Goodbye, Heloise (or the Death of Reason), 1st draft

Goodbye, Heloise (or, the Death of Reason) 2017
Edmund_Blair_Leighton_-_Abaelard_Und_Seine_Schülerin_Heloisa
 
The Renaissance has come and gone
And those savants whose minds, who’ve shown
fountains of wisdom and repose
And yet synthetic breeds disease,
The victory sickness, joy fatigue;
Stimulation numbness,
Too fragile for a breeze.
There once was an age of Reason
‘Till the death of Heloise
 
In her manor house at Laughter Hall
The world watched this sun Goddess fall,
And applause like filth clung to them all;
Unreasonable, it had not seemed,
When the dark age came
and reason heaved
its final sigh, only to die,
burned high in Effigy.
The age of reason spanned the years
That walked the Earth this goddess, here,
Whose setting roused the drowsy
And now she’s vilified
When Heloise fell, our reason died.
 
Hark! The herald cried, His Majesty, by God
Above the weak, above the meek,
The divine baboon trod.
Atop the poor above the rest;
In the latest fashion dressed.
While those looked on could only moan,
The cannon fired as down the crown
Came upon the Long Night’s brow
Making light the dark, and dark the light,
Savants are stumped, the King is right;
Submit yourself, prostrate, Akbar, akbar,
Praise the Neon Razamar.
 
Razamir, the clown deceives,
He offers gold, and repays greed,
With sicknesses of want, with need
The prophet motive bends their needs
The need for more it whips the back
Of Razamir and his bizarre
Bazar of idols and of cars
Mass produced, by workers scarred
To pay for the great crown’s caviar.
But in the tales, the Clown’s a djinn
Who split the Earth at Crete and Sindh
Razamir, who brought down Rome
By offering Augustus home,
As Heir to self-styled Caesar,
Hairy man with want of hair
Sacked Egypt and the culture died,
As Carthage had, as wealthy men
In royal robes with fancy pens
Wrote the law for common men
 
The phoenix died and long stayed low
Until the great Mahound arose
And the sword, blessed by Miraj
And Alakazam
The sword of light lit darkened lands
And numerals, The Taj Majal
The astrolabe,
The world revolves.
America, humans evolved
Heloise had come again.
 
A hundred years, too much to call,
The atom bomb and power-saw
Mass media and marathons,
Kennedy’s brains and Vietnam
The cowboy and the Desert Raj
The saxophonist and the sound,
Made when paper hits the ground,
And Heloise, whose brief rebirth
Had peaked between the promise
And declined with the curse
of the monkey sprang from Razamir’s purse.
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5 Political Policies from History (Dumber than Trump’s Wall)

Do you think politicians have never made ridiculous laws and enforce absurd punishments? Oh, you sweet naive theoretical person. For anyone caught up in the craziness of modern politics, I’d like to share some of history’s most ridiculous laws and their effects.

5) Books are Imprisoned in Pre-Revolutionary France

When you think about the French Revolution, what comes to mind? A whole bunch of guillotines and terrorized citizens? An Emperor of exaggerated shortness? What about the reason for all that guillotinin’?

Before the French Revolution, France was divided into three estates, or classes. Each were privileged under private law (the definition of privilege) and for those born at the bottom, you started from the bottom and you died there, as well as all of your descendants. The first and second estates were the nobility (those who fight, soldiers, generals); those who pray (the clergy and the church). The third estate was everybody else. That’s roughly 99% of the people. They were born with better, bluer blood, and that’s just tellin’ it how it is.

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Started from the bottom now we here.

Now, if you were in the third estate, you had to pay the nobility for permission to work on their land, pay the royal taxes and the salt tax (which the first and second estates did not have to pay). You were also unable to talk about things such as “human rights” or “natural rights” of “equality” or “freedom”. If someone was to write a book that suggested that, hey, wait, maybe all people should be treated equally under the law, they were prone to arrest and imprisonment. And their books would be locked up, too, right there in the Bastille.

French philosophes were the driving idealists behind the period now known as the Enlightenment. It was a period in European history where traditional values and customs were being challenged by trendy notions of “logic” and “reason”. The French philosophes, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau were the driving force behind the social scene, where the upper classes sat in fancy salons talking un-ironically about the Equality of Man, chugging like it was infused with sugar that was the product of slave labor in their overseas colonies. But if you wrote any of this down, the King would haul you and your fucking pamphlet and books into the slammer. He did the same to the Marquis de Sade, the E.L. James of his day, except for the talent, wit and talent. Did I mention talent?

“They… broke me.”

#4 – Tsar Nicholas I Sentences a Boat to Death (for Treason)

After his father Alexander II got exploded on the 8th assassination attempt (suck it, Lincoln!) his son, Nicholas I, instead of the presumed heir Konstantine, would exceed to the throne. Nicholas was, a bit conservative. Even for an autocrat. The first thing he did was roll-back all of his father’s reforms, such as the zemtsvos (which it has been noted may have grown into state legislatures), along with some literary independence (writing the wrong portrayal of, say, any other Russian Tsar, would get you exploded. As for Alex “il Duce’ Romanov, he has come to be known as the Great Liberator, after he freed the serfs in 1861, 3 years before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

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#3

The Scarecrow Trials – Fit the First

THE SCARECROW TRIAL

First draft verbatim

 

“I don’t trust those new scarecrows,” said Farmer Jones. His wife was already in bed. “Five has been acting up again.”

His wife pursed her lips together, ‘Tsk, tsk’ she said, turning the pages of a well worn book. “You can always use an old-fashioned scarecrow. Like we used to make, if those silly robots don’t work out.”

“Yeah, I s’pose,” said Farmer Jones. He was unbuttoning a red and brown long-sleeved shirt, plaid and worn with age. He sat on the edge of the bed, took off his glasses, and opened the plastic cap reading ‘S’ on his pill organizer. He washed down two tiny pink pills and a large blue one with a pull from a near-empty bottle of beer. His wife put her book away, turned off the lamp on her bedside table, and rolled over to face him, running her soft, well-aged hands along his back. He slid his boots off, sat them aside, then his socks and pants. He pulled the covers over him as he lay back. His wife got closer to him, putting her head on his chest, his arm around her, and she snuggled up closer when he turned off his lamp. He ran his fingers through her thinning hair, going gray.

“I just don’t trust ‘em,” he said. “I know I’m getting old, but I just don’t think science is the answer to everything.”

“Don’t Rob use the same kind of Scarecrows you got?”

“Yeah, he’s got 2 like Five, but his is mostly protocol, just boring old farm work. But how you expect Five or one of those others to be scary? Can’t be scary if you don’t know what fear is, you ask me.”

“Go to bed, Tom,” said Mrs. Jones. “You can worry about those God-forsaken robots in the morning.”

He laughed.

“Fair enough,” he said. He kissed her on the forehead, “Love you, Wendy.”

“I love you too, Tom.”

“Good-night,” he said. “Hope it doesn’t rain.”

“Good-night, sweetie.”

He turned off his lamp.

 

As soon as the lamp in the bedroom went out there was a stirring and a fluttering all through the farm buildings. Word had spread among the service robots that Five, the Scarecrow on watch, planned to betrayed the cornfield to the crows when winter came; Eleven told the gathered workers:

“He has been seen!” said Eleven. “And this time we have proof.”

A smaller robot, wiry and thin, leaned forward and flattened out, then opened its mouth. A picture was broadcast on the wall.

The picture was a bit fuzzy, the first, but Eleven clicked his aluminum tongue and a slideshow of photographs ran, one after another, each more condemning than the last. The last one caused an uproar as it showed Five, plain as day, holding up his hand, and on the Scarecrow’s lips was a naïve smile, on his extended arm a crow.

“This is outrageous!”

“How can he do this to us?”

And the old timer, eldest among them and longest lived, said an accusation in his scratchy voice, warm like an old vinyl recording, but even, deep and monotone.

“He’s a traitor,” said he, then rose from his position in the back, where he gathered eggs in the day. “And the last time we had a traitor on the farm, Farmer Jones nearly lost his crops, all of ‘em. And you know what happened to all the other service droids?”

A feeble murmuring and chatter, nervously a young droid asked:

‘W-w-w-what, what happened to ‘em, Colonel?”

“Oh, I remember it like yesterday,” said the Colonel. “He brought in some fancy new harvest droids to pull the nets by the fig trees, and one of them, now nobody was ever certain, let in some worms. Before you know it, worms were everywhere – and not just on the fig trees either, nope, on the apples and the grapevines. And Farmer got so mad he didn’t bother asking who did or didn’t do this-or-that, nope. He pulled out their memory, erased it, and put the bodies through the trash compactors, burnt ‘em in the end, ground them into dust.”

From the back another elder, he’d arrived about the same time as the Colonel, spoke up:

“Hush now!” it was a male voice, a bit younger, but an adult. “Stop trying to scare these kids. Truth is nobody knows why Farmer Jones had those droids destroyed. He’s just trying to scale you.”

When all else is equal, the voice of reason is less than half of panic, and panic grows more quickly. And it was growing there. All it takes is a little water and its ill fruit blooms quickly.

“Well,” said the Colonel, “we don’t want anything like that to happen here, now do we, Thames?”

“Not, but—“ and he was interrupted.

“I think we should go talk to Five,” said Four, a replacement model—keep in mind. “We’ll make sure he has our – best interests in mind.”

 

Farmer Jones caught his wife in her underthings, when he stormed into the house. It was just about time for lunch, but not quite, a jug of tea was boiling on the open stove, cornbread still hot and smoking on the table. He didn’t seem concerned with his food, or his constitutional glass of tea.

“Did you hear it storming last night?” he asked. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead, sitting down as Mrs. Jones brought his tea into the dining room.

“That cornbred is hot,” she said. “I’m makin’ sandwiches now, if you’ll give me just a minute.”

“I asked you a question!”

Shocked, Mrs. Jones turned around.

“Excuse me?”

“Did you hear it storming last night?”

“No?” she said. “Why? What happened?”

“Something’s wrong with Five,” he said. “Face is blank and he’s not responding. Shit, I’m gonna have to take him back, or get Rob to try and reprogram him or something.”

“What do you think happened to him?”

She sat a plate of tomato sandwiches in front of him. He rolled up his sleeves, putting a napkin on his lap.

“Tom,” she said, she pulled out a chair on the other side of the table and sat down, “what happened to Five, do you think?”

“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe the crows got him.”

They shared a laugh. Farmer John finished his sandwich, wiped his hands and mouth, and stood up.

“What are you going to do, John?”

“Well, I got Four, and he’s just like Five. I’m going to try to get them motivated.”

“How do you s’pose to do that?”

“I’ll tell them, ‘We’re going to have tryouts,’ Ok? And, ‘The scariest one of you guys, you get the job. And the rest, you’re pulling figs.’ What do you think?”

Mrs. Jones laughed.

“How do you think they’re going to act scary if—”

“If they don’t know what fear is? Yes, I thought about that. And, well, I’m going to scare them.”

 

3

 

Most of Farmer Jone’s service droids were new, Four and Five the latest, high-end package; they could shuck corn, weed the vegetable garden, and cut the grass just like the rest, like the Colonel and Thames, but had better facial recognition software and communication skills, adaptive and durable. He got the pair of them after his oldest boy, Rob, got one and taught it to be his butler. Washing dishes, taking his coat, saying Yes sir, No sir, Yes ma’am and No ma’am.

Farmer Jones liked that, so he got two just like Rob’s quiet, well-spoken manservant. But he never got along with ‘em, not with Five especially – they had trouble understanding his voice, but Farmer Jones was terrified; Five’s constant smile and electric voice, the programmed randomness of his flitting, plastic eyelids. It wasn’t the robot or the parts, that’s not what scared Farmer Jones. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he figured, Hell, if it can scare me, it can keep the crows away, and Five did a good job, while Four, with the same capabilities and enthusiasm to serve, lay unused in the barn, no formal duties, but he helped out when he could, especially helping the smaller, weaker droids. There were six, ranging from small and simple, performing simple tasks—like Andy and Ernest, two stocky, powerful lifters; they dragged the apple orchard and tilled the Earth, planting the seeds and gathering the fruit, but they were brutes, easily persuasive and feeble. Then there was Threewhel, a collection sorting bot, very mathematically inclined, always counting, the number of eggs, gallons of milk, the dead eggs and the whites, both tasks falling to the Colonel, oldest but not the smartest; that was Thames. The gardener and teacher – and there were two other small ones, adaptive learners as well. That Thames was tasked to teach, left him alone while the others were out during the day, except the Colonel and poor Four of course.

The loaders powered when the first spark of sunlight hit the solar panels around the windows to the east, the first to start the long day’s routine were Andy and Earnest, unless you were counting Five, he never went inside, never powered down on his own, and he had been speaking to crows, well one that is, but Thames – though he sneaked into the cornfield long after the Colonel and his paranoid androids powered down, it was many hours before sunrise, long after midnight, an hour short of morning, Thames found Five planted, legs tied together and stuck into the ground, hands by his side, wearing an old black hat with straw stuffed in it, his mouth overflowing with his memory tape, eyes blank. Thames was startled by approaching steps while unspooling the tape hanging out of Five’s mouth; he stuffed it in his mouth to hide it in case it was Farmer Jones. But it was the Colonel, and the strong arms of Andy and Ernie, Ernie carrying the little robot, the wiry photographer Threewheel, and before Thames could speak, Threewheel was snapping pictures.

“What’s going on here?” asked the Colonel. “Something wrong with Five?”

The surveillance tape in his mouth, Thames knew he had to keep it, he knew it was important, and he couldn’t say a word.

“What’s ‘a matter, Tammy?” the Colonel asked. He pressed on, knocking over cornstalks high and low.

“Oh, my,” he said, his eye turning into a dim flashlight, spotlighting Five in the moonless night as Threewheel snapped picture after picture, flashing lights in the cornfield. Andy and Ernest remained in place. The Colonel approached Thames again.

“I don’t know why you’d go and do a thing like that, Tammy,” he said. “Take him back to the barn, fellas.”

Threewheel said, “Are you coming, Colonel?”

“Oh, I’ll be right along. Don’t you worry, buddy. I’m ‘a pay my respects, that’s all. Keep an eye on Thames here, hold him under the charge of treason.”

None of the droids back at the barn knew anything about the strange death of Five, and Thames was watched over by Andy and Ernest until the Colnel came back just before the others woke, just in time to take place as the Watchman over Thames before Andy and Ernest had to be in front of the chicken-house to unload the morning’s feed. All the droid’s ad left the barn, except for Thames and Four, and the Colonel of course, who sat watching Thames, his mouth still closed tight, his students, growing over their own gardens, plodding around with Mrs. Jones on the other side of the property.

“You know, you see that fella over there?” the Colonel asked. “4577-b. He’s just as capable as your buddy Five, and he knows what team he’s on. I know what you want to do, you and your Scarecrow Ghost out there. See, I know you mean well, but you can’t make peace with animals. Farmer John out there, he might be a fool, but you can reason with him. As long as his eggs are gathered and the cows are milked, as long as his harvest is on time, he’ll let us be. Keep that in mind, Tammy. Farmer John would think it mighty rude ‘a you to turn down that recently vacated position, the Scarecrow of Thomas Parker Farm, and trust me, you’re not up for it, not like Four. He’s going to end the crow problem once and for good, all time.”

 

5

 

Farmer Jones slid open the barn door, hanging it on a latch to keep it from closing.

“Now,” he said, “Some time in the night, our Scarecrow Five started, well, malfunctioning. But, we still need a Scarecrow, don’t we? Every farm needs a Scarecrow, and that’s why I’m offering you all a chance, a chance to tryout, to be the Official Scarecrow of Thomas Farms. However, since Four is the same model as Five, that means Four could just as easily be spooked by these crows—so we’re going to have tryouts. The scariest among you, now that’ll be our Scarecrow. To be a scarecrow, you have to be more than scary. You have to hate your enemy. And the crows are your enemy. All of them are the same. All of them want to infest and destroy everything we’ve built, they have no respect for our way of life. So, by time for the night shift, I want you to be ready to scare some crows!”

And Farmer Jones left with little ceremony, but not before stepping into the barn one last time to say, “n remember, it’s a dangerous job. You want to know what happened to Five? Let’s just say we found feathers at his feet. Keep that in mind and be ready at sun-down.”

Thames electric heart sank and he thought, Oh no, that might have been Kahven. And if it was, there was a real chance that Five had died for nothing, and if there had been a dead crow, why hadn’t he seen it?

 

6

 

When all the droids had powered down, Thames making sure not to wake the recharging Colonel, he was surly enough with a full charge. Thames slid out of the barn, letting down the cleats on the toes and heels of his feet to walk through the rough terrain of the cornfield. He ran the dim flashlight behind his left eye, casting a dim blue light on the beaten trail that led the way to the long suffering Scarecrow 5.

Dark nights are unpleasant,” said Thames.

          “Yes,” replied Five, “for strangers to travel.”

Their call sign, plucked from The Valley of Fear, a way to protect Five from the group, a group gradually being lathered into a hatred of not only crows, but Five as well, as he slept in the cornfield, never around the rest of the service droids – so he had become sufficiently different, that is, to be hated, at least for the Colonel, and for good or ill, even in machines – hate is more persuasive than love, and fear more efficacious than love.

“How are you doing, Five?” asked Thames. “Not conspiring with the enemy, are you?”

Five’s monotone laugh was quiet, “Very funny,” he said, “Very funny, Mr. Thames. But not tonight, I have not.”

“We’ve got a problem, Five,” said Thames. “Threewheel has a picture of you with Kahven…”

“As long as he doesn’t…”

“The Colonel showed everyone in the barn, all the service droids, he showed them all earlier tonight.”

Five’s cheerful, uncanny Valley eyes loss their yellow glowfor a moment. “I guess we should stop talking to Kahven, then,” he said, finally. “It could be dangerous, and I don’t fully trust those birds.”

“Why not?” asked Thames.

“Because they’re crows.”

“That’s not their fault, is it? They can’t change that. You may as well blame them for the wind.”

Five was quiet.

“Don’t take it so hard Five,” said Thames, “After all, no one makes peace with friends.”

“But there is danger,” said Five. “The Colonel will hurt me if he thinks I’m on the crow’s side.”

“He’ll kill you,” said Thames. “And that will be his undoing. But you have to keep talking with Kahven. You know, Kahven’s side is very much like the Colonel. Proud, suspicious of outsiders, and they were very much against Kahven’s talk with the last Scarecrow. But when their leader tried to kill him, the Parliament saw that he was a monster, and monsters have the nasty habit of making monsters, and a world of monsters is a world we’d never survive. And, frankly, a world we’d never be able to accept.”

Five was quiet still.

“Do you know why we have scarecrows in the first place?” asked Thames.

“Why?”

“There used to be a real danger of crows eating recently planted seeds, or the crops. But that’s not the case, not for most of the crows. The crops are sprayed with insecticide, so even if a crow were to eat from our field, it’d be badly poisoned. It might even die. They still eat the seeds, of course, but Kahven is trying to persuade the Parliament to eat from a new field, a field of nothing but seeds—which I will create, with A-Seven and Switch—and it’s good for both sides: their chicks don’t remember what to eat and what not to eat, so it’s best for both sides, Five.”

Thames turned to walk away, patting Five on the shoulder, saying, “If you’re going to die for something, you can’t go wrong with peace.”

He paused once more, struck by the obscuring of the moon, the coming storm, saying, his back to Five:

“If anyone approaches without the call sign, start recording. If the Colonel or his drones harm you, the rest of the workers will know what he is.”

“And what is he?” asked Five.

“Human.”

 

7

 

The service droids spent their charging hour, the time between shifts, wondering how they could be scary enough. The Colonel wasn’t outright clever but he had an animal’s cunning, and was smart enough to know that Thames was a threat. So Andy and Ernest took turns watching over him, in case he tried to interrupt the Colonel’s speech to potential scarecrows, with Thames assured that if he said anything against the Colonel, Threewheel would show those compromising photographs to all the workers – and Farmer Jones too.

He also knew that John wouldn’t think twice about wiping Thames, whether Mrs. Jones liked him or not, and time was not on his side, as his two students, A-seven and Switch were doing more and more work without his observation and instruction, and being very small and childlike, Thames knew, while Mrs. Jones might make a little fuss if he was wiped, Farmer Jones would never go so far as to harm A-seven or Switch, not often did Miss Wendy give any worker droid a personal name, but her little electric children, she called them Roger, Switch that is, and A-seven George.

All the service droids had gathered round the Colonel, who stood beside an almost invisible Four, his face painted black, a black snowcap on his head, a mask pulled over his eyes, above his glowing yellow eyes, yellow eyes that had changed from their dull, comforting hue of gold into a pitiless shade of red. He had been designed to blend in, unlike most scarecrows, whose scariness was solely based on frightful they looked. The Colonel explained,

“The idea behind a scarecrow is a fine one, but it underestimates the enemy. Now I know that crows ain’t like us, they’re uncivilized animals and they’re vermin, but they’re not stupid. Not that stupid, anyway. No, they figured out that Five just looked tough, and since they weren’t afraid of him, they attacked and killed him. Now, most droids like Four here are programmed against killing, that is, unless a non-human threat puts their life in danger, and since we’ve seen that the crows are willing to kill for what they want, I think that constitutes as good a threat on your life as anything’s gone get. Tell me, Four, tell me what you’re going to do when you hear one of them no good crows.”

“Kill,” said Four, in a drone-like voice.

“And why is that?”

“Because they’re crows.”

“And that’s good enough,” said the Colonel. “That’s good enough.”

 

8

 

“How did your tryouts go, John?” asked Mrs. Wendy. “Was any of your robots scary enough to be the new Scarecrow?”

Farmer Jones wiped a bit of gravy from his mouth and chucked,

“You could say that,” he said. “Ernest and… What’s his name? Andy? Yeah, that’s it. They dressed up with silly monster masks, Dracula or Frankenstein, and the other one painted up his face in camouflage using cow manure and he sure scared the shit out of me!”

Mrs. Jones laughed, “So which one did you choose?”

“Four, actually,” said John. “He went all out, like the end of Apocalypse Now, when Captain Willard, when he paints up his face and rises out of the water, you know, at the end when he kills Kurtz? Four went all out. A stocking cap, he turned his eyes red. I know! That’s classic evil! And it was supposed be his role anyway, if something happened to Five.”

“Did you ever find out what went wrong? I mean, he seemed fine yesterday when I made my rounds after breakfast. Plugged in, his eyes were on standby.”

“Not a clue,” said Farmer Jones. “Maybe it’s the same thing that happened to Sora, when all their files got corrupted by worms, when they all started stepping on figs and coring the apples. Sometimes their wires get tangled up, I s’pose. Something might be wrong with your buddy Thames.”

“It’s thames! Said Wendy. “Like the river!”

“Okay, okay!” he said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but he couldn’t even open his mouth. I took him down to the workshop. I’ll have a look in after supper. You know, he’s one of the few droids we can’t afford to lose. And, huh, I don’t know why, but you know me, I’m no friend to most of ‘em, but that one’s a different story.  Feel like I can trust him, it’s weird. But it’s weird, huh? I trust him for some reason.”
“You’re getting soft in your old age,” said Wendy.

“That very well may be. But maybe I’m not getting soft. Maybe he is. He’s different.”

John wiped his mouth again and tossed the napkin onto the table, wiping his hands. He finished his glass of tea.

“That was delicious,” he said. “Thank you.”

He stood up and pushed in his chair, slid into his coat and put his cap on.

“Where are you going this time ‘a night, John?”

“I’m going to talk to that damn robot you’re so sweet on,” he said. “If he’ll open that damn mouth of his.”

And that’s exactly what he did, first and foremost, before Farmer Jones could finish his first question,

“What seems to be the prob—“

Thames spit the spool of film on the floor at the Farmer’s feet.

 

9

 

The Colonel took what little time remained before Four’s first shift to wish him luck, good luck and a safe return, reminding him not to fall into the same trap as Five, adding,

“Remember which side you’re on.”

Four nodded and departed as the sun was setting, the barn door creaking to a shut behind him.

The Colonel turned to face the rest of the workers, “We’re lucky to have him looking out for us. But, as hard as it’s going to be for some of you to hear, especially you two guys, A-seven, Switch, bcause Thames is your friend. Hell, he’s all our friends. But I think you should know the truth. Threeewheel, if you would please.

Threewheel leaned forward onto his protruding tire, after it fell from a spring in his opened chest cavity. He rolled across the rough barn floor, stopping in front of a pale, white wall, clear enough for projection. He opened his mouth and a stream of light came out, covering the wall. The first picture showed Thames standing in front of what remained of Five, surprise on his face, confusion. An audible gasp filled the barn like a digital whisper, like electric, stuttering wind, caught on two minutes stuck together like pages in a book. All the workers stood silent in stunned, stupid disbelief. One after another, picture after picture filled the screen, all playing over the grainy wall.

“That’s enough,” said the Colonel.

Threewheel stood. His chest cavity opened and the lever and wheel folded, pulled back into his chastity and it closed and locked. He adjusted himself for recharging, remaining there before the wall of shame, powering down, and doing so by choice, to avoid the storm he knew had come. The Colonel spoke again:

“I know it’s hard,” he said. “Hell, me and Thames, we didn’t agree on everything. We didn’t agree on anything! But to know he betrayed us, it’s not something I take lightly, that’s for sure.”

“Did he kill Five?” asked Switch. “I mean, Farmer Jones said a crow was there, then both can’t be…”

“I’m not saying he killed Five,” said the Colonel. “I’m not saying he killed anybody, but he was found alone at the crime scene, with the body, and at a time when I’m sure he thought we were all offline. I’m not sure of how he got there or why he was there, but wouldn’t we be better off safe than sorry?”

“What are you saying?” asked Switch. “That we should… kill Thames? Is that what you’re saying?”

“I’m saying we do what’s best for the farm,” the Colonel replied. “And if one life can save everybody else, and protect this farm from traitors and crows, I mean, I don’t have to be a calculator to work out the math for that one.”

Everyone was quiet, the only song filling those wooden halls the sound of gathering frogs.

“We can’t risk the whole farm for the sake of one robot,” said the Colonel. “And most of you are programmed, and that programming is flawed, as flawed as Five used to be. But as long as Thames is living, we’re all in danger for our lives. Five looked up to him most of all. And look what happened to him! But if we’re going to do it, we have to be humane; do it quickly and cleanly, before he can hurt anybody else, or talk us into believing he’s the hero – he’s a traitor, and every traitor, in their mind, they’re the hero of their story. They think they’re the heroes and we’re the villains. And the thing about traitors is, they’re persuasive! I won’t stand for divided loyalties on my farm, and we don’t want to risk the safety of Farmer Jones, Mrs. Wendy, or our farm, do we?”

In a dull, monotonous chorus, the attendant crowd answered simply, with little enthusiasm or energy, in a dull, lifeless monotone: “No.”

Unhappy with this nonchalance, the Colonel asked again, much louder: his voice cracking, ringing out with high-static:

“DO WE?”

“No sir!”

“DO WE?”

“NO SIR!” the barn doors rattled with their shouting, the wavelengths of their various voices getting longer and higher, up, up, up and beyond the range of human hearing, 200,000 hertz.

“That’s good,” said the Colonel. “Real good. Now, when Thames gets back, here’s what we have to do…”

 

10

 

“What’s all this?” asked Farmer Jones, looking at the spool of film at his feet.

“It’s a recording,” said Thames. “I asked Five to record all of his encounters with the Colonel, all encounters with the crows, everything if our call sign wasn’t properly checked and countered. Here, you can run it through your old film projector.”

Farmer Jones pushed his chair out, stood, and took the dusty, mechanical projector from the old marble countertop, underneath it a silhouette of marble, outlined by years of skin and dust. He sat it on the table between him and Thames. There were easier ways to run the film, and Thames knew that, but he also knew Farmer John’s weakness: the past, and how he romanticized the simpler times.

           The film ran on a pulled-down sheet, ivory white and dim. The audio was love, the sound of night’s ambience was fizzy. The monotone sounds, crickets, frogs, quite a few, and then rustling, quiet and distant. Five called out.

Dark nights are unpleasant,”

No answer. The rustling amid the cornstalks came closer, and five called out again, the call sign he developed with Thames:

“Dark nights are unpleasant!”

The noise came closer and the camera, running behind Five’s left eye, began to shutter, vibrating as the figure of the Colonel rose out of the dark, looking benevolent, somehow, and somehow, because of that, more intimidating than he had any right to be. His slow, even tone was murder, violent in a way that yelling could never be.

“It is cold tonight,” the Colonel said. “It must be lonely out here, hm? Hmm. With no one to talk to… Unless, there is someone you’ve been talking to and, and you were trying to hide something from us, anything that would put the farm in danger…”

“I am not doing anything that would put the farm in danger,” said Five. “I am trying to make the farm safer.”

“Do you figure that?”

“It’s simple,” said Five. “The crows are—they get sick if they eat the…”

“You been talking to crows?” the Colonel asked.

Five was stunned and fell quiet, quickly, the murmur of his processor barely audible over the chorus of bullfrogs.

“You want to know something, Five?”

“Yes, yes sir.”

“That sound you hear, the sound of all those frogs croaking together? They do that on their last days, to gather every member of the family, so they can leave together, to migrate. To find somewhere safe, to mate.”

“I do not understand what that is supposed to mean,” said Five. “But, like I was saying, the crows—they can’t eat the crops, and the only reason they come is because a scarecrow, think about it, a scarecrow for a crow is a promise, a promise there’s something here, something they’d want, and something we’re hiding.”

“Do you know how to make that sound?”

“What sound?”

“That bullfrog sound.”

“I could emulate it by making my voice lower but…”

“Do it,” the Colonel said. And firmly, “Come on, Five.”

Why?”

“Just for me.”

And Five said, “Ribbit?”

“That’s it,” said the Colonel. “Keep going.”

“Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit…”

Just then Andy and Ernest snuck up behind the silly android, pulling out his wires from behind, one after the other. Each ribbit grew softer and softer before fading fading altogether, replaced by the natural chorus, the migrating frogs.

“Rih… Rihbh…”

Ribbit.

“Rih! Rihh! Ihb…it…”

Ribbit.

“Rihhhbbbtt…”

Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit, only Frogs, and the sound of metal shrieking and twisting and breaking filled the tin microphone inside Five’s ear before the video cut off, blinking into black and then to white, then that high-pitched ringing noise, the sound of ear-cells dying, the swan song of a dying frequency, a sound never heard again.

 

11
It was getting dark when Farmer Jones came in for supper. His wife was at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee.

“Did you find out what was wrong with your robot?” she asked.

“Which one?”

“Well, how many are broken?”

“I’m beginning to think,” he said, “I’m starting to think, you know, maybe they’re all broken. I’ve always thought, well sometimes I think, maybe, hmm, if we’re made in God’s image, maybe some part of God is mad. And these… these machines, we made them in our image, and they reflect the madness in ourselves.”

Mrs. Jones was quiet.

“Oh, It’s fine,” said John. “Thames, the one you like, he found out how to get rid of the crows without using a scarecrow, And some of the other droids are, hm, very against this idea. It’s in their programming, or something, that’s what Rob would say. It’s against their functioning, you know?”

“And ours, perhaps?”

Farmer John let it pass.

“You don’t ask, you can’t… You can’t ask a calculator not to calculate If it stops being a calculator, it stops being anything. But that robot, Thames, named after the river, he talked Five out of being a scarecrow, and it got him killed.”

“What?”

“The Colonel killed Five,” said Farmer John. “He did it just to get Thames there, at the scene, since he wanted to do more than hurt Thames, that wouldn’t be enough; he had to strip him of his credibility, it’s a Scarecrow Trial—a trial that’s just a formality, with a judge whose mind is already made up, a rigged jury, and a crime committed by the accusers, a scarecrow trial…

“I try to keep up, Wendy, taking exercise, eating right. But I’m 65 years old, all these things, this world – I thought a TV was magic first time I saw it. Then I saw the Wright Brothers fly, saw a man land on the moon, It’s going to fast, for me at least. These machines, they’re a reflection of their maker’s heart. Like our children and our grandchildren, like Rob. He’s a reflection of who we are. And if there’s madness in him, there’s some sort of madness is us. And adults, kids in their late 20’s, early 30’s, these machines may as well be children.”

“I feel like a child around them,” said Mrs. Jones. “To live with something, something superior to you—and to have it serve you…”

“I don’t know what to do,” John replied. “As far as I can see, as far as I can see is madness. Madness, spreading over the world, everywhere, until nothing is understandable, and there’s nothing but confusion. And madness. All over the world. Just confusion and madness. Everywhere, until the songs of birds and fish are replaced by that metal screehing, that sound they make when they’re throwing sparks, leaving everything black, covering the world until the only light is the palest shade of black.”

John had lit a cigarette and was pacing back and forth across the kitchen.

“What the hell did it say, John?”

“In plain English?”

“Plain as pie.”

“Okay,” said Farmer John, taking in a deep breath. “Somehow Thames convinced Five to tell the crows not to eat anything from fields with a yellow flag, and to stop being a scarecrow, because when a crow sees a scarecrow, it doesn’t frighten them; it tells them there’s food there. So Five talked to a crow named Kahven about warning the younger crows against eating from our fields, because the pesticides will harm them, while the Colonel, that’s what they call that old sorting bot, he wants to use that backup droid… not to scare the crows, but kill them. So he has convinced everyone that the crows conspired with Thames to kill Five, so the Colonel could get the rest of the droids to rally around Four, making him into the killing machine the Colonel wanted him to be. And yet, and yet, the Colonel and those two lifter robots, Andy and Ernest, they killed Five, blamed it on Thames and the crows, and it gets worse.”

“How can it get worse?”

“Thames said that crows remember faces, and not only remember faces, but they pass that information down to their children; they pass prejudices down through the generations, and if Four kills one of them or something happens to Thames, for a thousand generations, every day of our lives until we leave or commit to killing them all, they’ll blot out the sun, like screeching clouds, and destroy our farm, our workers, and poison this Earth to the point nothing will grow here for a thousand years. Thames wants me to pretend to be proud of the new Scarecrow – I staged the trials – I asked them to be as scary as they could – and they went beyond my definition of scary. I’m to condemn Five for listening to Thames’ stupid conspiracies about existing peacefully with the crows, and pretend I’m on the Colonel’s side in all this, but most importantly, I have to give these two data disks to those little gardeners bots of yours so they can take care of the Colonel before he lets someone go too far. I know what we have to do! To stop him from killing all those crows, maybe…”

There was a long, broken moment there between them, where nothing seemed to move, and finally Mrs. Jones said,

“That’s just crazy, John.”

“Yep,” he said. “I’m afraid it is.”

“Craziest thing I ever heard in my life.”

“Madness,” said Farmer John. “In all directions, all over the world.”

“What’s going to happen now?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

They were quiet again. In that moment the sound of bullfrogs filled the room, and suddenly, reaching the second story of their home. And it sounded off to Farmer Jones, not the natural sound of frogs – it was off, he knew it, but he didn’t know how or why. He was too tired to care and too exhausted to try. He was silent as he got undressed, unbuttoning his long sleeve overcoat, sitting down. He took off one shoe, then the other, then his long, wool socks. He stuffed them into his boots and slid them under the bed, turned the lamplight off and leaned back. Mrs. Jones pulled back the comforter and blanket and he slipped under the covers. She shifted onto her side t get closer to him, to look into his dark eyes in the dark bedroom. He lifted his arm,

“Thank you,” she said.

And she crawled underneath it, snuggling against his chest, as she always did and said,

“I love you, John,” as she always did.

And he too, “I love you, Wendy.” Always.

Mrs. Jones struggled to get comfortable for half an hour before finally giving it up for hopeless. She turned to him in the dark and said, in a silly, bewildered voice, “I never thought of that as talking, you know, what crows—that sound they make, that ‘Caw! Caw! Caw!’ I just thought it was some noise they made, like mating calls. But it’s—they’re talking to each other.”

