The following is an excerpt from an unpublished essay

The Mark of Zero

A Moonstruck – Inspired Analysis of Our Current Political Climate

By Rhonda Joy Rubinson

Our country emerged from the tense midterm election season in 2022 relieved but still profoundly anxious about the direction of our nation. Many of us had wondered whether we would we still have a country on the morning after, or whether we would find our democracy at the brink of annihilation as the object of a violent coup – this time a successful one – reminiscent of January 6, 2021. We survived that election cycle, but not in a sustainable way: now with Donald Trump’s likely renomination as the Republican presidential candidate this, the feverish anxiety that had slightly abated is now rising again. That combined with both political and military assaults against democracy itself rising across the globe are proof positive that our country is still in mortal danger.

So how to make sense of the shifting strains of the long, taut moment in which we find ourselves? Let’s turn to a movie.

In one of the themes of the 1987 film Moonstruck (brilliant screenplay by John Patrick Shanley), Rose Castorini (the mother of Cher’s character Loretta, acted by the late, magnificent Olympia Dukakis) is searching for an explanation for the retrograde behavior of middle-aged men who take mistresses. Tormented by growing certainty that her husband Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) has a hottie on the side, Rose asks any male who will converse with her the same question: why does a man need more than one woman? Finally, Loretta’s dweeby fiancé Johnny (Danny Aiello) gives her a simple answer: “Maybe it’s because he fears death.”

Rose is ecstatic. Despite having no training in psychology – or any other formal “ology,” for that matter – but possessing a keen ear for truth, she knows that she has found the answer: fear of death is the force driving the philandering male. Now she can obliquely let her husband know that not only is she aware of what’s going on, but why. So, Rose sweetly says to Cosmo: “I just want you to know no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.”

Cosmo is taken aback by this seeming non sequitur – what on earth is Rose talking about? Is Rose aware of his affair? Is this a saccharine-coated poison dart of wifely outrage? Cosmo decides simply to put a stop to further conversation. “Thank you, Rose” he replies, his eyes and voice dripping with sarcasm, as though she had just insulted him by stating the idiotically obvious. If what Rose said had any resonance in him, he does not show it, even though the film had pretty much opened with Cosmo announcing to his daughter that he is haunted by dreadful fear of death; in fact, he can hardly sleep anymore because “sleep is too much like death.” By “death” Cosmo means annihilation, a black hole that would swallow any trace of his existence. Does Cosmo link his fear of death to his destructive affair, with its lethal power to destroy his marriage? No, he does not. Yet. Nor do we, yet, although that link between destructive behavior and fear of annihilation explains much about our world, from our personal behaviors to the state of our political landscape.

So, in the spirit of Rose Castorini – and with a similar lack of training in any relevant “ology” – we offer a Moonstruck – based theory: that a major force behind our destructive behaviors is the fear of a particular kind of death, not merely that of our bodies. Of course, humanity has wrestled with both the meaning and fear of physical death since we acquired consciousness of time, along with the brain power to ruminate on the earthly endpoint of our lives. But that is not the most frightening type of death for us; after all many people of diverse faith traditions and many of none at all believe that physical death is not an endpoint, but a portal to another kind of existence. No, along with Cosmo, what truly terrifies us is eternal annihilation, what we’re going to call the fear of becoming zero.

Some clarification is needed. This is not the fear of becoming a zero, which can be defined as simple emptiness or invisibility which, while disturbing, nevertheless has the potential to be filled (we’ll address that soon). Rather, the fear of becoming zero is the dread of literally vanishing irretrievably into nothingness. Surprisingly, this dread is not primal: it is a relatively recent development that was driven not by biology but by a revolution in mathematics, a traumatic revision to the ancient concept of zero that some philosophers, mathematicians, and theologians warned against as soon as it began spreading from the south Asia into the rest of the world.

The excerpt ends here