The Shame of Franz Kafka – 15 July 2015

Kafka was painfully earnest, in all moods, but never as intensely as in defense of himself. Not his looks, his sense of masculinity, but the defense against his right to existence, and each time one of his stand-ins dies, he’s letting these personalities, so vividly abstracted allegories, become a way of accepting judgment of himself. Kafka wasn’t unsuccessful, not by modern terms. He held a series of jobs in law offices, but was as naturally talented as Schiller and Goethe, and more intensely naked. He exposes himself and allows, beckons the jeering of the crowd, as he does in his final story A Hunger Artist. It is the most kafkaesque thing Kafka ever created.

It is not his most popular story, but in it, a performer fasts for a record number of days, and this is much to the enjoyment of fans. A hunger artist went days without eating, showing their strength. A drop of water daily, not a bit of food, and his features become emaciated and rigid as stone, as a corpse, and it is his greatest thrill for those watching to be entertained by his self-mutilation and starvation. It is an allegory of his fans.

While he wrote this story, Kafka was unable to eat anything without great pain from what eventually killed him, laryngeal tuberculosis. He died 4 days after his hunger artist reveals the truth about his performance, his public performance of his acceptance of death and nothing and the long intensity of silence, he admits that had he only found something to eat, he would have been more admirable. He simply didn’t have an appetite, and was not to be admired. Indeed, he is replaced by an animal, a panther, that is voraciously hungry and full of rigor and vitality. The hunger artist died while a crowd cheered for his dumb replacement, the blood and devouring of flesh over simple, existing without need for approval or admiration, it is, in the face of death, saying, death cannot bring this much pain to me. Take me, you Coward of a god, take me if you dare. He said this to everyone, the judges, his father, though he deeply wanted his approval, or at least his sympathetic understanding. I have no father figure as degrading and imposing as Herman Kafka. No, mine was a Noble man. Herman, sharing a name with Kafka’s abusive father. My father Herman is in no sense the obvlious, insensitive father Franz had to endure, but there are specifics that are uncanny. Kafkaesque.

He is that rarely genuinely gifted writer of great drama amidst a period of utterfluff in Europe (with few exceptions) and he was worthy of recognition, every bit as much as Goethe’s tiresome, Romantic Sorrows of Young Werhter whose titular young Werther, a stand-in for Goethe, (Gerh-deh, is one way to say it) and Werther, (pronounced Ver-tah), a mary sue if you will. He devotes his life to a vain, arbitrary opportunist who hangs on while he devotes himself utterly and flatters the object of romantic obsession. When the relationship turns sour, he simply understood and Goethe, unlike Werther who killed himself over the woman who had spurned him, he grew up; he was accepted, his work was the first true international best-seller, praised by commoners and royalty, even Napoleon, bragging of how many times he read it. Had the conquerors after Napoleon (long dead by the time Kafka was writing) read the works of Kafka, the greatest Czech writer in history, perhaps their romantic notions of war and themselves as great powers and conquerors would have been deflated, showing them as tiresome, arbitrary statues incapable of understanding the suffering of another, seemingly meek man.

There is a nagging need in all writers, I think, to be a type of performer, to hear applause and to read praise, and it is that nagging need of validation that Kafka has for his fathers approval, or just to hear him say, “It’s okay you’re you, that is more common than you would think, and not just with fathers, with anyone worthy of your love, unlike Franz’s. One of the turning points of his life was a rather common one: one night the young Franz cried out for water. His father exploded. He pulled him from his bed in nothing but his night shirt and took him onto the patio and left him there all night in nothing but his night-shirt, alone, afraid, and freezing. After this, he wrote, “I was quite obedient.”

This episode works its way into his work, too, with remarkable emotional poignancy and depth. Over and over in his work are figures of arbitrary power, judges and trials, and the family who decided he should just go off and die in The Metamorphosis — after they see him as perhaps saw himself, a bug, akin to a bedbug, meek and powerless, but always obliging. He had this persistent fear that some great power, under which he was significant to the point of less than mattering, less than being of consequence, but arbitrarily existing in its sphere of influence and authority. Kafka always relented under these figures, in The Judgment when the narrator’s father is sickly, his son is praised and adored as a great caretaker. But upon his recovery, he realizes, he didn’t need his son after all. He commands him to commit suicide, and Kafka, ever obedient, duly obliges.

My relationship with my father has no such moment of arbitrary cruelty, but there is a moment that stands out. Well, a few, and these symbols creep into my fiction over and over. It is a type of reverse allegory, projecting your life in a distorted mirror to tell an essentially, emotionally true story as confession disguised as fiction. I have avoided the moment, as you would’ve seen from reading that last paragraph, because I’m trying to go through a series of moments, to see which one is comparable to that of Herman Kafka leaving Franz on the patio in his nightshirt. There are three candidates for this moment of arbitrary horror, but the following has been the most long lasting and traumatic.