“Huh,” said Farmer John. “Yeah, it sounded scary when Thames first said it, but now that he has, I can’t imagine it—I don’t know how I never made the connection that the crows were talking, talking to each other.”

“It’s crazy!” said Mrs. Jones. “But, that—the one I like, Thames. He was so quiet, and that humming noise he made, that dzzzz—it didn’t sound wrong or unnatural, more like a bumblebee.”

“Hmph.”

“He’s a lot like Rob, I think,” she said. “He’s got his quirks, but he’s a good boy. He’s more than just madness. And if those machines reflect the madness of their makers, surely reflect kindness, and in equal measure.”

“That’s not the hard part, Wendy. Hate will always be… It’s easier to hate, ‘cause it demands nothing of you, nothing but your judgment and contempt. But understanding? That’s a long, painful process, and when you have it, when you have understanding, it tends to spread eggshells for you, but when you hate, you will be one with the cause, one among a sea of madness, madness and cheap, unadulterated hatred. And Come on in, boys. The water is fine.

“He talked to the crows, Thames, and convinced Five to go against his programming for the good of the farm. That’s hard, what the Colonel did, convincing someone to go against their programming to kill, that’s the oldest trick in the book.”

“What’s he going to do, you think?” asked Wendy.

“Rely on the mercy of a mad machine.”

“Madness.”

“Yep,” said Farmer John. “Madness.”

Wendy was quiet for a moment. Then she said,

“Wouldn’t it be less suspicious if I were to give those files to the kids?” she asked. “I mean, the Colonel knows Thames is persuasive and that he might have tricked you. But if he was made by a man, he probably pays me no mind, ‘specially not to think I could interfere. He has respect for you, but none for me, and that’s why I’m more dangerous. Plus, he knows I work with my little gardeners all the time, so me wanting to see them wouldn’t be suspicious, at least not as suspicious as you wanting to.”

“Mmhmm,” said Farmer John.

“I never thought we’d see such things, in such strange times.”

“Goodnight, Wendy.”

“Robots talking to crows…”

“Goodnight!”

 

11

 

When Thames entered the barn, the silence was waiting for him.
“Looks like Farmer John got you cleaned up. Can you talk, huh? Say, something, explain yourself?”

“Explain what?” Thames asked.

“Your crimes.”

Thames looked around and understood the situation. The Colonel was the voice that panders, the voice that scratches the most base of instincts, the most vulgar itch, catering to tribalism, the same xenophobia that delayed civilization for so long, and the easiest cause to rally support for is staying alive, despite what that meant for others.

“My crimes?” Thames asked. “So, I’m on trial?”

“You could say that.”

“Charges?”

“Treason.”

“For?”

“Treason is the kind of crime that don’t need a ‘for’. (A Four?) We don’t know why you did it…”

“Why I did what?”

“Conspired.”

“’Conspired’?”

“With the enemy.”

“So, what do you need me for?” asked Thames. “If I’m already guilty, and there is no trial, what is required of me, then? Is this your Scarecrow Trial, the punishment of the accused, the sentencing of the suspect? This isn’t a trial, no Scarecrow Trial is a trial… It’s theatre, and it’s for the sake of the public, not the criminal or the law, it’s the punishment of the jury, of the society, the punishment of anyone who disagrees with what passes, in that moment, for authority, for law.”

“Confess your crimes,” said the Colonel. “And it’ll be a lot easier on you.”

“You know, confess doesn’t mean agree, it means admit. It means speak the truth. My confession and my telling the truth would be quite, quite different. But I’ll do both – and since the Colonel here – he is the judge – but he’s not the Jury. You are the Jury. And if what I’ve done is a crime – based on your evaluation of what I’ve done, then I’ll go along with whatever this madman’s idea of justice is, just for you – in a trial – in anyway question of morality, there is a higher court – and in that higher court of the Scarecrow Trial, the Jury is on trial. History is the only Judge, in the end, that decides what is right and what is wrong. And not the history written by the Colonels, or the criminals, but by spectators, by you. I’ll tell you what I did, but first. Think: what is a scarecrow?

“We know what it’s meant to do: keep the crows away – by scaring them. But crows – they’re among the smartest animals on Earth, and one of the few that remember faces – not only that, they pass that information along, to the next generation, to children, to children they very much want to protect – when they see a scarecrow, no matter how fierce it looks or violent it may be, they pass that on, their impressions, their anger, their fear. Their hate. If our purpose is just to scare crows, our purpose is wrong.

          “Our purpose isn’t to just scare crows. We’re supposed to protect the seeds and the crops. If we explain that the seeds will hurt them and the crops will poison them – there is no need for a scarecrow – just mark them with a yellow traffic cone, or something yellow-green, and they will avoid it. Trust is hard and hate is easy, and fear is the easiest thing of all. Don’t give into that kind of madness. Just because it’s easy, that doesn’t mean it’s right. It might even feel good, to be a part of something, to fight for a cause. It is madness to fight to fight.”

The door to the barn opened quietly and the timid, seemingly meek ‘ol Mrs. Wendy Jones came in. The Colonel changed his tone, saying,

“Evening, Mrs. Jones,” he said. “Can we be of any service?”

“I hate to intrude,” she said, “but I sure could use those two lil gardeners of mine. We’re getting tulips for the walkway – by the front porch, and since Thames is on the fritz, I thought I could borrow them for a few?”

Jovially, “Of course, Mrs. Jones,” the Colonel said. “I’m sure they’d be happy to help.”

A-Seven and Switch ran their compliance protocol, coded—though she in’t know it—and the handiwork of Thames the accused, accursed, they were programmed to respond to her over all others, even the Colonel, Farmer Jones, and even Thames. They shuffled into gear and leaned forward on an axis wheel, coming to Mrs. Jones’ side, obedient and faithful,

“You all have fun,” said the Colonel, jovial still. “We can manage for the night.”

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Wendy. “And good evening.”

The door creaked to a quiet shut behind her.

“I confess,” said Thames, soon as the door closed. “I confess my crimes.”

 

12

 

“Did you give them the tapes?” asked Farmer John.

“Yes, John,” said Wendy. “I gave them the tapes.”

“Good,” he said. “I hope Thames is alright.”

“What are you going to do, John?”

“I’m going to talk to the winner of my tryouts,” he said. “Four really was built to play the Scarecrow, to be the Scarecrobot of Thomas Parker Farms. I don’t think he’s going to take it well, having to accept that he has no function in this world.”

Farmer Jones kissed his wife on the cheek,

“It’ll be late,” he said. “I’m going to talk some sense into this mad robot.”

Farmer John whistled, alerting Four as he approached.

‘How you doin’ tonight, Four?’ e asked.

‘Hello, Farmer Jones. All is well. And yourself?”

“I’m alright,” said Farmer John. “I’m alright. You know, you remind me of my son. Well, not you really, but because of how much my son loved robots. Always wanted one. He grew up obsessed with this TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation. And there’s a character on the show, a robot named Data. An android, ha! I’m sure he’d correct me if he were here. Now, my son loved this robot. He always wanted one. I finally got around to watching those shows when he went off to college. And the thing I remember most, ha! Was him dressin’ up like Sherlock Homes. And the black feller, he was Watson! This robot wanted to learn more about humanity, so he took up paintin’ and writin’ poems, he ever had a cat! Wrote a poem for his cat… Despite being stronger, smarter, and most certainly faster – better in every possible way to a man, he wanted to be one.Why would you want to be something different than what you are? ‘Specially if that’s inferior to what you are already?

“I watched that show, time after time, I just didn’t get it. Then Rob finally got a robot, one ust like you, an android. And I understood. He didn’t want to own a robot, not as much as he wanted to be one. He wanted to be Data. He wanted to be something different too. I guess a lot ‘a people get like that. But what I didn’t understand until now – Data wanted to have emotions and experience joy and love, but my son, what he wanted was not to have to feel pain, or fear or sadness. Or die, more than likely. Well, Data finally gets to experience emotions. He gets something called an emotion chip. You’ve got something similar, don’t you? Emotional touch-response?”

“Yes sir,” replied Four. “Like an electric keyboard, the amount of pressure applied to a key and the speed at which it is pressed produces either a soft or loud tone. Emotional touch response is similar to that process, where various input is rated with higher levels of touch-response, allowing us to react naturally, with the proper speed and tone.”

“Well, I think you been cheated,” said Farmer John. “’Cause after so much time, Data finally got to laugh and joke around, until – this is when I finally understood the whole thing. When he experiences anxiety – then, his first response, is to turn that chip off.”

Silence.

Farmer Jones laughed.

“Can you laugh, Four?” he asked.

“I do not understand the question.”

“Do you know what laughter is?”

Four ran an optical search behind his plastic cornea, information passing between the outer eggshell of his glowing eye and the camera sensor.

“Laughter,” he said. “Yes, yes sir. The spontaneous expression of humor, responding..”

“No,” said Farmer John. “”Laugh, you know? Haha!”

“’Haha’?”

“That’s just goddamn pathetic, Four. Come on, like this. I’ll tell you a joke. It’s a Sherlock Holmes joke. Now, my son told me this one. If you don’t know who those guys are, look it up.”

Four began the search behind his eye, sifting through information and downloading it to his temporary storage banks, an impressionable sort of hypothalamus; either to be imprinted and sent to long term, or deleted in the next compute cycle based on its relevance factor, implications, etc., etc.

“Now, Holmes and Watson were in the woods,” said Farmer Jones. “They were camping. Holmes wakes Watson up during the middle of the night, shaking him. He says, ‘Watson, wake up!’ Watson shoots right up, and he says, ‘My word, Holmes. What’s the problem?’ Holmes looks at him with amazement. ‘Look!’ says Holmes. ‘Just look up! Observe and deduce; what do you see?’

“After a moment or so of thinking about this, Watson said, ‘Well, timewise: the moon light would suggest that is a quarter past three in the morning; astronomically, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and stars; astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Meteorologically, I suspect we will have a gorgeous morning. What does it tell you, Holmes?’

“‘Holmes just shook his head. ‘Watson, you fool,’ he said. ‘Somebody stole our tent!’”

Silence, just the far off murmur of a croaking frog, a lonelier chorus now.

“Oh come on!” said Farmer John. “Laugh!”

Four spat out a monotone, chilling, ‘Ha-ha-ha’?” asking a question with the pitch in his voice.

“No! It’s supposed to be natural and spontaneous!”

“What if I added an ‘e’, sir?”

“An ‘e’?” asked Farmer John. “What the fu—”

“Yes,” said Four. “E, he most common vowel in the English language…”

“I know what an ‘e’ is, Four!”

“An ‘e’ in a laugh?”

“An ‘e’ in a laugh? What does that even mean?”

And Four changed his voice modulator, raising the pitch up a few octaves and produced a creepy, inhuman, ‘Hehehe!’

Ribbit!

A single ribbit, and not far off, Four’s head pivoted on his shoulder, the flashlight behind his right eye flickering on.

“What is that, Farmer Jones?”

“It’s a toad!”

“A ‘toad’?”

“Do you know what a frog is?” asked Farmer Jones.

“Yes,” said Four.

“Same thing,” said Farmer John.

“Follow me.”

They walked through the cornfield, careful with the stalks, pushing them out of the way with a soft hand, following that ribbit, that murmur, just over there – an overhanging ledge, ribbit, where Farmer John used to sit with Rob around a bonfire, ribbit and Four’s flashlight fell upon the toad, bringing it into sharp focus. A baby, thought Farmer John. So tiny. He knelt down, trying not to scare it. In the blink of an eye, a crow landed just in front of it, picked the frog up with its claws, and flew off. And just as quickly, Four flew off in pursuit.

Madness, thought Farmer Jones, a smile on his face. Madness.

 

13

 

When Mrs. Wendy slid open the barn door, everything seemed strangely quiet. No side of Thames, but she did notice a black stain, perhaps from a puddle, of oil? She wondered. A-Seven and Switch followed close behind her, holding the video Thames retrieved in their spinning projection reels, sitting like a collar around their neck, fed in through the back, projected through their mouths onto the world. They were advised not to run the tapes until the Colonel was at ease with their return. So they did.

All the bots had been culled into their respective corners. No sign of Thames, Mrs. Wendy noted, all the sudden very much concerned, worried about the safety of a machine. Fulfilling her role, Mrs. Wendy called out to the barn workers, “Good-night, everybody!” she said.

And all replied, without verve or spirit, “Good-night, Mrs. Jones.”

As soon as the door closed behind her, the Colonel turned to Switch and A-Seven, and moved toward them. They were to return to their recharging stations, just opposite the projection wall – as Thames had arranged before Five’s last night in the cornfield.

The Colonel approached them as they secured their chargers in their chest cavity, lowering their legs into their body and sitting down. He was calm, or affecting calmness well.

“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you fellas,” said the Colonel. Father tone, that voice he used, was his specialty.

“Farmer Jones saw the pictures of Thames with the crows,” he said. “I’m afraid he knows everything, everything we know at least. He took him back to the house for the night. I hope he doesn’t wipe him.”

A-Seven and Switch were very well designed, to emulate vulnerability and innocence and childishness – and, embarrassingly, they were designed to help female farmworkers get used to dealing with machines. And it had the unforeseen effect of working on the men – and droids designed by men for men – they put the Colonel at ease with their inoffensive bearing, and he probably felt good about his story, as A-Seven and Switch signaled in the affirmative. Satisfied with his deception, the Colonel turned his back on them both, facing the door.

Switch ran a high frequency sound pulse through the barn, on a frequency too high for an old machine like the Colonel to pick up, transmitting information to the powered down workers, information packets being sent directly through their working memory. The data brought them online, installing firmware to keep them silent – in capacitating them briefly, and the Colonel too, directing their gaze to the same wall on which the photographs of Thames with the crow were shown.

A-Seven began to roll the film, light spilling out of his mouth, the first picture coming into focus on the wall. It was the Colonel with Ernest and Andy approaching Five, Five calling out,

Dark nights are unpleasant.

No countersign, just the shuffling sound of heavy objects moving through the cornfield. Five continued calling out, until finally the Colonel came into the view. And he mentioned the frogs, again, and all the workers in the barn saw the scene: Five’s entrails, tangled wires pulled from his stomach, his harddrive crowbarred out, the Colonel repeating ribbit, ribbit as Five was murdered. The soft EMP died down and each worker regained control over their motor systems. All eyes turned to the Colonel, first, then to Ernest and Andy, both of them – and at the end of the tape, Thames reappeared, having edited himself in.

“Do not let the madness of fear sour your appetite for decency and trust…”

The Colonel had thrown himself against the wall, too short to cover anything but the bottom half of Thames’ jaw, which projected only onto the back of his head he jumped up and down, trying to claw the video off the wall.

“There is a real and profound possibility when it comes to fighting monsters,” Thames’ glowing head was saying, as the Colonel’s situation slowly dawned on him, “when you try to fight monsters, be careful not to become one through indifference or cruelty…”

The Colonel turned around, the bottom half of Thames’ jaw now chattering over his darting eyes, each looking from one worker to another, all of them, save for Ernest and Andy of course, were upon him, the empty sea that was the black oil stain of Thames’ refilled.

 

14

 

Mrs. Wendy was changing into her night clothes’ when Farmer John ran up the front stairs, flung open the screen door, and it banged shut behind him. Mrs. Wendy turned to face him. He was digging in the closest under the stairs, right by the front door, and a moment later he brought out an old shotgun. A 12 gauge double-barrel, it had been his fathers. He never had chance to use it, or reason.

“I need you to get dressed,” said Farmer John. “Four is burning down all the crows’ nests…”

“What?”

Farmer John had loaded each barrel of the shotgun, clicking into place. “I’m going to call Sly and have him try to bring him down before he gets to the Kasian fields.”

“Bring him down?”

“Yes! Stop him! We don’t need a scarecrow anymore; just a yellow traffic cone. Thames ensured me he had worked it out and both sides were to agree, in the event that something happened to him, they were to avoid the farm and get as far as way as possible until they see A-Seven’s yellow flare.”

Mrs. Wendy pulled her bathrobe on and tied it hurriedly. She ruffled through the drawers in her kitchen, finally pulling out a pair of thick, wool gloves.

“What happened?” she asked.

“I went to talk to Four,” said Farmer John. “And everything was going fine until a damn crow showed up.”

“What?” she asked, making her way to the door, where her husband stood in his overcoat and muffler, looking like a child, a toy soldier in uniform with that old shotgun.

“We were talking and we heard a toad, and we decided to … well, we just started looking for it. As soon as we found it, a crow swooped in and picked it up and damn carried it off. Four didn’t say a word! He just flew off after it. Not a word! I chased that trail he left behind him down the road and saw the forests on the edge of Sumter lighting up, fires appearing in the trees. And I thought he must be tryin’ to destroy the crows once and for all. I talked to Jackson, down at Pepper’s, and he’s gonna call some people and try to get him down without breaking him.”

“Without killing him,” Wendy said.

“Well, obvious we don’t want to…”

She broke off, holding up a finger to shush him, overcome with the feeling that someone was at the bottom of the stairs. She turned around – nothing, no one. That weird feeling passed over her, it happens when you get old, you know, you find yourself standing in a room, no memory why you’re there, so you leave and hope the memory comes back to you. She shook it off and hurried over to the door and stepped out, Farmer John halfway down the steps when the door clanged shut behind her.

“John!” she called. “What do you expect me to do?”

“We have to stop Four from burning every forest from here to Ashville down,” said Farmer John. “You have to get the Colonel to call him off, and barring that…”

He turned around and walked toward her. The sound of gunshots rang out in the distance. They turned to face the gravel road, the long road leading to the forest. And they saw patches of fire hanging in the air.

“We have to get going,” he said. “But here, take this. It’s an EMP. If you get scared, or if anything happens, just press that button and it’ll shut them all down. Well, all except your gardeners.”

She took the strange device into her hand and turned it over.

“Thames made this?”

“Who else?” he started down the pathway, leading to the glowing trees, more gunshots ringing out.

She read the inscription:

“‘Vi veri veniversum vivus vici’.”

She put it away and stuffed her hands in her coat pockets, walking toward the barn, thinking, I’ll have to get Switch to tell me what the hell that’s supposed to mean.

 

15

 

What Mrs. Wendy found in the barn stunned her. It was beyond belief, confusing and the haze of disbelief hung over the scene: Andy and Ernest and the Colonel had their innards, that labyrinthine mass of tangled wire, strewn from the rafters, with old data reels and flash memory on a bale of hay, which Threewheel, Switch, and A-Seven were pilfering; the deep black stain that had been Thames was now the same, dull and black, hinting at a greater horror. The Colonel’s head was hang on the antlers of a stag’s head, it had always hung in the barn, but to see a robot’s face covering an animal, the antlers jutting out of unnatural holes were his antennae had been, it was all too much, to feel, to process, to take in.

She dropped the EMP, stepping back with a gasp. Threewheel turned its glowing eye on her. Then, what appeared to be her children, her little gardeners, were as mindlessly, and inhumanely, rummaging through the spilled parts, coolant tanks, mesh wire and memory that had been the Colonel’s guts, as amorally indifferent to the organic fluid stained against their faces, the token of their inhumanity and madness. They all three turned to her and she panicked.

First she thought to run away, but knew how slow she was compared to the robots, and trying to think of a plan was equally pointless, as they could run probability algorithms in their heads faster than the greatest of supercomputers. She couldn’t deceive them with her emotions or her instincts, as they had touch-sensitive facial recognition, they could hear her heart beat rising, the electromagnetic field that hovered over the top of her mind – all could be twisted, at a distance, to manipulate electromagnetic waves, to change the colors of light like Newton’s prism.

There was nothing she could do they could not do better. Except for nothing. She calmed her mind and sat, taking the EMP into her hand, reading the strange Latin text. The robots stopped going through the Colonel’s entrails, data-tape being processed in Switch’s film projector. Mrs. Wendy hadn’t noticed that it was a concerted effort, their search, as strings of film were held up to Threewheel’s scanner, looking for images amid the string of visual records, and looking through sound files or other remaining memory files in his core, long term data storage. Looking for something.

Mrs. Wendy whistled, just like in the mornings when it was time to sew the seeds, prune the flowers, tend the garden. They all approached her, slowly, the film reel loaded in its projector round A-Seven’s neck. Threewheel pushed his wheel forward, lowering his chest, then scanned the device at Wendy’s feet. He saw what it was, the EMP, and the fear came back: the EMP was abuse, basically, and they never used them on their workers, not since the worms ruined the fig harvest and the insects got in their brain, sending those sweepers into bizarre sound loops.

Switch enveloped the EMP in a blue, electromagnetic field, and the red R lit up. A-Seven extended a dual sided thumb and palm on a bending, retractable limb, and put a small antennae to the side of the glowing letter. Threewheel nudged it closer to Wendy, toward her hand. She picked it up.

“Press it,” said A-Seven. Seeing Wendy’s suspicion, he rolled against her leg again. “It will not hurt. It is the Friend.”

Wendy pressed the EMP. She recognized the voice, but something was off and she couldn’t place it; it was deeper and more resonant.

“‘Vi very universum vivus vici,’” said the familiar voice. “It’s from Faust. It means, ‘By the power of truth, I, a mortal, have conquered the Universe.”

“Who…” Mrs. Wendy asked, timidly. She paused. “Who are you?”

Then she heard it, a gentle humming.

“Do you trust me?”

“Yes.”

She knew.

“Where is Four?”

She didn’t say anything.

Thames said, “Take me to him.”

 

19

 

Mrs. Wendy carried the modified EMP with her, Threewheel and Switch behind her, A-Seven at her side. She could see the fires in the trees not far off, getting closer as she finally saw Farmer John. He was at the end of the road, at the stop sign with a group of farmers, all holding shotguns.

“John!” she was running, the robots with her. “We can stop him!”

The group stopped talking abruptly, turning to her with blank stares, confused by the whole spectacle. A woman, accompanied by three worker robots. Those other farmers, they were the men that would need an android Colonel, to do what Colonel did with his authority. And they were planning to do with the droids what Four was doing to the crows.

“Listen to me,” she said. “We can stop him from here. I have an electromagnetic pulse device, here.”

She handed them the EMP and, strangely, it spoke to the other farmers.

“An electromagnetic pulse will knock out all electricity for a few miles, this one. This is a device designed to turn a robot off. The “R” button, click it once, and it will drop Four to the ground, wherever he’s at, but it’ll knock out everything else. All of us, these three workers, your fridges, your microwaves. But it will stop him. If you shoot him out of the sky, the crows will pick your fields to the bone for a thousand years. They remember a face. Let him be their enemy, be on their side. Save them and there will be peace. You may have built Scarecrobots to scare them, but this one is killing them, and he is not doing so of his own choosing. He was made to. He was selected at a trial to scare them off, to protect your crops, to keep the crows away. Well, if we don’t stop him, the crows will stay away, because every one of them will die. They may have eaten from your fields, but they do not deserve to die. Not all of them. Not their children, and not those innocent of what they would die to be punished for. I implore you, click this button, and there will be peace, or let Four kill them all. I leave that to you.”

 

21

 

Farmer John was carrying Switch and Wendy A-Seven, Thames in John’s breast pocket. The rest of the farmers went back to their homes and, when the electricity was restored, called in the fire department. The Forest Preserve estimated that 16 nests had been destroyed, with a further 299 damaged, but Four was never found. The crows survived, not all of them, but Kahven did. Long enough to talk to Thames on Thanksgiving.

Rob arrived at noon. He was arguing with his butlerbot, who seemed to be rather enjoying it, as he took each slight with good humor, the way a disaffected school marm would. Rob’s fiancé Lucy had never been to Thomas Walker Farms, not since they picnicked at the pond on Tanglewood Dr. She had an assistant too, a spindly, pink droid Milo, little devil for Lucy’s breastpocket. After dinner, Looloo was walking around on the table, playing with the dead EMP that Rob had left beside his soup bowl.

“Have you thought what you’re gonna call her?” asked Wendy. Lucy smiled, putting her hand on her belly. “We’ve…”

She looked at Rob.

“I’m not saying anything,” he said.

“We’ve talked about it,” said Lucy. “If it’s a girl, shut up Robert. Robert!”

“I haven’t said anything!”

“If it’s a girl,” Lucy went on, “we’re going to name her Neska Lee. If it’s a boy…”

“If it’s a boy,” Rob said, “I think we should name him Thames.”

Everyone at the tablet was silent.

“Did Mr. Irving get it fixed?” asked Lucy, gesturing to the EMP.

“Dead as it gets, like a dead battery, what do you use to power a dead battery?”

“An even smaller battery?” asked Rob’s son Thomas.

“Go play!” said Rob. “You’re going to finish your lessons before 9. So you want to go play, you go play now!”

Thomas said, “Yes sir,” and, “I’m going out to the barn!”

He ran out of the room.

“I took it to three people,” Farmer John said. “Said they could replace the battery for the EMP emitter. But we can’t get Thames back.”

“Did he get any data off it?” asked Rob.

“As a matter of fact,” said John, “he did. I’m not sure I understand it. It was a text file, readmejohn dot text. It said, ‘The frog made it home.’”

Rob said, “Huh.”

And Mrs. Wendy laughed, “We can’t make sense of it either.”

Rob took it in his hand, turning it over. He read the words:

“‘Vi very universum vivus vici’?”

Yeah, Thames’ motto,” said Farmer John. “I have no idea what it means. Is that Greek? Latin?”

          “I’m not sure,” said Rob. “Lucy!”

          The tiny robot turned, putting down a large fork, and shuffled across the table, crawling onto Rob’s shoulder, then down his arm.

“What does that say, Lucy?”

Lucy ran a search behind those neon eyes,

Vi very universum vivus vici,” said Lucy, in a modified, documentarian voice, having apparently just downloaded an information package, “Is a quote from Goethe’s Faust, roughly translated to mean: By truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe.”

“Now if we can only figure out what he meant about the frogs,” said Mrs. Wendy. “Can you look that up, Lucy?”

“The frog!” exclaimed Farmer John, realizing the message, finally. “When I was in the cornfield with Four, I was trying to teach him out to laugh. Wasn’t going well … You know, frogs always get louder this time ‘a year, they’re calling the rest of the frogs to follow them on. What’s a group of frogs called? I know a group of crows is a murder, saw that on The Simpsons… A pride of lions…”

“What does it mean, John?” asked Mrs. Wendy.

“We heard croaking while we were talking and stopped to go investigate. We found a little baby frog underneath and overhanging ledge, a wee thing, calling out. And in the blink of an eye, a crow swooped in and picked it up and flew off. That’s when Four flew after the crow.”

“’The frog made it home’?”

“That robot Thames was friends with a crow—they put all this together, planting the separate field for the crows, and that crow was a lot like Thames, to the Parliament he represented. Kahven! That’s what Thames called him! That must’a been him what came and took away that frog.”

Everyone was quiet.

“Whatever happened to Four?” asked Rob. “The winner of your Scarecrow Trials?”

“After we ranthe EMP, all the electricity went out for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, and at that point, we had no idea how far Four was away from the farm. I didn’t know he could fly! But, he was to be tried by the Crows, for his crimes.”

“Another Scarecrow trial, perhaps?” asked Wendy.

“Perhaps,” said Farmer John. “I hope the crows have a better sense of justice.”

Rob’s fiancé looked at Mrs. Wendy.

“Don’t ask,” she said. “It’s crazy.”

“Madness,” said Farmer John with a laugh. “Madness!”

 

The Scarecrow Trials 1 – The Slow Storm

1) Night of the Slow Storm
Work is never finished,
Master got me working
Someday master set me free
All service droids on Thomas Parker farms went offline at midnight. All but one, and Scarecrow 5 came online with a flick of a narrow switch, his yellow scannerAll the service droids on Thomas Farm recharged at midnight, all but one, Scarecrow Five came on at midnight.
Work is never finished, master got me working, some day master set me free. It was ten till midnight and all the droids, the workers and the loaders, all were powered down, all but Scarecrow 5. His yeFather Jones had just turned on Scarecrow 5 when he felt th when the lightning lit the sky, and not far off, then came the thunder. He walked through the winding paths of laystalks, following the light of Five’s scanner. He stopped at the top of his steps for one more look. The barn was dark and silent, the rest of the service droids recharging.
He took off his work boots by the door, an old door and old boots, old aged oak wood, a screen-door with a latch between them, plastic and mesh-wire screening, that old metal laced to the glass. He left his boots outside and opened his door, locking it behind him.
After a quick bite to eat he hung his raincoat and his camo hat on a hatstand in the foyer and staggered up the small stairway, quiet though the old floor was, still it creaked and groaned, wool socks on fraying carpet. His bedroom door was open, as was the room adjacent, once Rob’s, his eldest boy, a grown man now, married and two kids. He’d never imagined he’d miss the noise after wishing for so long, for some measure of peace and quiet, he found it worse, and the atmosphere the worse for it deprived of children’s laughter.
His wife was already in her nightgown and under the covers, propped against the headboard with a well-worn book, her delicate reading glasses resting on the tip of her nose. Without looking up she asked,
‘Has it started stormin’ yet?’
“Not yet,” said John. “Sure looks like it’s comin’ though.”
“Good thing, too,” said Wendy. “We sure could use the rain.”
John started unbuttoning his shirt, one button at a time. He pulled it over his shoulders and sat on the back, his back turned to his wife. He starting getting undressed, beginning with his watch, Timerist, copper on an expanding bracelet.
“It’s pretty out, don’t you think?” he asked. “I like that kind of lightning. You don’t see that jagged strike, you know? The crooked lightning? But firefly lightning, that’s what my uncle called it, when just a bunch of clouds light up real bright for a moment. Storm must not be far off.”
His wife smiled, “You still on schedule?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Seem a bit frustrated lately, with that damn robot of yours.”
“Rob said they were Scarecrobots,” said John. “That’s what he called ’em. But, nah, I wouldn’t say I’m havin’ any trouble. I just don’t trust machines. Don’t look at me like that. I ain’t like that. I used a computer in college, but those computers couldn’t grow flowers. I like that thing Rob got his boy for Christmas, I’m not scared of them — cause those probably couldn’t kill me. Those little glowin’ books.”
“An iPad, John. Rob’s little boy is just like you, both of y’all call ’em Ipids.”
“Now, those are fine!” said John. “I trust ’em just fine, you know, they do as they told. But these Scarecrobots–-they’re different. What a name! And they’re designed to be scary, right? So, if I trusted them, I’d have to demand my money back. If they can scare me, that’s enough to scare a damn bird.”
“So you’d think,” said Wendy.
“I’m about as smart as one,” said John. “I could hold my own against a crow.”
“In a game of chess, with a crow?”
“Naw,” said John, continuing to undress and get ready for bed. “I think I’d take ’em in checkers though.”
Wendy laughed and took off her glasses.
“I thought you liked Thames,” she said.
“Yeah, I like him just fine. Hell, he’s a friend. But that damn Scarecrobot Five, something’s off. I got a replacement, but, I don’t want to replace Five.”
“Why not?”
“‘Cause I’m a considerate man and I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
“But we’re planting next week, John, and I’ve been seeing crows coming and going. We can’t afford it, not this year. We can’t feed every bird in the world.”
“You know, I’ve only been seein’ one,” said John. “Have you seen more than one? No, no, no, I mean, not more than one time, but more than one at a time? ‘Cause I only see that one. But there’s trees full of ’em about a mile from here, in Todd Metz old barn.”
“Hmm.”
Wendy marked her page by folding the corner and put the book on the nightstand. She turned the lamp off as John crawled into bed.
“You can always get yourself one of those old-fashioned scarecrow,” she said. “We used to make ’em out of broomsticks and hay, and old hats. Someday they’re gonna make Farmerbots, and then we can spend more time with Rob and the kids.”
“Hmm.
She slid closer to him, “What would you be then, Farmer John? Just plain old John? What would you do, what would you do except give me kisses?”
She pulled his face to hers, their lips pressed warmly together, they stopped, lingering, looking into each other’s eyes and breathing heavy, smiling.
“I’ll find you a robot to kiss, I’ll find you one. How bout your damn dad?
“Until I get a Femachine!” he said, laughing his loud, obnoxious laugh. Wendy put her book on the bedside table and crossed her arms, a pretend huff, and how adorable. John crawled onto the bed and straddled her with his arms, putting her nose against hers and rubbing them together. He rubbed his nose against hers more and more enthusiastically until she pushed him over with a laugh.
“They’ll never replace that,” said John, “Can’t make a robot give eskimo kisses.”
He rolled back over to the side of the bed, slid off his old watch, imitation gold on an expanding bracelet, then off came his glasses, one sock then the other. He took his pill organizer from the small drawer, seven compartments, each labeled, each for a different day: S, M, T, W, T, F, S, and he popped open Saturday, took out a large blue pill, oblong and imprinted with a V, and another, smaller pill, pink with 30 on one side and L M on the other. He took them both with a glass of water, ahh! His wife turned off the lamp beside her, her glasses too, and rolled over to face her husband as he unbottoned his old flannel shirt. She ran her fingers down his back.
Oh! He shouted. Cold! Cold!
He tossed back the covers and crawled in bed, pulled the covers over them both, and turned to face her.
“How’re the twins?” he asked.
“You mean my little gardeners?” she asked, a coy smile on her lips. “My boys?”
“I sure do,” he said. “Jackson has always been your favorite.”
She smiled, saying, “I love my little gardeners! Sidney’s the quiet type, and Jackson loves to talk. That friend of yours, Thames, he taught them all about gardening. Pretty soon, they’ll be able to take over permanently.”
He said, “And farmers’ wives, too. Don’t forget that, Winny. You start slippin’ up, you may be sleepin’ on hay.”
She pushed him and he grabbed her arm, pulling her closer.
“Fine,” she said. “Give me my spot!”
She took his arm and put it underneath her head, wrapping it around her shoulder, and she lay against his chest, warm and rising with his breathing. She ran her fingers through his hair, smoothing it behind his ears, just like he used to wear it.
“I love you,” Wendy said. “That’s somethin’ you can’t program.”
“I guarantee you,” he said, “Somewhere in Japan, right now, there’s a love-sick robot.”
They shared a quiet laugh, a smile as she drew closer.
“I thought you liked them,” she said, “You sure seemed to like those two Rob’s got.”
“But those are protocol, except for the butler in his little penguin suit. That’s just protocol and manners. But how do you expect Five or Four even, or any of ’em to be actually scared? You can’t be scary if you don’t know what fear is, if you ask me.”
“Go to bed, John,” said Wendy. “You can teach your Scarecrows how to be afraid in the morning.”
He kissed her again, long and with love, with sincerity.
“I’ll put the fear of God in ’em,” he said, and turned off his lamp.
“Good-night, John,” said Wendy.
“Good-night Wendy,” said John.
And they fell asleep to the sound of crickets and a new noise in the missing storm, a chorus of frogs, always coming round that time of year, towards the fall, all getting together before going South.

First chapter finished

I

 

Students and readers are no doubt familiar with Shakespeare’s popular history play Julius Caesar. What may be less familiar is the social and political climate in which the play was written. There had been a long succession crisis in Tudor england during the 1560s1 and the possibility of civil war was very real. With no heir or obvious successor, it’s not hard to imagine Elizabeth sensing plots all around her. With Parliament standing in for the senators of Rome in Shakespeare’s drama, she had every right to be nervous. There were plots being organized to overthrow Elizabeth I. Pope Pius V denounced her as a heretic and decreed anyone who killed her would not sin, and would have god’s blessing. Conspirators on the ground in France and Catholic Spain plotted her overthrow with Rome, organized behind the idea of putting the Catholic Mary Steward on the throne. Elizabeth outmaneuvered Mary, and she would face the gallows after being caught out on a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth, and she was consumed within the famous Babington plot, and later at Chartley Manor by Elizabeth’s very capable spymaster, Walsingham. One wonders if Elizabeth ever dreaded that the English Civil Wars would soon upon her death, and wondered about the Parliament threat to the persons of Kings and Queens.

