’s changing climate,” Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement, “in that they represent the totality of human actions over time, represent also the terminus of history. For if the entirety of our past is contained within the present, then temporality itself is drained of significance.” We can measure the impact of human action on nature since the dawn of the Anthropocene, and now we know what lies ahead. It turns out that our violence against nature was violence against time as well. We have gotten our wish; we have run out of time.
Meanwhile, not coincidentally, in the White House sits an “incurious” man, a nihilist and hedonist. From a dinner table in a New Jersey resort, this gaudy usurper threatened North Korea with nuclear attack. He did not feel the need to stand when speaking of annihilation but stayed seated, a plastic bottle of water in front of him, and intoned, “They will be met with fire and fury . . . like the world has never seen.” His lickspittle advisers sat approvingly around the throne like malignant angels of the apocalypse. It emerged shortly afterward that the president had come up with this phrasing himself; if this is true (and who knows?), the coincidence that he was echoing President Harry Truman’s warning to Japan in August 1945, after the destruction of Hiroshima and before the bombing of Nagasaki, becomes even more chilling. (I suspect the phrasing was fed him by the former alt-right adviser whose nickname is “Lucifer,” which he is said to be proud of.)
At the same time, federal lands are being opened for mining, ocean drilling is reauthorized, hard-won protections of air and water are rolled back, oil flows in great leaky pipes across Native American lands, fossil fuel barons set the terms of political discourse and demand obeisance, and funding for alternative sources of energy is no longer available. “Fire and fury” is raining down on all of us from the heavens.
* * *
In these darkening times, the singer’s question, “Is that all there is?” has all of a sudden acquired an unexpected eschatological edge. I imagine the angel played by Bruno Ganz in German director Wim Wenders’s 1987 film Wings of Desire looking down from his perch high over the city of Berlin. The angel’s face is compassionate and kind, but he is evidently worried. In the movie, Berlin is still riven by an ugly stone wall; but in my fantasy, the angel Bruno looks down on contemporary Berlin. He is listening in to the minds of the men and women far below him as they go about their everyday lives. The angel hears that humans are preoccupied with the most quotidian matters. That man over there remembers he has to visit his elderly parents tonight; that woman has to pick up her children and get them something to eat before going back to work at the hospital; the man in the green Saab is anxious about what will happen now that his wife has discovered he has been having an affair; the boy looking into the store window is ashamed of the pimples erupting on his face. A surprising number of people are fretting over getting dinner ready, as if this was the single greatest human challenge.
The angel does not think these concerns are insignificant. But in my fantasy, the angel knows the fate of the planet. When he lifts his head from the crowded streets and alleys below him, he looks into time’s distance and sees ice caps breaking apart, the waters of the oceans rising, dying animals, once fertile farmlands reduced to scorched dust, and refugees from these calamities killed by other displaced people terrified for their own survival . . . and he asks, “Is that all there is?” What does he mean?
The angel might be asking whether humans are able to pay attention to anything but their own immediate needs at any particular time and, if so, whether this nearsightedness, however understandable and even commendable, is contributing to the planet’s end. If that man over there will only forget for a moment about the off-hand comment his boss made today that is so worrying him and instead give a thought to rising sea levels and the death of the coral reef, maybe he will take a step toward some sort of action. But he does not and he does not. Will the world really end not with a bang but with a grocery list?
Or perhaps the angel is saddened by the prospect that whatever it is that man below is writing at his desk or that woman is painting in her studio over there, however great their works of art may be, however transcendent and transformative, when the waters rise and the sun burns hotter, those words and those colors, the ink and the pigment, will be destroyed too, along with everything else that humans have ever made, painted, written, composed, and choreographed since the dawn of time. Is that all there is? And if so, why ought these two people bother? Why are they surrendering the pleasures offered by the glittering Berlin night in order to realize their visions? If the fire and the water are all there is, then who cares?
Can the Angel Bruno really be thinking this? I hope not.
Maybe he means to say, “You stupid, pathetic human beings! What good was the creation of you, the sublime gift of your existence, when in the end your impulse to destroy has so thoroughly outpaced your drive to create and nourish, to build and sustain? Why do we angels continue to bend so close to you in your days the better to hear you? From that first day of your coming into being from nothing until today”—the angel looks around him—“this is the best you have been able to do?” The Angel Bruno’s gaze wanders over Moscow, Washington, DC, Beijing, Rome, Caracas, Abuja, and Manila; he looks into the offices of presidents, prime ministers, prelates, party chairmen, and imams; into boardrooms, stock exchanges, and banks. And again, he asks, “Is that all there is? You give so much power to these men and women who care so little for the planet and so much for themselves; why not take it back? You have been warned! Why do you not see the catastrophe bearing down on you from the future?”
* * *
Toward the end of the song, an imaginary interlocutor asks the singer why she does not just go ahead and kill herself if she is so utterly disappointed. “I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment,” she hastens to respond. “Because when that final moment comes,” she goes on, “I know, just as sure as I am standing here talking with you, that I will be asking . . . And if so, then let’s dance and have a ball!” Why am I not surprised to learn that this is said to be the POTUS’s favorite song?
This is the disquieting ethical and political dilemma that runs throughout “Is That All There Is?”: How do you live if that’s all there is? We know how the singer answers, but this does not satisfy the Angel Bruno. He understands from years of listening into their souls that most human beings try to live decent lives despite the many internal and external obstacles in their way. He knows that humans are capable of generosity, of self-sacrifice, of disciplined and concerted moral action, that they can overcome physical exhaustion and weariness of spirit in the service of the good. In recent months, though, he has been gripped by a new terror: as the seas rise and the skies burn and it dawns at last on humans that they have come to the edge of the abyss into which will fall not only their future but their past as well, and the past of all of us, even the memory of it, he is anxious that this drink-up-and-dance attitude will take hold of more and more humans. Then they will truly have embarked on the dance of death winding its way toward oblivion, a great conga line of doom.
The challenge of the apocalypse now is this: What sort of political action is possible not only in the absence of hope but in the growing certainty of ultimate failure?
How will humans who feel hopeless find the wherewithal to act in defense of the planet and not succumb to nihilism, despair, and decadence? The angel hovers above political rallies at which crowds of people cheer a man promising to restore the jobs that sickened them and poisoned their environments, as he pushes at the same time to take away their health care and deregulate industry, and the angel wants to turn away. But he cannot. To turn away now is the great derangement. And in any case, the wind from the future is blowing so violently it catches in his bright transparent wings and piles up the planet’s debris at his feet. He bends again toward humankind and he sees young people risking their lives to protect forests that they know are alive with spirits; he reads Pope Francis’s clear call for environmental justice; he traces the work across the planet of ordinary people who resist the remorseless, imperial logics of profit and greed. And he discovers again what he has always known: that the answer to the question, “Is that all there is?” is not only to break out the booze, but to join in the hopeless struggle of humans on behalf of the planet. This is the only struggle there is now.
Author’s notes: Readers interested in learning more about African American home movies can follow these links. A list of Peggy Lee’s concert performances by decade may be found here. The observation about time and climate change is from Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, page 15. Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” makes an appearance in the final paragraph. Sarah Pike’s For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism offers a compelling account of young activists fighting to protect forests. I thank my older son, Clarence Orsi, for reading an earlier draft of this and giving me his always-helpful comments and suggestions. After writing this, I stumbled on Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “The Angel of Alternate History,” in the recently reissued collection of some of her essays, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. The coincidence of these essays is additional evidence that Benjamin’s angel is moving restlessly again through history.