November 6, 2013
Gone Girl And Another Lost Generation
“We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time.”
This disturbing statement is courtesy of Nick Dunne, one of the protagonists in Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl. Nick is describing his disappointment and boredom with life, and he is speaking for an entire generation that still hasn’t found its place in the world and possibly never will.
Nick laments, “We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed…. I can’t recall a single amazing thing that I have seen firsthand that I didn’t immediately reference to a movie or a TV show.”
The novel is a riveting exploration of a long-term relationship gone wrong, but above all it is this passage that has stuck in my mind. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about it, and wondering how many people from my generation have felt the same way.
It reminds me of a pivotal experience in my life that I will never forget, but instead be forced to remember with a sense of shame and dull disappointment. Ten years ago I traveled to Ghana with three of my best friends. We were only twenty, still in university and full of promise and potential. Naturally we were thrilled to be traveling somewhere so foreign and exotic, so new. One of the highlights of the trip was our visit to Mole National Park, a wildlife reserve populated by numerous animals, most notably a large population of elephants.
For anyone alive today with a television, it’s very hard to imagine living in a time when elephants were more fairytale than reality. I’m sure that generations of explorers who encountered elephants for the first time were met with disbelief and possibly even scorn when they attempted to describe these enormous mammals to “folks back home.” The elephant is one of those rare species whose evolution led it to a curious endpoint: become so large that no sane animal will want to mess with you. In many ways it’s no surprise at all that people would disregard stories about elephants: would you honestly believe in them if you had never seen one?
But of course we have seen elephants.
In the zoo.
At the circus.
In a box of Animal Crackers.
But this was different. This was not the pathetic zoo in Accra with an emaciated lion lazing in its cage. These weren’t trained elephants with iron shackles around their ankles standing on a ball with Entrance of the Gladiators blaring over the loudspeakers. These were authentic, wild elephants going about their business while we approached them on foot over the African savanna, accompanied only by a park guide armed with a rifle. We trudged over grasslands in oppressive heat, seeing warthogs and waterbuck and numerous troops of monkeys before we saw them. Not more than 30 yards away from us were a dozen or so male African elephants. Not content to simply stand and swat at flies, two of the biggest were trumpeting and play-fighting with each other, surely one of the most impressive feats of strength and raw power a mere human could witness. And as I stood there, impossibly close to the largest land mammal on the planet, my exact thought was this:
I thought they’d be bigger.
This thought will haunt me for the rest of my life. Later that night, as I wrote in my journal, I remember feeling deeply disappointed. Not in the elephants! Oh no, I was deeply and depressingly disappointed in my reaction, and the life experiences that had brought me to that point. How could I possibly fail to be awestruck by such an experience? What does that say about me, and what does it say about the experiences of my generation?
We have seen the rise of the Internet, and had the world’s collected knowledge dumped rather unceremoniously at our feet. We’ve been granted the ability to communicate instantaneously with nearly anyone in the world cheaply and easily. We have access to a staggering number of images and videos of practically everything that has ever been seen by human eyes on the planet, and this leads to perhaps the most damning of Nick Dunne’s bitter and disillusioned observations:
“I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore.” (Flynn, 2012, my italics)
Is this hyperbole? Perhaps. I’ve certainly never actually contemplated “blowing my brains out” because Planet Earth looks amazing on a huge TV. In fact, overall I would say I’m quite satisfied with life and I don’t actually lose very much sleep thinking about it. In a strange way, I think I’ve come to accept that my real life experiences often don’t live up to the expectations I’ve developed over years of exposure to movies and the Internet. I still want to see the world, and see faraway places and fantastic things in person, if only to have a feeling or an experience that is entirely mine. Even though I was disappointed in my reaction to those elephants, that feeling is very much a part of who I am and how I experience the world. That was over ten years ago, and these days I try very hard to spend more time simply absorbing new sights and experiences instead of comparing them to something else.
For what it’s worth, I know I wasn’t the first human those elephants had ever seen, and I’m pretty damn sure they weren’t terribly impressed by me, either.
Image Credit: Thinkstock