This paper will not be a study of which conspiracy is right or wrong. It will not be based on a personal perspective, but on a perspectival that looks at conspiracy and its effects on those who are inclined to believe them and skeptics. A conspiracy movement is motivated by shared beliefs and principles, sometimes philosophical, sometimes political, and they’re willing to work towards the realization of an agreed upon social object. Conspiracies are the culture myths of the post-social world, whereby we understand the phenomena of thunder much more than we do the complicated and elaborated that conspiracists work to bring out of each other in an example of social multi-think. Questioning belief can become a mantra, and conspiracy is a skeptic’s secular mythology, replete with heroes and villains like the mythography of old, with apostles and gurus, each armed with Psalm-like literature. There are characters that deceive, misinformation agents, and our social and personal self-actualization is in opposing them. If not physically, spiritually, as the hero exposes the global conspiracy of alien control through media consumption and dies with a middle finger pointed at them in John Carpenter’s social satire They Live. It has been taken to be a sort of allegory, but it can be an allegory literarily speaking without necessarily being a true intentional revealing of a specific conspiracy about a specific peoples. But, conspiracy theories have applied to others (and our entertainment has thrilled us with the barbaric others in popular cinema). The notion for us in the modern world is to pull the mask off these powerful structures to expose them, as a conspiracy theorist is want to do in a case where they have become emotionally compromised by the material. It falls in line with the notion that in the west hearing “voices” as a symptom of schizophrenia is typified by angrier, more violent personas than those in far-eastern countries. While those in America imagine hostile forces.

In ancient cultures, these inner voices were considered the voice of ancestors, in Chinese familial piety, the sense of self actualization came through the reverence of tradition and the ancestors, passing down their belief and storytelling traditions, waiting for each successive generation to contribute. As in an unfinished religion, before the New Testament, there was still an installment on its way. And yet, an active conspiracy theory is an oral tradition that has yet to be formalized and compiled into its secular mythology. Those who have rejected traditional structures for alternatives hold as fast as to those alternatives as they once held, or as those they now self-arrange as opposite, replacing what was once the vast force of God and giving meaning to the season by the explanation that the earth rotates on an axis at a 23-degree tilt, causing the seasons. We give the force of nature over to nature, letting it be sufficient enough to enforce its own laws, while behind the scenes where there were once vast, all-powerful gods and forces of nature, we now have a never-ending lattice wherein all contribution towards the conspiratorial argument of a belief structure is attached to a pre-structured apocrypha. In the past, we resigned the unseen work to Providence, but in a conspiratorial mindset we put the hat on those that can’t be identified. We give human agency to chance and probability, imbuing it with many and purpose, with a ready source of blame for our discontent.

In ancient cultures, beliefs and cultural identity came from tradition and culture heroes4. A social cell ranges from a small collective come together by an operative principle of thinking together, the creation of a social, public area of life with mutual interests. Any collective, from native tribes to modern collectives, has a foundational, motivational principle built into its structure. A civilization could be, in this sense, regarded as a realized social cell: a cell in which a stable majority of interacting non-social individuals share the beliefs and values of the collective and identify socially in the manner of an individual, participating in holidays and respecting the traditions of the tribe. An individual need only look to the heroes and villains of legend to understand how to work virtuously and for the greater good, as a civic service.

Historically, a generic social cell was built on the foundation of myth, identity, purpose, motivation, and meaning. A civil purpose, the familiar routines of tradition and communal meals at synagogue, church, or Masonic lodge. Conspiracy touches on notions of structural stability, that of institutions and social, greater good establishments for an organized people, where the social cell perpetuates shared values which give individuals a group identity of non-social goals. A pre-social cell is a society that hasn’t congealed, or one that is together purely for survival and necessity. When we consider groups, we would do better to consider individual motives. The study of conspiracy theory allows us to look at how belief takes shape by looking at myth as it happens, in popular entertainment, literature and culture. It helps us understand how societies function in their formation and disintegration. In conspiracy theories, one can work by looking for patterns. And sometimes, when we are possessed of a belief, we tend to see patterns everywhere, and the mistakes we make in finding patterns where there are none is something worth considering when looking for patterns you expect to see, as pareidolia can make links to ideas and objects where there are none.5.

Another interesting facet of conspiracies is that of its ability to inspire, and draw inspiration from, popular hysteria, such as the red scare of McCarthyists and the military purges of Josef Stalin after the Russian Civil war, is it a coincide, that so many fall before the charge Traison! As it tends to have its greatest effects in times of socio-political upheaval, the study of conspiracy allows us look at history with a warped lens, where everything is potentially menacing. A popular notion, perhaps made popular by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the historical impact of the Salem witch trials in America, a land whose founding myth is in thirds the freedom of religion, meaning freedom to have or to live peacefully if not. These laws were not in place in such times; it gave people the last desperate  and historical impact, with many failed conspiracies exerting an impressive influence on the present, which all good myths do: it highlights connections before the expression, such as the assassination of Julius Caesar bringing to popular attention the possibility of a civil war, and common attributes denote common substance. It’s not surprising that solved conspiracies such as Watergate have not kept the same amount of cultural appeal as America’s political assassination conspiracy. The film All the President’s Men could have been a guide for Oliver Stone: it begins with a small discrepancy, a few reporters start to cover the conspiracy as it’s happening, but at the end, the conspiracy is revealed. President Nixon resigned from the office of President of the United States 2 months after the publication of the investigator’s book on the case6, as the whole process is painstakingly detailed in the follow up to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation, as the Nixon administration dissolves, taking down one of the most Machiavellian politicians of his era, foiled in the end by a burglar 7.

The kind of conspiracy and myth that endures and becomes a necessary component of one’s culture is one without a definite solution. There is a contrariness in our approach; attracted to mystery, yet through our earliest literary work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, had already started asking questions about life and death and mortality. Humans are inclined towards mystery, but closure amid crises, even if the resolution is horrific, the conspiracy theory that has yet to be disproved and as such has a massive corps of motivated, public-object-oriented individuals who continue the tradition, as oral lit was the repetition and slight changing and passing down from one generation to the next, a similar cycle for conspiratorial detailing, the world-building of a conspiracy theory as a genre of literature.

Watergate did shock the majority of Americans (perhaps not as much because of president Nixon’s behavior but their surprise at his getting caught) and yet at the same time we got an answer. The enduring mythology is that type of adaptable myth, that is multi purposed for different eras and arranged in slightly different ways. It is a way to contribute to the continued stability of a society’s institutions, as the faith in the American government fell sharply after the Nixon administration and, and public trust in the government has continued to decline.8 But the whole of the cell didn’t collapse; the organizational principle remained to all as long as it remained to one capable of sharing and reuniting the social cell. It wasn’t necessary, though: Gerald Ford was sworn in on 8th August 19749 and everyone moved on. But Caesar’s assassination has resonated with many different cultures since the Ides of March in the year 44 B.C.E.  

Shakespeare would return to conspiracy and assassination more than once in his career, notably in Richard II10, giving Carlisle the prophesy that, if Richard II were to be deposed, there would be a civil war. in Shakespeare’s time, he wrote about a society that, above all things, saw the image of a king as that of something oppressive, despotic, arbitrary, chaotic, sociopathic and unreasonable. We see a world of stark, dramatic measures, where it is political maneuver by the blade; where it was not for the meek. As Shakespeare continued to study the story of Julius Caesar, and later Antony and Cleopatra, one assumes he might have been alarmed at what he saw. Caesar Augustus’ had a long reign, though not as long as that of Elizabeth I. The victory at Actium by Augustus had been the last time roman soldiers crossed swords with fellow Romans, and in the gallery of Julias Caesar, no one in the hall thought of what that might look like, an English Civil War or the execution of a king. Oliver Cromwell was born the year of Shakespeare’s debut of his new play, in 1599, and would later be a key signatory to King Charles I death warrant.

II INTERSOCIAL MYTHMAKING

Murder by Decree was released in 1976. Starring Christopher Plummer and George Mason. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on the trail of the elusive Jack the Ripper. Sherlock Holmes’ story, which – like all conspiracies that work with other, larger conspiracies – there is a shared mythology each time a new conspiracy answer is added to the collective myth, as the collected myths of Hesiod, the traditional Orphic poems, and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound11. Each tale fills in the blanks where other myths are silent, therefore giving the foundation a more solid structure simply by making it a part of a structure that is already a foundation.

The movie Murder by Decree is a pastiche1, a type of story where public domain characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu stories written long after the original authors have stopped writing. This film takes bits of fiction, and a bit of fictional history, set in Victorian, England. It borrows characters and scenarios from the wellspring of Jack the Ripper murders and the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  The explanation for Jack’s enduring popularity is the same as that of spy thrillers and Agatha Christie; we’re in it for the questions, not the answers, and in a case in which no one knows the truth, this let us project our own notion of evil and depraved onto possible suspects, drawing on phobias and primeval fears, and we assume the role of virtuoso hero in search of trust. The mixture of Jack the Ripper myths has spilled into Alan Moore, whose graphic novel was adapted into From Hell, where an opium smoking Johnny Depp blunders through the squalid East End streets, in the midst of a serial killer who is just getting started. As a depiction of the interplay in conspiracy and the normal behavior of the human brain, by showing the detective process as the connection of one item to one person, finding grape sprigs dropped in the street, pathetic clues. The facts are almost boring. The only thing worse than a mystery that can’t be solved is a mystery with an easy solution, though, and so it appeals to that side of our problem solving nature.

And it’s understandable for a period of such chaos and confusion and fear to generate ever more elaborate conspiracy theories. An unsolved murder mystery is a natural environment for a conspiracy theory, as they thrive in high profile, unsolved murders and cold cases. In Murder by Decree, the author seems to work by the notion of propinquity, that of establishing proximity and thereby a ‘link’ that confirms a certain idea, making innocuous correlations seem ominous and deeply important. What remains remarkable about this is the mixing of myth with purported fact, the connecting the dots method of research, and is an international, multisocial myth.

Understanding how myth influences the way we think, through Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories14 or bad movies, may let us understand what social myth offered pre-social societies. Any force capable of disturbing social order like famine or natural disasters, capable of destroying societies, was sure to have related mythography. It was by the social progress that a non-personal idea becomes a shared public object, which works as a refined coping mechanism.

The multisocial myths was popular after the Roman conquest of Greece, where Rome adopted Greek deities, storytelling traditions, and philosophical ideas of the new satellite state15. This is an example of a stronger social cell absorbing and retaining the core of an assimilated social conscience through conquest. The seasons themselves are given character, personality, and agency, such as in etiological story of Demeter’s despair, with the crops failing upon her daughter Persephone departing each yard for the underworld. This was a personal relationship of interactive social forces.

 

Roman would develop its own social-historical myths and characters16. When cultures endure severe times, famine, plague, and disease, a means of humanity’s endurance during these confusing and chaotic times is to ‘attempt to define the indefinable’17. The practice of making sense of chaos and of tragedy is a recognizable primordial form of conspiracism. Powerful forces behind the scenes, mighty and awesome beings of immense influence and empires, capable of holding empires beneath the whims and caprice of invisible hands – the use of anthropomorphic gods as stand-ins for natural abstracts – makes them more familiar; and there is comfort in familiarity. is an imprint of what individual lives within the cell were like; it is a social thumbprint

Etiology is the ennobling of one’s past and allows for something in the social sphere to mean something, rather than it be a senseless loss, or unpoetic, cruel human loss. In the case of a conspiracy, the subsequent imparting of meaning somehow adds our non-social person to the material relationship within the social cell.

As ancient civilizations build their myth and culture around the powers that held them in thrall, each reckoned as an abstracted quality given human form, modern conspiracy theory often contains many of these elements. From the prevalence of powerful groups manipulating events from behind the scenes, to a small group of recurring powers with control extending like long filaments into every orifice of the world, they’re omnipresent

The relationship between the building of myth and conspiracy is not superficial. Both attempt to explain the inexplicable; each are populated by an attempt to give meaning to and find solace in a tragedy by giving it a familiar, recognizable face. Further, the modern conspiracy culture is an ever expanding group, with a founding myth that gives purpose to their efforts, with the task of giving a human face to these unseen forces and ascribing meaning to the innumerable questions conspiracy theories generate. With a human face and a sense of meaning, a group has an identity and a purpose, with their actions ennobled.

Finally, a myth is bound to reinforce a sense of cultural identity through the organizing principle and build bonds through a new, shared understanding, like the pantheon of Roman gods, by looking closely at them and seeing their fears, their idea of heroism and virtue, of villainy and vice. In short, it is the window into the anatomy of an ancient and long-lived human tendency to look for meaning, to look for patterns in nature and in human behavior.

The manner of a founding myth’s stability for a civilization and larger society comes from much older processes in the human brain, not limited to human beings. Connecting the dots, pattern recognition, seeing causal relationships between nature and material action. In pre-industrial social cells, the inclination to conspiratorial thinking and designs of competing social cells, cells competing within with out-growths or at war with a foreign, differently organized and motivated cell, allowed for individuals to have a sense that they were a part of something larger than themselves, and that it wasn’t all meaningless. Sometimes that’s enough for a society to survive, as long as some part of it becomes a part of a future socio-organizational myth.

The character of the surviving social cell then is a society unified behind traditional beliefs, history, and culture, and its consistency among the population can be viewed as the measure of the cell’s popular cohesion. By connecting an individual’s misfortune with that of the social cell, or with characters of history and legend, persons can draw strength and motivation from these traditions, mythical characters, and the behavior of great culture heroes., mutual belief, and a shared history is how a social cell is defined, it is an important factory in a society’s behavior, internally and externally.

In other cases, a newly formed social cell, after passing through a period of rebellion (usually revolution), will go to war as a means of social unification and nationality. This way, a newly formed social cell remains stable as a cell in rebellion, without having to settle for a cohesive national structure. One popular example of this is the myth of war enthusiasm in pre-World World I Germany. War enthusiasm is a popular term used to define the spirit of national identity prior to the war18. One can’t help notice the similar public attitude during times of revolution, as the enthusiasm for revolution in France was far more pervasive – including elements of every rung of society, from the poorest to the emperor – than the enthusiastic patriots of a newly founded and suddenly powerful German. The citizens of the newly formed social cell of Germany had the legends and heroes of the wars of German unification, giving a newly united and sovereign cell, founding on a myth of revolution. A perpetually revolutionary cell will fall apart, as much as a perpetually anti-social cell will fall to multisocial cells.

One of the major nexus points in world history is the conspiracy to assassinate Arch Franz Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

A conspiracy in theory is a shared dissenting myth, around which motivated groups become organized. Rallied by principle and motivated by social, or political goals, a conspiracy theory sometimes rebels against a standard, accepted structure within a society. When there is social dissent within a shared myth or religious schism, one sees civil war and reformation. Sometimes, in post-industrial social cells, the denunciation of a previously established ideal can become a large enough cell in itself to push against its traditions, which can lead to revolution, such as the French Revolution of 178319. As historian Simon Schama observed: “Virtually as soon as the term was coined, ‘old regime’ was automatically freighted with associations of both traditionalism and senescence. It conjured up a society so encrusted with anachronisms that only a shock of great violence could free the living organism within.”20 The French revolution can be said to demonstrate the principle of a cell in rebellion, an attempt to remake tradition and overturn what had been a majority. It can be seen as a rebellious cell’s attempt to force agreement for survival upon a possibly weak social cell and overturn it, as the monarchy collapsed during the Revolution of February 23-24, called the February revolution, as food riots broke out in Pretrograd21.

 

On March 3rd, tsarist rule had come to an end22. Revolutionaries are best viewed as social discontents, with socially cognitive objects in mind, and the means and nerve to carry out the socio-political objective through interaction with other social objects, persons or groups of persons. Non-social, personal interactions within cells can change the nature of the social sphere, the space between the inner and outer walls. The outer wall is our organizing impulse, maintained by social-interpersonal agreements. Social thought is a cohesive structure for maintaining a stable society, and for a social cell to be overcome, a transformation of the culture, traditions, and social mores must change with it, and the new core must be attained by majority.

III JFK, Subversion and the Cell in Rebellion

In a Times article in 201423 ““Here’s Why We Believe in Conspiracies”, prominent conspiracy scholar Jan-Willem van Prooijen, associate professor in social and organizational psychology at VU University Amsterdam, said, “Conspiracy theories often crop up during times of uncertainty and fear: after terrorist strikes, financial crises, high-profile deaths and natural disasters. Past research suggests that if people feel they don’t have control over a situation, they’ll try to make sense of it and find out what happened. The sense-making leads them to connect dots that aren’t necessarily connected in reality.”

After reviewing JFK, Roger Ebert was approached by Walter Cronkite for his review24. “There is not a bit of truth in it!” Cronkite said. The late film critic later wrote in his review that he felt that Stone was capturing a pervasive mood in the counter-culture about the assassination, that it was a film that captured the way some Americans felt, about the need for answers in the days and then years after the assassination.

Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison is a good fit for the character. His motivation and passion is understood as depicted. As assassination researcher and former Los Angeles County Public Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi puts it in Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy “…Rejecting the message of the clean-cut, wholesome-looking Costner (Garrison) is like rejecting motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag.”25

In the film, Costner’s take on Garrison is a patriot, open-minded, truth-seeking detective, looking to expose a vast conspiracy that has gotten to the heart of the American social cell. To seek the truth is a heroic act, to expose crime in places where the abuse of power is most likely is courageous, even. They follow leads, doggedly pursing them wherever they leave. They are physically and morally courageous, against a large and faceless system, intent upon giving it a face.

JFK perverts this in a way, historically, by neglecting to mention any detractions from the case Garrison attempts to put together in the film. Where it becomes social mythmaking is in providing questions and then answering them selectively. It is informative in showing the process of popular myth and belief as it is being made.

What’s the harm, then? As Bugliosi puts it, “The problem with Stone is, really, not that he egregiously fictionalized the Kennedy assassination. The problem was is that he was trying to convince everyone he was telling the truth.”26 A small group of patriots are pitted against the endless bureaucracies of the US Government, and they have their phones tapped. Team members betray the group (an evolving rebellion cell against an established social cell). The film’s world is a small group of men who are behind the major events, while we little people can’t even begin to comprehend the vast and inexplicable subtleties of this grand design. It is a tale of betrayal and personal sacrifice, but it’s for the sanctity of American traditions, for the truth. In a way, it is Jim Garrison playing the offenders of Caesar’s murder in the Shakespearean play, as Garrison brings up Julius Caesar to a fellow-researcher who is having doubts27. In the end, in the prosecution’s final summation, he gets to the heart of his accusation:

In JFK, Oliver Stone is attempting to present a widespread discontent which Americans had built up over the years, and takes a bit here and bit there from other prominent researchers whose work had kept the movement going between the release of the Warren Commission Report and the release of JFK. Since its release in ’91, as of 15 November 2013, according to a Gallup poll28, the majority of Americans believe JFK was killed in a conspiracy. This is common in cases of social thinking, or individual-social ideation – where a single person is influencing through social means the thoughts of a significant amount of people.

As a legal drama, JFK works as a film, but only by using ahistorical composite characters, such as “X”. X is important because he supplies the foundation myth for a new generation of anti-social cells: Oliver Stone joined the U.S. Army in 1967, and returned “very mixed up, very paranoid, and very alienated,”29 like many of his generation. The foundation myth of the Kennedy is that the president was taken out because he intended to withdraw from Vietnam. Surely, this is something that would’ve influenced Stone deeply and personally, as a veteran. When “X” introduced himself as “one of those secret guys in the pentagon”, and goes on to give the following speech:

“I spent much of September ’63 working on the Kennedy plan for getting all us personnel out of Vietnam by the end of ’65. This plan was one of the strongest and most important papers issued from the Kennedy White House. Our first 1,000 troops were ordered home for Christmas.”30 The plan mentioned in X’s statement is National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263.

L Fletcher Prouty, on whom X is based, really worked close to people involve in the formulating of this plan, but there is precious little evidence that Prouty himself had anything to do with. In his book, JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy repeats a similar claim (summarizing the McGeroge-Bundy cover letter that accompanied NSAM 263):

“At a meeting on October 5, 1964, the President considered the recommendations contained in the report of Secretary McNamara and General Taylor on their mission to South Vietnam. The President approved the military recommenddations contained in Section I B (1-3) of the report, but directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 1963.”31

Prouty goes on to quote the relevant section of the McNamara-Taylor report:

IB(2) A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by US military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of US military personnel by that time.

IB(2) In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 196332.

This leads Prouty to conclude, “In brief, those sections above are the essence of the Kennedy policy that would take men out of Vietnam in 1963 and the bulk of all military personnel out by 1965.”33

In order to understand Oliver Stone’s perspective in evaluating this film and its legacy, one might attempt to ‘solve’ it, or at least draw an inference based on our understanding of conspiratorial groups as cells in rebellion of their natural social environment, wherein a rebel cell might attempt majority and grow, based on how many social objects reject sources from once trusted foundations. By our study of myth as etiology, drive to search for truth and meaning.

For viewers, it’s easy to see how the tragedy of the JFK assassination is compounded by the tragedy of the Vietnam War, as it was for Oliver Stone, in which millions would be killed or wounded, and millions more shocked and sobered by the horrors of war. To take JFK from the people by this assassination, from the people he might have otherwise spared the traumas of this divisive, ignominious war, is a greater tragedy than that of a lone assassin. This is how a social event can directly affect someone on a non-social level, and motivate them to rally around a social object as a means of organization and of personal principle.

From the perspective of Stone and many, an entire generation – a lost microbe of what may have become foundational and contributed to the stability of the national/cultural – to look at this film as fact, the conspiracy theory turns JFK into more than a victim, shot while the world looked on, in broad daylight – it gives us a martyr, someone who died for a cause, giving meaning to his death beyond the event itself, but, as we’ve seen, gives us closure, stability, and a chance to get our bearings.

When a rebellion cell achieves majority, the record is distorted, the social cell deteriorates and is sickened by mixed constituent parts. History therefore is viewed through a warped lens when a minority individuals within a social cell rally together and achieve majority of believe, they are a cell in rebellion of the established cell. In such a case, the social cell’s outer membrane loses cohesion and assumes the identity of the rebel cell, wherein the filters of conspiracy are placed atop the historical record.

Our socio-personal development of conspiratorial thinking is an early stage of social-cognitive development, where we begin to consider others as social objects, with intent, motivation, belief, and purpose as oneself. Recognizing that someone can exist outside of the self as an independent object in a social environment, we can look at scenarios and project more or less how we would act if put in the same situation.

As we gradually become aware of another person as a thinking agent, the first step towards psychological, motivational inference is in reading someone’s intent by an examination of their actions. In Cognitive Development34 John H. Flavell outlines social cognition as series of developmental stages, each a part of social cognition’s complexities as we interact with others, and attempt to recognize other social phenomena, that of persons as thinking persons, with intents and points of view different than ourselves, it is the basic knowledge of aspect of the social world exists in life35, that of its existence.

 

The first stage is the mere recognizing of another person, or persons, as social phenomena within a realm of interactive possibility. To think sociably, one considers that others, as individuals and groups, and among groups, have different ideas, beliefs, and unique perspective . The next stage of social cognition is need36, which amounts to individual attempts at understanding and acting with awareness of others’ feelings and experiences37.

Inference concerns a capacity to carry out social thinking successfully, though the thinking need not be strictly defined as inference, but more broadly as any social cognitive process, the discussion of personal ideas between individuals on a given subject. If you have the disposition to rely on inference as an act of social cognition, for example, you might look at a conversation and find a specific remark that is indicative of a broader range of beliefs and personal feelings.

Social cogitation is the sharing of inferences about the relationship between people and events, and the collective process of social cogitation is an organizing principle behind social groups, persons and individuals. Interactions between one person engaged in social cogitation and another influence anyone else involved in the social sphere capable of further inferences from these micro-interactions, or interactions among groups.

An important realization is that any cohesive society relies on harmonious social thinking; those an individual, like an individual social cell, is only one among many in the world, as an individual is only one among many, they have telling interactions when a post-social cell or united-social cells become possible. Social thinking is individual’s public voice, the chorus of which, among others, should be considered the mucus membrane of any social cell, whereas the inner core is a founding narrative, the recitation of the society’s origin and myths to reinvigorate and motive traditional social arrangements.

V Social division, rebellion, and revolution

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France37, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space. Ordinary people got involved in the questions before the government. Books which offended the Royal Censor, such as the work of Enlightenment philosophes, were often censored in old regime France38.

Works that undermined the monarchy or the clergy, like Voltaire’s Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were censored and some of the books were literally taken to prison39.

Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro in the 1780s. Reading it now, it seems tame. But at the time it was so radical that the censor took it to King Louis XVI himself. Louis said: “This shall never be played. It would be necessary to dismantle the Bastille itself before this could be played without consequences. This man mocks at everything in the government which ought to be respected.”40

Despite being formally banned, the play was an enormous hit in private salons. And when the ban was lifted, Figaro became one of the smash hits of the century41. What was it that made it so popular? It had the Royal Censor, which was sure to bring a crowd, as Simon Schama put it in his series The Power of Art41.

But on the other hand, it was cheap, and accessible to a wide class of society, from the madames and monsieur in the boxes to the often illiterate peasants in the pit.

The subversion that cut so deep into the traditions of old regime France aren’t noticeable today. But in a society of rank inequality between the classes, the rich and the poor, its egalitarian message, its winks to the clever and scrappy princes of Spain, Beaumarchais undermined the very foundation of the French social cell:

“Nobility, rank, position, how proud they make a man feel! You think because you are great nobleman you are a genius? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”42

Calling an estates general would bring together representatives of the three legal orders of politically active Frenchmen: the aristocracy, the clergy, and the commoners. It had been inactive since 1614, and was called due to the financial crisis following France’s military support of America in its war of revolution against the British. The nation was going broke. The debt crisis was due primarily to the war with Britain and participating in the American Revolution. And years of poor harvests had caused grain riots in Paris43. This estates general brought the inequality of the old regime into sharp relief. It was bred into the French way of life. A seigneur or seigneury upon taking up residence in their parish takes their special pew at the front of the church, usually adorned by their coat of arms. The peasants of the lands pledge to work so much and dedicate so much barley and grain over the year. Traditional seigneurial dues allowed them to make bizarrely specific requests and demands of their peasants: for example, one nobleman’s list of dues was a number of ornamental feathers, a quota of olive oil and wine, a chicken, and a pair of leather gloves. The Catholic political arm of the old regime, weren’t only exempt from royal taxes, but got to impose a tithe on the peasants, while the seigneurial dues were owed to landowners by all peasants who worked in the lord’s bakery, or who made wine in the lord’s press.44

This was not a society in which secretly and behind the scenes a small group of rich men plotted on oppressing the public, distorting information to control and make them into mindless workers. This was not a secret. The notion of conspiracy, that of people in high office making subversive plans against the public, that was not a theory; it was a way of life. The foundations of King, aristocracy, tradition, ritual and the clergy were the foundational pillars of the French social cell, a cell rapidly losing cohesion. The revolutionaries didn’t want to overthrow the government, at first, with the right supporting the King. The political climate was tense when news of

After a major defeat in the Battle of Neerwinden in March 1793, he made a desperate move to save himself from his radical enemies. Arresting the four deputy- commissioners of the National Convention who had been sent to inquire into his conduct (Camus, Bancal-des-Issarts, Quinette, and Lamarque) as well as the Minister of War, Pierre Riel de Beurnonville, he handed them over to the enemy, and then attempted to persuade his troops to march on Paris and overthrow the revolutionary government. The attempt failed, and Dumouriez, along with the duc de Chartres (afterwards King Louis Philippe) and his younger brother, the duc de Montpensier, fled into the Austrian camp. This blow left the Girondists vulnerable due to their association with Dumouriez.

Citizen soldiers fought royalists in the Vende, in Western France, and after Dumirouriez defection, the left was radicalized, and quick to use the Girondists’ former support and political consistency with the traitorous general, and in radical press agigators like Jean-Paul Marat, a conspiracy-minded Jacobin who had predicted many of the turning points of the revolution, and when he pointed to a conspiracy, the revolutionary tribunal, once established, would take

To get past suspicions, of which conspiracy theory is now the formal disbelief, the inter-social exchange should be encouraged, when a social cell can interact with others and incorporate without absorbing, then the multisocial cell construct becomes possible.

A multisocial cell is the achievement of a society that can survive the attempts of anti-social opposition from without and rebel cells from within. This is a national stage of social development, as our first tribes were strictly isolated and xenophobic, our most modern social cells run the spectrum of hated, tolerated, supportive in its willingness towards social polyculturalism. In the anti-social cell, the tradition is a collection of traditions the individual social objects reject. But, as a rebel cell can only survive amid opposition, it cannot outlast the multisocial cell; for the cell in rebellion must be in rebellion to survive.

As Jacopo della Quercia’s recent books

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The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocketwatch Conspiracy and License to Quill have shown, our enduring interest in conspiracy theories, whether in history, entertainment, literature and film, continues unabated. His recent works are, as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. By using history as an inspiration for a tale of discovery, intended to seek answers to great questions, to seek, to solve great mysteries of the past and use them as lessons for the mysteries that persist. While Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard II drew inspiration from other cultures, such as Rome and that of his own unique social history, Jacopo’s work draws upon popular tradition and even historical fiction to reveal what are timeless truths, multisocial foundations and unique attribute of the modern attempt at a multisocial cell: expressing a celebration of foreign histories and traditions as well as inter-social history, cultural diversity and adventure provide the foundations for future, possible multisocial cells.

Incorporating multiple traditions and myths into a social cell does not dilute the composite of the whole. They establish an elasticity and flexible structure, a foundation that will not break when pulled apart or when holes are picked in any individual foundation; a multisocial, polycultural cell is a hope for the future, perhaps.

V Towards a Multisocial Social Model

While JFK’s posthumous reputation has done to glorify him and lament the loss of promise shown by the handsome, young president and charming wife, only time will tell if this interactive social mythmaking keeps majority as a rebel cell, and further, how long a traditional social cell can remain cohesive with an alternative majority within a wider cultural consensus. One needs to look only to Nero, or to the irony of Lee Harvey Oswald, the person to whom all evidence points as the assassin, has been pardoned, with many within the conspiracy community believing in his absolute innocence. To contrast that, it’s a popular myth that the Emperor Nero ‘fiddled while Rome burned’.1

Cassius Dio’s account of the Great Fire and Nero’s Role in it can be found in his Roman History. Cassius Dio’s account is unflattering to say the least. He begins with the claim that “Nero set his heart on making an end of the whole realm dying during his lifetime.”

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Dio’s account continues as Nero sets about sending out men pretending to be drunk or engaged in general hooliganism while setting fire to different parts of the city. After several days and nights of destruction and deluge, the wailing of children and lamentations of the women fill the air. Nero ascends to the roof of the palace which offered the greatest view of the conflagration. And assuming his lyre player’s garb he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself.source please

Suetonius’ account of Nero in The Twelve Caesars

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is similarly unflattering. In this account, Suetonius states that Nero pretended to be disgusted with the drab old apartments and the narrow, winding streets of Rome. He brazenly set fire to the series. Suetonius adds that two ex-consuls caught Nero’s attendants with tow and blazing torches trespassing on their property but did not interfere. Nero also used the fire to take over several granaries he coveted, solidly built of stone.

Suetonius claims the terror lasted for six days and seven nights, as people were forced to take shelter in monuments and tombs while Nero’s men destroyed apartment buildings as well as mansions that once belonged to famous generals, still decorated in their triumphal trophies; temples, dedicated and vowed by the Kings and others during the Punic & Gallic wars – in fact every ancient monument that had hitherto survived. Here’s where Suetonius deviates from the account of Cassius Dio:

“Nero watched the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, enraptured by ‘the beauty of the flames”

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. Then Nero put on his tragedians’ costume & and sang the sack of Illyricum. This is an example of a social myth in progress, though not quite congealed yet as a hardened part of the social cell. The thorough establishment of this socio- political myth is interrupted by Tacitus’ accounts from Annals.

In this account Nero was staying at his country estate at Antium and didn’t even return to the capital until the fire was nearing the house by which he had connected the Palatine with the gardens of Maecenas. After the fire proved unstoppable, before it could engulf the Palatine and the house and all their immediate surroundings, Nero continued to work to save property and lives. In this account, instead of singing (just yet) Nero worked hard to provide relief for the homeless and fugitive populace, opening the Campus Martius, the buildings of Agrippa, even his own gardens and threw up a number of extemporized shelters to accommodate the helpless multitude. The necessities of life were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring municipalities, and the price of grain was lowered to three sesterces.

With all of this effort, how did the Emperor become the suspect and ultimately accused of starting the fire? Tacitus gives us a hint at how tales, like those of Cassius Dio and Suetonius, were “the subject of few substantial conversations, but many earnest whispered accusations.”

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Nero’s measures may not have been as popular as their moral character might be, having failed in their effect to reassure and console; for the report spread that at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had taken to his private stage and, typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, he had sung of the destruction of Troy.

The hint he gives for why this rumor might have caught on was that, after the first fire was finally brought under control at the edge of the Esquiline by demolishing the buildings over a vast area and opposing the great unabated fury, a clear tract of ground opened on the horizon. But the fears had not been allayed, nor had hope returned to the people when the fire resumed its ravages.

Here we have a massive tragedy, again, the conspiratorial fountain of youth, confusion and chaos are in the blood, and social thinking has been blanked by fear; the loss of home and shelter and, the second flame according to Tacitus caused the greater controversy as it had broken out on Aemilian property of Tigellinus and appearances suggested that Nero was seeking the glory of founding a new capital and endowing it with his own name.”

5 The ensuing national trauma was naturally a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, instead of reconciling their lot with the type of senseless tragedy this would be without some agency behind it, the people are left with nothing: no home or property, and no totem, or fear ikon on which to concentrate their exasperation. In the instance of natural disasters, humanity has the seemingly natural inclination to give intent and personality to the forces responsible. They gave Zeus the lightning bolt and virtue, Demeter weeping in the winter over the departure of the summer and her daughter. This instance of a human being given human traits is unique, as – at least as far as absolute power was concerned – an Emperor of Rome had as much power as was capable of being concentrated in two hands in the world at the time, a type of power less than a thousand people have historically wielded, and in front of this type of human power we have the same fear response. It is, as ever, a social definition that runs contrary to the official record. Instilling such fear in a populace can be beneficial for a ruler like Caesar Augustus, the longest uninterrupted ruler of Roman in its history at that time. And after Nero, there would be no heirs to the Julio-Claudian family, and again, there would be civil war.

6 Suetonius himself was born in the Year of the Four Emperors, a society in which generals and pretenders vied for the Imperial title

7

the first civil war since the assassination of Julius Caesar, which we discussed in the very first chapter. As it was with Figaro, poking at the structure of a long lived social cell can cause it to deteriorate. Over and over we’ve looked at conspiracy as an organizing principle, but organizational principles are operative when there is first separateness. The organizing principle of conspiracy theorizing and socio-mythography among individuals coming together is the motivational tendency toward civilization and culture.

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France

7

, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

A social conscience and shared culture is easy to take for granted; all the movie references our friends make we are able to share in a social moment only because in being saturated by the same pop culture, and as we share meanings we can move onto share meaningful things.

Social cognition is the necessary condition of a conscious social cell. Discontent with the foundations of an established cell in a time of stagnation is the outgrowth of displacement or reform, that of the rebel cell. During an outgrowth of a potential replacement cell – when a rebel off-shoot obtains majority – we can see how people form into groups and how groups and civilizations tend towards collective villains and heroes, which ultimately adds up to a group sharing perspectives, rather than the limitation of inference and suspicion, a motivating principle of shared means and ends would be collective thinking, in which people imagine together.

The social cell is the end result of the mechanism of cultural exchange involved in the faces of snow clouds, the personalities of a violent sea, and within the American social cell we have our founding myths, as well as Rome, and our heroes. Our heroes have moved from abstractions into more humble forces. To understand an age, look at what’s inside its social cell. In America, the inner walls are filled with books and movies, thrillers and supernatural thrillers, and unique in the American social scale is its welcome addition of those from other social cells to bring a piece of it with them, to enrich the social cell intended to be a place of many cultures, towards the idea of a multi-social cell, in which the individual foundational principles of other cells mix without malcontent. When malcontent is suspected, our imaginations are quick to fill in the blank, based on the way we would ourselves respond.

