Yesterday morning I drove to work from my girlfriend’s apartment in Chelsea, so I went down 7th Avenue to the Holland Tunnel instead of taking my usual route over the George Washington Bridge. For some reason, probably because the snow has mostly melted but nothing green has yet sprouted, maybe because I never understood the state of mind that is New Jersey—-I lived there for twenty years—-crossing over on the Newark Bay Bridge felt like entering Hell.
I abandoned all hope, even though I was headed for New Brunswick to teach Augustine’s Confessions. For all I could see were monuments to fossil fuels—-this state is already a gruesome tableau of what drove us to extinction. I was back in the Field Museum of Natural History at the age of eight, looking at a badly lit diorama showing how cave men killed wooly mammoths. I was, as then, identifying with the animals.
Remember that roughly two-thirds of New Jersey is unfit for human habitation—-between the Great Dismal Swamp and the Pine Barrens, there’s little respite and no room—-but it’s still the most densely populated state. Also that there are more registered automobiles than licensed drivers. And that if you add up the miles of pavement that make up the Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, plus Route 17 and Route 1 (the original Interstate), you could cover every inch of Massachusetts in concrete (a public works project fit for Scott Walker’s first term).
So what did I see as I descended on the far side of that decrepit bridge? A thousand acres of parking lots, dozens of warehouses and loading docks, many hundreds of containers stacked seven stories high, five airplanes taking off from Newark in the space of ten minutes, and maybe a half million automobiles. Most of the cars I saw were driverless, covered in white plastic, waiting in lots the size of Texas ranches or already loaded onto trucks for local shipment, but they’re nonetheless bound to choke these skies.
Remember that it’s only after this, a bleak vision that would, I hope, tax the stoic skills of Tacitus himself—-it’s only after I descend from the Newark Bay Bridge and turn south onto the Turnpike—-that the oil refineries rise from the marshlands on my left and the squat white oil tanks begin to crowd the same fluid grounds to my right.
It’s only then that I begin to think about Augustine and the change of moral climate he brought by writing The Confessions, by living up to the challenge of the New Testament, by acknowledging that the world was, in fact, disintegrating, and even disgusting, but still insisting that hope wasn’t merely a matter of faith in the time to come—-the return of the messiah-—but of faith in the here and now, in the comrades from an inchoate, subterranean social movement that hadn’t yet coalesced around any single program, idea, ritual, or purpose, except this: every one of us, every slave, beggar, whore, and thief is the equal of our so-called betters, the men of wealth and power who lord it over us, and not only this, we are the equals of God himself, we can now begin to imagine ourselves as self-mastering, so that the external discipline of forced labor, or the worship of a remote deity, now becomes our choice as human beings.
The absence of faith is a mental nullity. When you place it counts as much as where.