William Buchina, "Attempts to Retain Significance #2" (2019), acrylic on canvas, 54 x 44 inches (image courtesy the artist and Hollis Taggart Gallery, New York)

There’s an episode from Season 5 of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone called “The Old Man in the Cave,” first broadcast on November 8, 1963, precisely two weeks before President Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. Perhaps you’ve caught it on Netflix. 

That ancient telecast came to mind in April, when protesters armed with long guns stormed the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, egged on by a soon-to-be-COVID-positive president of the United States, to oppose restrictions enacted to keep them alive. 

The story is set in 1974, the year that Nixon, in the real world, resigned the presidency, but in The Twilight Zone, the date marks 10 years after nuclear annihilation decimated the existing order along with most of the human race. 

The drama begins in the middle of a tumbledown Main Street, where a scruffy band of survivors gather to hear from their de facto authority, the quasi-mythical Old Man in the Cave. The Old Man’s messenger, a model of sobriety named Goldsmith, soon arrives with the judgment that the boxfuls of canned food they’ve hauled into the middle of the street are contaminated with strontium-90. 

In March, as reality changed abruptly and irrevocably, I was preparing to write a catalogue essay on the artist William Buchina, an uncanny confluence of events. Buchina’s images are emblems of irrationality, jumbles of stream-of-consciousness thought-pictures suffused with the cryptic symbols of secret societies and conspiracy cults, whose emotionally blank humans are frequently concealed behind masks or bizarre breathing apparatuses. I felt as if I were watching the world turn into his paintings. 

Subsequent events have only fed this narrative. Protests metastasized into kidnapping plots and foiled assassinations. The president enflamed hatreds, dismissed the virus’s death wave, and was nearly reelected. We will witness the equivalent of a daily 9/11 by year’s end if fatalities continue their precipitous rise. The hope now is not for any of this to end well, but simply for it to end.

Hieronymus Bosch, “Hell” (1500-04), detail, oil on panel, Palazzo Ducale, Venice (image via Web Gallery of Art)

In The Twilight Zone, as the townsfolk load the poisoned food onto a truck, a grimy army jeep careens into view and pulls up in front of Goldsmith and the others. James Coburn, playing the role of a swaggering demagogue named Major French, and three rifle-toting henchmen jump out.

Duded up in fatigues, wraparound shades, and a cap swiped from Fidel Castro, Coburn announces a military takeover of the area, with him, naturally, in charge. Goldsmith barely opens his mouth in protest when French knocks him to the ground, a boot planted on his chest. Smelling blood in the water, French is soon stoking the survivors’ resentment of the Old Man’s draconian measures, declaring that he’s either a “soft-in-the-head hermit” or a con.

Egged on by French, the townsfolk invade the Cave and discover that the Old Man is neither old nor a hermit, but in fact a whirring, blinking, wall-sized computer. As their astonishment simmers into rage, all it takes is a sneer from French — “Kill it” — and they rush the machine, smashing it with stones and clubs. 

While writing this, the news broke that the president has pardoned former General Michael Flynn, closing the loop that began when Flynn placed a phone call to the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, on December 29, 2016, and then lied to the FBI about it. 

The dichotomy at the heart of “The Old Man in the Cave” is the divided nature of faith, its cohesiveness and its delusions. Foreshadowing the Lansing riot, French leaps atop the computer’s smoking, sparking, overturned wreck and proclaims, “You’re free!” Rejecting science and reason, he commands faith in his version of truth with the preening dominance of a cult leader. The action takes on a different cast, however, when Goldsmith later excoriates him for “faithlessness.” But faithlessness toward what?

Goldsmith had held his community together and, until the last moment, ensured its survival through a web of lies. French exposes the truth, and the revelation leads to a closing shot littered with empty food tins and more corpses than Act V of Titus Andronicus.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, “Capricho No. 48: Soplones (Snitches)” (1799), etching and burnished aquatint; plate: 8 1/16 x 5 7/8 inches; sheet: 11 5/8 × 8 1/4 inches (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The infernos of Hieronymus Bosch, the Caprichos and Black Paintings of Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, the allegories of Max Beckmann: all simulacra of a godless world abandoned by reason, overrun with chaos and barbarity. The moral retributions delineated by Bosch, who died in 1516, the year before Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, Germany, were meted out in the context of a religious orthodoxy rotting from within. Goya’s monsters arose in the wake of the Enlightenment from the plagues of invasion, war, and Inquisition, while Beckmann was personally endangered by the occultist evils of Nazism in one of the most intellectually advanced nations on earth.

The Lansing riot displayed a clash of religions — a belief in rationalism and knowledge versus a belief in the paranoid worldview constructed by the current president. One is prima facie true while the other is demonstrably false. But the believer’s emotional connection is visceral with both. In The Twilight Zone, nuclear war has reduced civilization to its elemental form, requiring sense and survival to be framed in mythic terms. In this speculative world, the consequence for disbelieving the myth is death. In the real world, where the years bracketing “The Old Man in the Cave” are signaled by the murder of one president and the pardon of another, the consequence for believing the myth is death. 

In the end, Goldsmith’s fatalism persuades him to grant an existential pardon to French:

Maybe you’re not to blame. Maybe if it weren’t you, it would have been someone else. Maybe this has to be the destiny of man. I wonder if that’s true. I wonder. I guess I’ll never know. I guess I’ll never know. 

Despite 80,000,000 votes cast for Biden, the bioweapons of superstition, ignorance, intolerance, cruelty, and fear are as contagious as ever. If it weren’t the current president deploying them, it would be someone else. But it’s his culture war now, and, in or out of office, he’s not letting go. And Flynn may be his new general, with a QAnon army at his back.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.