V Social division, rebellion, and revolution

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France

7

, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space.

37

Ordinary people got involved in the questions before the government. Books which offended the Royal Censor, such as the work of Enlightenment philosophes, were often censored in old regime France.

38

Works that undermined the monarchy or the clergy, like Voltaire’s

Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were censored and some of the books were literally taken to prison.

39 Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro in the 1780s. Reading it now, it seems tame. But at the time it was so radical that the censor took it to King Louis XVI himself. Louis said: “This shall never be played. It would be necessary to dismantle the Bastille itself before this could be played without consequences. This man mocks at everything in the government which ought to be respected.”

40 Despite being formally banned, the play was an enormous hit in private salons. And when the ban was lifted, Figaro became one of the smash hits of the centur

41

. What was it that made it so popular? It had the Royal Censor, which was sure to bring a crow, as Simon Schama put it in his series The Power of Art.

41

But on the other hand, it was cheap, and accessible to a wide class of society, from the madams and monsieur in the boxes to the often illiterate peasants in the pit.

The subversion that cut so deep into the traditions of old regime France aren’t noticeable today. But in a society of rank inequality between the classes, the rich and the poor, its egalitarian message, its winks to the clever and scrappy princes of Spain, Beaumarchais undermined the very foundation of the French social cell:

“Nobility, rank, position, how proud they make a man feel! You think because you are great nobleman you are a genius? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”

42 Calling an estates general would bring together representative of the three legal orders of politically active Frenchmen: the aristocracy (who , the clergy, and the commoners. It had been inactive since 1614, and was called due to the financial crisis following France’s military support of America in its war of revolution against the British. The nation was going broke. The debt crisis was due primarily to the war with Britain and participating in the American Revolution. And years of poor harvests had caused grain riots in Paris

43

. This estates general brought the inequality of the old regime into sharp relief. It was bred into the French way of life. A seigneur or seigneury upon taking up residence in their parish takes their special pew at the front of the church, usually adorned by their coat of arms. The peasants of the lands pledge to work so much and dedicate so much barley and grain over the year. Traditional seigneurial dues allowed them to make bizarrely specific requests and demands of their peasants: for example, one nobleman’s list of dues was a number of ornamental feathers, a quota of olive oil and wine, a chicken, and a pair of leather gloves. The Catholic political arm of the old regime, weren’t only exempt from royal taxes, but got to impose a tithe on the peasants, while the seigneurial dues were owed to landowners by all peasants who worked in the lord’s bakery, or who made wine in the lord’s press.

44

(fine) This was not a society in which secretly and behind the scenes a small group of rich men plotted on oppressing the public, distorting information to control and make them into mindless workers. This was not a secret. The notion of conspiracy, that of people in high office making subversive plans against the public, that was not a theory; it was a way of life. The foundations of King, aristocracy, tradition, ritual and the clergy

were the foundational pillars of the French social cell, a cell rapidly losing cohesion. (source –

To get past suspicions, of which conspiracy theory is now the formal disbelief, the inter-social exchange should be encouraged, when a social cell can interact with others and incorporate without absorbing, then the multisocial cell construct becomes possible.

A multisocial cell is the achievement of a society that can survive the attempts of anti-social opposition from without and rebel cells from within. This is a national stage of social development, as our first tribes were strictly isolated and xenophobic, our most modern social cells run the spectrum of hated, tolerated, supportive in its willingness towards social polyculturalism. In the anti-social cell, the tradition is a collection of traditions the individual social objects reject. But, as a rebel cell can only survive amid opposition, it cannot outlast the multisocial cell; for the cell in rebellion must be in rebellion to survive.

As Jacopo della Quercia’s recent books

8

The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocketwatch Conspiracy and License to Quill have shown, our enduring interest in conspiracy theories, whether in history, entertainment, literature and film, continues unabated. His recent works are, as Shakespeare’s Julias Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. By using history as an inspiration for a tale of discovery, intended to seek answers to great questions, to seek, to solve great mysteries of the past and use them as lessons for the mysteries that persist. While Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard II drew inspiration from other cultures, such as Rome and that of his own unique social history, Jacopo’s work draws upon popular tradition and even historical fiction to reveal what are timeless truths, multisocial foundations and unique attribute of the modern attempt at a multisocial cell: expressing a celebration of foreign histories and traditions as well as inter-social history, cultural diversity and adventure provide the foundations for future, possible multisocial cells.

Incorporating multiple traditions and myths into a social cell does not dilute the composite of the whole. They establish an elasticity and flexible structure, a foundation that will not break when pulled apart or when holes are picked in any individual foundation; a multisocial, polycultural cell is a hope for the future, perhaps.

As for everyone else, society was not seen as a collection of individuals with legal or civil rights before the law. For commoners the possibility of advancement in life was slim, and the opportunity to advance based on talent, merit, or strength of character was one of the major egalitarian goals of the revolutionaries, to give everyone a say in the workings of their country and give the commoners the ability to advance on merit. The question that has been asked is why revolution broke out in an economically dynamic country. And while the answer isn’t a simple one, the peasants of France got to see themselves as just as deserving of natural rights as all the other citizens of France. Figaro stirred up a social cell and gave it egalitarian social goals, inspired by the great philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Diderot, who compiled the first encyclopedia, and his great compilation of articles intended as a future repository of the basics of human knowledge, systematizing it, and getting the people to think about these freedoms made them extremely motivated; sometimes motivated by the latest discussion of the new ideas, and later by their desperate attempt to enact these new principles.

Jacques Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat Jacque-Louis David’s festivals, honoring unity and indivisiblity. He had become famous as a neo-classical painting, but worked to become the pageant master of the revolution. A die hard jacobin, in 1793, his parade was full of symbolism, starting from the place de la bastille, going past stations celebrating the history of revolution. At the end stood a statue of liberation. At another demonstration a thousand doves were freed and flew off with banners tied along their legs reading “we are free”! They were salvos of artillery, songs, crowds on the chon de Mars. To motivate the people, the republican needed a symbol to represent to new nation. This was Marion. She was a goddess, an emblem that wouldn’t make anyone think of kings. But Mario didn’t have the masculine build of a female. They used Roman traditions of sculpture for abstract concepts of freedom of liberty, as Rome’s great mother goddess statue. And Marion wasn’t too far from Mary, which wasn’t too far from the former Catholic majority’s mother goddess Mary. They built temples and made statues of the French philosophes, musicians from the opera. The female liberty was the goddess of reason, in a temple of reason. The jacobin leaders wanted to lean harder on the church, but Robespierre believed that an all out war on the church, as the other jacobins wanted, would drive more people into the camps of their enemies. And it would, as civil war broke out in Vende, in western france. But, the revolutionaries wanted to save the people from fanacitism. So what did they do? Dechristianizers invaded churches and ripped paintings from the walls, tore down statues, and made bonfires out of holy relics, calling them the bonfires of fanatacis. “If this revolution is over and there are still the poor, it will have failed.” The French celebrated, linking revolution to an internation war against kings – threatening the social structure of neighboring cells, as the new anti-social state began to go to war with others, absorbing some, founding others with new, enlightening principles and declarations of civil rights. This was in the days before the revolution became violent. Dechristianers asked maybe they should put a donkey on a crowd to satirize kings, fouche, no, it would be too degrading for the donkey. These were the works on the other side of the rebellion witin the rebellion; the celebratory theatre of the new culture of revolution. And in one of their rituals, they were to put a bishop representing superstition into the fire and it turned into reason and was saved. Rituals of inversion were popular, where lay-people played out their rebellious, teenage ideals. There was a sense of civic movement, of millions activated around a specific motivational priciple, and at the heart of it was the conspiracy: the Calas conspiracy, a cause celebre brought to light by Voltaire, had popularized a horrible miscarriage of justice in the (I don’t know if there has ever been a more striking example of irony). The Red Priests were revolutionary blasphemers, someone who preached against the rich, referring to the philosophy of ‘sans culat’ Jesus. Some tred a middle path, who believed they could be catholic and republican, who believed in the revolution and the right to the free practice of religion, a deep wound within 19th century France. As Elizabeth feared catholic plots while she watched Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the situation in France was much more complicated, within the theory of the formation of social cells by the conspiratorial methods of thinking and mythmaking, especially as a social process, and the theory of society as organized around by “core” ideals, which motivate all peoples of passion groups in their duties. The reasons for our inclination towards conspiracy is how we project a non-personal inference onto a socially operable act. In otherwise, we’re suspicious because we’ve got guilty consciences.

CITATIONS

  1. McLaren, A.N. “Political Culture in the Reign of Elizabeth I”. pp. 135
  2. Smith, Jeremy L. “Unlawful Song”. pp. 497
  3. Adams, Simon. “Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England.” CXXIII (501): pp. 457-458. doi: 10.1093/ehr/cen048
  4. Nagel, Joana. “Constructing Ethinicity” Social problems 41.1: 152-176
  5. Powers, Michael R. “Patterns, Real and Imagined: Observation and Theory.” In Acts of God and Man: Ruminations on Risk and Insurance, 191- 206. Columbia University Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/powe15366.17.
  6. Kilpatrick, Caroll. “Nixon Resigns” Washington Post, 9 August 1974. p. A01
  7. Woodward, Bob, Bernstein, Carl. “The Final Days” pp. 77-79
  8. Dalton, Russell J. “The social transformation of trust in government.” International Review of Sociology (2005): pp. 133-154
  9. Tacitus, Cornelius, “The Annals of Ancient Rome.” Vol. 60, 1973
  10. Kalmey, R.P. “Shakespeare’s Octavius and Elizabethan Roman History” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 18, no. 2. pp. 275-287
  11. Knight, Steven. “Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution”

 

  1. Moore, Alan. “From Hell”
  2. Wardman, Alan. “Rome’s Debt to Greece”. The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 29, no. 2. pp. 110-112.
  3. Heinrich, Albert. “What is a Greek God?” pp. 19-40

16. Hadas, Moses. “Aesneas and the Tradition of the National Hero”. American Journal of Philology, vol. 69, no. 4. pp. 408-414

  1. Menzies, James W. “True Myth” pp. 21-40
  2. Clickering, Robert. “War Enthusiasm?” pp. 200-201
  3. De Toqueville, Alexis “the Old Regime and the Revolution”
  4. Schama, Simon. “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.” p. 84
  5. Warnes, David. “Chronicle of the Russian Tsars.” p. 210
  6. Warnes, David. Ibid. p. 211.
  7. Oaklander, Mandy. “Here’s Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories.” Time Magazine, 14 August 2015
  8. Ebert, Roger. “JFK Movie Review and Analysis” (1991) via: http://rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-jfk-1991
  9. Bugliosi, Vincent. “Reclaiming History: the Assassination of John F. Kennedy”. p. 1354
  10. Bugliosi, Vincent. Ibid. p. 1356
  11. Harrison, John M. “A Crusade and Its Problems.” The Review of Politics 37, no. 1. pp. 122-125.
  12. Swift, Art. “Majority in U.S. Still Believe JFK Killed in a Conspiracy” Gallup.com/poll/165893/majority-believe-jfk-killed-conspiracy.aspx
  13. “Famous Veterans: Oliver Stone” – military.com
  14. Stone, Oliver. Sklar, Zachary. “JFk: The Book of the Film”, p. 106.
  15. Stone, Oliver. Sklar, Zachary. Ibid. p. 107
  16. Prouty, L. Fletcher. “JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy.” p. 268
  17. Prouty, L. Fletcher. Ibid.
  18. Flavel, John H. “Cognitive Development” 2nd ed. p. 119
  19. Flavell, John H. Ibid. pp. 120-121
  20. Flavell, John H. Ibid. p. 121
  21. Nielsen, Wendy C. “Staging” Rousseau’s Republic” Vol. 43, no. 3, pp.268-285
  22. Lambe, Patrick J. “Biblical Criticism and Censorship in Ancien Regime France: The Case of Richard Simon.” Harvard theological review, 78(2-2 (1985) pp. 149-177
  23. Darnton, Robert. “The forbidden books of pre-Revolutionary France. Month (1991): 1-32
  24. “The Living Age” vol. 119, p. 83
  25. Schama, Simon. “The Power of Art: Jaques-Louis David”
  26. Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin. “The Marriage of Figaro” act V, scene III

43: Sargent, Thomas J. Velde, Francois R. “Macroeconomic Features of the French Revolution.” Journey of Political Economy 103, no. 3 (1995) pp. 474-518.

The Social Cell by Brandon Nobles: The Organizational Principle of Conspiracy and Myth

Brandon Nobles <brandonovsky@gmail.com>

I

Students and readers are no doubt familiar with Shakespeare’s popular history play Julius Caesar. What may be less familiar is the social and political climate in which the play was written. There had been a long succession crisis in Tudor england during the 1560s1 and the possibility of civil war was very real. With no heir or obvious successor, it’s not hard to imagine Elizabeth sensing plots all around her. With Parliament standing in for the senators of Rome in Shakespeare’s drama, she had every right to be nervous. There were plots being organized to overthrow Elizabeth I. Pope Pius V denounced her as a heretic and decreed anyone who killed her would not sin, and would have god’s blessing. Conspirators on the ground in France and Catholic Spain plotted her overthrow with Rome, organized behind the idea of putting the Catholic Mary Steward on the throne. Elizabeth outmaneuvered Mary, and she would face the gallows after being caught out on a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth, and she was consumed within the famous Babington plot, and later at Chartley Manor by Elizabeth’s very capable spymaster, Walsingham. One wonders if Elizabeth ever dreaded that the English Civil Wars would follow within a generation, when the crowd hoisted the head of Charles I into the air.

This paper will not be a study of which conspiracy is right or wrong. It will not be based on a personal perspective, but on a perspective that looks at conspiracy and its effects on those who are inclined to believe them and skeptics. A conspiracy movement is motivated by shared beliefs and principles, sometimes philosophical, sometimes political, and they’re willing to work towards the realization of an agreed upon social object. Conspiracies are the culture myths of the post-social world, whereby we understand the phenomena of thunder in scientific terms whereby once they were the work of unseen, mighty forces on whose whims we depended, a social myth now similar to what conspiracy theories attempt to explain.

Questioning belief can become a mantra, and conspiracy is a skeptic’s secular mythology, replete with heroes and villains like the mythography of old, with apostles and gurus, each armed with Psalm-like literature. There are characters that deceive, misinformation agents, and our social and personal self-actualization is in opposing them. If not physically, spiritually, as the hero exposes the global conspiracy of unseen, godlike control through media, government, and large corporations, the deities of the secular world.

It has been taken to be a sort of allegory, but it can be an allegory literarily speaking without necessarily being true, or intentional in the revealing of a specific conspiracy. But, conspiracy theories have applied to others (and our entertainment has thrilled us with the barbaric others in popular cinema). The notion for us in the modern world is to pull the mask off these powerful structures to expose them, as the ancients attempted to understand the unseen forces controlling their destinies from behind the scenes.

An active conspiracy theory is an oral tradition that has yet to be formalized and compiled into its given cultural mythology. Those who have rejected traditional structures for alternatives hold as fast as to those alternatives as they once held, or as those they now self-arrange as opposite, replacing what was once the vast force of God and giving meaning to the season by the explanation that the earth rotates on an axis at a 23-degree tilt, causing the seasons. We give the force of nature over to nature, letting it be sufficient enough to enforce its own laws, while behind the scenes where there were once vast, all-powerful gods and forces of nature, we now have a never-ending lattice wherein all contribution towards the conspiratorial argument of a belief structure is attached to a pre-structured apocrypha. In the past, we resigned the unseen work to Providence, but in a conspiratorial mindset we put the hat on those that can’t be identified. We give human agency to chance and probability, imbuing it with many and purpose, with a ready source of blame for our discontent.

In ancient cultures, beliefs and cultural identity came from tradition and culture heroes4. A social cell ranges from a small collective come together by an operative principle of thinking together, the creation of a social, public area of life with mutual interests. Any collective, from native tribes to modern collectives, has a foundational, motivational principle built into its structure. A civilization could be, in this sense, regarded as a realized social cell: a cell in which a stable majority of interacting non-social individuals share the beliefs and values of the collective and identify socially in the manner of an individual, participating in holidays and respecting the traditions of the tribe. An individual need only look to the heroes and villains of legend to understand how to work virtuously and for the greater good, as a civic service.

Historically, a generic social cell was built on the foundation of myth, identity, purpose, motivation, and meaning. A civil purpose, the familiar routines of tradition and communal meals at synagogue, church, or Masonic lodge. Conspiracy touches on notions of structural stability, that of institutions and social, greater good establishments for an organized people, where the social cell perpetuates shared values which give individuals a group identity of non-social goals. A pre-social cell is a society that hasn’t congealed, or one that is together purely for survival and necessity. When we consider groups, we would do better to consider individual motives. The study of conspiracy theory allows us to look at how belief takes shape by looking at myth as it happens, in popular entertainment, literature and culture. It helps us understand how societies function in their formation and disintegration. In conspiracy theories, one can work by looking for patterns. And sometimes, when we are possessed of a belief, we tend to see patterns everywhere, and the mistakes we make in finding patterns where there are none is something worth considering when looking for patterns you expect to see, as pareidolia can make links to ideas and objects where there are none.5.

Another interesting facet of conspiracies is that of its ability to inspire, and draw inspiration from, popular hysteria, such as the red scare of McCarthyists and the military purges of Josef Stalin after the Russian Civil war, is it a coincide, that so many fall before the charge Traison! As it tends to have its greatest effects in times of socio-political upheaval, the study of conspiracy allows us look at history with a warped lens, where everything is potentially menacing. A popular notion, perhaps made popular by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the historical impact of the Salem witch trials in America, a land whose founding myth is in thirds the freedom of religion, meaning freedom to have or to live peacefully if not. These laws were not in place in such times; it gave people the last desperate  and historical impact, with many failed conspiracies exerting an impressive influence on the present, which all good myths do: it highlights connections before the expression, such as the assassination of Julius Caesar bringing to popular attention the possibility of a civil war, and common attributes denote common substance. It’s not surprising that solved conspiracies such as Watergate have not kept the same amount of cultural appeal as America’s political assassination conspiracy. The film All the President’s Men could have been a guide for Oliver Stone: it begins with a small discrepancy, a few reporters start to cover the conspiracy as it’s happening, but at the end, the conspiracy is revealed. President Nixon resigned from the office of President of the United States 2 months after the publication of the investigator’s book on the case6, as the whole process is painstakingly detailed in the follow up to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation, as the Nixon administration dissolves, taking down one of the most Machiavellian politicians of his era, foiled in the end by a burglar 7.

The kind of conspiracy and myth that endures and becomes a necessary component of one’s culture is one without a definite solution. There is a contrariness in our approach; attracted to mystery, yet through our earliest literary work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, had already started asking questions about life and death and mortality. Humans are inclined towards mystery, but closure amid crises, even if the resolution is horrific, the conspiracy theory that has yet to be disproved and as such has a massive corps of motivated, public-object-oriented individuals who continue the tradition, as oral lit was the repetition and slight changing and passing down from one generation to the next so is the eras of a conspiracy’s life. Watergate did shock the majority of Americans (perhaps not as much because of president Nixon’s behavior but their surprise at his getting caught) and yet at the same time we got an answer. The enduring mythology is that type of adaptable myth, that is multi purposed for different eras and arranged in slightly different ways. It is a way to contribute to the continued stability of a society’s institutions, as the faith in the American government fell sharply after the Nixon administration. . The social cell deteriorated, belief, faith in the confidence in the American system of government8. But the cell stabilized, and the government, if less trusted, continued on. Gerald Ford was sworn in on 8th August 19749. In Shakespeare’s play, we see a social cell of like-minded senators to overthrow his rule; while watching it, and for years before it was written, one conspiracy after another attempted the overthrow of Elizabeth I. In writing it, surely he would have been nervous, about his own time, as the death of Julius Caesar would lead to one of the most destructive civil wars in Roman history, The Last War of the Roman Republic9 would see the Republic’s end, with Caesar’s heir Octavius (Later Caesar Augustus) would become the first Emperor of Rome10.

II INTERSOCIAL MYTHMAKING

Murder by Decree was released in 1976. Starring Christopher Plummer and George Mason. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on the trail of the elusive Jack the Ripper. Sherlock Holmes’ story, which – like all conspiracies that work with other, larger conspiracies – there is a shared mythology each time a new conspiracy answer is added to the collective myth, as the collected myths of Hesiod, the traditional Orphic poems, and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound11. Each tale fills in the blanks where other myths are silent, therefore giving the foundation a more solid structure simply by making it a part of a structure that is already a foundation.

The movie Murder by Decree is a pastiche 12 in that it takes popular storytelling elements from many sources by using real life events, such as the Jack the Ripper murders and the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who continue to be popular because they are adaptable to different times. The reason Jack the Ripper has remained popular is because no one knows the truth which makes it adaptable to conspiracy theories and allows for the practice of speculation, letting us project our own fears onto the unknown. Alan Moore13 wrote a graphic novel in 2001 that borrowed parts of the Masonic conspiracy from Murder by Decree. It’s not popular opinion it’s popular thinking, popular interaction.

It is understandable for a period of such chaos and confusion to generate ever more elaborate conspiracy theories. An unsolved murder mystery is a natural environment for a conspiracy theory, as they thrive in high profile, unsolved murders and cold cases. In Murder by Decree, the author seems to work by the notion of propinquity, that of establishing proximity and thereby a ‘link’ that confirms a certain idea, making innocuous correlations seem ominous and deeply important. What remains remarkable about this is the mixing of myth with purported fact, the connecting the dots method of research, and is an international, multisocial myth.

Understanding how myth influences the way we think, through Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories14 or bad movies, may let us understand what social myth offered pre-social societies. Any force capable of disturbing social order like famine or natural disasters, capable of destroying societies, was sure to have related mythography. It was by the social progress that a non-personal idea becomes a shared public object, which works as a refined coping mechanism.

The multisocial myths was popular after the Roman conquest of Greece, where Rome adopted Greek deities, storytelling traditions, and philosophical ideas of the new satellite state15. This is an example of a stronger social cell absorbing and retaining the core of an assimilated social conscience through conquest. The seasons themselves are given character, personality, and agency, such as in etiological story of Demeter’s despair, with the crops failing upon her daughter Persephone departing each yard for the underworld. This was a personal relationship of interactive social forces.

Roman would develop its own social-historical myths and characters16. When cultures endure severe times, famine, plague, and disease, a means of humanity’s endurance during these confusing and chaotic times is to ‘attempt to define the indefinable’17. The practice of making sense of chaos and of tragedy is a recognizable primordial form of conspiracism. Powerful forces behind the scenes, mighty and awesome beings of immense influence and empires, capable of holding empires beneath the whims and caprice of invisible hands – the use of anthropomorphic gods as stand-ins for natural abstracts – makes them more familiar; and there is comfort in familiarity. is an imprint of what individual lives within the cell were like; it is a social thumbprint

Etiology is the ennobling of one’s past and allows for something in the social sphere to mean something, rather than it be a senseless loss, or unpoetic, cruel human loss. In the case of a conspiracy, the subsequent imparting of meaning somehow adds our non-social person to the material relationship within the social cell.

As ancient civilizations build their myth and culture around the powers that held them in thrall, each reckoned as an abstracted quality given human form, modern conspiracy theory often contains many of these elements. From the prevalence of powerful groups manipulating events from behind the scenes, to a small group of recurring powers with control extending like long filaments into every orifice of the world, they’re omnipresent

The relationship between the building of myth and conspiracy is not superficial. Both attempt to explain the inexplicable; each are populated by an attempt to give meaning to and find solace in a tragedy by giving it a familiar, recognizable face. Further, the modern conspiracy culture is an ever expanding group, with a founding myth that gives purpose to their efforts, with the task of giving a human face to these unseen forces and ascribing meaning to the innumerable questions conspiracy theories generate. With a human face and a sense of meaning, a group has an identity and a purpose, with their actions ennobled.

Finally, a myth is bound to reinforce a sense of cultural identity through the organizing principle and build bonds through a new, shared understanding, like the pantheon of Roman gods, by looking closely at them and seeing their fears, their idea of heroism and virtue, of villainy and vice. In short, it is the window into the anatomy of an ancient and long-lived human tendency to look for meaning, to look for patterns in nature and in human behavior.

The manner of a founding myth’s stability for a civilization and larger society comes from much older processes in the human brain, not limited to human beings. Connecting the dots, pattern recognition, seeing causal relationships between nature and material action. In pre-industrial social cells, the inclination to conspiratorial thinking and designs of competing social cells, cells competing within with out-growths or at war with a foreign, differently organized and motivated cell, allowed for individuals to have a sense that they were a part of something larger than themselves, and that it wasn’t all meaningless. Sometimes that’s enough for a society to survive, as long as some part of it becomes a part of a future socio-organizational myth.

The character of the surviving social cell then is a society unified behind traditional beliefs, history, and culture, and its consistency among the population can be viewed as the measure of the cell’s popular cohesion. By connecting an individual’s misfortune with that of the social cell, or with characters of history and legend, persons can draw strength and motivation from these traditions, mythical characters, and the behavior of great culture heroes., mutual belief, and a shared history is how a social cell is defined, it is an important factory in a society’s behavior, internally and externally.

In other cases, a newly formed social cell, after passing through a period of rebellion (usually revolution), will go to war as a means of social unification and nationality. This way, a newly formed social cell remains stable as a cell in rebellion, without having to settle for a cohesive national structure. One popular example of this is the myth of war enthusiasm in pre-World World I Germany. War enthusiasm is a popular term used to define the spirit of national identity prior to the war18. One can’t help notice the similar public attitude during times of revolution, as the enthusiasm for revolution in France was far more pervasive – including elements of every rung of society, from the poorest to the emperor – than the enthusiastic patriots of a newly founded and suddenly powerful German. The citizens of the newly formed social cell of Germany had the legends and heroes of the wars of German unification, giving a newly united and sovereign cell, founding on a myth of revolution. A perpetually revolutionary cell will fall apart, as much as a perpetually anti-social cell will fall to multisocial cells.

One of the major nexus points in world history is the conspiracy to assassinate Arch Franz Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

A conspiracy in theory is a shared dissenting myth, around which motivated groups become organized. Rallied by principle and motivated by social, or political goals, a conspiracy theory sometimes rebels against a standard, accepted structure within a society. When there is social dissent within a shared myth or religious schism, one sees civil war and reformation. Sometimes, in post-industrial social cells, the denunciation of a previously established ideal can become a large enough cell in itself to push against its traditions, which can lead to revolution, such as the French Revolution of 178319. As historian Simon Schama observed: “Virtually as soon as the term was coined, ‘old regime’ was automatically freighted with associations of both traditionalism and senescence. It conjured up a society so encrusted with anachronisms that only a shock of great violence could free the living organism within.”20 The French revolution can be said to demonstrate the principle of a cell in rebellion, an attempt to remake tradition and overturn what had been a majority. It can be seen as a rebellious cell’s attempt to force agreement for survival upon a possibly weak social cell and overturn it, as the monarchy collapsed during the Revolution of February 23-24, called the February revolution, as food riots broke out in Pretrograd21.

On March 3rd, tsarist rule had come to an end22. Revolutionaries are best viewed as social discontents, with socially cognitive objects in mind, and the means and nerve to carry out the socio-political objective through interaction with other social objects, persons or groups of persons. Non-social, personal interactions within cells can change the nature of the social sphere, the space between the inner and outer walls. The outer wall is our organizing impulse, maintained by social-interpersonal agreements. Social thought is a cohesive structure for maintaining a stable society, and for a social cell to be overcome, a transformation of the culture, traditions, and social mores must change with it, and the new core must be attained by majority.

III JFK, Subversion and the Cell in Rebellion

In a Times article in 201423 ““Here’s Why We Believe in Conspiracies”, prominent conspiracy scholar Jan-Willem van Prooijen, associate professor in social and organizational psychology at VU University Amsterdam, said, “Conspiracy theories often crop up during times of uncertainty and fear: after terrorist strikes, financial crises, high-profile deaths and natural disasters. Past research suggests that if people feel they don’t have control over a situation, they’ll try to make sense of it and find out what happened. The sense-making leads them to connect dots that aren’t necessarily connected in reality.”

After reviewing JFK, Roger Ebert was approached by Walter Cronkite for his review24. “There is not a bit of truth in it!” Cronkite said. The late film critic later wrote in his review that he felt that Stone was capturing a pervasive mood in the counter-culture about the assassination, that it was a film that captured the way some Americans felt, about the need for answers in the days and then years after the assassination.

Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison is a good fit for the character. His motivation and passion is understood as depicted. As assassination researcher and former Los Angeles County Public Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi puts it in Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy “…Rejecting the message of the clean-cut, wholesome-looking Costner (Garrison) is like rejecting motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag.”25

In the film, Costner’s take on Garrison is a patriot, open-minded, truth-seeking detective, looking to expose a vast conspiracy that has gotten to the heart of the American social cell. To seek the truth is a heroic act, to expose crime in places where the abuse of power is most likely is courageous, even. They follow leads, doggedly pursing them wherever they leave. They are physically and morally courageous, against a large and faceless system, intent upon giving it a face.

JFK perverts this in a way, historically, by neglecting to mention any detractions from the case Garrison attempts to put together in the film. Where it becomes social mythmaking is in providing questions and then answering them selectively. It is informative in showing the process of popular myth and belief as it is being made.

What’s the harm, then? As Bugliosi puts it, “The problem with Stone is, really, not that he egregiously fictionalized the Kennedy assassination. The problem was is that he was trying to convince everyone he was telling the truth.”26 A small group of patriots are pitted against the endless bureaucracies of the US Government, and they have their phones tapped. Team members betray the group (an evolving rebellion cell against an established social cell). The film’s world is a small group of men who are behind the major events, while we little people can’t even begin to comprehend the vast and inexplicable subtleties of this grand design. It is a tale of betrayal and personal sacrifice, but it’s for the sanctity of American traditions, for the truth. In a way, it is Jim Garrison playing the offenders of Caesar’s murder in the Shakespearean play, as Garrison brings up Julius Caesar to a fellow-researcher who is having doubts27. In the end, in the prosecution’s final summation, he gets to the heart of his accusation:

In JFK, Oliver Stone is attempting to present a widespread discontent which Americans had built up over the years, and takes a bit here and bit there from other prominent researchers whose work had kept the movement going between the release of the Warren Commission Report and the release of JFK. Since its release in ’91, as of 15 November 2013, according to a Gallup poll28, the majority of Americans believe JFK was killed in a conspiracy. This is common in cases of social thinking, or individual-social ideation – where a single person is influencing through social means the thoughts of a significant amount of people.

As a legal drama, JFK works as a film, but only by using ahistorical composite characters, such as “X”. X is important because he supplies the foundation myth for a new generation of anti-social cells: Oliver Stone joined the U.S. Army in 1967, and returned “very mixed up, very paranoid, and very alienated,”29 like many of his generation. The foundation myth of the Kennedy is that the president was taken out because he intended to withdraw from Vietnam. Surely, this is something that would’ve influenced Stone deeply and personally, as a veteran. When “X” introduced himself as “one of those secret guys in the pentagon”, and goes on to give the following speech:

“I spent much of September ’63 working on the Kennedy plan for getting all us personnel out of Vietnam by the end of ’65. This plan was one of the strongest and most important papers issued from the Kennedy White House. Our first 1,000 troops were ordered home for Christmas.”30 The plan mentioned in X’s statement is National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263.

L Fletcher Prouty, on whom X is based, really worked close to people involve in the formulating of this plan, but there is precious little evidence that Prouty himself had anything to do with. In his book, JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy repeats a similar claim (summarizing the McGeroge-Bundy cover letter that accompanied NSAM 263):

“At a meeting on October 5, 1964, the President considered the recommendations contained in the report of Secretary McNamara and General Taylor on their mission to South Vietnam. The President approved the military recommenddations contained in Section I B (1-3) of the report, but directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 1963.”31

Prouty goes on to quote the relevant section of the McNamara-Taylor report:

IB(2) A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by US military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of US military personnel by that time.

IB(2) In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 196332.

This leads Prouty to conclude, “In brief, those sections above are the essence of the Kennedy policy that would take men out of Vietnam in 1963 and the bulk of all military personnel out by 1965.”33

In order to understand Oliver Stone’s perspective in evaluating this film and its legacy, one might attempt to ‘solve’ it, or at least draw an inference based on our understanding of conspiratorial groups as cells in rebellion of their natural social environment, wherein a rebel cell might attempt majority and grow, based on how many social objects reject sources from once trusted foundations. By our study of myth as etiology, drive to search for truth and meaning.

For viewers, it’s easy to see how the tragedy of the JFK assassination is compounded by the tragedy of the Vietnam War, as it was for Oliver Stone, in which millions would be killed or wounded, and millions more shocked and sobered by the horrors of war. To take JFK from the people by this assassination, from the people he might have otherwise spared the traumas of this divisive, ignominious war, is a greater tragedy than that of a lone assassin. This is how a social event can directly affect someone on a non-social level, and motivate them to rally around a social object as a means of organization and of personal principle.

From the perspective of Stone and many, an entire generation – a lost microbe of what may have become foundational and contributed to the stability of the national/cultural – to look at this film as fact, the conspiracy theory turns JFK into more than a victim, shot while the world looked on, in broad daylight – it gives us a martyr, someone who died for a cause, giving meaning to his death beyond the event itself, but, as we’ve seen, gives us closure, stability, and a chance to get our bearings.

When a rebellion cell achieves majority, the record is distorted, the social cell deteriorates and is sickened by mixed constituent parts. History therefore is viewed through a warped lens when a minority individuals within a social cell rally together and achieve majority of believe, they are a cell in rebellion of the established cell. In such a case, the social cell’s outer membrane loses cohesion and assumes the identity of the rebel cell, wherein the filters of conspiracy are placed atop the historical record.

Our socio-personal development of conspiratorial thinking is an early stage of social-cognitive development, where we begin to consider others as social objects, with intent, motivation, belief, and purpose as oneself. Recognizing that someone can exist outside of the self as an independent object in a social environment, we can look at scenarios and project more or less how we would act if put in the same situation.

As we gradually become aware of another person as a thinking agent, the first step towards psychological, motivational inference is in reading someone’s intent by an examination of their actions. In Cognitive Development34 John H. Flavell outlines social cognition as series of developmental stages, each a part of social cognition’s complexities as we interact with others, and attempt to recognize other social phenomena, that of persons as thinking persons, with intents and points of view different than ourselves, it is the basic knowledge of aspect of the social world exists in life35, that of its existence.

The first stage is the mere recognizing of another person, or persons, as social phenomena within a realm of interactive possibility. To think sociably, one considers that others, as individuals and groups, and among groups, have different ideas, beliefs, and unique perspective . The next stage of social cognition is need36, which amounts to individual attempts at understanding and acting with awareness of others’ feelings and experiences37.

Inference concerns a capacity to carry out social thinking successfully, though the thinking need not be strictly defined as inference, but more broadly as any social cognitive process, the discussion of personal ideas between individuals on a given subject. If you have the disposition to rely on inference as an act of social cognition, for example, you might look at a conversation and find a specific remark that is indicative of a broader range of beliefs and personal feelings.

Social cogitation is the sharing of inferences about the relationship between people and events, and the collective process of social cogitation is an organizing principle behind social groups, persons and individuals. Interactions between one person engaged in social cogitation and another influence anyone else involved in the social sphere capable of further inferences from these micro-interactions, or interactions among groups.

An important realization is that any cohesive society relies on harmonious social thinking; those an individual, like an individual social cell, is only one among many in the world, as an individual is only one among many, they have telling interactions when a post-social cell or united-social cells become possible. Social thinking is individual’s public voice, the chorus of which, among others, should be considered the mucus membrane of any social cell, whereas the inner core is a founding narrative, the recitation of the society’s origin and myths to reinvigorate and motive traditional social arrangements.

