In 2009, I ate Thanksgiving dinner at a small Chinese restaurant. It was an unceremonious experience completed by the token fortune cookie, whose paper contents I still have. The fortune contains, like most good ones do, a typo, though it’s a subtle one: “Everything will now come your way.”
I assume that the fortune-writer had meant go instead of come, but I found the unintentional deadpan amusing. In fact, both options seem comically extreme. The “correctly” written fortune comes off cheeky, predicting (via plastic-wrapped cookie, no less) unbounded prosperity. On the other hand, it takes a certain gall to inform someone that, from now on, they will escape nothing, that everything will be able to find them, that the whole world and everything in it will be coming after them.
The cookie felt like a wry little Pandora’s box. Here comes tragedy, ecstasy, comedy, confusion, clarity, contradiction: it was now all coming my way. I pinned the fortune to my desk as an ironic reminder.
On the morning of April 19, 2013, everything did come my way. Everything out of Boston, at least. In Germany, six hours ahead of the east coast, I read on Facebook a confusing post from a friend at Harvard: “STAY INSIDE.” Below these words was a link to the Boston Police, Fire and EMS scanner.
With the events of the marathon bombing fresh in my mind, I searched a series of news sites expecting to see more horrific reports of terrorism, but I found nothing – whatever the news was, it hadn’t broken yet. Then my friend posted another warning to stay safe, followed by three Twitter tags, #WaterTown, #MITShooting, @SethMNookin.
I looked up the tags, began reading the feeds and in a cascade of unpunctuated sentences and cell-phone photos, the details of a city-wide manhunt for the alleged bombers began to take shape. Post followed post, 140 characters at a time from hundreds of different Twitter accounts – local news reporters, plucky eyewitnesses and users concentrated on the police scanner – as scenes of shootings, reports of pipe bombs, and unsettling images of darkened neighborhoods filled with policemen in all-black tactical uniforms played out on my laptop.
As the day wore on, it felt as if the whole city of Boston had been collapsed together, shoved through my browser, and ejected in its instantaneous entirety onto my desk, an enormous, historically dense and complicated chaos. Caught within the hyperactivity of Twitter, Reddit and 4chan, I knew at each moment the status of the police and the National Guard, the condition of the officers shot earlier in the morning, the make and model of the car driven by the Tsarnaev brothers, their ethnicity and nationality, their faces in the crowd at Monday’s marathon, what their apartment looked like, what the brothers had studied, where they worked, and on which soccer teams they had played.
I watched the sunrise in Watertown via low-resolution photos of SWAT trucks and police barricades. I calculated how much longer Seth Nookin from The Boston Globe would be able to report, as he tweeted about the dwindling charge on his iPhone battery. I read conflicting accounts of suspect arrests simultaneously with their reported location halfway across the city. Most mesmerizing was the GoogleMap of the Boston metro area updated in real-time by user “Sam” with symbols corresponding to the geographical locations of shootouts, bomb squad activity and suspect whereabouts.
In the aftermath of the bombings, there was much scrutiny given to the changing state of the media, from the myriad embarrassing failures by the New York Post, CNN, Fox News and even the AP to accurately and ethically report events in the days following the marathon, to the poor performance of social media and crowd-sourced reporting as an effective and reliable news source, much to the chagrin of those who championed these channels as finally having come into their own.
But these admittedly important questions aside, the reality of that Friday was that I had been confronted with the Internet’s astounding capacity to deliver information in a way I had never before experienced. The syndicated media ultimately recounted a clean, linear narrative of a murder, a carjacking, a shootout and finally a standoff in the backyards of Watertown. Yet this was simply a lesser order of magnitude than the avalanche from social media that had exposed me to the deafening intensity of information roaring at the manhunt’s center, to the awe-inspiring and terrifying power of the police and national guard, and to the massive web of actions and repercussions that stretched across a story of the 21st century immigrant experience, perceptions of America’s foreign policy, a moment of absurd and terrible violence, a city’s need to regain control and a symbolic demonstration of solidity and combined will.
This was an instance of everything. It was an ever-updating everything that grew with each refresh of the page, an everything occurring at each moment in conjunction with the manhunt, an everything that quickly spiraled into a nation’s attempt to grapple with terrorism and, further, into global political and ethical questions.
I was 3,000 miles away, and yet the events in Boston on the morning of April 19th had found their way, in extreme, to my computer screen. It was clear that, regardless of the relationship between these ad hoc reporting methods and the syndicated news, this signaled something central about the state of mass communication and my vulnerability to it. Everything was now coming my way — data, facts, contradictory reports — and I was confronted with the crisis of making sense of it all.
On my walk home, I found myself by chance in front of a parallel sentiment of overwhelming factual totality from poet Robert Montgomery, whose work was displayed on billboards and at bus stops in a Berlin-wide, outdoor exhibition. His own version of the “everything will now come your way” fortune read:
Here comes the boom of the end of your civilization and don’t you look pretty in your cool new jeans. Here comes what we get for a hundred years of privilege squandered and nothing done to educate our children or save our planet. Here comes the cabriolet edition of capitalism and the end of an empire you were too conceited to even protect. Here comes the rising tide. Here comes the Middle East. Here comes the weather. Here comes everybody.
In the feeling evoked by Montgomery’s relentless parallelisms I recognized the same emotional intensity that had gripped me in front of the manhunt’s Twitter feeds — it was nothing short of vertigo. Here comes the Twitter-sphere because here comes the National Guard because here comes the police because here comes the bomb because here comes the terrorist because here comes the misdirected anger because here comes the despair because here comes the.
Here comes everybody was absolutely right.
I didn’t major in English, but I did recognize Montgomery’s allusion: “Here Comes Everybody” is the nickname given to the cryptic character at the center of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, HCE. Officially, the initials stand for Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, but he earns the nickname on account of his size, and it’s underscored in the complicated flux of attributes and the universal, anyman-quality of HCE throughout the novel. The connection reveals itself to be a clever insight by Joyce: “Catholic means ‘Here Comes Everybody.’”
As a loose etymological definition of “catholic,” Joyce’s joke is humorous but telling, above all in the context of Montgomery’s apocalyptic vision. If Joyce is right, then the vertigo described by Montgomery and that I experienced in the unfolding of the Watertown manhunt — in short, a confirmation of existence in the Internet Age as Here Comes Everybody and Everything Will Now Come Your Way — is nothing more than a new manifestation of an old catholic truth.
I can’t say whether the bewildering, hyperactive world of Internet media is good or bad. Yet one trusts that the vulnerability I felt in its presence would find its strongest answer in the thought emerging from an institution with Here Comes Everybody in its very nature. To live in the age of the Internet is to be faced with the truth that Everything Will Now Come Your Way; to think as a Catholic is to begin with Here Comes Everybody. The two are far closer than they may at first appear, and the place of the Catholic university today, the place where the full terror, wonder, crisis and beauty of Here Comes Everybody should be most fully revealed and understood, is right in between.
Over the gates of Hell, Dante found written “abandon all hope, you who enter here,” and the door to the oracle at Delphi was emblazoned with “know thyself.” In the tradition of such inscriptions gesturing to an institution’s guiding attitude, perhaps the portal to the contemporary Catholic university should read “everything will now come your way”.
This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.
William Stewart lives in Berlin, Germany, and works at the studio of Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, where he researches for upcoming artworks and exhibitions and edits publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.