In Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic, The Rules of the Game, a group of bourgeois “friends” spend their time partying on the eve of what would eventually reveal itself to be the world’s deadliest war. There’s not a care in the world, except towards questions on who is cheating on who with whom. Aside from the somber Octave, played by Renoir himself, the characters show little concern for what’s going on and even when emotional, treat everything as a bit of a game. That is, until these silly antics escalate on account of no one taking anything seriously, leaving a man gunned down, something explained away as a chance accident.
The satirical nature of the film is clear. Due to the immense wealth of these upper-class French citizens, they’ve been isolated from the concerns of the outside world, including the oncoming war with Germany. After all, they’re rich enough that even life under the Nazis wouldn’t be so bad, right? Of course, that’s not the case. Ultimately, someone will die, but even that will be excused by the morally bankrupt French bourgeoisie. Even the Jewish Marquis shows no fear, brushing aside the murder; only Octave is truly concerned. And so ends the film, as everyone abdicates blame, settling instead for a return to the jovial party they came from. When the world falls apart, these people won’t fight, they’ll simply keep up their play.
You know, I feel a bit of a disconnect when I read the articles of many of my peers. Since 2016, if not earlier, I’ve seen so many end-of-year lists begin with “well, this year was garbage”. It’s not hard to see why. If there’s ever been a time that’s felt closer to the interwar period, I can’t name one. Every day, it feels like the “obvious” facts about how society works are breaking down, yielding to the unstopping forces determined to stamp out human expression. The Trump era is sickening, bringing all of America’s pre-existing horrors to the surface, a twisted pulling back of the veil. Yet, I myself do not feel the same existential dread that so many seem to. I look around me and see a society that will not be able to continue as it is for even my whole lifetime, I actively think about learning more skills for when climate change gets so bad that no one besides the rich can live a contemporary standard of living, yet I myself am not depressed. I’m not even plagued by thoughts about the state of the world. It really feels like I’ve got a lever that I can turn on and off, bringing my concern forward when I want to channel it and otherwise leaving it off so that I can focus on the tasks at hand.
What is it that causes this? I’m not exactly incredibly privileged. My family is well-off, but not so much so that my life is at all set — my biggest hope of maintaining the standard of living I had growing up is hoping Lachlan’s streaming career takes off, and that should say something. I’m black, I’m trans, and I’m a whole host of other things which are not exactly given the best position in contemporary society. In no way am I insulated from the problems of the world. Whether we get single-payer in the near future has a direct impact on me. Whether or not affordable public housing is built has a direct impact on me. And whether or not we hurry the fuck up and do our best to limit warming to keep it below 2 degrees has a direct impact on me and my future children. There’s no time to waste. It’s August 31st, 1939, and there’s only a day’s wait before Poland comes crashing down.
Octave is a fascinating character. Constantly vacillating between reveling in the fun times that the rest of the cast partake in and reflecting on the somber mood that everyone should be feeling, he not unsurprisingly serves as a viewpoint character for Renoir’s own thoughts. Even as he’s aware of the frivolity of his friends and acquaintances in this period, he himself never does anything. He’s a coward, one whose cowardice causes his friend to be killed in place of him. Yet he himself makes it out fine. He’s not nearly as rich as the rest of the cast, not nearly as safe from the oncoming violence which will ravage the country, the continent, and the world. But when it comes down to it, he’ll live. By sacrificing another, he’ll survive. He may not be able to spend any more time at the party, relishing in the good times as the world is about to come crashing down, but it’s the national icon who’s dead. The simple, quiet Octave persists as just another person who’s been scarred by the violence which everyone will soon be used to.
I sometimes feel guilty, being this happy. I can hardly scroll through ten tweets on my timeline without seeing a depression-post and at times, that number creeps higher. Half my friends periodically want to kill themselves and the other half spend their days trying to make the others feel better. What right do I have to be so happy, to have such a loving wife?
I’m not exactly out here making a difference in the world. I don’t attend my YDSA meetings. I could, I’ve gone to one of them, but I’m just too busy, I tell myself. Plus, canvassing is too much for someone as nervous as me. That’s what I say, at least. I know that to some degree, I just have a hard time putting in the effort. It’s not that I’m not socially awkward, but that’s not the whole reason I don’t want to go to meetings. Energizing as it is to feel like I’m making a difference, to do so, I have to wade in suffering, even more than I already do. No, instead, I spend my time practicing “self-care”, watching anime, playing games, and hoping to make some sort of career for myself in writing, trying my best to work as far up this society’s pyramid as I can without feeling like utter garbage. Sure, doing political organizing would help the world, but I’d rather watch anime and that’s a hard impulse to beat. I could make time, but I don’t, and that’s my failing.
I might be Octave. When climate change really starts affecting Americans, as food prices increase, as red meats become simply impossible to find, I’m going to feel it. But I won’t die. After all, I have a family which can help me out if need be. I have a wife whose career is growing at a good pace. I’ve got plenty of potential for my own future. I live in America, I’m a citizen, and I have no reason to leave. I won’t be any of the thousands who are going to be killed at the border as America goes from a better place to go to one of the only places to go. I won’t be any of the millions who starve to death as their countries become unable to produce enough food to fulfill demand. I’m going to sit here, I’m not going to enjoy things, but I’m not going to die.
So I can afford to spend a bit of time playing. I can watch anime and spend my time with games, not as a way to recharge between organizing but as a means of distracting myself from the world, as a way to allow myself to control that lever for as long as I can. Because eventually, my friend will be killed, and I won’t be able to ignore it anymore.