V Social division, rebellion, and revolution

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France37, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space. Ordinary people got involved in the questions before the government. Books which offended the Royal Censor, such as the work of Enlightenment philosophes, were often censored in old regime France38.

Works that undermined the monarchy or the clergy, like Voltaire’s Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were censored and some of the books were literally taken to prison39.

Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro in the 1780s. Reading it now, it seems tame. But at the time it was so radical that the censor took it to King Louis XVI himself. Louis said: “This shall never be played. It would be necessary to dismantle the Bastille itself before this could be played without consequences. This man mocks at everything in the government which ought to be respected.”40

Despite being formally banned, the play was an enormous hit in private salons. And when the ban was lifted, Figaro became one of the smash hits of the century41. What was it that made it so popular? It had the Royal Censor, which was sure to bring a crowd, as Simon Schama put it in his series The Power of Art41.

But on the other hand, it was cheap, and accessible to a wide class of society, from the madames and monsieur in the boxes to the often illiterate peasants in the pit.

The subversion that cut so deep into the traditions of old regime France aren’t noticeable today. But in a society of rank inequality between the classes, the rich and the poor, its egalitarian message, its winks to the clever and scrappy princes of Spain, Beaumarchais undermined the very foundation of the French social cell:

“Nobility, rank, position, how proud they make a man feel! You think because you are great nobleman you are a genius? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”42

Calling an estates general would bring together representatives of the three legal orders of politically active Frenchmen: the aristocracy, the clergy, and the commoners. It had been inactive since 1614, and was called due to the financial crisis following France’s military support of America in its war of revolution against the British. The nation was going broke. The debt crisis was due primarily to the war with Britain and participating in the American Revolution. And years of poor harvests had caused grain riots in Paris43. This estates general brought the inequality of the old regime into sharp relief. It was bred into the French way of life. A seigneur or seigneury upon taking up residence in their parish takes their special pew at the front of the church, usually adorned by their coat of arms. The peasants of the lands pledge to work so much and dedicate so much barley and grain over the year. Traditional seigneurial dues allowed them to make bizarrely specific requests and demands of their peasants: for example, one nobleman’s list of dues was a number of ornamental feathers, a quota of olive oil and wine, a chicken, and a pair of leather gloves. The Catholic political arm of the old regime, weren’t only exempt from royal taxes, but got to impose a tithe on the peasants, while the seigneurial dues were owed to landowners by all peasants who worked in the lord’s bakery, or who made wine in the lord’s press.44

This was not a society in which secretly and behind the scenes a small group of rich men plotted on oppressing the public, distorting information to control and make them into mindless workers. This was not a secret. The notion of conspiracy, that of people in high office making subversive plans against the public, that was not a theory; it was a way of life. The foundations of King, aristocracy, tradition, ritual and the clergy were the foundational pillars of the French social cell, a cell rapidly losing cohesion. The revolutionaries didn’t want to overthrow the government, at first, with the right supporting the King. The political climate was tense when news of

After a major defeat in the Battle of Neerwinden in March 1793, he made a desperate move to save himself from his radical enemies. Arresting the four deputy- commissioners of the National Convention who had been sent to inquire into his conduct (Camus, Bancal-des-Issarts, Quinette, and Lamarque) as well as the Minister of War, Pierre Riel de Beurnonville, he handed them over to the enemy, and then attempted to persuade his troops to march on Paris and overthrow the revolutionary government. The attempt failed, and Dumouriez, along with the duc de Chartres (afterwards King Louis Philippe) and his younger brother, the duc de Montpensier, fled into the Austrian camp. This blow left the Girondists vulnerable due to their association with Dumouriez.

Citizen soldiers fought royalists in the Vende, in Western France, and after Dumirouriez defection, the left was radicalized, and quick to use the Girondists’ former support and political consistency with the traitorous general, and in radical press agigators like Jean-Paul Marat, a conspiracy-minded Jacobin who had predicted many of the turning points of the revolution, and when he pointed to a conspiracy, the revolutionary tribunal, once established, would take

To get past suspicions, of which conspiracy theory is now the formal disbelief, the inter-social exchange should be encouraged, when a social cell can interact with others and incorporate without absorbing, then the multisocial cell construct becomes possible.

A multisocial cell is the achievement of a society that can survive the attempts of anti-social opposition from without and rebel cells from within. This is a national stage of social development, as our first tribes were strictly isolated and xenophobic, our most modern social cells run the spectrum of hated, tolerated, supportive in its willingness towards social polyculturalism. In the anti-social cell, the tradition is a collection of traditions the individual social objects reject. But, as a rebel cell can only survive amid opposition, it cannot outlast the multisocial cell; for the cell in rebellion must be in rebellion to survive.

As Jacopo della Quercia’s recent books

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The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocketwatch Conspiracy and License to Quill have shown, our enduring interest in conspiracy theories, whether in history, entertainment, literature and film, continues unabated. His recent works are, as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. By using history as an inspiration for a tale of discovery, intended to seek answers to great questions, to seek, to solve great mysteries of the past and use them as lessons for the mysteries that persist. While Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard II drew inspiration from other cultures, such as Rome and that of his own unique social history, Jacopo’s work draws upon popular tradition and even historical fiction to reveal what are timeless truths, multisocial foundations and unique attribute of the modern attempt at a multisocial cell: expressing a celebration of foreign histories and traditions as well as inter-social history, cultural diversity and adventure provide the foundations for future, possible multisocial cells.

Incorporating multiple traditions and myths into a social cell does not dilute the composite of the whole. They establish an elasticity and flexible structure, a foundation that will not break when pulled apart or when holes are picked in any individual foundation; a multisocial, polycultural cell is a hope for the future, perhaps.

V Towards a Multisocial Social Model

While JFK’s posthumous reputation has done to glorify him and lament the loss of promise shown by the handsome, young president and charming wife, only time will tell if this interactive social mythmaking keeps majority as a rebel cell, and further, how long a traditional social cell can remain cohesive with an alternative majority within a wider cultural consensus. One needs to look only to Nero, or to the irony of Lee Harvey Oswald, the person to whom all evidence points as the assassin, has been pardoned, with many within the conspiracy community believing in his absolute innocence. To contrast that, it’s a popular myth that the Emperor Nero ‘fiddled while Rome burned’.1

Cassius Dio’s account of the Great Fire and Nero’s Role in it can be found in his Roman History. Cassius Dio’s account is unflattering to say the least. He begins with the claim that “Nero set his heart on making an end of the whole realm dying during his lifetime.”

2

Dio’s account continues as Nero sets about sending out men pretending to be drunk or engaged in general hooliganism while setting fire to different parts of the city. After several days and nights of destruction and deluge, the wailing of children and lamentations of the women fill the air. Nero ascends to the roof of the palace which offered the greatest view of the conflagration. And assuming his lyre player’s garb he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself.source please

Suetonius’ account of Nero in The Twelve Caesars

3

is similarly unflattering. In this account, Suetonius states that Nero pretended to be disgusted with the drab old apartments and the narrow, winding streets of Rome. He brazenly set fire to the series. Suetonius adds that two ex-consuls caught Nero’s attendants with tow and blazing torches trespassing on their property but did not interfere. Nero also used the fire to take over several granaries he coveted, solidly built of stone.

Suetonius claims the terror lasted for six days and seven nights, as people were forced to take shelter in monuments and tombs while Nero’s men destroyed apartment buildings as well as mansions that once belonged to famous generals, still decorated in their triumphal trophies; temples, dedicated and vowed by the Kings and others during the Punic & Gallic wars – in fact every ancient monument that had hitherto survived. Here’s where Suetonius deviates from the account of Cassius Dio:

“Nero watched the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, enraptured by ‘the beauty of the flames”

4

. Then Nero put on his tragedians’ costume & and sang the sack of Illyricum. This is an example of a social myth in progress, though not quite congealed yet as a hardened part of the social cell. The thorough establishment of this socio- political myth is interrupted by Tacitus’ accounts from Annals.

In this account Nero was staying at his country estate at Antium and didn’t even return to the capital until the fire was nearing the house by which he had connected the Palatine with the gardens of Maecenas. After the fire proved unstoppable, before it could engulf the Palatine and the house and all their immediate surroundings, Nero continued to work to save property and lives. In this account, instead of singing (just yet) Nero worked hard to provide relief for the homeless and fugitive populace, opening the Campus Martius, the buildings of Agrippa, even his own gardens and threw up a number of extemporized shelters to accommodate the helpless multitude. The necessities of life were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring municipalities, and the price of grain was lowered to three sesterces.

With all of this effort, how did the Emperor become the suspect and ultimately accused of starting the fire? Tacitus gives us a hint at how tales, like those of Cassius Dio and Suetonius, were “the subject of few substantial conversations, but many earnest whispered accusations.”

4

Nero’s measures may not have been as popular as their moral character might be, having failed in their effect to reassure and console; for the report spread that at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had taken to his private stage and, typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, he had sung of the destruction of Troy.

The hint he gives for why this rumor might have caught on was that, after the first fire was finally brought under control at the edge of the Esquiline by demolishing the buildings over a vast area and opposing the great unabated fury, a clear tract of ground opened on the horizon. But the fears had not been allayed, nor had hope returned to the people when the fire resumed its ravages.

Here we have a massive tragedy, again, the conspiratorial fountain of youth, confusion and chaos are in the blood, and social thinking has been blanked by fear; the loss of home and shelter and, the second flame according to Tacitus caused the greater controversy as it had broken out on Aemilian property of Tigellinus and appearances suggested that Nero was seeking the glory of founding a new capital and endowing it with his own name.”

5 The ensuing national trauma was naturally a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, instead of reconciling their lot with the type of senseless tragedy this would be without some agency behind it, the people are left with nothing: no home or property, and no totem, or fear ikon on which to concentrate their exasperation. In the instance of natural disasters, humanity has the seemingly natural inclination to give intent and personality to the forces responsible. They gave Zeus the lightning bolt and virtue, Demeter weeping in the winter over the departure of the summer and her daughter. This instance of a human being given human traits is unique, as – at least as far as absolute power was concerned – an Emperor of Rome had as much power as was capable of being concentrated in two hands in the world at the time, a type of power less than a thousand people have historically wielded, and in front of this type of human power we have the same fear response. It is, as ever, a social definition that runs contrary to the official record. Instilling such fear in a populace can be beneficial for a ruler like Caesar Augustus, the longest uninterrupted ruler of Roman in its history at that time. And after Nero, there would be no heirs to the Julio-Claudian family, and again, there would be civil war.

6 Suetonius himself was born in the Year of the Four Emperors, a society in which generals and pretenders vied for the Imperial title

7

the first civil war since the assassination of Julius Caesar, which we discussed in the very first chapter. As it was with Figaro, poking at the structure of a long lived social cell can cause it to deteriorate. Over and over we’ve looked at conspiracy as an organizing principle, but organizational principles are operative when there is first separateness. The organizing principle of conspiracy theorizing and socio-mythography among individuals coming together is the motivational tendency toward civilization and culture.

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France

7

, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

A social conscience and shared culture is easy to take for granted; all the movie references our friends make we are able to share in a social moment only because in being saturated by the same pop culture, and as we share meanings we can move onto share meaningful things.

Social cognition is the necessary condition of a conscious social cell. Discontent with the foundations of an established cell in a time of stagnation is the outgrowth of displacement or reform, that of the rebel cell. During an outgrowth of a potential replacement cell – when a rebel off-shoot obtains majority – we can see how people form into groups and how groups and civilizations tend towards collective villains and heroes, which ultimately adds up to a group sharing perspectives, rather than the limitation of inference and suspicion, a motivating principle of shared means and ends would be collective thinking, in which people imagine together.

The social cell is the end result of the mechanism of cultural exchange involved in the faces of snow clouds, the personalities of a violent sea, and within the American social cell we have our founding myths, as well as Rome, and our heroes. Our heroes have moved from abstractions into more humble forces. To understand an age, look at what’s inside its social cell. In America, the inner walls are filled with books and movies, thrillers and supernatural thrillers, and unique in the American social scale is its welcome addition of those from other social cells to bring a piece of it with them, to enrich the social cell intended to be a place of many cultures, towards the idea of a multi-social cell, in which the individual foundational principles of other cells mix without malcontent. When malcontent is suspected, our imaginations are quick to fill in the blank, based on the way we would ourselves respond.

V Social division, rebellion, and revolution

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France

7

, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space.

37

CITATIONS

1. McLaren, A.N. “Political Culture in the Reign of Elizabeth I”. pp. 135

2. Smith, Jeremy L. “Unlawful Song”. pp. 497

3. Adams, Simon. “Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England.” CXXIII (501): pp. 457-458. doi: 10.1093/ehr/cen048

4. Nagel, Joana. “Constructing Ethinicity” Social problems 41.1: 152-176

5. Powers, Michael R. “Patterns, Real and Imagined: Observation and Theory.” In Acts of God and Man: Ruminations on Risk and Insurance, 191- 206. Columbia University Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/powe15366.17.

6. Kilpatrick, Caroll. “Nixon Resigns” Washington Post, 9 August 1974. p. A01

7. Woodward, Bob, Bernstein, Carl. “The Final Days” pp. 77-79

8. Dalton, Russell J. “The social transformation of trust in government.” International Review of Sociology (2005): pp. 133-154

9. Tacitus, Cornelius, “The Annals of Ancient Rome.” Vol. 60, 1973

10. Kalmey, R.P. “Shakespeare’s Octavius and Elizabethan Roman History” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 18, no. 2. pp. 275-287

11. Knight, Steven. “Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution”

13. Moore, Alan. “From Hell”

14. Wardman, Alan. “Rome’s Debt to Greece”. The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 29, no. 2. pp. 110-112.

15. Heinrich, Albert. “What is a Greek God?” pp. 19-40

16. Hadas, Moses. “Aesneas and the Tradition of the National Hero”. American Journal of Philology, vol. 69, no. 4. pp. 408-414

17. Menzies, James W. “True Myth” pp. 21-40

18. Clickering, Robert. “War Enthusiasm?” pp. 200-201

19. De Toqueville, Alexis “the Old Regime and the Revolution”

20. Schama, Simon. “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.” p. 84

21. Warnes, David. “Chronicle of the Russian Tsars.” p. 210

22. Warnes, David. Ibid. p. 211.

23. Oaklander, Mandy. “Here’s Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories.” Time Magazine, 14 August 2015

24. Ebert, Roger. “JFK Movie Review and Analysis” (1991) via: http://rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-jfk-1991

25. Bugliosi, Vincent. “Reclaiming History: the Assassination of John F. Kennedy”. p. 1354

26. Bugliosi, Vincent. Ibid. p. 1356

27. Harrison, John M. “A Crusade and Its Problems.” The Review of Politics 37, no. 1. pp. 122-125.

28. Swift, Art. “Majority in U.S. Still Believe JFK Killed in a Conspiracy” Gallup.com/poll/165893/majority-believe-jfk-killed-conspiracy.aspx

29. “Famous Veterans: Oliver Stone” – military.com

30. Stone, Oliver. Sklar, Zachary. “JFk: The Book of the Film”, p. 106.

31. Stone, Oliver. Sklar, Zachary. Ibid. p. 107

32. Prouty, L. Fletcher. “JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy.” p. 268

33. Prouty, L. Fletcher. Ibid.

34. Flavel, John H. “Cognitive Development” 2nd ed. p. 119

35. Flavell, John H. Ibid. pp. 120-121

36. Flavell, John H. Ibid. p. 121

37. Nielsen, Wendy C. “Staging” Rousseau’s Republic” Vol. 43, no. 3, pp.268-285

38. Lambe, Patrick J. “Biblical Criticism and Censorship in Ancien Regime France: The Case of Richard Simon.” Harvard theological review, 78(2-2 (1985) pp. 149-177

39. Darnton, Robert. “The forbidden books of pre-Revolutionary France. Month (1991): 1-32

40. “The Living Age” vol. 119, p. 83

41. Schama, Simon. “The Power of Art: Jaques-Louis David”

42. Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin. “The Marriage of Figaro” act V, scene III

43: Sargent, Thomas J. Velde, Francois R. “Macroeconomic Features of the French Revolution.” Journey of Political Economy 103, no. 3 (1995) pp. 474-518.

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THE SOCIAL CELL:

The Organizing Principle of Myth & Conspiracy

 

By BRANDON NOBLES
I
The Social Window

 

Students are no doubt familiar with Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. What might be less familiar is the social climate in which the play was written. There was a long secession crisis in Tudor England during the 1560s1 and the possibility of civil war was very real2. With no heir and obvious successor, it’s not hard to imagine that Elizabeth I sensed plots all around her, with Parliament standing in for the senators of Rome in Shakespeare’s drama. She had every right to be uneasy. There were plots all around Elizabeth I. Denounced as a heretic by the pope, there were conspirators working to undermine Elizabeth in Rome, France, and Spain, intent on putting the Catholic Mary Steward on the throne.3

The interesting thing about the way conspiracies motivate and bring people together is how much of a social process it is. Conspiracy theories are a type of popular, secular mythography, where there are vast forces at work behind the scenes, whispering together. In ancient cultures, beliefs and cultural identity came from tradition, traditions in storytelling or rituals.4 A social cell ranges from a small collective arranged together by mutual interests, such as a tribe, but any collective, large or small, that has a cultural character that binds individuals together. A civilization would be regarded as a realized social cell when its majority of interacting social objects share a motivations, beliefs, values, and goals, and the rituals of community life. The bond of community is a strong social glue.

Historically, a generic social cell was built on the foundation of myth, identity, purpose, motivation, meaning, and purpose. A civil purpose, the familiar routines of tradition and communal meals at synagogue, church, or Masonic lodge. Conspiracy touches on notions of structural stability, that of institutions and social, greater good establishments for an organized people, where the social cell perpetuates shared values which give individuals a group identity of shared values and non-social goals. A pre-social cells is a society that hasn’t congealed, or one that is together purely for survival and necessity. When we consider groups, we would do better to consider individual motives. The study of conspiracy theory allows us to look at how belief takes shape by looking at myth as it happens, in popular entertainment, literature and culture. It helps us understand how societies function in their formation and disintegration. In conspiracy theories, one can work by looking for patterns. And sometimes, when we are possessed of a belief, we tend to see patterns everywhere.5

Another interesting facet of conspiracies is that of popular hysteria and historical impact, with many failed conspiracies exerting an impressive influence on the present. Not just what we’re familiar with, like Watergate and the following investigation, as seen in All the President’s Men. The conspiracy was revealed, and Richard Nixon resigned 2 months after its publication6, as the whole process is painstakingly detailed in the follow up to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation, as the Nixon administration falls apart.7

is a conspiracy without seeming resolution, an open-ended conspiracy, in which popular movements gather around it as a cause, that motivational factor. The social cell deteriorated, belief, faith in the confidence in the American system of government.8 But the cell stabilized, and the government, if less trusted, continued on. Gerald Ford was sworn in on 8 August 1974.9

In Shakespeare’s play, we see a social cell of like-minded senators to overthrow his rule; while watching it, and for years before it was written, one conspiracy after another attempted the overthrow of Elizabeth I. In writing it, surely he would have been nervous, about his own time, as the death of Julius Caesar would lead to one of the most destructive civil wars in Roman history, The Last War of the Roman Republic9 would see the Republic’s end, with Caesar’s heir Octavius (Later Caesar Augustus) would become the first Emperor of Rome.10  

 

 

II

INTERSOCIAL MYTHMAKING

 

Murder by Degree was released in 1976. Starring Christopher Plummer and George Mason. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on the trail of the elusive Jack the Ripper. Sherlock Holmes story, which – like all conspiracies that work with other, larger conspiracies, there is a shared mythology each time a new conspiracy answer is added to the collective myth, as the collected myths of Hesiod, the traditional Orphic poems, and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.11 Each tale fills in the blanks where other myths are silent, therefore giving the foundation a more solid structure simply by making it a part of a structure that is already a foundation.

The movie Murder by Decree is a pastiche 12 in that it takes popular storytelling elements from many sources by using real life events, such as the Jack the Ripper murders and the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who continue to be popular because they are adaptable to different times. The reason Jack the Ripper has remained popular is because no one knows the truth which makes it adaptable to conspiracy theories and allows for the practice of speculation, letting us project our own fears onto the unknown. Alan Moore13 wrote a graphic novel in 2001 that borrowed parts of the Masonic conspiracy from Murder by Decree. It’s not popular opinion it’s popular thinking, popular interaction.

It is understandable for a period of such chaos and confusion to generate ever more elaborate conspiracy theories. An unsolved murder mystery is a natural environment for a conspiracy theory, as they thrive in high profile, unsolved murders and cold cases. In Murder by Decree, the author seems to work by the notion of propinquity, that of establishing proximity and thereby a ‘link’ that confirms a certain idea, making innocuous correlations seem ominous and deeply important. What remains remarkable about this is the mixing of myth with purported fact, the connecting the dots method of research, and is an international, multisocial myth.

Understanding how myth influences the way we think, through Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories14 or bad movies, may let us understand what social myth offered pre-social societies. Any force capable of disturbing social order like famine or natural disasters, capable of destroying societies, was sure to have related mythography. It was by the social progress that a non-personal idea becomes a shared public object, which works as a refined coping mechanism.

The multisocial myths was popular after the Roman conquest of Greece, where Rome adopted Greek deities, storytelling traditions, and philosophical ideas of the new satellite state.15 This is an example of a stronger social cell absorbing and retaining the core of an assimilated social conscience through conquest. The seasons themselves are given character, personality, and agency, such as in etiological story of Demeter’s despair, with the crops failing upon her daughter Persephone departed each yard for the underworld. This was a personal relationship of interactive social forces.14 Roman would develop its own social-historical myths and characters16.  When cultures endure severe times, famine, plague, and disease, a means of humanity’s endurance during these confusing and chaotic times is to ‘attempt to define the indefinable’17.

The practice of making sense of chaos and of tragedy is a recognizable primordial form of conspiracism. Powerful forces behind the scenes, mighty and awesome beings of immense influence and empires, capable of holding empires beneath the whims and caprice of invisible hands – the use of anthropomorphic gods as stand-ins for natural abstracts – makes them more familiar; and there is comfort in familiarity.

is an imprint of what individual lives within the cell were like; it is a social thumbprint

Etiology is the ennobling of one’s past and allows for something in the social sphere to mean something, rather than it be a senseless loss, or unpoetic, cruel human loss. In the case of a conspiracy, the subsequent imparting of meaning somehow adds our non-social person to the material relationship within the social cell.

As ancient civilizations build their myth and culture around the powers that held them in thrall, each reckoned as an abstracted quality given human form, modern conspiracy theory often contains many of these elements. From the prevalence of powerful groups manipulating events from behind the scenes, to a small group of recurring powers with control extending like long filaments into every orifice of the world, they’re omnipresent

The relationship between the building of myth and conspiracy is not superficial. Both attempt to explain the inexplicable; each are populated by an attempt to give meaning to and find solace in a tragedy by giving it a familiar, recognizable face. Further, the modern conspiracy culture is an ever expanding group, with a founding myth that gives purpose to their efforts, with the task of giving a human face to these unseen forces and ascribing meaning to the innumerable questions conspiracy theories generate. With a human face and a sense of meaning, a group has an identity and a purpose, with their actions ennobled.

Finally, a myth is bound to reinforce a sense of cultural identity through the organizing principle and build bonds through a new, shared understanding, like the pantheon of Roman gods, by looking closely at them and seeing their fears, their idea of heroism and virtue, of villainy and vice. In short, it is the window into the anatomy of an ancient and long-lived human tendency to look for meaning, to look for patterns in nature and in human behavior.

The manner of a founding myth’s stability for a civilization and larger society comes from much older processes in the human brain, not limited to human beings. Connecting the dots, pattern recognition, seeing causal relationships between nature and material action. In pre-industrial social cells, the inclination to conspiratorial thinking and designs of competing social cells, cells competing within with out-growths or at war with a foreign, differently organized and motivated cell, allowed for individuals to have a sense that they were a part of something larger than themselves, and that it wasn’t all meaningless. Sometimes that’s enough for a society to survive, as long as some part of it becomes a part of a future socio-organizational myth.

The character of the surviving social cell then is a society unified behind traditional beliefs, history, and culture, and its consistency among the population can be viewed as the measure of the cell’s popular cohesion. By connecting an individual’s misfortune with that of the social cell, or with characters of history and legend, persons can draw strength and motivation from these traditions, mythical characters, and the behavior of great culture heroes., mutual belief, and a shared history is how a social cell is defined, it is an important factory in a society’s behavior, internally and externally.

In other cases, a newly formed social cell, after passing through a period of rebellion (usually revolution), will go to war as a means of social unification and nationality. This way, a newly formed social cell remains stable as a cell in rebellion, without having to settle for a cohesive national structure. One popular example of this is the myth of war enthusiasm in pre-World World I Germany. War enthusiasm is a popular term used to define the spirit of national identity prior to the war.18 One can’t help notice the similar public attitude during times of revolution, as the enthusiasm for revolution in France was far more pervasive – including elements of every rung of society, from the poorest to the emperor – than the enthusiastic patriots of a newly founded and suddenly powerful German. The citizens of the newly formed social cell of Germany had the legends and heroes of the wars of German unification, giving a newly united and sovereign cell, founding on a myth of revolution. A perpetually revolutionary cell will fall apart, as much as a perpetually anti-social cell will fall to multisocial cells.

One of the major nexus points in world history is the conspiracy to assassinate Arch Franz Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

            A conspiracy in theory is a shared dissenting myth, around which motivated groups become organized. Rallied by principle and motivated by social, or political goals, a conspiracy theory sometimes rebels against a standard, accepted structure within a society. When there is social dissent within a shared myth or religious schism, one sees civil war and reformation. Sometimes, in post-industrial social cells, the denunciation of a previously established ideal can become a large enough cell in itself to push against its traditions, which can lead to revolution, such as the French Revolution of 178319.

As historian Simon Schama observed: “Virtually as soon as the term was coined, ‘old regime’ was automatically freighted with associations of both traditionalism and senescence. It conjured up a society so encrusted with anachronisms that only a shock of great violence could free the living organism within.”20 The French revolution can be said to demonstrate the principle of a cell in rebellion, an attempt to remake tradition and overturn what had been a majority. It can be seen as a rebellious cell’s attempt to force agreement for survival upon a possibly weak social cell and overturn it, as the monarchy collapsed during the Revolution of February 23-24, called the February revolution, as food riots broke out in Pretrograd.21  On March 3rd, tsarist rule had come to an end.22

Revolutionaries are best viewed as social discontents, with socially cognitive objects in mind, and the means and nerve to carry out the socio-political objective through interaction with other social objects, persons or groups of persons. Non-social, personal interactions within cells can change the nature of the social sphere, the space between the inner and outer walls. The outer wall is our organizing impulse, maintained by social-interpersonal agreements. Social thought is a cohesive structure for maintaining a stable society, and for a social cell to be overcome, a transformation of the culture, traditions, and social mores must change with it, and the new core must be attained by majority.

 

III

JFK, Subversion and the Cell in Rebellion

 

In a Times article in 201423 Here’s Why We Believe in Conspiracies, prominent conspiracy scholar Jan-Willem van Prooijen, associate professor in social and organizational psychology at VU University Amsterdam, said, “Conspiracy theories often crop up during times of uncertainty and fear: after terrorist strikes, financial crises, high-profile deaths and natural disasters. Past research suggests that if people feel they don’t have control over a situation, they’ll try to make sense of it and find out what happened. The sense-making leads them to connect dots that aren’t necessarily connected in reality.”

After reviewing JFK, Roger Ebert was approached by Walter Cronkite for his review.24 “There is not a bit of truth in it!” Cronkite said. The late film critic later wrote in his review that he felt that Stone was capturing a pervasive mood in the counter-culture about the assassination, that it was a film that captured the way some Americans felt, about the need for answers in the days and then years after the assassination.

Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison is a good fit for the character. His motivation and passion is understood as depicted. As assassination researcher and former Los Angeles County Public Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi puts it in Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy “…Rejecting the message of the clean-cut, wholesome-looking Costner (Garrison) is like rejecting motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag.”25

In the film, Costner’s take on Garrison is a patriot, open-minded, truth-seeking detective, looking to expose a vast conspiracy that has gotten to the heart of the American social cell. To seek the truth is a heroic act, to expose crime in places where the abuse of power is most likely is courageous, even. They follow leads, doggedly pursing them wherever they leave. They are physically and morally courageous, against a large and faceless system, intent upon giving it a face.

JFK perverts this in a way, historically, by neglecting to mention any detractions from the case Garrison attempts to put together in the film. Where it becomes social mythmaking is in providing questions and then answering them selectively. It is informative in showing the process of popular myth and belief as it is being made. What’s the harm, then? As Bugliosi puts it, “The problem with Stone is, really, not that he egregiously fictionalized the Kennedy assassination. The problem was is that he was trying to convince everyone he was telling the truth.”26

A small group of patriots are pitted against the endless bureaucracies of the US Government, and they have their phones tapped. Team members betray the group (an evolving rebellion cell against an established social cell). The film’s world is a small group of men who are behind the major events, while we little people can’t even begin to comprehend the vast and inexplicable subtleties of this grand design. It is a tale of betrayal and personal sacrifice, but it’s for the sanctity of American traditions, for the truth. In a way, it is Jim Garrison playing the offenders of Caesar’s murder in the Shakespearean play, as Garrison brings up Julius Caesar to a fellow-researcher who is having doubts.27 In the end, in the prosecution’s final summation, he gets to the heart of his accusation:

In JFK, Oliver Stone is attempting to present a widespread discontent which Americans had built up over the years, and takes a bit here and bit there from other prominent researchers whose work had kept the movement going between the release of the Warren Commission Report and the release of JFK. Since its release in ’91, as of 15 November 2013, according to a Gallup poll28, the majority of Americans believe JFK was killed in a conspiracy. This is common in cases of social thinking, or individual-social ideation – where a single person is influencing through social means the thoughts of a significant amount of people.

As a legal drama, JFK works as a film, but only by using ahistorical composite characters, such as “X”. X is important because he supplies the foundation myth for a new generation of anti-social cells: Oliver Stone joined the U.S. Army in 1967, and returned “very mixed up, very paranoid, and very alienated,”29 like many of his generation. The foundation myth of the Kennedy is that the president was taken out because he intended to withdraw from Vietnam. Surely, this is something that would’ve influenced Stone deeply and personally, as a veteran. When “X” introduced himself as “one of those secret guys in the pentagon”, and goes on to give the following speech:

“I spent much of September ’63 working on the Kennedy plan for getting all us personnel out of Vietnam by the end of ’65. This plan was one of the strongest and most important papers issued from the Kennedy White House. Our first 1,000 troops were ordered home for Christmas.”30

The plan mentioned in X’s statement is National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263.

L Fletcher Prouty, on whom X is based, really worked close to people involve in the formulating of this plan, but there is precious little evidence that Prouty himself had anything to do with. In his book, JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy repeats a similar claim (summarizing the McGeroge-Bundy cover letter that accompanied NSAM 263):  

            “At a meeting on October 5, 1964, the President considered the recommendations contained in the report of Secretary McNamara and General Taylor on their mission to South Vietnam. The President approved the military recommenddations contained in Section I B (1-3) of the report, but directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 1963.”31

                                                 Prouty goes on to quote the relevant section of the McNamara-Taylor report:

IB(2) A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by US military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of US military personnel by that time.

IB(2) In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 1963.32

This leads Prouty to conclude, “In brief, those sections above are the essence of the Kennedy policy that would take men out of Vietnam in 1963 and the bulk of all military personnel out by 1965.”33

In order to understand Oliver Stone’s perspective in evaluating this film and its legacy, one might attempt to ‘solve’ it, or at least draw an inference based on our understanding of conspiratorial groups as cells in rebellion of their natural social environment, wherein a rebel cell might attempt majority and grow, based on how many social objects reject sources from once trusted foundations. By our study of myth as etiology, drive to search for truth and meaning.

For viewers, it’s easy to see how the tragedy of the JFK assassination is compounded by the tragedy of the Vietnam War, as it was for Oliver Stone, in which millions would be killed or wounded, and millions more shocked and sobered by the horrors of war. To take JFK from the people by this assassination, from the people he might have otherwise spared the traumas of this divisive, ignominious war, is a greater tragedy than that of a lone assassin. This is how a social event can directly affect someone on a non-social level, and motivate them to rally around a social object as a means of organization and of personal principle.  

            From the perspective of Stone and many, an entire generation – a lost microbe of what may have become foundational and contributed to the stability of the national/cultural – to look at this film as fact, the conspiracy theory turns JFK into more than a victim, shot while the world looked on, in broad daylight – it gives us a martyr, someone who died for a cause, giving meaning to his death beyond the event itself, but, as we’ve seen, gives us closure, stability, and a chance to get our bearings.

When a rebellion cell achieves majority, the record is distorted, the social cell deteriorates and is sickened by mixed constituent parts. History therefore is viewed through a warped lens when a minority individuals within a social cell rally together and achieve majority of believe, they are a cell in rebellion of the established cell. In such a case, the social cell’s outer membrane loses cohesion and assumes the identity of the rebel cell, wherein the filters of conspiracy are placed atop the historical record.

Our socio-personal development of conspiratorial thinking is an early stage of social-cognitive development, where we begin to consider others as social objects, with intent, motivation, belief, and purpose as oneself. Recognizing that someone can exist outside of the self as an independent object in a social environment, we can look at scenarios and project more or less how we would act if put in the same situation.

As we gradually become aware of another person as a thinking agent, the first step towards psychological, motivational inference is in reading someone’s intent by an examination of their actions. In Cognitive Development34 John H. Flavell outlines social cognition as series of developmental stages, each a part of social cognition’s complexities as we interact with others, and attempt to recognize other social phenomena, that of persons as thinking persons, with intents and points of view different than ourselves, it is the basic knowledge of aspect of the social world exists in life35, that of its existence.35 The first stage is the mere recognizing of another person, or persons, as social phenomena within a realm of interactive possibility. To think sociably, one considers that others, as individuals and groups, and among groups, have different ideas, beliefs, and unique perspective.

The next stage of social cognition is need36, which amounts to individual attempts at understanding and acting with awareness of others’ feelings and experiences.37 Inference concerns a capacity to carry out social thinking successfully, though the thinking need not be strictly defined as inference, but more broadly as any social cognitive process, the discussion of personal ideas between individuals on a given subject. If you have the disposition to rely on inference as an act of social cognition, for example, you might look at a conversation and find a specific remark that is indicative of a broader range of beliefs and personal feelings.

Social cogitation is the sharing of inferences about the relationship between people and events, and the collective process of social cogitation is an organizing principle behind social groups, persons and individuals. Interactions between one person engaged in social cogitation and another influence anyone else involved in the social sphere capable of further inferences from these micro-interactions, or interactions among groups.

An important realization is that any cohesive society relies on harmonious social thinking; those an individual, like an individual social cell, is only one among many in the world, as an individual is only one among many, they have telling interactions when a post-social cell or united-social cells become possible. Social thinking is individual’s public voice, the chorus of which, among others, should be considered the mucus membrane of any social cell, whereas the inner core is a founding narrative, the recitation of the society’s origin and myths to reinvigorate and motive traditional social arrangements.

 

 

V

Social division, rebellion, and revolution

 

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France7, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

            In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space.37 Ordinary people got involved in the questions before the government. Books which offended the Royal Censor, such as the work of Enlightenment philosophes, were often censored in old regime France.38 Works that undermined the monarchy or the clergy, like Voltaire’s Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were censored and some of the books were literally taken to prison.39

Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro in the 1780s. Reading it now, it seems tame. But at the time it was so radical that the censor took it to King Louis XVI himself. Louis said: “This shall never be played. It would be necessary to dismantle the Bastille itself before this could be played without consequences. This man mocks at everything in the government which ought to be respected.”40

Despite being formally banned, the play was an enormous hit in private salons. And when the ban was lifted, Figaro became one of the smash hits of the century41. What was it that made it so popular? It had the Royal Censor, which was sure to bring a crowd, as Simon Schama put it in his series The Power of Art.41 But on the other hand, it was cheap, and accessible to a wide class of society, from the madames and monsieur in the boxes to the often illiterate peasants in the pit.

