The prince of Twitter, Teju Cole, writes the following vision of hell on earth, from a trip he’s on:
“I saw a grinning man strangling a cat with a rope.
I saw a child drinking water from a creek filled with feces.”
The sound of Cole’s two sentences is close, to my ear, to Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
You can perhaps measure the distance from 1962 to now by picking a lyric from Hard Rain to compare to Cole’s line:
“Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’”
The thing about Dylan’s song is (obviously) its sweep, its ability to go from one person to a multitude, and there’s a grandeur, a sureness that Dylan is singing history in the making, even if that history is the apocalypse.
I think that if you could go back to 1962 and read people Cole’s lines, they would say ‘How awful.’ And ‘We must solve this.’ The lines would still be a horror, but they would also be an aberration, a departure from the way the world should work, and will work if we just try hard enough.
Now, the real horror of ‘a grinning man strangling a cat with a rope/a child drinking water from a creek filled with feces’ is less the acts being described, and more the realization the wheels have long since come off, that this is the world for many people, and there is nothing grand about how things wind down – it’s just disease and meanness and the way it is, and maybe has been for a long time. Cole’s writing doesn’t negate Hard Rain, a magnificent song, but it does put hope a little further out of reach.