It’s July — Tour de France time. My mother enjoys watching it on TV because it’s the closest she’s going to get to visiting France. The cyclists pass through tiny settlement after settlement. Each has a unique name, but all look alike: villages without industry, mere clusters of homes and farms, where no one is out on the streets (except to cheer on the riders) and nothing ever appears to change.
Without easy mobility at 75 mph-plus, Americans aren’t sure what to do with themselves. Beyond the cheerful planning for contingencies — the kitchen gardens, the Priuses and solar panels – there looms an abyssal future in which nobody (or, only the upper classes) will have the wherewithal to move from place to place. Americans now say they long for village life (“village” as some kind of intimate community, whether urban, suburban or rural), but what many really desire is a commune: a village with a transcendent ideal behind it — some kind of political or ecological or spiritual purity — and naturally, a growth plan. “As we grow and succeed, more and more like-minded people will join us.” (Any surprise that the presidential election has taken on the aspect of revival? It’s the American way.)
An alternative future is envisioned by some progressive middle-class Americans as a sort of extended blackout. We’ll make popcorn by firelight, sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” It’ll be fun. Yet our grandchildren may regard popcorn as a staple food, and “99 Bottles of Beer” as a deeply meaningful chant. Village life is idealized, and allegedly packaged up for us in the form of suburban developments and now even urban revival. But not the stillness-unto-death of real village life, with its passing moments of raw ineffable joy.