The subversion that cut so deep into the traditions of old regime France aren’t noticeable today. But in a society of rank inequality between the classes, the rich and the poor, its egalitarian message, its winks to the clever and scrappy princes of Spain, Beaumarchais undermined the very foundation of the French social cell:

“Nobility, rank, position, how proud they make a man feel! You think because you are great nobleman you are a genius? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”42

Calling an estates general would bring together representatives of the three legal orders of politically active Frenchmen: the aristocracy, the clergy, and the commoners. It had been inactive since 1614, and was called due to the financial crisis following France’s military support of America in its war of revolution against the British. The nation was going broke. The debt crisis was due primarily to the war with Britain and participating in the American Revolution. And years of poor harvests had caused grain riots in Paris43.  

This estates general brought the inequality of the old regime into sharp relief. It was bred into the French way of life. A seigneur or seigneury upon taking up residence in their parish takes their special pew at the front of the church, usually adorned by their coat of arms. The peasants of the lands pledge to work so much and dedicate so much barley and grain over the year. Traditional seigneurial dues allowed them to make bizarrely specific requests and demands of their peasants: for example, one nobleman’s list of dues was a number of ornamental feathers, a quota of olive oil and wine, a chicken, and a pair of leather gloves. The Catholic political arm of the old regime, weren’t only exempt from royal taxes, but got to impose a tithe on the peasants, while the seigneurial dues were owed to landowners by all peasants who worked in the lord’s bakery, or who made wine in the lord’s press.44

This was not a society in which secretly and behind the scenes a small group of rich men plotted on oppressing the public, distorting information to control and make them into mindless workers. This was not a secret. The notion of conspiracy, that of people in high office making subversive plans against the public, that was not a theory; it was a way of life. The foundations of King, aristocracy, tradition, ritual and the clergy were the foundational pillars of the French social cell, a cell rapidly losing cohesion. The revolutionaries didn’t want to overthrow the government, at first, with the right supporting the King. The political climate was tense when news of

After a major defeat in the Battle of Neerwinden in March 1793, he made a desperate move to save himself from his radical enemies. Arresting the four deputy-commissioners of the National Convention who had been sent to inquire into his conduct (Camus, Bancal-des-Issarts, Quinette, and Lamarque) as well as the Minister of War, Pierre Riel de Beurnonville, he handed them over to the enemy, and then attempted to persuade his troops to march on Paris and overthrow the revolutionary government. The attempt failed, and Dumouriez, along with the duc de Chartres (afterwards King Louis Philippe) and his younger brother, the duc de Montpensier, fled into the Austrian camp. This blow left the Girondists vulnerable due to their association with Dumouriez.

Citizen soldiers fought royalists in the Vende, in Western France, and after Dumirouriez defection, the left was radicalized, and quick to use the Girondists’ former support and political consistency with the traitorous general, and in radical press agigators like Jean-Paul Marat, a conspiracy-minded Jacobin who had predicted many of the turning points of the revolution, and when he pointed to a conspiracy, the revolutionary tribunal, once established, would take

            To get past suspicions, of which conspiracy theory is now the formal disbelief, the inter-social exchange should be encouraged, when a social cell can interact with others and incorporate without absorbing, then the multisocial cell construct becomes possible.

A multisocial cell is the achievement of a society that can survive the attempts of anti-social opposition from without and rebel cells from within. This is a national stage of social development, as our first tribes were strictly isolated and xenophobic, our most modern social cells run the spectrum of hated, tolerated, supportive in its willingness towards social polyculturalism. In the anti-social cell, the tradition is a collection of traditions the individual social objects reject. But, as a rebel cell can only survive amid opposition, it cannot outlast the multisocial cell; for the cell in rebellion must be in rebellion to survive.

As Jacopo della Quercia’s recent books8 The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocketwatch Conspiracy and License to Quill have shown, our enduring interest in conspiracy theories, whether in history, entertainment, literature and film, continues unabated. His recent works are, as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. By using history as an inspiration for a tale of discovery, intended to seek answers to great questions, to seek, to solve great mysteries of the past and use them as lessons for the mysteries that persist. While Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard II drew inspiration from other cultures, such as Rome and that of his own unique social history, Jacopo’s work draws upon popular tradition and even historical fiction to reveal what are timeless truths, multisocial foundations and unique attribute of the modern attempt at a multisocial cell: expressing a celebration of foreign histories and traditions as well as inter-social history, cultural diversity and adventure provide the foundations for future, possible multisocial cells.

Incorporating multiple traditions and myths into a social cell does not dilute the composite of the whole. They establish an elasticity and flexible structure, a foundation that will not break when pulled apart or when holes are picked in any individual foundation; a multisocial, polycultural cell is a hope for the future, perhaps.

 

V

Towards a Multisocial Social Model

 

While JFK’s posthumous reputation has done to glorify him and lament the loss of promise shown by the handsome, young president and charming wife, only time will tell if this interactive social mythmaking keeps majority as a rebel cell, and further, how long a traditional social cell can remain cohesive with an alternative majority within a wider cultural consensus. One needs to look only to Nero, or to the irony of Lee Harvey Oswald, the person to whom all evidence points as the assassin, has been pardoned, with many within the conspiracy community believing in his absolute innocence. To contrast that, it’s a popular myth that the Emperor Nero ‘fiddled while Rome burned’.1

Cassius Dio’s account of the Great Fire and Nero’s Role in it can be found in his Roman History. Cassius Dio’s account is unflattering to say the least. He begins with the claim that “Nero set his heart on making an end of the whole realm dying during his lifetime.”2 Dio’s account continues as Nero sets about sending out men pretending to be drunk or engaged in general hooliganism while setting fire to different parts of the city. After several days and nights of destruction and deluge, the wailing of children and lamentations of the women fill the air. Nero ascends to the roof of the palace which offered the greatest view of the conflagration. And assuming his lyre player’s garb he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself.source please

Suetonius’ account of Nero in The Twelve Caesars3 is similarly unflattering. In this account, Suetonius states that Nero pretended to be disgusted with the drab old apartments and the narrow, winding streets of Rome. He brazenly set fire to the series. Suetonius adds that two ex-consuls caught Nero’s attendants with tow and blazing torches trespassing on their property but did not interfere. Nero also used the fire to take over several granaries he coveted, solidly built of stone.

Suetonius claims the terror lasted for six days and seven nights, as people were forced to take shelter in monuments and tombs while Nero’s men destroyed apartment buildings as well as mansions that once belonged to famous generals, still decorated in their triumphal trophies; temples, dedicated and vowed by the Kings and others during the Punic & Gallic wars – in fact every ancient monument that had hitherto survived. Here’s where Suetonius deviates from the account of Cassius Dio:

“Nero watched the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, enraptured by ‘the beauty of the flames”4. Then Nero put on his tragedians’ costume & and sang the sack of Illyricum. This is an example of a social myth in progress, though not quite congealed yet as a hardened part of the social cell. The thorough establishment of this socio-political myth is interrupted by Tacitus’ accounts from Annals.

            In this account Nero was staying at his country estate at Antium and didn’t even return to the capital until the fire was nearing the house by which he had connected the Palatine with the gardens of Maecenas. After the fire proved unstoppable, before it could engulf the Palatine and the house and all their immediate surroundings, Nero continued to work to save property and lives. In this account, instead of singing (just yet) Nero worked hard to provide relief for the homeless and fugitive populace, opening the Campus Martius, the buildings of Agrippa, even his own gardens and threw up a number of extemporized shelters to accommodate the helpless multitude. The necessities of life were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring municipalities, and the price of grain was lowered to three sesterces.

With all of this effort, how did the Emperor become the suspect and ultimately accused of starting the fire? Tacitus gives us a hint at how tales, like those of Cassius Dio and Suetonius, were “the subject of few substantial conversations, but many earnest whispered accusations.”4 Nero’s measures may not have been as popular as their moral character might be, having failed in their effect to reassure and console; for the report spread that at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had taken to his private stage and, typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, he had sung of the destruction of Troy.

The hint he gives for why this rumor might have caught on was that, after the first fire was finally brought under control at the edge of the Esquiline by demolishing the buildings over a vast area and opposing the great unabated fury, a clear tract of ground opened on the horizon. But the fears had not been allayed, nor had hope returned to the people when the fire resumed its ravages.

Here we have a massive tragedy, again, the conspiratorial fountain of youth, confusion and chaos are in the blood, and social thinking has been blanked by fear; the loss of home and shelter and, the second flame according to Tacitus caused the greater controversy as it had broken out on Aemilian property of Tigellinus and appearances suggested that Nero was seeking the glory of founding a new capital and endowing it with his own name.”5

The ensuing national trauma was naturally a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, instead of reconciling their lot with the type of senseless tragedy this would be without some agency behind it, the people are left with nothing: no home or property, and no totem, or fear ikon on which to concentrate their exasperation. In the instance of natural disasters, humanity has the seemingly natural inclination to give intent and personality to the forces responsible. They gave Zeus the lightning bolt and virtue, Demeter weeping in the winter over the departure of the summer and her daughter. This instance of a human being given human traits is unique, as – at least as far as absolute power was concerned – an Emperor of Rome had as much power as was capable of being concentrated in two hands in the world at the time, a type of power less than a thousand people have historically wielded, and in front of this type of human power we have the same fear response. It is, as ever, a social definition that runs contrary to the official record. Instilling such fear in a populace can be beneficial for a ruler like Caesar Augustus, the longest uninterrupted ruler of Roman in its history at that time. And after Nero, there would be no heirs to the Julio-Claudian family, and again, there would be civil war.6

Suetonius himself was born in the Year of the Four Emperors, a society in which generals and pretenders vied for the Imperial title7 the first civil war since the assassination of Julius Caesar, which we discussed in the very first chapter. As it was with Figaro, poking at the structure of a long lived social cell can cause it to deteriorate. Over and over we’ve looked at conspiracy as an organizing principle, but organizational principles are operative when there is first separateness. The organizing principle of conspiracy theorizing and socio-mythography among individuals coming together is the motivational tendency toward civilization and culture.

            We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France7, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

A social conscience and shared culture is easy to take for granted; all the movie references our friends make we are able to share in a social moment only because in being saturated by the same pop culture, and as we share meanings we can move onto share meaningful things.

            Social cognition is the necessary condition of a conscious social cell. Discontent with the foundations of an established cell in a time of stagnation is the outgrowth of displacement or reform, that of the rebel cell. During an outgrowth of a potential replacement cell – when a rebel off-shoot obtains majority – we can see how people form into groups and how groups and civilizations tend towards collective villains and heroes, which ultimately adds up to a group sharing perspectives, rather than the limitation of inference and suspicion, a motivating principle of shared means and ends would be collective thinking, in which people imagine together.

The social cell is the end result of the mechanism of cultural exchange involved in the faces of snow clouds, the personalities of a violent sea, and within the American social cell we have our founding myths, as well as Rome, and our heroes. Our heroes have moved from abstractions into more humble forces. To understand an age, look at what’s inside its social cell. In America, the inner walls are filled with books and movies, thrillers and supernatural thrillers, and unique in the American social scale is its welcome addition of those from other social cells to bring a piece of it with them, to enrich the social cell intended to be a place of many cultures, towards the idea of a multi-social cell, in which the individual foundational principles of other cells mix without malcontent. When malcontent is suspected, our imaginations are quick to fill in the blank, based on the way we would ourselves respond.

 

V

Social division, rebellion, and revolution

 

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France7, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

            In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space.37 Ordinary people got involved in the questions before the government. Books which offended the Royal Censor, such as the work of Enlightenment philosophes, were often censored in old regime France.38 Works that undermined the monarchy or the clergy, like Voltaire’s Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were censored and some of the books were literally taken to prison.39

Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro in the 1780s. Reading it now, it seems tame. But at the time it was so radical that the censor took it to King Louis XVI himself. Louis said: “This shall never be played. It would be necessary to dismantle the Bastille itself before this could be played without consequences. This man mocks at everything in the government which ought to be respected.”40

Despite being formally banned, the play was an enormous hit in private salons. And when the ban was lifted, Figaro became one of the smash hits of the centur41. What was it that made it so popular? It had the Royal Censor, which was sure to bring a crow, as Simon Schama put it in his series The Power of Art.41 But on the other hand, it was cheap, and accessible to a wide class of society, from the madams and monsieur in the boxes to the often illiterate peasants in the pit.

The subversion that cut so deep into the traditions of old regime France aren’t noticeable today. But in a society of rank inequality between the classes, the rich and the poor, its egalitarian message, its winks to the clever and scrappy princes of Spain, Beaumarchais undermined the very foundation of the French social cell:

“Nobility, rank, position, how proud they make a man feel! You think because you are great nobleman you are a genius? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”42

Calling an estates general would bring together representative of the three legal orders of politically active Frenchmen: the aristocracy (who , the clergy, and the commoners. It had been inactive since 1614, and was called due to the financial crisis following France’s military support of America in its war of revolution against the British. The nation was going broke. The debt crisis was due primarily to the war with Britain and participating in the American Revolution. And years of poor harvests had caused grain riots in Paris43.  

This estates general brought the inequality of the old regime into sharp relief. It was bred into the French way of life. A seigneur or seigneury upon taking up residence in their parish takes their special pew at the front of the church, usually adorned by their coat of arms. The peasants of the lands pledge to work so much and dedicate so much barley and grain over the year. Traditional seigneurial dues allowed them to make bizarrely specific requests and demands of their peasants: for example, one nobleman’s list of dues was a number of ornamental feathers, a quota of olive oil and wine, a chicken, and a pair of leather gloves. The Catholic political arm of the old regime, weren’t only exempt from royal taxes, but got to impose a tithe on the peasants, while the seigneurial dues were owed to landowners by all peasants who worked in the lord’s bakery, or who made wine in the lord’s press.44 (fine)

This was not a society in which secretly and behind the scenes a small group of rich men plotted on oppressing the public, distorting information to control and make them into mindless workers. This was not a secret. The notion of conspiracy, that of people in high office making subversive plans against the public, that was not a theory; it was a way of life. The foundations of King, aristocracy, tradition, ritual and the clergy were the foundational pillars of the French social cell, a cell rapidly losing cohesion. (source –

 

            To get past suspicions, of which conspiracy theory is now the formal disbelief, the inter-social exchange should be encouraged, when a social cell can interact with others and incorporate without absorbing, then the multisocial cell construct becomes possible.

A multisocial cell is the achievement of a society that can survive the attempts of anti-social opposition from without and rebel cells from within. This is a national stage of social development, as our first tribes were strictly isolated and xenophobic, our most modern social cells run the spectrum of hated, tolerated, supportive in its willingness towards social polyculturalism. In the anti-social cell, the tradition is a collection of traditions the individual social objects reject. But, as a rebel cell can only survive amid opposition, it cannot outlast the multisocial cell; for the cell in rebellion must be in rebellion to survive.

As Jacopo della Quercia’s recent books8 The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocketwatch Conspiracy and License to Quill have shown, our enduring interest in conspiracy theories, whether in history, entertainment, literature and film, continues unabated. His recent works are, as Shakespeare’s Julias Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. By using history as an inspiration for a tale of discovery, intended to seek answers to great questions, to seek, to solve great mysteries of the past and use them as lessons for the mysteries that persist. While Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard II drew inspiration from other cultures, such as Rome and that of his own unique social history, Jacopo’s work draws upon popular tradition and even historical fiction to reveal what are timeless truths, multisocial foundations and unique attribute of the modern attempt at a multisocial cell: expressing a celebration of foreign histories and traditions as well as inter-social history, cultural diversity and adventure provide the foundations for future, possible multisocial cells.

Incorporating multiple traditions and myths into a social cell does not dilute the composite of the whole. They establish an elasticity and flexible structure, a foundation that will not break when pulled apart or when holes are picked in any individual foundation; a multisocial, polycultural cell is a hope for the future, perhaps.

As for everyone else, society was not seen as a collection of individuals with legal or civil rights before the law. For commoners the possibility of advancement in life was slim, and the opportunity to advance based on talent, merit, or strength of character was one of the major egalitarian goals of the revolutionaries, to give everyone a say in the workings of their country and give the commoners the ability to advance on merit. The question that has been asked is why revolution broke out in an economically dynamic country. And while the answer isn’t a simple one, the peasants of France got to see themselves as just as deserving of natural rights as all the other citizens of France. Figaro stirred up a social cell and gave it egalitarian social goals, inspired by the great philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Diderot, who compiled the first encyclopedia, and his great compilation of articles intended as a future repository of the basics of human knowledge, systematizing it, and getting the people to think about these freedoms made them extremely motivated; sometimes motivated by the latest discussion of the new ideas, and later by their desperate attempt to enact these new principles.

Jacques Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat

Jacque-Louis David’s festivals, honoring unity and indivisiblity. He had become famous as a neo-classical painting, but worked to become the pageant master of the revolution. A die hard jacobin, in 1793, his parade was full of symbolism, starting from the place de la bastille, going past stations celebrating the history of revolution. At the end stood a statue of liberation. At another demonstration a thousand doves were freed and flew off with banners tied along their legs reading “we are free”! They were salvos of artillery, songs, crowds on the chon de Mars. To motivate the people, the republican needed a symbol to represent to new nation. This was Marion. She was a goddess, an emblem that wouldn’t make anyone think of kings. But Mario didn’t have the masculine build of a female. They used Roman traditions of sculpture for abstract concepts of freedom of liberty, as Rome’s great mother goddess statue. And Marion wasn’t too far from Mary, which wasn’t too far from the former Catholic majority’s mother goddess Mary. They built temples and made statues of the French philosophes, musicians from the opera. The female liberty was the goddess of reason, in a temple of reason. The jacobin leaders wanted to lean harder on the church, but Robespierre believed that an all out war on the church, as the other jacobins wanted, would drive more people into the camps of their enemies. And it would, as civil war broke out in Vende, in western france. But, the revolutionaries wanted to save the people from fanacitism. So what did they do? Dechristianizers invaded churches and ripped paintings from the walls, tore down statues, and made bonfires out of holy relics, calling them the bonfires of fanatacis. “If this revolution is over and there are still the poor, it will have failed.” The French celebrated, linking revolution to an internation war against kings – threatening the social structure of neighboring cells, as the new anti-social state began to go to war with others, absorbing some, founding others with new, enlightening principles and declarations of civil rights. This was in the days before the revolution became violent. Dechristianers asked maybe they should put a donkey on a crowd to satirize kings, fouche, no, it would be too degrading for the donkey. These were the works on the other side of the rebellion witin the rebellion; the celebratory theatre of the new culture of revolution. And in one of their rituals, they were to put a bishop representing superstition into the fire and it turned into reason and was saved. Rituals of inversion were popular, where lay-people played out their rebellious, teenage ideals. There was a sense of civic movement, of millions activated around a specific motivational priciple, and at the heart of it was the conspiracy: the Calas conspiracy, a cause celebre brought to light by Voltaire, had popularized a horrible miscarriage of justice in the  (I don’t know if there has ever been a more striking example of irony). The Red Priests were revolutionary blasphemers, someone who preached against the rich, referring to the philosophy of ‘sans culat’ Jesus. Some tred a middle path, who believed they could be catholic and republican, who believed in the revolution and the right to the free practice of religion, a deep wound within 19th century France. As Elizabeth feared catholic plots while she watched Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the situation in France was much more complicated, within the theory of the formation of social cells by the conspiratorial methods of thinking and mythmaking, especially as a social process, and the theory of society as organized around by “core” ideals, which motivate all peoples of passion groups in their duties. The reasons for our inclination towards conspiracy is how we project a non-personal inference onto a socially operable act. In otherwise, we’re suspicious because we’ve got guilty consciences.

 

 

 

CITATIONS

 

  1. McLaren, A.N. “Political Culture in the Reign of Elizabeth I” p. 135
  2. Smith, Jeremy L. “Unlawful Song”. pp-497
  3. Adams, Simon. “Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England.” CXXIII (501): 457-458. doi: 10.1093/ehr/cen048
  4. Nagel, Joana. “Constructing Ethinicity” Social problems 41.1: 152-176
  5. Powers, Michael R. “Patterns, Real and Imagined: Observation and Theory.” In Acts of God and Man: Ruminations on Risk and Insurance, 191-206. Columbia University Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/powe15366.17.
  6. Kilpatrick, Caroll. “Nixon Resigns” Washington Post, 9 August 1974. p. A01
  7. Woodward, Bob, Bernstein, Carl. “The Final Days” pp. 77-79
  8. Dalton, Russell J. “The social transformation of trust in government.” International Review of Sociology (2005): pp. 133-154

9: Tacitus, Cornelius, “The Annals of Ancient Rome.” Vol. 60, 1973

10: Kalmey, R.P. “Shakespeare’s Octavius and Elizabethan Roman History” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 18, no. 2. pp. 275-287

11: Knight, Steven. “Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution”

13: Moore, Alan. “From Hell”

14: Wardman, Alan. “Rome’s Debt to Greece”. The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 29, no. 2. pp. 110-112.

15: Heinrich, Albert. “What is a Greek God?” pp. 19-40

16: Hadas, Moses. “Aesneas and the Tradition of the National Hero”. American Journal of Philology, vol. 69, no. 4. pp. 408-414

17: Menzies, James W. “True Myth” pp. 21-40

18: Clickering, Robert. “War Enthusiasm?” pp. 200-201

19: De Toqueville, Alexis “the Old Regime and the Revolution”

20: Schama, Simon. “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.” p. 84

21: Warnes, David. “Chronicle of the Russian Tsars.” p. 210

22: Warnes, David.  Ibid. p. 211.

23: Oaklander, Mandy. “Here’s Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories.” Time Magazine, 14 August 2015

24: Ebert, Roger. “JFK Movie Review and Analysis” (1991) via: http://rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-jfk-1991

25: Bugliosi, Vincent. “Reclaiming History: the Assassination of John F. Kennedy”. p. 1354

26: Bugliosi, Vincent. Ibid. p. 1356

27: Harrison, John M. “A Crusade and Its Problems.” The Review of Politics 37, no. 1. pp. 122-125.

28: Swift, Art. “Majority in U.S. Still Believe JFK Killed in a Conspiracy” Gallup.com/poll/165893/majority-believe-jfk-killed-conspiracy.aspx

29: “Famous Veterans: Oliver Stone” – military.com

30: Stone, Oliver. Sklar, Zachary. “JFk: The Book of the Film”, p. 106.

31: Stone, Oliver. Sklar, Zachary. Ibid. p. 107

32: Prouty, L. Fletcher. “JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy.” p. 268

33: Prouty, L. Fletcher. Ibid.

34: Flavel, John H. “Cognitive Development” 2nd ed. p. 119

35: Flavell, John H. Ibid. pp. 120-121

  1. Flavell, John H. Ibid. p. 121

37: Nielsen, Wendy C. “Staging” Rousseau’s Republic” Vol. 43, no. 3, pp.268-285

38: Lambe, Patrick J. “Biblical Criticism and Censorship in Ancien Regime France: The Case of Richard Simon.” Harvard theological review, 78(2-2 (1985) pp. 149-177

39: Darnton, Robert. “The forbidden books of pre-Revolutionary France. Month (1991): 1-32

40: “The Living Age” vol. 119, p. 83

41:  Schama, Simon. “The Power of Art: Jaques-Louis David”

42: Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin. “The Marriage of Figaro” act V, scene III

43: Sargent, Thomas J. Velde, Francois R. “Macroeconomic Features of the French Revolution.” Journey of Political Economy 103, no. 3 (1995) pp. 474-518.

 

The Social Cell – How Conspiracy and Myth Built Civilization

When Water Catches Fire – Final

WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE

I SUBMITTED MY FIRST novel to a publisher in the year 2000 at age 15. The Death of Madame Brisbois was a story about a pair of Siamese twins, Gilbertte and Chloe Brisbois. Chloe was perched on her sister’s left shoulder, incapable of moving of her own accord, though she felt everything; if Gilbertte held a flame to her palm, Chloe felt the fire. To her horror, one night she awoke unable to speak with a black bag over head and duct tape over her mouth. When her sister removed the bag Chloe looked down at her mother’s bed, covered in blood and strewn with guts. Their father was at work, but returned home shortly and called the police.
While in custody, Gilbertte stuck little needles into Chloe’s vocal chords, pricking her lips, burning her hand and pinching her feet, tickling her mercilessly until finally she stopped speaking and her voice atrophied. Unable to testify on her own behalf, she wasted away in prison as they awaited trial, until finally an unnecessary appendage, accepting of her fate and ready to die. The judge considered Chloe only briefly in passing sentence, in lieu of her vegetative state, unaware she could feel and hear. So when they were hanged there was no noose for Chloe. Her head sloped to the side as Gilbertte danced on the air as their horrified father looked on.
I received a letter a few weeks later from an editor at Kensington, who, as he put it, was writing to tell me that though they had decided not to move forward with the novel, Gaszi, the editor, was to work with me. While I would not be offered any money up front, I was asked to not feel discouraged. Gaz, a Persian speaking 22 year old who had left his home in Saudi Arabia during the war in the Persian Gulf, told me that he had found my manuscript on his desk with ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He assured me, ‘This means you might suck now, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.’ We were fast friends after that.
Regardless, I had not been able to publish anything, and had become lethargic, losing the will to even work on the other stories I had planned. Before the submission, I had won South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award two years in a row. My English teacher had submitted some of my poems to a publisher, later published in an anthology shortly after my 16th birthday. Gaz sent me a congratulatory letter.
‘It seems that you suck less and less,’ the card read. I still have it. He signed it with the affectionate, ‘To the end of your failings!’ We would talk on the phone not long after, and I liked him immediately. He was well-spoken and shy, guarded in demeanor, but genuinely kind and helpful, always there to goad me on when a rejection put me off my work and left me aimless, drinking what the Gaz called ‘fucking rocket fuel’, and my grades were failing, jeopardizing my hopes of getting into the college of my choice.

2

The Gaz remained at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, and finally he was let go, for his own safety, he was led to believe, adding that starvation was a strange way to keep him safe. They had never clued him in on what it was he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all. Perhaps it was something in the air, and he was a convenient bogeyman and scapegoat for a society in the throes of panic and convulsion. His employers cited discrepancies in his immigration papers, I would later learn.
The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could for him, as he had helped me with a second draft of The Death of Madame Brisbois, and found him a job at a publicity company where a friend worked in Virginia. There he would seek to help other authors, as he had helped me, to develop them, nurture their talent. His days were spent looking over manuscripts and sending back form replies of rejections, each accompanied with a kind dismissal, as mine had been. When my second draft was rejected, I put away my work entirely, unable to focus, as my editor had become more and more despondent, and it seemed, that I had become the only friend he had.
I was to interview at UVA, not far from where he worked at Sgarlat, and, rejected again, we decided to meet at my hotel before I caught a Greyhound to New York where I was to interview at Cornell and Columbia. Unsure of myself, my work, or whether I would ever write again, I was certain that I needed to get absolutely fucking wasted. Gaz arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of Graygoose vodka in a brown bag. It wasn’t of the greatest quality, he said, but ‘better than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, as per usual. The Gaz was always right. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon.
We had a good time, watching COPS and playing cards. I don’t remember much of the evening, save for the blue and red lights that ran along the walls and ceiling. We talked about my future projects, and I had given up, but I didn’t tell him that. He believed in me, and I wanted him to. We talked about stories, why people told them, why people needed them. To some, he said, it was a way to cope, through shared trauma and happiness and experience, and for writers, it could be catharsis for a beaten man, those struggling to cope with the loss of a father or a mother.
“Take Titanic,” Gaz said, “the James Cameron movie.”
“You mean the one with Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and that Celine Dion song?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Never heard of it.”
He laughed, a common stupid joke we shared.
“The main characters, total fiction,” he said. “But that’s why people liked the movie, and why you hated it. People were brought in by the disaster and the spectacle, the bigger picture, but that’s not why it resonated. You can’t tell just the big picture. The audiences cared about the people. Two, beautiful young people. And, who does the audience cry for? For Jack and Rose. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t paint nothing but a bigger picture, not quickly, take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, make it human. Put a face on it. No one weeps for the metal.”
He always took the mentor approach with me, being a bit older, and always spoke in an official capacity, despite being absolutely wasted. Forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual. When he looked at you, though, you saw he understood, that he felt, that he cared. A song came on and he seemed to relax, sweat beaded on his forehead and his cheeks flushed with drink. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the depths of regret and sorrow. When he saw me looking at the scars along the side of his face, revealed when his hair was brushed aside, he answered the question I couldn’t ask.
“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said, quick to change the subject. We talked about my plans, about what I’d do if I failed to get into college, the stories I was working on. He asked then if he could ride with me, to stay with me until I found out whether I had gotten into Cornell. He had always wanted to visit Ground Zero, he said, where the World Trade Centers had stood. We planned to board a Greyhound bus the next day, first to New York City, to Manhattan, where we would stay long enough to find out if I had gotten in, and then on to Ithaca. The night wound down and he was on his side of the bed, a small, strange little man. I got up to turn out the lights.
“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said. I brushed my teeth and washed my hands, leaving the bathroom light on, not too bright nor dim, and returned to my side of the bed and pulled the covers over us both.
“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.
He was quiet for a minute. Then he looked at me with a smile on his face, eyes sincere and sympathetic.
“I like you, Brandon,” he said.
“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”
He smiled.
“Goodnight, Brandon.”

3

The drive to New York City wasn’t a long one. I had been to Maine on a piss-smelling Greyhound before and we stopped at that same connection point walled in by high fences of thatched metal, burgeoning with idlers and vagabonds, all staring at Gaz as we walked to the terminal to await the bus to Manhattan. They were unable to validate my ticket, so we spent fifteen minutes walking around trying to find someone to loan me the $5 I needed to pay for another one. Gaz offered to let me try on my own, and hung back. The first person I came across, a stout Chinese man in a tailored suit, agreed to pay for the ticket, but only if he could come with me to the teller window. I welcomed him to do so and he smiled ironically, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism.
We had planned as best we could. After checking into the hotel, and leaving my notebook there, we found a bus tour around Manhattan, one that would go by the port from where you could see the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee, with wire-rimmed spectacles and thinning hair, narrated for us:
The Statue of Liberty was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the People of France. It was dedicated on the 28th of October in the year 1886. The famous statue has long been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Gaz’s bright brown eyes were swollen with tears. It was the highlight of the trip, as in hearing these words, the trauma momentarily fell away, a Band-Aid in the shower on a healing wound, and each passenger, from the youngest girl in the back of the bus holding tight to her mother’s hand to an old man covered in soot and wearing a checkered coat in front of us, at that moment we all believed, in what I wasn’t sure, but the silence was an acquiescence we shared, all part of the same multi-colored arabesque, a tapestry that warmed us all.
The rest of the drive was quiet. Though the guide read on in his high, reedy voice, telling us of the historic buildings, the different cultures, the Omnisphere and Prometheus. When we finally arrived at Ground Zero, empty land beneath an empty sky, it seemed profaned by its emptiness. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. Everyone on the bus had seen it, surely, either in media or in person, glowing at night and proud in the afternoon.
The mood changed, a different, uneasy quiet settled over us, and the narrator fumbled at his words. Where those two buildings had been, there was nothing, not even rubble, but I saw the ghost of twisted metal strewn about, in my mind, the specter of bent steel and fire.

4

The tour ended without ceremony and by the time the bus pulled back into the lot everyone was exhausted. Gaz and I decided to take a walk instead of going back to the hotel, just to get some air. A hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale so we ducked into Mesa Coyoacan a Mexican Restaurant on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn, where I checked my email and found that I had been accepted into Cornell. Gaz congratulated me and we sat down at a communal table on a long, shared bench. Everything was so expensive. Where I was from, a pack of cigarettes was $3 for a good brand, your Marlboros and your Newports, but there the cheap brands were $15. Living was expensive enough, I couldn’t overpay for death. The school books were too expensive.
“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz looked the menu over. He’d been quiet since we settled onto the bench. “I’ve never seen so many different tequilas.”
“Maybe that’s their thing,” Gaz said.
“You think someone said, ‘You know, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in this city. You know what? I’ve got it. I get these flashes sometimes. Let’s have all the tequilas.’”
A kind laugh.
“You could do worse,” I added. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We’re the only Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina. Nobody has better tacos. You know why? Nobody else has tacos.’”
Gaz laughed again. “You are truly from a backward culture. But hey, at least it’s affordable.”
When the waitress came over with a bowl of dip and tortilla chips I ordered first, a quesadilla and chicken wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. When the waitress brought them out, she sat both of them down in front of him with a wink in my direction. He slid the more expensive glass over to me. “On your success. Here’s hoping you don’t turn into an Ivy League shit.”
The meal was an enjoyable one, the food was good, and the staff kind. The waitress returned when we had drained our tequila glasses.
“Can I get you guys anything else?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “but thanks. I’m good.”
She look at Gaz, who had gone quiet, and asked, “How about you?”
Gaz shook off his gloom and looked up with light coming back into his eyes. “I’m great,” he said. “Could I get a salad to go?”
“Sure thing!” she said. She turned to me. “He gave you the better tequila.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with a smile.
She smiled a broad I’m not an idiot, idiot smile. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”
I laughed it off as she disappeared into a swinging door, off into the kitchen. The restaurant was quiet until a boisterous man in aviator sunglasses came in, wearing camo shorts and long grey socks pulled up to his knees. He looked at Gaz with a derisive cock of his head and sat close enough to us that he could be heard, though the table was communal, there was plenty of room further down the bench. Gaz and I tried to continue our conversation, but the man, who had started out innocent enough, grumbled at having to share his table with a “towel head”. That’s when Gaz lost it. He stood and flung his tequila glasses to the floor and they shattered against the jade tile.
“I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he shouted. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”
I had him by the shoulders and tried to pull him back onto the bench. The man in his camo shorts took off his glasses and put them on the table. The door to the kitchen opened and two short-order cooks in rolled-up sleeves came out in a rush and hopped over the balustrade and got between them while I held Gaz back, raging like a drunken fire.
“I’m a fucking vet,” the man said. “I fought in Desert Storm, to keep you people safe, you ungrateful scumbags.”
“Hey!” I called. “As a vet, you must be used to dealing with bitches. But since there ain’t no bitches here, how about you fuck off?”
The cooks separated them and escorted the man out in a hurry, leaving his stupid glasses on the table. Gaz staggered backward and the moment teetered on the edge of madness as the staff busied about calming the other customers and diners. The waitress returned with Gaz’s salad and the cooks escorted us out. I picked up the aviator glasses and stuffed them in my pocket and paid, counting out a proper tip and rushing to the exit where the two cooks stood outside, careful to keep the man away from Gaz as tears streamed down his face as the man hobbled off shouting obscenities.
“Don’t you pay that fuckin’ moron no attention,” one of the cooks said. “You’re just as welcome here as that moron is.”
Still shaken, his teeth chattered in the heat. The cook handed him a cigarette, which he took, though I’d never seen him smoke. After he had calmed down and the two cooks were assured there was no further trouble, they gave him a friendly clout on the shoulder and reminded him, “Fuck that guy. You’re welcome here.”
We stood there in the street for a bit longer, the city loud and uninterrupted by our drama, the crowd streamed around us like a stone amid a stream, swerving gently before continuing about its course.
“I was wrong, Brandon,” Gaz said. “I cried for the metal.” He wiped his eyes on the back of his shirt, buried his face in his hands. “I cried for the metal.”

