Recently I witnessed an apartment complex burn down across the street from my own. The first thing I remember thinking was that it looked like the set from a movie. If you’re so cocooned in cinematic tragedy, to the point where you forget what real blood or real auto accidents or real flames look, feel and smell like, the real thing is likely to shock you—not for the sheer sensory immediacy of the experience, but the fact that this “real” event cannot potentially be divorced from the visual panopoly of “fictional” experience streaming out of our glass screens every second.
I don’t have to tell most people reading this blog that the news is probably just as much entertainment as reality. News itself is gathered and read off Teleprompters by handsome or pretty talking heads, and clips of the event are possibly intercut with them, albeit sanitized for general audiences.
The “news” itself is fiction—you need to look elsewhere to find the actual images of the brutal consequences. If you hear about an accidental stealth bombing of a noncombatant’s building in Afghanistan and hear the reporter rattle off numbers—4 children, 5 adults killed—you’re left to imagine the scenario (perhaps a dim flash of nine whole bodies lying in circular fashion in the midst of a crumbled building, charred and battered but still somewhat photogeneic) deem the military’s actions as a tragic but unavoidable consequence of war, and move happily on with your day. But if you go to an a obscure site that publishes all the stuff CNN won’t display on its screens and see the mutilated body parts and the horrible screaming of the gathered relatives, maybe you’re not so ready to let Uncle Sam off the hook.
Perhaps this explains the dumbfounded look of some of the gathered pedestrians who watched with me as the building burned down. Some tweeted on their smartphones, some took pictures, others just stared and gaped. A few uncomfortably chuckled and, believe it or not, asked others “if there were any dead bodies.” Gawkers clogged the streets with their fat-ass SUVs, impeding the ability of the ambulances and firefighters to maneuver around them. I jokingly told a few friends afterward that this kind of behavior makes me actually wish the world would end in 2012. Hope you were right, Mayans…or, rather, contemporary non-Mayans interpreting a cyclical event as an ending date rather than a temporal rebirth.
Anyhoo, there were a few of my ilk amongst the crowd, trying to convey their sense of shock to people on the other ends of cell phones. I imagined the people receiving the information on the other end in the same fashion they hear the news delivered every night: “Wow. You’re seeing a building burn down right now, huh?....(pregnant pause) What else is new?” And the almost palpable nervousness in the voice straining with exigency would be lost due to the fact that their friend is lost in a sea of dim images, "Backdraft" –esque Hollywood sets alight with controlled, pre-programmed bursts.
My point, if there is one, is that it is occasionally refreshing to realize that one is mortal, after all. Hyperreality often masks the disturbing, raw “real” so that it becomes a dim figment of our imagination, something beyond the pale. Every once in a while, you have to be reminded how fragile and exposed we really are. This is uncomfortable, yes, but it gives you the ability to appreciate every living second.