When I was 13, my brother and I would sometimes sneak a cigarette from a pack lying around the house and hang out the back door and smoke during the night, my brother standing lookout while I leaned out of the back door blowing smoke into the wind. If our father got out of bed, my brother would tap twice on the kitchen door and I’d drop the cigarette in a cop of water (we’d been found out by a flickering ember from a tossed cigarette that by chance landed on a bag of trash), slide the door against the sock in place, lock it, and move as quickly back into the bedroom as possible. He just as good as caught us that night, as he was on the threshold of our bedroom (the kitchen and backporch just beyond), and claimed to smell smoke in the air. That night we decided we wouldn’t sneak and smoke out the back door anymore: we would cut a hole in the mesh of our bedroom windows so we’d be able to fling the cigarette and be back in bed before he, with his limp and emphysema, could make it to our room and catch us.

Two days later, after using a boxcutter to cut out the mesh just beyond the raised window – we’d found out it was more than just a mesh screen, as we had thought, as the air came rolling in when we opened the window, quietly as to not wake our sleeping father on the other side of the house. It went well. We both got to smoke in relative peace, finished, dropped it in a bottle of water, and then dumped the water and cigarette into the toilet, flushing it away. We left the window up, hoping the smell of smoke would be out by the time he got up the next morning. We fell asleep with the window up, and in the summer in the South it is often chilly in the morning, or at least cold enough that it wasn’t uncommon to see young boys and girls with jackets on in the morning and tank-tops and t-shirts by the end of the day. I was awake when my father passed the window the first time. I closed my eyes as he passed, doing that “pretend to sleep” face all children must learn, and waited on the sound of the percolator and his breakfast. Shortly after sitting down, he stood, I could hear the chair being slid back ever so slightly against the polished linoleum floor. The feet drew closer – he was at the window, I could sense his presence there in the room, and – strangely, I realized then what I should have the before: the tell-tale window was confessing our crimes for us, as we lay just a few feet away. The sound of his labored walking trailed off toward the living room, ah, I remember sighing with relief. He had gone back to bed. I was tired, and suddenly less anxious, and I closed my eyes to go to sleep. For real. My brother asleep beside me, I got comfortable and closed my eyes.

Just as I relaxed, the covers were pulled from me, and then my father got me by the leg and swinging a leather belt beat me over the back for a couple of minutes until my little brother woke up. He started whipping Kyle while he was still asleep, waking him up to a confusing ogre of a man beating him, and unaware of what crime could bring this about. What had he done, the younger Nobles with the cigarette at the window, to wake to the sound of leather cutting the air and only slowly recognizing the brutality of the blows as they fell upon him? He would develop insomnia and anxiety after that, as did I. It persists, the anxiety and the insomnia. I sometimes imagine closing my eyes and relaxing my guard only for, at that moment, a beast of a man to appear above me just to beat me for my crime.

It’s easy to say this is common, the disciplining of children, but this gave me this almost unconscious fear of allowing myself to be seen exhausted for the very reason that sleep is something I put off, for when I dream I wake to the blows of an elderly man, a good man by all accounts, beating two sleeping children with the strength natural to an army officer. My father was a Private first class and sent to boot camp at Ft. Jackson; he was not unique among army men for their trust in spanking, disciplining, or otherwise intentionally inflicting harm in children for their misdeeds. My father believed in this very passionately, often, but more rare than his father had beaten him. My mother’s father committed suicide on his patio near the bus-stop where my mom and her sister Virgnia (my aunt Jenny) got off the bus to walk the alley-way through the apartments to their trailer behind the mill, where they found him dead, still holding the gun but feebly. My mother has this terrible sort of face whenever she sees a schoolbus, and I think that when she does she remembers walking up those steps to find her father — what had been her father — with a gaping wound in his head and one half-opened eye, peering at her in death. To see a schoolbus and have that sort of Proustian memory of a father’s suicide must, at least, be considered somewhat Kafkaesque in its arbitrary horror.

I am not comparing myself to Kafka as a writer: I have no comparable talent, wit, imagination, or even the pride of Kafka, but I share his sense of unworthiness, shame, and lack of pride; his style of allegorical confessional is a great and cathartic way of excising personal demons (as I have tried to do here) and surviving judgments one might not otherwise survive. Kafka is a monument in world literature, but during his lifetime he struggled to sell his stories, publishing one collection of short stories before his death. The rest? He tore them apart because he was so displeased with them. Now, not all people deeply unsatisfied with their work are secret Kafkas, but statistically speaking, there may be a living Kafka now, so ashamed of his own material he’d never show the world. Perhaps he’s failed to have some books published, or he never really got on with his father. Perhaps forced to live a life of unsteady jobs utterly beneath him. Perhaps, but it is not me.

Kafka is one of humanity’s great cultural heroes, and the Kafkaesque not just a byword for weird; it is the great eye of alienation that one recoils from in all bouts of true, existential crisis, when one finds themselves in an emasculating, alienating, deeply paranoiac, deeply confusing, judgmental world, with eyes and verdicts and pointing fingers in every mirror and window; everywhere a judge waiting to render a verdict on whether or not you deserve to exist. You do; you don’t need your father’s approval (or mother’s, or your friends’) anymore than Kafka did. It is a great tragedy that in his brief life on this Earth very few realized his genius, his talent, and above all, his generosity: he gave the world some of the best stories in centuries, including short stories such as The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and The Hunger Artist and his novels The Trial, Amerika, and The Castle. He is a monument to anyone who ever felt slight in regards to a terrifyingly large and arbitrarily cruel world, for anyone every utterly embarrassed of their writing and deeply unforgiving of their own failures, imagined or not. For that we must be grateful of his many gifts and be sure to take the time to read his work.