4

We stayed together for the rest of the summer after that. The PR firm Sgarlat let him work from his laptop, as he hadn’t left the hotel after that first night, and had been silent on the long bus ride to Ithaca. The campus was more beautiful than I had imagined any school would be. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted, and took the occasion to tell me that if he could buy a new life, a new face, new skin, he’d stay with me there and finally teach me how to write.
The first night there we visited a reception at the Robert Purcell Community Center for a gathering of freshmen. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was kind and accommodating, well-mannered and cheerful, though I could tell that Gaz felt uncomfortable as the eyes moved about him as we passed through the crowds. We didn’t stay long. I shook hands with everyone I thought I should shake hands with and decided to get some air and tour the campus. I had the feeling that the smattering of voices, though unintelligible, had brought the scuffle at Mesa Coyoacan back into Gaz’s thoughts, and he had trouble enough coping with the eyes that seemed to follow him, like a xenophobic Mona Lisa. We left together, back out into the open air into the comfort of silence.
After leaving the community center we turned off Jessup Rd. and walked toward the large golf course, where we stopped to ask an older student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge to Judd falls Rd., left us at the Wildflower Garden, hurrying off after a cordial handshake and good-bye. To look upon the flowers, Gaz’s demeanor changed. I decided to pick some flowers to send him while he stood enamored by a ghost orchid. I had a flower from each species in my secret bouquet, to give him the following morning before he left for Virginia. We left the Wildflower Garden, as he wanted to see as much of the campus as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way, with a little help, back onto Judd Falls Rd. then headed for Werly Island, then onto Beebe Lake. We weren’t the only ones to walk that well-beaten path. Though the gardens and the roads between had been sparse, many students had camped on the embankments around the lake.
“Hey!” Gaz said, tugging at my jacket. “Let’s go talk to those ladies there.”
We hurried after the two young women who were jogging slowly. When we caught up Gaz was the first to speak. “Good afternoon!” he called. “Mind if my friend and I walk with you?”
“Not at all,” the brunette said. Both were sweating, their hair pulled back in neat buns, and wearing Adidas windbreakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blonde girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller friend introduced herself as Vanessa.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed with them, falling in line with the path they were on. “My friend Gaz here, he told me this lake was magic. No! Really. It’s not as dumb as it sounds.”
The girls looked at each other smiling.
“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. We kept pace as best we could.
“Well the legend goes,” I said, “that if you walk around the lake with a friend, or a girlfriend or boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know. I know. But, I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.

5

On his last night Gaz stayed with me in a cramped dorm room. I sat at my new desk looking through a list of books I’d have to pick up from the campus bookstore. Gaz had the news on again. Channel after channel, violence and opinions about violence, terrorism and threats, featuring violence. Then he saw that tape; a tape posted to the Al Jazeera agency in Qatar, an old VHS supposedly delivered by Osama bin Laden, a tape that would later leak onto the internet, onto smut sites like Rotten.com and Ogrish, digital faces of death. I had watched them, how could you not? It’s a curious thing, to be drawn to violence, by nature, as flies are to shit. I didn’t enjoy it, but I thought I should watch it, maybe by way of misguided empathy, so that I could suffer for the people who I never could have helped.
I tried to go to bed early that night but Gaz woke me up sometime in the early morning. He had sat in the darkness listening to the news, the lurid images flashing against his face, breaking him bit by bit.
“Brandon,” he said. “Are you awake?”
“Dude, I’m awake now … you can’t wake somebody up to ask if they’re awake.”
“I miss my home,” Gaz said. “Saudi Arabia, you’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Right? You’ve seen Aladdin, that’s the image, of barbaric peoples. I was born there… What do you think of when you think of Saudi Arabia? Camels? The camels, ah! They aren’t even indigenous. We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed your buildings, Saudi Arabia they say. But they weren’t from my home, not that place where my heart is. There’s something about home that doesn’t change, no matter where you go. What do you call it? A haunting, maybe, that follows you. I was born in Saqeren, and it’s a beautiful place, with waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the mountains. Maybe I miss the memory, maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by a starved memory looking for images of comfort and home.”
I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing, but he continued.
“I was the youngest child in my family, a family of four. My dad had disappeared in the war. My sister Anahita was the oldest, and I adored her, but we were not close. She ran away or was kidnapped and we never saw her again. I had two brothers, and I loved them. Of course I didn’t. Even Kohinoor, my oldest, what an ass! He was so stubborn, and always talking down to me and my other brother, Kaveh, and I loved him, he was just fourteen when he died. But we both looked up to Kohinoor, we called him Kohin. He was the oldest, heir to our meager lands. And he was the type to play the hero.
“Kohin believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, like so many during the war. He was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. People are not born monsters. He wasn’t one, not at first, but got in trouble with the police, but then the police were taken away and replaced by scary men in black with foreign accents. Gaz isn’t even my name, Brandon. I don’t know what it is… I’m lucky though, plenty of kids like me, thousands of them, thousands died in the war, the one that buffoon boasted about at dinner. Those kids died, and not one printed word, only victories for the forces of freedom, for heroes.
“And now, I see everywhere eyes that follow me with contempt. I’m not a barbarian! Surely it is no crime to be born! Those police officers, the ones that were replaced, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen. They weren’t fools, they were just regular people, with families and jobs and hobbies. And they just disappeared, pop pop pop in the dark, like blowing bubbles. That was my favorite thing… “We used to have those little toys, plastic sticks with a hoop at the end, we’d dip it in gasoline and blow bubbles through it and they’d float for a while, pretty in the sun and pop. Pop, pop, pop, they’d disappear. But then everyone was angry. The problem was, they had to be mad at something, and it was a choice between others or themselves. No one chooses themselves.
“What do you do when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but the dark itself, with no way to fight it without it swallowing you up? No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. They were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them, you make monsters of them, monsters or ghosts and there is no other choice, no choice but to run and hope someone is there on the other side of darkness, like someone here, this country I’ve loved, where you’re not charged for the sins of your father, or your people, your culture. I ran. From my family, my brothers… They were kids, too, they never grew up.
“Kaveh, he became a ghost, and Kohinoor a monster. Ghosts are real, Brandon. Some are kind, those that die peacefully, in their sleep and surrounded by love. But some, like those in your great buildings, those are angry ghosts. And now I want to fight. I need to fight, but don’t I want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, Brandon, I don’t want to die like my brother, or become a monster. But if I must, I should want to be a kindly ghost, one that helps the others on, through the fire into peace, into rest. And that eats at you, fighting with yourself, eating you from the inside like a botfly until your heart is black and you want to make this world bend into the darkness with you to drown it of its light.
“The last day in Seqaren I remember, that I know is real, because I have the scars, which is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down a hill towards a little pond, and children were already there splashing about. It always dirty that pool, but that day it was as dirty as I ever seen it. I thought someone had poured ink in the water, but I stripped down to my trunks and stood on the edge of the beach with broken bottle glass cutting into my feet. Then I saw Kahven running down the hillside with a puff of dust trailing behind him and then Kohinoor on his heels with a gun in his hand
“I thought it was some stupid game, but I was a child, and so scared, I was always scared. Kaveh grabbed me with both hands and pulled me into the water with all his clothes on and yelled ‘take a deep breath!’ just before we went under, taking me beneath the blackened water with his fingers pinching my nostrils. I struggled to come up for air, but Kaveh held me under. Everything was happening so fast and I popped back up and saw Kohin being chased by men all dressed in black, god dammit! Have you ever heard a gunshot, muffled by water? It rippled out, dozens of shots at once, tearing Kohin to pieces, when you’re hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and gas. And they followed him to the edge of the pool but he kept moving somehow, struggling along the glass beach on his hands and knees towards the water where I was hiding with Kaveh. And before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air and breathing oil, an oil spill in the water like octopus ink, and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows of the overhanging rock kept us hidden until the water caught fire.
“When he saw me he stopped crawling and the men caught up with him finally. I struggled to get to him, the men were shouting but I didn’t understand them. He mouthed something to me and put his hands behind his head, with his fingers interlocked, he was dying anyway, and just closed his eyes and lay there. I was frozen, wrapped in fire, as the muffled gunshot rang out muffled with the water in my ears dulling the sound. He fell over with that same smile on his face. I was a fucking child. And then the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and dead or not they shot him in the head. One of the men in black pointed at the water and Kaveh grabbed my nostrils and pulled me under water, fire white now blanketing the surface.
“One of the men, and I don’t know who he was ’cause I just saw his eyes and the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up and took out another gun, a little pistol, and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse. What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.
“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and prayed, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. He was dead on the surface face down and I saw the blank expression on his face, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something shook the earth in the distance… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me, and he drowned eventually and I floated up to the surface That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow I kept burning, deep down, and each breath was pure fire filling my lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.
“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. She didn’t want to leave their bodies their for the carrion birds. But me and mama left anyway. We left without them. We got into the back of a truck and waited. Kids were stacked on top of each other like piles of clothes wrapped around bones. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”
There was a long silence.
“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”
“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brothers, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”
“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Let’s be practical here, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”
He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.
“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”
“I knew I could rely on you.”
He smiled.
“Thanks, Brandon.”
I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.
“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”
He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.
He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.
“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”
“I like you too, Gaz.”
“Do well.”
“I’ll try, my friend.”
“And …” he added, “You could have saved Chloe, in your story. If her father had confessed to the murder… The criminal would’ve gotten away, but the innocent would have lived.”

Denouement

I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers, those aviator sunglasses. Sometimes I imagine him wearing them, somewhere in a garden, by a waterfall in Arabia, surrounded by ghost orchids, blowing bubbles. I have looked and looked, through newspapers and on the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I kept a garden when I moved back to South Carolina, and planted a white ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop.

When Water Catches Fire – draft 2

WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE
By
BRANDON K. NOBLES

I SUBMITTED MY FIRST novel to a publisher in the year 2000. The Death of Madame Brisbois was a story about a pair of Siamese twins, Gilbertte and Chloe Brisbois. Chloe was perched on her sister’s left shoulder, incapable of moving of her own accord, though she felt everything; if Gilbertte held a flame to her palm, Chloe felt the fire. To her horror, one night she awoke unable to speak with a black bag over head and duct tape over her mouth. When her sister removed the bag Chloe looked down at her mother’s bed, covered in blood and strewn with guts. Their father was at work, but returned home shortly and called the police.
While in custody, Gilbertte stuck little needles in Chloe’s vocal chords, pricking her lips, burning her hand and pinching her feet, tickling her mercilessly until finally she stopped speaking and her voice atrophied. Unable to testify on her own behalf, she wasted away in prison as they awaited trial, until finally an unnecessary appendage, accepting of her fate and ready to die. The judge considered Chloe only briefly in passing sentence, in lieu of her vegetative state, unaware she could feel and hear. So when they were hanged there was no noose for Chloe. Her head sloped to the side as Gilbertte danced on the air as their horrified father looked on.
I received a letter a few weeks later from an editor at Kensington, who, as he put it, was writing to tell me that though they had decided not to move forward with the novel, Gaszi, the editor, was to work with me. While I would not be offered any money up front, I was asked to not feel discouraged. Gaz, a Persian speaking 22 year old who had left his home in Saudi Arabia during the war in the Persian Gulf, told me that he had found my manuscript on his desk with ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He assured me, ‘This means you might suck now, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.’ We were fast friends after that.
Regardless, I had not been able to publish anything, and had become lethargic, losing the will to even work on the other stories I had planned. Before the submission, I had won South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award two years in a row. My English teacher had submitted some of my poems to a publisher, later published in an anthology shortly after my 16th birthday. Gaz sent me a congratulatory letter.
‘It seems that you suck less and less,’ the card read. I still have it. He signed it with the affectionate, ‘To the end of your failings!’ We would talk on the phone not long after, and I liked him immediately. He was well-spoken and shy, guarded in demeanor, but genuinely kind and helpful, always there to goad me on when a rejection put me off my work and left me aimless, drinking what the Gaz called ‘fucking rocket fuel’, and my grades were failing, jeopardizing my hopes of getting into the college of my choice.

2

The Gaz remained at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, and finally he was let go, for his own safety, he was led to believe, adding that starvation was a strange way to keep him safe. They had never clued him in on what it was he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all. Perhaps it was something in the air, and he was a convenient bogeyman and scapegoat for a society in the throes of panic and convulsion. His employers cited discrepancies in his immigration papers, I would later learn.
The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could for him, as he had helped me with a second draft of The Death of Mdame Brisbois, and found him a job at a publicity company where a friend worked in Virginia. There he would seek to help other authors, as he had helped me, to develop them, nurture their talent. His days were spent looking over manuscripts and sending back form replies of rejections, each accompanied with a kind dismissal, as mine had been. When my second draft was rejected, I put away my work entirely, unable to focus, as my editor had become more and more despondent, and it seemed, that I had become the only friend he had.
I was to interview at UVA, not far from where he worked at Sgarlat, and, rejected again, we decided to meet at my hotel before I caught a Greyhound to New York where I was to interview at Cornell and Columbia. Unsure of myself, my work, or whether I would ever write again, I was certain that I needed to get absolutely fucking wasted. Gaz arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of Graygoose in a brown bag. It wasn’t of the greatest quality, he said, but ‘better than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, as per usual. The Gaz was always right. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon.
We had a good time, watching COPS and playing cards. I don’t remember much of the evening, save for the blue and red lights that ran along the walls and ceiling. We talked about my future projects, and I had given up, but I didn’t tell him that. He believed in me, and I wanted him to. We talked about stories, why people told them, why people needed them. To some, he said, it was a way to cope, through shared trauma and happiness and experience, and for writers, it could be catharsis for a beaten man, those struggling to cope with the loss of a father or a mother.
“Take Titanic,” Gaz said, “the James Cameron movie.”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“The main characters, total fiction,” he said. “But that’s why people liked the movie, and why you hated it. People were brought in by the disaster and the spectacle, the bigger picture, but that’s not why it resonated. You can’t tell just the big picture. The audiences cared about the people. Two, beautiful young people. And, who does the audience cry for? For Jack and Rose. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t paint nothing but a bigger picture, not quickly, take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, make it human. Put a face on it. No one weeps for metal.”
He always took the mentor approach with me, being a bit older, and always spoke in an official capacity, despite being absolutely wasted. Forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual. When he looked at you, though, you saw he understood, that he felt, that he cared. A song came on and he seemed to relax, sweat beaded on his forehead and his cheeks flushed with drink. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the depths of regret and sorrow. When he saw me looking at the scars along the side of his face, revealed when his hair was brushed aside, he answered the question I couldn’t ask.
“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said, quick to change the subject. We talked about my plans, about what I’d do if I failed to get into college, the stories I was working on. He asked then if he could ride with me, to stay with me until I found out whether I had gotten into Cornell. He had always wanted to visit Ground Zero, he said, where the World Trade Centers had stood. We planned to board a Greyhound bus the next day, first to New York City, to Manhattan, where we would stay long enough to find out if I had gotten in, and then on to Ithaca. The night wound down and he was on his side of the bed, a small, strange little man. I got up to turn out the lights.
“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said. I brushed my teeth and washed my hands, leaving the bathroom light on, not too bright nor dim, and returned to my side of the bed and pulled the covers over us both.
“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.
He was quiet for a minute. Then he looked at me with a smile on his face, eyes sincere and sympathetic.
“I like you, Brandon,” he said.
“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”
He smiled.
“Goodnight, Brandon.”

3

The drive to New York City wasn’t a long one. I had been to Maine on a piss-smelling Greyhound before and we stopped at that same connection point walled in by high fences of thatched metal, burgeoning with idlers and vagabonds, all staring at Gaz as we walked to the terminal to await the bus to Manhattan. They were unable to validate my ticket, so we spent fifteen minutes walking around trying to find someone to loan me the $5 I needed to pay for another one. Gaz offered to let me try on my own, and hung back. The first person I came across, a stout Chinese man in a tailored suit, agreed to pay for the ticket, but only if he could come with me to the teller window. I welcomed him to do so and he smiled ironically, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism.
We had planned as best we could. After checking into the hotel, and leaving my notebook there, we found a bus tour around Manhattan, one that would go by the port from where you could see the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee, with wire-rimmed spectacles and thinning hair, narrated for us:
The statue of liberty was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the People of France. It was dedicated on the 28th of October in the year 1886. The famous statue has long been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Gaz’s bright brown eyes swelled with tears. It was the highlight of the trip, as in hearing these words, the trauma momentarily fell away, a band-aid in the shower on a healing wound, and each passenger, from the youngest girl in the back of the bus holding tight to her mother’s hand to an old man covered in soot and wearing a checkered coat in front of us, at that moment we all believed, in what I wasn’t sure, but the silence was an acquiescence we shared, all part of the same multicolored arabesque, a tapestry that warmed us all.
The rest of the drive was quiet. Though the guide read on in his high, reedy voice, telling us of the historic buildings, the different cultures, the Omnisphere and Prometheus. When we finally arrived at Ground Zero, empty land beneath an empty sky, it seemed profaned by its emptiness. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. Everyone on the bus had seen it, surely, either in media or in person, glowing at night and proud in the afternoon. The mood changed, a different, uneasy quiet settled over us, and the narrator fumbled at his words. Where those two buildings had been, there was nothing, not even rubble, but I saw the ghost of twisted metal strewn about, in my mind, the specter of bent steel and fire.
The tour ended without ceremony and by the time the bus pulled back into the lot everyone was exhausted. Gaz and I decided to take a walk instead of going back to the hotel, just to get some air. A hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale so we ducked into Mesa Coyoacan a Mexican Restaurant on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn, where I checked my email and found that I had been accepted into Cornell. Gaz congratulated me and we sat down at a communal table on a long, shared bench. Everything was so expensive. Where I was from, a pack of cigarettes was $3 for a good brand, your Marlboros and your Newports, but there the cheap brands were $15. Living was expensive enough, I couldn’t overpay for death. The school books were too expensive.

4

“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz looked the menu over. He’d been quiet since we settled onto the bench. “I’ve never seen so many different tequilas.”
“Maybe that’s their thing,” Gaz said.
“You think someone said, ‘You know, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in this city. You know what? I’ve got it. I get these flashes sometimes. Let’s have all the tequilas.’”
A kind laugh.
“You could do worse,” I added. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We’re the only Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina. Nobody has better tacos. You know why? Nobody else has tacos.’”
Gaz laughed again. “You are truly from a backward culture. But hey, at least it’s affordable.”
When the waitress came over with a bowl of dip and tortilla chips I ordered first, a quesadilla and chicken wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. When the waitress brought them out, she sat both of them down in front of him with a wink in my direction. He slid the more expensive glass over to me. “On your success. Here’s hoping you don’t turn into an Ivy League shit.”
The meal was an enjoyable one, the food was good, the staff kind. The waitress returned when we had drained our tequila glasses.
“Can I get you guys anything else?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “but thanks. I’m good.”
She look at Gaz, who had gone quiet, and asked, “How about you?”
Gaz shook off his gloom and looked up with light coming back into his eyes. “I’m great,” he said. “Could I get a salad to go?”
“Sure thing!” she said. She turned to me. “He gave you the better tequila.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with a smile.
She smiled a broad I’m not an idiot, idiot smile. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”
I laughed it off as she disappeared into a swinging door, off into the kitchen. The restaurant was quiet until a boisterous man in aviator sunglasses came in, wearing camo shorts and long grey socks pulled up to his knees. He looked at Gaz with a derisive cock of his head and sat close enough to us that he could be heard, though the table was communal, there was plenty of room further down the bench. Gaz and I tried to continue our conversation, but the man, who had started out innocent enough, grumbled at having to share his table with a “towel head”. That’s when Gaz lost it.
He stood and flung his tequila glasses to the floor and they shattered against the jade tile. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he shouted. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”
I had him by the shoulders and tried to pull him back onto the bench. The man in his camo shorts took off his glasses and put them on the table. The door to the kitchen opened and two short-order cooks in rolled-up sleeves came out in a rush and hopped over the balustrade and got between them while I held Gaz back, raging like a drunken fire.
“I’m a fucking vet,” the man said. “I fought in Desert Storm, to keep you people safe, you ungrateful scumbags.”
“Hey!” I called. “Fuck you! Fuck you and your lederhosen.”
The cooks had separated them and had escorted the man out in a hurry, leaving his stupid glasses on the table. Gaz staggered backward and the moment teetered on the edge of madness as the staff busied about calming the other customers and diners. The waitress returned with Gaz’s salad and the cooks escorted us out. I picked up the aviator glasses and stuffed them in my pocket and paid, counting out a proper tip and rushing to the exit where the two cooks stood outside, careful to keep the man away from Gaz as tears streamed down his face as the man hobbled off shouting obscenities.
“Don’t you pay that fuckin’ moron no attention,” one of the cooks said. “You’re just as welcome here as that moron is.”
Still shaken, his teeth chattered in the heat. The cook handed him a cigarette, which he took, though I’d never seen him smoke. After he had calmed down and the two cooks were assured there was no further trouble, they gave him a friendly clout on the shoulder and reminded him, “Fuck that guy. You’re welcome here.”
We stood there in the street for a bit longer, the city loud and uninterrupted by our drama, the crowd streamed around us like a stone amid a stream, swerving gently before continuing about its course.
“I was wrong, Brandon,” Gaz said. “I wept for the metal.”

4

We stayed together for the rest of the summer after that. The PR firm Sgarlat let him work from his laptop, as he hadn’t left the hotel after that first night, and had been silent on the long bus ride to Ithaca. The campus was more beautiful than I had imagined any school would be. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted, and took the occasion to tell me that if he could buy a new life, a new face, new skin, he’d stay with me there and finally teach me how to write.
The first night there we visited a reception at the Robert Purcell Community Center for a gathering of freshmen. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was kind and accommodating, well mannered and cheerful, though I could tell that Gaz felt uncomfortable as the eyes moved about him as we passed through the crowds. We didn’t stay long. I shook hands with everyone I thought I should shake hands with and decided to get some air and tour the campus. I had the feeling that the smattering of voices, though unintelligible, had brought the scuffle at Mesa Coyoacan back into Gaz’s thoughts, and he had trouble enough coping with the eyes that seemed to follow him, like a xenophobic Mona Lisa. We left together, back out into the open air into the comfort of silence.
After leaving the community center we turned off Jessup Rd. and walked toward the large golf course, where we stopped to ask an older student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge to Judd falls Rd., left us at the Wildflower Garden, hurrying off after a cordial handshake and good-bye. To look upon the flowers, Gaz’s demeanor changed. I decided to pick some flowers to send him while he stood enamored by a ghost orchid. I had a flower from each species in my secret bouquet, to give him the following morning before he left for Virginia. We left the Wildflower Garden, as he wanted to see as much of the campus as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way, with a little help, back onto Judd Falls Rd. then headed for Werly Island, then onto Beebe Lake.
We weren’t the only ones to walk that well-beaten path. Though the gardens and the roads between had been sparse, many students had camped on the embankments around the lake.
“Hey!” Gaz said, tugging at my jacket. “Let’s go talk to those ladies there.”
We hurried after the two young women who were jogging slowly. When we caught up Gaz was the first to speak. “Good afternoon!” he called. “Mind if my friend and I walk with you?”
“Not at all,” the brunette said. Both were sweating, their hair pulled back in neat buns, and wearing Adidas windbreakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blonde girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller friend introduced herself as Vanessa.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed with them, falling in line with the path they were on. “My friend Gaz here, he told me this lake was magic. No! Really. It’s not as dumb as it sounds.”
The girls looked at each other smiling.
“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. We kept pace as best we could.
“Well the legend goes,” I said, “that if you walk around the lake with a friend, or a girlfriend or boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know. I know. But, I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.”

5

His last night there with me Gaz got to stay in my cramped dorm room. I sat at my new desk looking through a list of books I’d have to pick up from the campus book store. Gaz had the news on again. Channel after channel, violence and opinions about violence, terrorism and threats, featuring violence. Then he saw that tape; a tape posted to the Al Jazeera agency in Qatar, an old VHS supposedly delivered by Osama bin Laden, a tape that would later leak onto the internet, onto smut sites like Rotten.com and Ogrish, digital faces of death. I had watched them, how could you not? It’s a curious thing, to be drawn to violence, by nature, as flies are to shit. I didn’t enjoy it, but I thought I should watch it, maybe by way of misguided empathy, so that I could suffer for the people who I never could have helped.
I tried to go to bed early that night but Gaz woke me up sometime in the early morning. He had sat in the darkness listening to the news, the lurid images flashing against his face, breaking him bit by bit.
“Brandon,” he said. “Are you awake?”
“Dude, I’m awake now … you can’t wake somebody up to ask if they’re awake.”
“I miss my home,” Gaz said. “Saudi Arabia, you’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Right? You’ve seen Aladdin, that’s the image, of barbaric peoples. I was born there… What do you think of when you think of Saudi Arabia? Camels? The camels, ah! They aren’t even indigenous. We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed your buildings, Saudia Arabia they say. But they weren’t from my home, not that place where my heart is. There’s something about home that doesn’t change, no matter where you go. What do you call it? A haunting, maybe, that follows you. I was born in Saqeren, and it’s a beautiful place, with waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the mountains. Maybe I miss the memory, maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by a starved memory looking for images of comfort and home.”
I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing, but he continued.
“I was the youngest child in my family, a family of four. My dad had disappeared in the war. My sister Anahita was the oldest, and I adored her, but we were not close. She ran away or was kidnapped and we never saw her again. I had two brothers, and I loved them. Of course I didn’t. Even Kohinoor, my oldest, what an ass! He was so stubborn, and always talking down to me and my other brother, Kaveh, and I loved him, he was just fourteen when he died. But we both looked up to Kohinoor, we calleed him Kohin. He was the oldest, heir to our meager lands. And he was the type to play the hero.
“Kohin believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, like so many during the war. He was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. People are not born monsters. He wasn’t one, not at first, but got in trouble with the police, but then the police were taken away and replaced by scary men in black with foreign accents. Gaz isn’t even my name, Brandon. I don’t know what it is… I’m lucky though, plenty of kids like me, thousands of them, thousands died in the war, the one that buffoon boasted about at dinner. Those kids died, and not one printed word, only victories for the forces of freedom, for heroes.
“And now, I see everywhere eyes that follow me with contempt. I’m not a barbarian! Surely it is no crime to be born! Those police officers, the ones that were replaced, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen. They weren’t fools, they were just regular people, with families and jobs and hobbies. And they just disappeared, pop pop pop in the dark, like blowing bubbles. That was my favorite thing… We used to have those little toys, plastic sticks with a hoop at the end, we’d dip it in gasoline and blow bubbles through it and they’d float for a while, pretty in the sun and pop. Pop, pop, pop, they’d disappear. But then everyone was angry. The problem was, they had to be mad at something, and it was a choice between others or themselves. No one chooses themselves.
“What do you do when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but the dark itself, with no way to fight it without it swallowing you up? No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. They were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them, you make monsters of them, monsters or ghosts and there is no other choice, no choice but to run and hope someone is there on the other side of darkness, like someone here, this country I’ve loved, where you’re not charged for the sins of your father, or your people, your culture. I ran. From my family, my brothers… They were kids, too, they never grew up.
“Kaveh, he became a ghost, and Kohinoor a monster. Ghosts are real, Brandon. Some are kind, those that die peacefully, in their sleep and surrounded by love. But some, like those in your great buildings, those are angry ghosts. And now I want to fight. I need to fight, but don’t I want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, Brandon, I don’t want to die like my brother, or become a monster. But if I must, I should want to be a kindly ghost, one that helps the others on, through the fire into peace, into rest. And that eats at you, fighting with yourself, eating you from the inside like a botfly until your heart is black and you want to make this world bend into the darkness with you to drown it of its light.
“The last day in Seqaren I remember, that I know is real, because I have the scars, which is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down a hill towards a little pond, and children were already there splashing about. It always dirty that pool, but that day it was as dirty as I ever seen it. I thought someone had poured ink in the water, but I stripped down to my trunks and stood on the edge of the beach with broken bottle glass cutting into my feet. Then I saw Kahven running down the hillside with a puff of dust trailing behind him and then Kohinoor on his heels with a gun in his hand
“I thought it was some stupid game, but I was a child, and so scared, I was always scared. Kaveh grabbed me with both hands and pulled me into the water with all his clothes on and yelled ‘take a deep breath!’ just before we went under, taking me beneath the blackened water with his fingers pinching my nostrils. I struggled to come up for air, but Kaveh held me under. Everything was happening so fast and I popped back up and saw Kohin being chased by men all dressed in black, god dammit! Have you ever heard a gunshot, muffled by water? It rippled out, dozens of shots at once, tearing Kohin to pieces, when you’re hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and gas. And they followed him to the edge of the pool but he kept moving somehow, struggling along the glass beach on his hands and knees towards the water where I was hiding with Kaveh. And before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air and breathing oil, an oil spill in the water like octopus ink, and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows of the overhanging rock kept us hidden until the water caught fire.
“When he saw me he stopped crawling and the men caught up with him finally. I struggled to get to him, the men were shouting but I didn’t understand them. He mouthed something to me and put his hands behind his head, with his fingers interlocked, he was dying anyway, and just closed his eyes and lay there. I was frozen, wrapped in fire, as the muffled gunshot rang out muffled with the water in my ears dulling the sound. He fell over with that same smile on his face. I was a fucking child. And then the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and dead or not they shot him in the head. One of the men in black pointed at the water and Kaveh grabbed my nostrils and pulled me under water, fire white now blanketing the surface.
“One of the men, and I don’t know who he was ’cause I just saw his eyes and the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up and took out another gun, a little pistol, and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse. What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.

“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and prayed, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. He was dead on the surface face down and I saw the blank expression on his face, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something shook the earth in the distance… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me, and he drowned eventually and I floated up to the surface That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow I kept burning, deep down, and each breath was pure fire filling my lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.

“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. She didn’t want to leave their bodies their for the carrion birds. But me and mama left anyway. We left without them. We got into the back of a truck and waited. Kids were stacked on top of each other like piles of clothes wrapped around bones. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”

There was a long silence.

“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”

“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brothers, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”

“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Let’s be practical here, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”

He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.

“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”

“I knew I could rely on you.”

He smiled.

“Thanks, Brandon.”

I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.

“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”

He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.

He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.

“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”

“I like you too, Gaz.”

“Do well.”

“I’ll try, my friend.”

“And …” he added, “You could have saved Chloe, in your story. If her father had confessed to the murder… Gilbertte would’ve gotten away, but the innocent would have lived.”

Denouement

I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers, those aviator sunglasses. Sometimes I imagine him wearing them, somewhere in a garden, by a waterfall in Arabia, surrounded by ghost orchids, blowing bubbles. I have looked and looked, through newspapers and on the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I kept a garden when I moved back to South Carolina, and planted a white ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop. But I leave the light on for him.When I finally sold the story, The Death of Madame Brisbois, I dedicated it to him, as he was like poor Chloe, as he had burnt like her, from a fire lit by another, unable to move his hand.

When Water Catches Fire – draft

WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE

By

BRANDON NOBLES

1

I had an editor named Gazsi once. I knew him for a long time before I knew him. I called him The Gaz. He  was a Persian speaking 22 year old who had been in America for ten years when we met in February of 2000, when the manuscript of one of my first novels found its way to his desk with the header ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He contacted me by post, and told me that, although I would not be able to publish my book, he was tasked with “developing me” – something I was told meant something like, “We think you suck, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.”

I wasn’t offered any money up front, but I was promised that my work would be considered by the publisher the Gaz worked for, Kensington, which was a big deal for me as an aspiring author; I had tried to publish my first story after winning South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s award two years in a row. My English teacher had sent some of my poems to prospective buyers, and she managed to get my work published in an anthology, just one poem in a collection released in 2001, not long after my 16th birthday.

I remember sending a copy to Gaz, and he said, ‘You continue to suck less and less. Congratulations!’ He sent me a card and – and I still have it – telling me, toast like and at a distance, ‘To the end of your sucking!’ And we talked on the phone for the first time not long after that. I liked him immediately, despite his shyness, his guarded demeanor. And he seemed to genuinely want to help, as my rejection had left me lethargic, unable to face the possibility of continued failure. He didn’t tell me much about himself, other than that he was born in Saudi Arabia and immigrated to the States during the war in the Persian Gulf.

2

He stayed at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him, even threats, in those panicked days after those two planes toppled the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. He was let go finally, on paid leave but still working with me. Of course they never clued him in on what he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all, or if it was something new in the air, some new bogeyman he would be painted as. They had found discrepancies with his immigration papers, I would later learn.

The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could; I knew someone at a publicity company and helped him interview for the job, a PR firm that sought out new authors to help develop them, as he had developed me. He did quite the same thing he had done at Kensington – they scoured the newly forming digital world for talent to develop and helped the few become the authors they wanted to be, looking over the rejected manuscripts of the many who would remain the rejected authors they feared they’d be. When I got the rejection form I called him up, as he lived nearby, unsure whether I would ever write again, but certain I needed to get drunk.

He arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of cheap vodka and explained, ‘Smoother than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, again, and we sat at the foot of the bed watching an episode of COPS. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon. We had a good time, though I don’t remember much of the evening, swirling blue and red lights running along the ceiling. I was once told that any night that begins with liquor and ends with mystery must be considered a success. Gaz and I talked, I remembered that, first about my future projects, about stories, why people wrote them, and why people needed them. Some way to cope, through shared trauma; catharsis for a beaten man.

“I think the best thing is,” said Gaz, “in a story, what is real is not measured by its facts, but by its feeling. Take Titanic, that long James Cameron movie?”

“Yes, I think I’ve heard of it.”

“Look at the main characters,” he said. “They were a total fiction. They were absolutely fiction, but that’s why people liked that movie, and why other people hated it. People are brought in by the disaster porn, but that’s not why it resonated. They cared about the people. Two beautiful young people. And how many of those others – what I mean, who does the audience cry for? A thousand people died, but the tragedy is cut down to one person.  Is it right? Maybe not. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t tell a story like that, not quickly, and hope to keep anyone’s attention. Take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, and make it human, put a human face on it. That’s when it becomes real. No one cries for metal.”

He was very much a mentor to me, and being official, and speaking in an official capacity, despite being absolutely fucking wasted. The Gaz was forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual; but when he looked at you, you saw that he understood, that he felt. A song came on he seemed to like and he relaxed, and I saw, with the sweat brought about by drink, the tone of his face had darkened, his hands remaining the same vaguely ethnic color. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the peak of regret and sorrow. He saw me looking at him, the scars along the side of his face, and he responded to my unspoken question:

“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said. “Hey, it’s not as bad as it looks.”

We talked about my plans, what I would do with whatever school I managed to get in. I wanted to write. I always wanted to. Well, I always did. Wanting to do it never factored in. We looked at information about the English programs at the schools where I would be interviewed; I decided to interview at Columbia and Cornell, fingers crossed for either, with a stupid hope for Cornell, one that did not punish me for dreaming in the end. We planned a road trip to New York City, to stay there for a week before going on to Ithaca. That’s when he asked if we could visit Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centers had been.  The night wound down and he was on one side of the bed, this strange little man, short and fit. I got up to turn out the lights.

“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Not at all,” I said. I left the bathroom light on, not too bright and not too dim, and most comforting. I returned to my side of the bed.

“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.

He was silent for a moment. A long moment. Then he rolled over and looked at me with a smile on his face, his eyes sincere and sympathetic.

“Brandon,” he said. “I like you.”

“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”

“Good,” he said. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Gaz.”
3
The drive to New York City didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I had been to Maine before on a piss-smelling Greyhound and we stopped at a connection point somewhere in the city. I had a connection ticket that was to take me from the terminal in NYC to Boston, but they couldn’t validate my ticket. So I wandered around the bus terminal in need of $5 to get another ticket, to make it up Boston. And then further on to Maine. The very first person I asked for money, a Chinese man in a suit that seemed out of place, agreed to pay for my ticket – if he could come with me to purchase it. When I welcomed him to do so, and happily, he smiled, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism. I shook his hand and thanked him. I boarded the bus to Boston in the early morning.

We had planned the day as best we could. We checked into our hotel and I left my notebook there. We found out there would be a bus tour around Manhattan, out toward Ellis Island and finally we made it out to the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee narrated for us. The statue of liberty was designed by the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the people of France, it was dedicated on the 28th of October, 1886. The famous statue has been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Gaz’s bright brown eyes had swelled with a happy sadness, and I understood, everyone on the bus – or maybe not, maybe not the guy reading off his cards – from the youngest girl in the back of the bus looking out the window, to an old man covered in soot and a checkered coat, we all believed in America, its promise, and everyone on that bus, they didn’t have to say a thing – we were all a part of the same, multicolored arabesque, the tapestry that made America, we knew it in our hearts, was a quilt, a counterpane meant for everyone.

