Moving On, and On

From the Transition Index to the Rapture Index
More

Early in the spring, during a period when the war news from Iraq was still in its round-the-clock phase on many broadcast outlets, I listened to a radio commentary about the prospective entry of coalition forces into Baghdad. Anticipating the replacement of one regime by another, the reporter observed that the "transition process" was about to begin.

"Transition process"? The terminology was surprisingly anodyne. I certainly remember the peaceful transition of power from the Clinton Administration to the Bush Administration, and the youthful hijinks of Clinton loyalists who removed the W keys from their computers as they left the White House. In Iraq, of course, the transition has involved using precision-guided weapons to remove key ministries from entire city blocks, plus weeks of ground fighting. The General Accounting Office criticized departing Clinton officials for "damage, theft, vandalism and pranks" inflicted on government infrastructure, and estimated the cost at more than $13,000; one wonders what the GAO might have to say about the transfer of power in Baghdad.

The idea that "transition process" might be a synonym for "forcible overthrow" in Iraq makes one wonder if it would also suit other pivotal moments. Historians have long put a negative spin on the barbarian visitation of A.D. 410, which they call the Sack of Rome. Edward Gibbon described the scene.

At the hour of midnight the Salerian gate was silently opened, and the inhabitants were awakened by the tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet. Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial city, which had subdued and civilised so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia.

But maybe "Sack of Rome" is too melodramatic; maybe "transition process" is what we're looking for. The term could usefully substitute for numerous instances of pejorative shorthand—the Black Death, the Inquisition, the Terror, the Great Purge. Adolf Hitler's mad embrace of personal and national annihilation in the closing days of World War II has been likened to the Wagnerian spectacle of Götterdämmerung—the destruction of Valhalla and the death of the gods. Do we have it all wrong? Should the last opera of the Ring Cycle have been called Der Übergangsprozess? Was Victory in Europe Day really Transition in Europe Day?

Keep an eye out for "transition" and its relatives. As linguistic tics they constitute an invasive species, colonizing every available niche—a consequence, perhaps, of the spread of evolutionary thinking to every corner of the popular mind. If change is constant and mutation unavoidable, and if all social and physical processes are interrelated, then transition becomes the basic dynamic behind almost everything. Moments of radical discontinuity—pestilence, upheaval, death—were once taken for granted as an element of the human condition. The new perspective allows us to see all events, no matter how surprising or calamitous, as part of the seamless workings of an indifferent universe.

Tracking the usage frequency of "transition" and its cognates—creating a Transition Index, as it were—would yield an accurate picture of social and personal flux at any given moment. It used to be that people simply lost their jobs. Now they are said to be transitioning. I've seen the word "transitioning" applied to people undergoing sex-change procedures, people undergoing plastic surgery, women entering menopause, couples embarking on divorce, patients starting to take powerful drugs, addicts ceasing to take powerful drugs, prisoners getting out of jail, Catholic clerics trying to become Episcopal clerics, and entire church congregations attempting to alter their style of worship. Judging from a newspaper article about a minister who works in a hospice facility, people no longer shuffle off this mortal coil: "As chaplain, he daily grapples with the heavyweight issues of life, death and dying, helping others who are living on the edge—transitioning between this life and the next." A manual concerning mail-order brides from the Philippines and their adjustment to life in the United States is titled "Transitioning from Filipina to Filipino-American." The manual was written by an American husband for the benefit of other husbands, and contains advice like this:

Food. The idea that certain foods are for breakfast, some for lunch, and some for dinner might be alien to some Filipinas, and you might need to explain what foods are generally acceptable for different meals (i.e., no hot dogs for breakfast, no bagels for suppers, etc ... unless you're a college student).

Transitioning is made flesh in the form of "transitional figures," an increasingly prevalent archetype. Transitional figures come in two main varieties—the historical footnote and the historical facilitator. Newt Gingrich became a self-proclaimed example of the latter: he saw "transitional figure" as a harbinger of greatness and prematurely applied it to himself as speaker of the House. Historical footnotes are people like the Soviet leaders Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, both of whom were seen as transitional figures from the moment of their elevation; they were expected to do little more than mark time on a narrow isthmus between two vast national destinies. Pope John Paul I, the so-called "smiling Pope," was elected almost with the proviso that he be a transitional figure; he fulfilled his mandate, dying after only a month in office. Shortly after the 1996 presidential campaign Bill Clinton was reported to feel that his record thus far had made him merely a transitional figure, not the "transformational leader" (like Teddy Roosevelt) that he hoped to become. Neanderthal Man, were he alive today, would in all likelihood be called a transitional figure, rather than the more judgmental, and perhaps politically incorrect, "evolutionary dead end" that he actually represents.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In