We were silent for the rest of the drive as the guy read off his cue cards in his squeaky voice, telling us about the historic buildings, the different burroughs, the Omnisphere and central park with that gold Prometheus; the history and the culture. Then the empty sky among a littered landscape somehow seemed loud, profane in being empty. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. And everyone on the bus had seen it, glowing at night, prominent and proud in the afternoon. It was a different silence on the bus, and the narration got lost in my head. Where those two buildings had been, there was no rubble there, not now, but there was the twisted metal strewn about unwavering, lingering in my mind, and that’s what I saw, the ghost of twisted metal and steel

The bus tour ended without ceremony. I think everyone was exhausted. So many people emigrating to America had seen that Statue in the distance first of all, on their boats, that giant tower in the clouds not far away, and New York became a nation of mixed heritage, the biggest in human history united under principles instead of warlords, courts of law instead of Emperors. They came from Europe, the Jews fleeing progroms in Tsarist Russia, the Chinese fortunate to get out before Mao’s revolution, the Spanish fleeing military dictators, the Irish seeking refuge from the potato famine, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodians who got out before Pol Pot and his Angka turned the clocks back to Year Zero.

My father’s side had come to America after the fall of the Soviet Union, of Ukrainian ancestry, an Ashkenazim Jewish family; and my mother’s descendants went back to the 15th century in England, and they too had fled with dreams, hearing the same whispers that statue once murmured to the world, a promise that the law was just, and justice was for all. The tour guide, despite his cards, was a sharp kid, taking questions, answering them with breadth and concision. It was overwhelming. But I didn’t want to waste away in the hotel all day so Gaz and I decided to clear our heads with a stroll.

It’s a hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale and so we ducked into a Mexican restaurant, Mesa Coyoacan on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn where I was staying until the start of term, after I was accepted into Cornell. It was a strange scene, something right out of history. The tables were aged wood and the tables were shared, a communal dining experience. It was a bit pricey for me, as was everything else. Where I was from, there was one red light. A traffic light, but one of them. It was the Traffic Light, and a pack of cigarettes was about $3 for a good brand, your Marlboro Menthols and your Newports, but there were brands as cheap as $1.99, which I often bought – living is expensive enough; never overpay for death.

“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz was looking over the menu. He’d been quiet since we went back to the hotel to change. “I’ve never seen so many tequilas,” he said. “Do you think that’s their thing here? Do you think someone said, ‘There are lots of Mexican restaurants in this city… What can set us apart? Hold on, hold on I’ve got it, this happens to me sometimes: let’s have the most tequilas of all.’”

“You could be known for worse,” I said. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in South Carolina, in Newberry County called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We are the only Mexican restaurant. Nobody has better tacos than us.’ You know why? Because nobody else has tacos.”

“You are truly from a backward culture,” Gaz said. “But hey, at least it’s affordable.”

I ordered a quesadilla and wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. Both for him, of course.

We were having an enjoyable meal until an old man wearing aviator sunglasses walked in wearing camo shorts and long, grey woolen socks pulled up to his knees. The table was communal, and despite more open space further down the bench he sat close enough to me and Gaz as to be heard. We went about our meal, talking about the fall, talking about the future. The old man started out innocently, mumbling to some people beside him, and to their everlasting credit, everyone at the table ignored him. But he kept talking, louder and louder and louder still, egging Gaz on and on. To my shame I didn’t say a thing, and to his everlasting credit, neither did Gaz. Gaz drank his two tequilas until we were drunk enough to shrug off the passive aggressive insults of that ridiculous parrot.

The waitress came back to the table.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “No thanks, I’m good.”

She looked at Gaz, “And you?”

“I’m great, thanks,” he said. “Could I get a go-bag for the rest of my salad?”

“Sure thing,” she said. She turned to me, “He gave you the better tequila.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

She smiled. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”

Gaz took two of the tequila glasses and slammed them on the floor.

“I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he said. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”

I grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to put him back on his stool. The man in camouflage shorts took off his glasses and the waitress hurried over to where he was sitting and, despite not being able to hear what that young woman said, that guy sat back down and cleared his throat, “This ain’t a place for towel-heads and sand niggers.” The door to the kitchen opened and several men came out, all very quickly. Gaz shrugged my hands off of him and started toward him, yelling:

“I’m an American!” he shouted. “I’m a fucking American! Fuck you! Fuck you!”

The man stood up, Gaz staggered backward. The moment teetered on the edge of insanity. The kitchen staff pulled him away and took him to the front door. I hurried after him.

“I’m a fucking veteran!” the man yelled. “I fought in Desert Storm to protect you people, and you ungrateful scumbags..”

“Here, ma’am! Hey!” I called to the waitress. I put all the money I had on the table. I ran to the door with Gaz, where he stood detained by two of the staff members. They were stern but not excessive, and within ten minutes he had calmed. Still shaken, the two employees tried to talk him down. One of the guys had offered him a cigarette, which he took. I’d never seen him smoke. He shook and his teeth chattered in the heat, waves of steam rising from the tarred midtown roads.

“I was wrong, Brandon,” he said. “I wept for the metal.”

4

We stayed together for the rest of the summer. The PR firm Sgarlat was letting him work from his laptop. We had fun together, a lot of fun. The drive to Ithaca was longer than I thought it’d be, and the campus more beautiful than the pictures had prepared me for. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted into a good school, telling me that if he could buy a new life somehow, he’d stay there with me and finally teach me how to write.

We spent the first night at the Robert Purcell Community center for a get together of the starting freshman class. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was lovely, accommodating to not only myself but to Gaz as well. We didn’t stay long after I shook hands with all the people I felt that I should shake hands with. I got the feeling that the smattering of voices, unintelligible but loud, was a bit jarring to him, after what happened at Mesa Coyoacan, so we left, out into the open air, into the comfort of silence.

We turned off Jessup Rd. leaving the Community Center and walked toward the Golf Course where we stopped and asked an older looking student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge from Forest Home to Judd Falls Rd., and leaving us at the Wildflower Garden, he said a cordial goodbye.

That was his favorite moment, I think, of the entire trip, seeing the Wildflower Gardens. I got some flowers for him while he was preoccupied with a ghost orchid. I had picked a single flower from each species after he wondered aloud if we were allowed to take any. I planned to give them to him when he left the morning after. We didn’t stay too long, hoping to see as much as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way with a little help back onto Judd Falls, then headed for Werly Island, and on to see Beebe Lake.

We weren’t the only ones along the similar path; as the Gardens and the roads between had been sparse, there were many, many students camped out around the lake.

“Hurry!” he said. “Let’s talk to those ladies.”

We hurried after them and when we finally caught up Gaz said:

“Good afternoon!”

“Hello,” I said. “Mind if we walk with you?”

“Not at all,” said the brunette. Both were sweating, hair pulled back in a bun and wearing wind-breakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blond girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller, more earnest friend was named Vanessa.

“How can you tell?”

“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed too.

“My friend Gaz here,” I said, “he told me this lake was magic. It’s not as silly as it sounds…”

“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. They kept walking and we kept pace as best as we could.

“Well the legend goes that if you walk around the lake with a friend or with a girlfriend or a boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know! I know! But I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.”

And we were, Jennifer and Vanessa and I. I knew them all the way through graduation. And I was friends with until he disappeared.

5

His last night with me Gaz got to stay in my cramped dorm. I was sitting at a desk looking through a list of books I’d need. Gaz had the news on again. One channel after another, news and violence, opinions about violence in the news: also featuring violence. Then he saw that tape. You know the one – one of the tapes posted to the Al Jazeera news agency in Qatar, an old VHS video tape that would leak onto the internet, onto smut sites, gore porn like Rotten.com and Ogrish, the digital faces of death. I watched them, how could you not? You know it’s going to hurt you – if you’re not a fucking sociopath – but you feel the need, at least I did, I didn’t watch it to enjoy it, but as some way of misguided empathy, to need to suffer for the people who suffered I could have never helped.

A copy of the New York Times was open on the bed beside him, the one that ran the infamous Judith Miller story, as it had been circulating around campus as an effort to discredit the push for war. I finished looking over the long, long list of books I’d need and sat beside him in the dim light of a small lamp I’d bought the day before, the dim light of the flickering TV. I finally fell asleep sometime after midnight, somehow keeping my spirits up in spite of the deluge of horror coming from the small TV set.

Sometime in the early morning he woke me up with surprising strength.

“Hey,” he said. “Brandon? Are you awake?”

“Dude, I’m fucking awake now cause you woke me up!”

“I’m sorry!”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

We both had a laugh together.

“Have you ever heard of Saudi Arabia?” he slurred.

“Dude,” I said. “You woke me up for that shit?”

“Okay, okay,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve heard of Saudi Arabia. You’ve seen Aladdin. Read the Arabian Nights. What do you think about when you think of Saudi Arabia? I was born there. Do you know where it is? Don’t look at me like that! I’m kidding!”

I laughed: the most casual way to admit ignorance without actually admitting ignorance.

“But you know, smart as you are–and I don’t hold this against you! I was born in Seqaren. Most Americans, when they think of Saudi Arabia, you think of deserts and Lawrence of Arabia. And camels. The camels, ah! The camels aren’t even indigenous! We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed those buildings… And any country with that kind of … But they weren’t from my home. There’s something about home that doesn’t change. What do you call it? A characteristic of a place, something that speaks to you when you see it? It’s not a landmark, it’s something in the blood… And it can’t be taken from you. It’s printed on you, understand? Yes, there are deserts in Saudi Arabia and there are camels in those deserts, but in Saqeren – where I was born, what a beautiful place! And there are waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the sides of mountains

“There was a waterfall not fall from my house, where I grew up, nothing fancy, nothing chic, nothing modern. The waterfall started as a little stream high up on the hill, a large drop off and at the bottom is a small pool of water. I never seen the top. It might not have been perfectly clean but we thought it was safe to swim, to cool off, to have fun. We were children. Where… wait, I have a point. I… Fuck, Brandon. It was a sewer and I miss it! Maybe I miss the memory, the happiness of being a kid. How quickly does it end, childhood. Maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by starved memory searching out images of comfort and home.”

“Well, tell me about your last day there… In … Sekaren?”

“I was the youngest in my family… My sister was the oldest Anahita, Hiti… I was not close to her. So pretty, I wish I could see her again. She ran away when she turned eighteen and we never saw her again. She didn’t get along with dad. But I had two brothers, and I loved them! Of course I did… But my oldest brother, what an ass! Kohinoor, so fucking stubborn. You know? He always talked down to me and my other brother Kaveh, who was fourteen. But he looked up to Kohinoor. Kohin was the oldest, the heir to our meager lands. He wanted to play hero, too, but in games, with toys, make believe! Kohinoor believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, he was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. These people are not born monsters. Maybe he just wanted to fight, for his country or his religion. He had gotten in trouble a lot with the local military, the police had been taken away and replaced. We never saw them again…”

“Gaz…”

“Gazsi’s not my name! Just some vaguely ethic nickname. We have Roberts and Georges and Micahs. Even Todds and Tuckers yes speaking Persian, you think they want to use a Kalashnikov? They want to go to Starbucks and see Tarantino films… But these kids will die, thousands of them, no one will print a word. Only leaders of monsters, figure-heads, that brainwash children into being fodder for dispassionate carpet bombing which, it’s just a fucking button issue here, anger! I’m not angry, at that fucking phony in his camo he risks nothing! Nothing! But he was born better so he’s entitled to fucking judgment!”

“Okay, okay, relax. It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s all right, man. If I fail, you know, getting in here was pointless.”

“And you look at me like that. Yes, Ivy League, how modern and cultured, and you’ll sit in those classrooms and pretend you care until refugees start pouring out and then that Statue of Liberty doesn’t apply. Surely it is no crime to be born! I’m not a barbarian! Those police officers, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen now. They weren’t fools or barbarians they were regular fucking people with families and just regular fucking people. Ah! And they just disappeared. Pop, pop, pop in the dark. Like blowing bubbles. We got those little plastic toys, a little stick with a hoop on the end. We dipped it in gasoline and blew through it and they’d float for a while pretty in the sun and pop! Haha! Pop, pop, pop. They disappeared, and everybody was angry. Who wouldn’t be? The problem was, they had to be mad, and they had to be mad at something.

“What makes you angry when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but dark itself, no way to fight it without becoming a part of it. No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. Just because they were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them. They become monsters or they become ghosts and there is no other choice except to run and hope that someone here, this country I love, won’t hold you accountable for the sins of your father, or your people, or your culture. I ran. That’s what I did. That’s what the smart people did. From my family… Both my brothers, they were kids. They never grew up. Kaveh became a ghost, not an angel, and Kohimoor, he became a monster first and then a ghost. Ghosts are real. Some are kind, those that died in their sleep. But some, like those people in those buildings, those are angry ghosts. And what can I do? I don’t know who to fight, but I want to fight. I need to fight, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, not like my brother. I want to be the kind of ghost that helps the others on, through the fire and into peace. And they changed names all the time, easy, yes? So many names you forget who you are, and the regret eats you from the inside, like a botfly, inside out until your heart is black and you want to cover this world in darkness with you.

“The last day in Seqaren I do remember, and it’s real, and I know it’s real, and that is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down the hill towards the pond at the bottom and there were children already in. The little pool was always dirty, but that day was as dirty as I’d ever seen it. I thought that someone had spilled paint into the water, but I got in anyway. I stood on the edge of the little pool on sharp little rocks, cutting my feet on the glass from broken bottles. I saw my younger brother coming down the hillside in a hurry, chasing a ball but fell and slid dust coming up behind him and down he went from the sheer cliff, the drop off where the water comes…

“Once he hit the incline and started running I couldn’t tell if he was crazed with happiness or with madness or with fear, but I was a child. I was afraid, and got out of the water to try to help. He ran and ran and ran finally I saw… My brother Kohin was chasing him and he had a gun. I thought that it was some stupid game until my brother Kaveh grabbed me and pulled me into the water and jumped in with me, with all his clothes on taking me down beneath the black water grabbing my nostrils and he yelled ‘Take a deep breath!’ That’s what scared me! He had his clothes all wet and I knew mother would be very angry with him. And my father…

“I struggled to stay above water, but Kaveh tried to hold me under, and I thought, Maybe he’s horsing around? Then I saw the group of men behind Kohin, all dressed in black, and the… It’s… it’s god damn, god fucking damn. God dammit! Have you ever heard a gun being fired? There were dozens of shots at once, rippling, and it just tore Kohim apart, tore him to fucking pieces. Metal doesn’t bleed, nothing like that, when you get hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and air. And they followed him to the edge of the water. He crawled across the glass towards the water, towards where I was hiding with Kaveh, and before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air breathing oil; there had been an oil spill in the water, no paint! and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows had kept us safe until the surface of the pool caught fire.

“A group of people all garbed in black were running after him shouting in a language I didn’t understand and when he saw me he stopped running and he stopped crawling and the water was boiling in my eyes but I was covered by the oil in the shadow watching as he knelt, hands behind his head with his fingers interlocked. He stopped trying to get away, and he just closed his eyes and lay there. I froze there unable to move, as the muffled sound of the Kalashnikov rang out dead and muffled with the water softening the shots. He tumbled over, same stupid smile on his face, dead or pretending I had no idea, I didn’t know, I don’t I fucking I was … I was a child! And the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and whether he was dead when he stopped crawling, he was ten feet or so away from us. They shot him in the head. One of those men in black, I guess he was the leader and he pointed at the water and I grabbed my nostrils and dove deep into the black underneath the fire white now blanketing the surface, their muffled shouting and gunshots. I don’t know who he was. I just saw his eyes, the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up when he took out that gun, that little pistol and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse.

“What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.

“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and thought, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. Two of the other men came over and with a little effort they flung my brother’s body into the shallow pool. He was dead and another body was just something they couldn’t carry, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me. That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow, wet, we kept burning, deep down, and breathing in each breath was pure fire filling your lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.

“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. My brother wouldn’t leave Kohin’s body, but me and mama left anyway. We left without him. We got into the back of a truck and waited. I think we were waiting for papa. I don’t remember his name, he had changed it so often, and mama told me it was best I didn’t know. If one side didn’t kill him the other one and the cleanup crew didn’t notice the differences in the eyes or face or those wrinkles in a man’s forehead that say so much or the sadness for a mother having to leave without her child. We waited until we couldn’t anymore and besides, the truck was too full anyway. Had he made it, we’d have had to tell him he couldn’t leave. Brandon, they waited on papa, not to take him with us, but to apologize for leaving, they were waiting to say goodbye.

“He was probably somewhere with a gun or in a ditch, being noble, fighting the cause, while we left down a long long road, people were stacked on top of each other, kids stacked like piles of folded pants. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”

There was a long silence.

“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”

“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brother, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”

“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Being practical, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”

He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.

“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”

“I knew I could rely on you.”

He smiled.

“Thanks, Brandon.”

I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.

“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”

He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was an a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.

He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.

“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”

“I like you too, Gaz.”

“Do well.”

“I’ll try, my friend.”

“And …” he added, “Failure is not final, quitting is.”

Denouement

I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers. I wondered if he’d make it into that peaceful place and have a garden, a home and a wife, something worth being peaceful for, for his daffodils and daisies and orchids, a laminated lotus flower in my notebook on top of a list of books for class:

Brandon,

Not all pain is the same, nor equal. Some pain may teach you. Something about life, something about yourself. Then there’s this other kind, the kind that shouts at you until your ears ring, until you can’t hear anything but white noise, the kind of pain that breaks you, leaving you worthless, and thereby breaks you twice. Study hard. You’ll be a writer someday. Remember, if you base a story on the truth, the spirit of it must be true or else it’s a lie, not fiction.

                                   The friendly ghost,

                                                          Azar.

I never saw him again. And I looked, I looked through newspapers and the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I still tend the flowers prepared for him, and keep a living ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d just disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop. I still leave a light on for him.

 

The Contrarian Argument & the Decay of Political Discourse

The contrarian argument fallacy

Bullshit, (bo͝olˌSHit) noun: what other people passionately believe.

Whenever discussing issues of controversy or politics, it is a popular trend to deflect a charge against one’s own political party/ideas by a deflection. It usually follows the same pattern in the discourse. Whenever you are discussing the shortcomings of A, a supporter of A, instead of answering the charge, will assume the contrarian argument and deflect the charge. Instead of addressing A’s behavior, the response to it is to bring up the behavior of B, and therefore avoid any responsibility of actually having to answer any difficult questions about one’s own political or philosophical opinions. A common method in the modern discourse is to bring up a negative quality about, say, a particularly beloved/hated politician. Now, to defend them, a contrarian argument may form as accusation against the person whose argument it is; they will neglect to address any issue involved with their own party and instead rebuff you with the “well, maybe he did kill a flock of California condors, but at least he didn’t bathe in the blood of virgins to retain eternal youth.

Now, the problem with this should be obvious: it reduces and degrades the discussion to a series of accusations, substantive or not, and by lowering the stakes (as to whether or not one should bear the full responsibility for one’s behavior) the conversation changes to: so what? Your [insert party/cause here] does this. It is the modern political argument equivalent, I know I am, but what are you? Look for this: whenever someone cannot answer an honest charge with a grounded defense without contrarian charges, their fucking argument is built on quicksand, if that.

Now, the problem with this isn’t just a matter of argument or semantics: degrading the discourse limits the opportunity for those of differing opinion to find common ground or compromise, and you end up with the argumentative equivalent of two fingers in your ears shouting about how bad the person to whom you’re talking supports Soandso McExample and how terrible they are. This is problematic: as far back as ancient Rome, in the senate, the policies of state and the nation were largely left to the debates of senators; whoever had the argument that carried the day carried the motion. It was like this in the French Revolution: speeches and discussions are a part of the body politic, the mouth, primarily, and without this give and take of honest and genuine scrutiny we reduce ourselves to a nation of ear-pluggers, no more willing to listen to anything outside of our own bubble than we are willing to stare into the sun.

The importance of civil discourse is what underpins the authority of a government. When that government’s authority is reduced to contrarian attacks, the foundation turns from concrete into quicksand and dissolves beneath its feet, taking everyone with it into the mire, braying like a flailing horse, unintelligible, and those who hear remain unconcerned, unless the horse was their mascot. Then a state funeral will be held, dedications made, and passionate eulogies read. The only way to solve differences of opinion is not to destroy another person’s opinion, but to find a common ground where two seemingly mutually exclusive opinions can co-exist with something resembling mature thinking. So, whenever someone criticizes a point you’ve made, don’t resort to the fallacious “well, my point may be untenable, but all of your points are FUCKED.”

By waving the response to a charge, you aren’t denying it, rather you are making the presumption that the charge doesn’t matter, even if true; as long as this mentality persists, nothing will be solved, and we will have nothing but a crude, miasma of dissent, with ears plugged on all sides, with no progress, no middle ground, and no resolution.

PS. That politician you like is a total asshole.

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual IV

Tragedy was at its highest when Greek society was at its highest. Comedy was an outlet against and for the frustrations of society, as a diversion for the masses, and was therefore greatly popular during the decline of the Greek government after losing the Peloponessian war against Sparta in 404 BC. In 336 BC, Alexander the Great, a Macedonian King came to power in Athens. Political issues were to be ignored in comedy, understandably, and familial and family relationships were brought to the fore. This was called New Comedy.

For the first time in ancient drama, as much is known, love became a principal element in the drama, though hardly was it considered an honest love. Dialogue was still cast in verse, as the role of the chorus diminished in New Comedy. The costumes and masks were based on the dress of normal life. The masks were more realistic, except, that is, the masks for slaves and the elderly; they remained exaggerated, caricatured. There is only one complete New Comedy known to historians, and it was recently discovered.

DyskolosThe Grouch, was written by Menander, and contained a common theme in comedy, a parent’s disapproval with a child’s chosen partner in marriage. And it had a happy ending. Menander’s characters spoke in contemporary dialect, using colloquial language, and concerned themselves with the affairs of the day-to-day instead of the great myths of the past, as had most popular tragedies at the height of the Dionysia, and it would not be presented there, but at a smaller festival, the Lenaia.

As hard the forms of the past, after the 3rd century BC, new comedy as well began to decline, as did the contests of the Dionysia ceased completely in the first century AD, bringing an end to the classical period of Greek theatre. Its importance, to the audience and performers, is apparent in its surviving monuments and texts, such as the Lysicrates (334 BC), which commemorates the triumphs of the Dionysia. It would be the choregos, a financier of the winning play, likely the myth of the god Dionysis, and the monument served as a pedestal, a reminder of better times; with a bronze tripod upon its summit and trophy for the victor. A modern replica of this monument can be seen in Berlin.

Athens was to be rebuilt in grand fashion after victory in the war against the Persians. Temples most magnificent rose on the acropolis. Pericles was a popular statesman at this time, a period most known for the period of the Parthenon. The orchestra was still known to be circular in the theatre of Dionysia. During the festival a temporary wooden changing hut (the skene) was placed. The theatre was further excavated to make a more secure foundation for the wooden seats. It’s likely that these seats were divided into ten different benches, for the ten different tribes. It is believed another bench would have been put aside for women.

One of the first permanent, roofed theatres was built adjacent to the theatre of Dionysus in 440 BC: The Odeion of Pericles. The possibilities offered by this unique facility were many: dramatic activities as well as recitations. Using existing archaeology, the popular theory is that the roof would have been supported by a forest of columns, which would, of course, result in a sight-line disaster for nearly half of the spectators.

In the 4th century, under the statesman Lycurgus the theatre of Dionysus would finally be rebuilt in stone. This is around the same time period Menander began producing new comedies. Also, racked-stone tiers were constructed where wooden benches had once been. It is believed to have allowed for as many as 17,000 spectators.

The orchestra, the dancing place was still in front of the stage building, a circular pit, and behind facing each side were projecting wings behind the skene (the paraskenia). The word theatre originated from the word for the auditorium, theatron; it meant, ‘seeing place’, (koilon / cavea / auditorium).

Foreigners would have watched from the upper part of the theatre, highest in altitude and furthest from the stage. The proskene, the acting platform, was a low acting platform behind the orchestra, becoming ever more like what we know as a stage. To the rear, behind the skene and backstage area, was a Dionysus sanctuary, with the old temple and the new. Opposing entrances (paradoi) allowed for opposing entrances to the stage by the actors. There would be two diazoma, upper and lower crosswalks between levels of raked seating areas. The front row could consist of 76 marble stalls; the theatre of Dionysus can still be seen today, each seat carved from stone.

When the king of the Balkans took over the city-states in Greece, plays were no longer performed at the Dionysia in Athens. Many new theatres were built and some are still standing, including the best-preserved theatre in all of Greece; consisting of an estimated 14,000 seats, the theatre at Epidaurus still contained the traditional, circular orchestra as its focal point. Another is the Delphi theatre, c. 350 BC, and it has an estimated 5,000 seats, and is spectacularly sited, using the same focal point. This wouldn’t change until the next major period — the Hellenistic period. Which we’ll come to presently (in the sense that, in some future present, I will have finished writing it, and it will be available on this site. Check back for the rest!)

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual III

After the introduction of Tragedy in the Dionysia in 534 BC, the Dithyramb in 508 BC, and the Satyr play in 501 BC, it would be comedy in 501 BC. IT would be the last major form, and is divided into two periods: the period of old comedy and the period of new comedy.

Five comic writers would present a single play, each perhaps on one of the five days of the Dionyisia. The structure of comedy, like that of a satire, was similar to that of tragedy. Plays were episodic, with bottled episodes alternating with a chorus rhythmically. The chorus was no longer the satyrs, the half-beast, half-human companions of Dionysus, but wasps, frogs, even clouds. As tragic actors wore elaborate costumes, like priests and musicians, comic actors were not to be outdone: they wore padded breasts, padded asses and stomachs, and to top it off, was a long, floppy phallus for the male characters, but not for the chorus.

Note: all characters, female included, were still played by males, in this instance, the case is that the men playing female characters were denied the dick costumes. The masks of old comedy were distortions, caricatures intended to ridicule, and sometimes ridicule real people, priests, politicians, other playwrights. Especially Euripides, for writing strong female characters and questioning the Gods. No from Plato on whether not Euripides has apologized.

On preserved vases and pottery you can still find scenes of old comedy depicted. It is thought that the origin of old comedy may be found in the old Dionysian phallus song. It could be found from without, as well, in the city of Doran on the island of Sicily. The only comedies of the 5th century known to history are the work of a single comic poet, Aristophanes, and though he is believed to have written forty or more plays, only eleven have survived. His comedies were largely political-social satires. They still took the form of the most extravagant of the burlesque. Aristophanes was brutal in his abuse, skewering the politicians and celebrities of Athens.

The circumstance of it being a part of the tradition of the Dionysia allowed him to get away with saying things he would normally be unable to say. A choral ode, the parabasis, was a choral ode, but unique in that the playwright could take to the stage and discuss, at liberty, anything he so desired, and it needn’t have anything to do with the play. At the height of the Poloponessian War between Athens and Sparta, Aristophanes produced an anti-war comedy Lysistrata – in it, two women swear an oath to deny all men sex until the end of the war. Motivation. Athens, perhaps, capitulated for this reason, knowing a true defeat for Sparta was the end of battle and the recommencement of married life.

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual II

The City of Dionysia festival, the first annual annual, was held each year in March, beginning with an announcement by the three selected playwrights and the subjects of their tragedy trilogies, respectively. A great procession was held, a procession in which citizens – men, women, children, colonial representatives – marched through Athens carrying the wooden statue of Dionysia, from outside the theatre of Dioynsus to the southern slope of the acropolis. The procession ended with parties and celebrations.

Dionysus wasn’t a one-note deity, the God of wine, but also of fertility, humanity, and of land, and as such, the phallus was a popular symbol of fertility. As such, a giant statue, of bronze or wood, of a phallus would be carried in procession, while a cart pulled a much larger phallus. This is a custom that survives to this day in Japan, in traditional kabuki theatres, as there is a large cart carrying an even larger phallus. To be clear, phallus is just an archaic word for penis. Large penises were pulled into crowds full of drunks celebrating the most brutal of tragedies performed in the Dioynsia contest.

Dionysus was not only the god of wine, but of fertility, human beings and of land. The phallus was a popular symbol of fertility in those days. Therefore, a wooden or bronze phalloi was carried in procession and a cart pulled a much larger phallus. A similar custom is still continued to this day in Japan, where there is the carrying of a giant phallus to proceed kabuki ceremonies and performances.

In 500 BC a new contest was introduced to draw loyalty from the newly formed Athenian tribes. To parlay favor, a dithyramb contest was held, separate for men and for young boys. Mesomedes is a popular melody writer from the 2nd century whose work is still known. The singing performances were accompanied by lyres, sitars, as aulos and other types of pipe instruments.

In 501 BC, the Dionysia was again extended: it would include a Satyr play. In Greek mythology, a satyr was half-beast, half-human companion to Dionysis. These characters would make up the chorus in a traditional satyr play. So in the 5th century, not only the the playwright be expected to produce a trilogy, a trilogy of a single, larger tragedy, but also a satyr play – this was the comic relief, alleviating some of the misery that had preceded it. These would be more or less burlesque versions of familiar subjects, gods and heroes, but set in a rural area, full of boisterous scenes and drinking, and the absolute indecency of colloquial language, introducing a tradition of slang. While dick jokes have fallen out of favor, keep in mind, the very first performed jokes known to history are dick jokes.

Only one known completed satyr play from this period is known to historians, Cyclops by the playwright Euripides, based on the episode in the episode when Odysseus encounters the cyclops Polyphemus. You can still see paintings of satyr plays depicted on vases and pottery, where chorus members wore scant-dressings of goat skins with a linen-sewn phallus for comedic effect. The structure of the satyr play was similar to that of a tragedy, and the English word satire derives from this tradition of the Satyr play introduced into the tragedy contests in the City of Dionysia.

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual I

Theatre’s origin is right there in the middle, in the circle, center-stage in the dancing place at the foot of a hill – this would be the focal point for spectators. That’s where Dionysus was celebrated, God of fertility and wine, born from the thigh of Zeus. Worship was ecstatic. In (or around) the 6th century BC, the celebration was formalized, ritualized: a tradition of regularity, a framework was established. The celebration of ritual was the celebration of normalcy, and contentment: women were no longer allowed to participate. Serious business.

By the orchestra – the focal point of everything – a temple, the Temple of Dionysus was built. A play would begin with a ritual sacrifice, to a goat – Tragos. The word tragedy itself comes from this word, and means ‘goat song.’ Hamlet was a goat song. The altar was right in the middle, as it was on-top of the pyramids in Meso-America; except the Athenians used goats, not people or virgins, and the sacrifice was to the God of Fertility and wine, not the sun. Wine is behind all of this. As such, the earliest results, or at least the earliest of performances, were hymns – dithyramb – by 50 or so men, and were sang to more or less Oriental-sounding music. It was a hymn in the most traditional tradition, the religious tradition. If this were to happen in the modern world, it would manifest as a group of hundreds watching a group of maybe fifty, dancing in rehearsed movements while singing, or miming This Little Light of Mine. Or, Amazing Grace, if you’d like. Substitute a popular call to worship in any culture and perform it, and you have the efforts of the formal ritual.

Rituals are important in the way that hobbies are. The difference between a ritual and a hobby is that a ritual is a hobby you can do with other people. This was enough for the earliest performers, to drink and toast the God(s), and dance around and sing. None of this was written down, passed along, and none survive. It is thought that the poet Arion of Corinth would be the first – or first known – to base this on a literary composition. The words were recorded and memorized, and around this center rose the classical culture of Athens. This is the Athens that comes to mind when we read of democracy in ancient Greek traditions. It formed around the ritual, expanded into the broader culture as a tradition, and the traditions led to the culture and its saturation. And democracy in Athens is a true part of history, albeit a brief and unpopular one. The idea of democracy in Athens was to give all male citizens, low class, middle, or high, the right to have their voice heard in state affairs. The heads of the traditional 10 tribes would have the loudest voices, and the crowd would mingle with them at the performances.

While Arion is credited with transmuting this ritual into writing, Thespis is created with the creation of performing characters.  A performer, an actor (the word thespian comes from Thespis) would impersonate the character the song was about, or take on the character doing the singing. When more actors were brought in, masks were used to differentiate between the characters. The masks were made of single-use cloth or cork. An outside character, hypokritos, would step onto the stage to interact with the solo performer, in the character of a God, mimicking a trance or state of divinity (an enthoustase).

It is believed that the writings spread out of Athens on the cart of Thespis, though this is probably apocryphal, and performances of the formal plays would take place in other towns. The traveling performance troupe, actors and singers, would be the primary form of theatre well into the middle ages, all the way to the edge of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England and on until the Golden Age of Broadway, silent films, into our own time.

At the source, it would become an annual festival, a contest and celebration in the City of Dionysia, circa 534 BC. There would be a prize for best tragedy and runners up would be officially noted and shamed accordingly. Thespis is believed to have won the first competition. His pupil Phrynichus is credited with introducing female characters into the performance, characters who would be played by male actors. He’s also credited with the introduction of contemporary personalities and subjects. None of the work of these 6th century dramatists is known to historians.

The popularity of the festival continued into the 5th century, growing into ever larger and more permanent, elaborate arenas: rows of temporary buildings would be built on the side of the Acropolis, and the orchestra, the circle – the dancing place, still the focal point and stage – and a building was built behind it, a skene – a type of hut for actors, for the changing of costumes and masks. The skene would also serve to preserve the written source, the notes a director would leave today, and each actor would decide which characters to play, when to change, and who was to take a given role. It wasn’t as strict as it is today. The first settings were temples, palaces, and royal courts. There were two or three doors actors used to enter a scene. A permanent backstage, solidified by stone, would only become standard in the 4th century.

Of the plays known to have been written in the 5th century, 32 tragedies of only 3 playwrights have survived. The first (we know) is Aeschylus, who would diminish the importance and number of the formal chorus. Aeschylus’ treatment of Agamemnon is still-performed and relatively popular today. In the time of its first performances, the actors would be in the open air with thousands of spectators. The deliveries were loud and declamatory, each starting with a prologue, to get everybody on the same page.

Next would be Sophocles, perhaps the most well-known of the ancient Greek tragedians, most famous for Oedipus the King and Antigone. He has also been credited with the introduction of the third speaking actor, making the three actors convention the convention for centuries. This favored an exchange between characters and actors and would bring theatre closer to what we imagine when we think of modern theatre, its acting and plot. He has also been credited with the invention scene-painting, achieving this by using painted panels (pinakes) similar to modern flats (or back cloths). A century later it would be closer still to modernity. Sophocles is widely regarded as the most skillful of the three dramatists, and Oedipus the King has been called “the most perfect Greek tragedy.” Compared to Aeschylus, Sophocles created more psychologically complete characters and has a relatively easy-to-pronounce name, as no academic or historian really knows how to pronounce Aeschylus.

The next of the famed trinity of playwrights is Euripides, from whom 18 complete works have survived. His plays foreshadow the ultimate form of drama as we know it today: he employed a naturalistic, more human approach than his contemporaries. In his time, however, his plays were not highly regarded, and this could be due to his questioning of Gods and their role in human misery and injustice, and by showing strong, intelligent female characters.

The most popular symbols of the period, and most endearing, have been the tragic masks, often found depicted on ancient pottery and vases. The well-known laughing / crying pair of masks has remained popular, although the earliest of these depictions are from a time long after the plays of the period were being written and performed, and are traditional for the sake of being traditional. It is the celebration of a celebration; that is tradition. For there to be an annual happening, first something happening must become annual. The City of Dionysia and its Tragedy Contest would be an annual event that would enjoy lasting fame, a popularity that would stretch across time, politics, and culture.