“A book must be the ax for the frozen seas within us, ” – Franz Kafka, 3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924 (aged 40).

How to Create Conspiracy (Reason, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion) 16 June 2016

The Language of Argumentative Reasoning &
Rhetoric and the Language of Persuasion 

In the proper use of rhetoric, an early idea or notion in a speech or argument must be resolved by the end. This can be done by returning to, and expanding upon, prior notions in an argument toward the end. This tidies up an argument in a satisfying way. It allows for a finality and closure, allowing the primary thrust of an argument to come full circle. That sense of completion and resolution is intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

When a notion remains unresolved the argument may seem unsatisfying or lacking to an audience or jury. Tying a later notion to an earlier idea allows for an audience to follow your reasoning, evaluate the chain that links each successive point, and decide for themselves if the logic behind thet conjecture is sound. Your job as an orator is to make sure that each successive link follows logically from each point to the next in a manner that is understandable and gradual. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion.

For Aristotle, there were three elements of rhetoric necessary for the practice of persuasion as it relates to argument. As Dr. John R. Edlund describes in his essay Ethos, Logos, Pathos: Three Ways to Persuade:

” Aristotle says that if we believe that a speaker has good sense, good moral character, and goodwill, we are inclined to believe what that speaker says. Today we might add that a speaker should also appear to have the appropriate expertise or authority to speak knowledgeably about the subject matter. Ethos is often the first thing we notice, so it creates the first impression that influences how we perceive the rest. Ethos is an important factor in advertising, both for commercial products and in politics.”

The first element is ethos and is important to consider first, as it must establish the image of credibility of the speaker or writer by creating and maintaining an ethical character; the second is pathos, the appeal to emotion and telling pathological characteristics in the specifics of individual notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, shame and pride; the third is logos, the use of the argument’s own language as the means of persuasion, logic. Only in the fulfillment of each element, Aristotle thought, could rhetoric be considered truly persuasive.

Pathos relies on the amplification feelings known to force someone into a position of choosing honor or shame, into making an amoral decision as opposed to an emotional response. This is important to understand in practicing persuasion, as it relates to creating conspiracy, as appealing to base fears and the sense of pride, by their understanding a unique truth that allows them to rest assured in their own deductive abilities — the best way to convince someone is to give them a way to convince themselves, rely on confirmation bias to run its course, and watch the newly converted. It isn’t always necessary, if the issue hinges on a more morally lax issue; to waste logic on a juror who has built in responses is unnecessary, as logos is not the language of the rhetorical capacity intended for the proud. In such instances, you are dealing with someone for whom proposed or traditional credible sources have failed to persuade them and in response, understandably betrayed, may resort to the persuasion outside of logos, and through ethos they can be more properly persuaded.  Connecting emotionally may help overcome a particularly weak argument, or work to the detriment of an otherwise logically sound narrative.

In the sciences, dispassion and emotional detachment are valued aspects of one’s approach to a proof, in chemistry or physics, for example. But in philosophy and psychology, it is important to show emotional awareness and sensitivity, to make sure someone’s pride is not on the line; to make sure that it does not dishonor or otherwise shame someone to accept a proof, and to err on the side of being humane whenever such questions arise. You will more easily reach someone with a smattering of humanity than with a mountain of intelligence and logic. To insult the intelligence of someone you wish to persuade will do you no favors, and only make a proof that much harder to accept.

On the acceptance of proofs

OF THE SCIENCES PRACTICED BY SCHOLARS AND HISTORIANS, physics is perhaps the most observation based and dependent on empirical data. Proofs in physics without observation data, without an experiment that might replicate the results, or proofs without a means by it may be tested, are considered worse than proofs that are demonstrably wrong. In classical physics, the models and theories were shaped by observation and the tedious collection of data over time. Johannes Kepler published his theory on ellipses in Harmony of the Spheres based on the observation data of another astronomer, the Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe. This would be the first accurate model of the solar system in human history.

In instances where data or observation is impossible, approaches are developed to take probabilities of all possible outcomes into consideration in equations. This is known as the path integral formulation of quantum physics. Classical physics can give definitive answers to questions such as,

If a particle starts at time tA at location A, will it reach location B at time tB? Depending on the particle’s initial velocity and the forces acting on it, the question can be answered. In quantum physics, it’s possible to give the probability that the particle will reach location B at tB. Because of the infinities inherent in probabilities, the sum over histories approach was born, or created rather, to produce valid mathematical proofs.

An invention of American physicist Richard Feynman, path integral is used to calculate quantum mechanical probabilities. To do this, first you consider all the probabilities for the particle traveling from point A to point B. Not just the straight line approach, but all approaches. From the possibility of a particle going through a lethargic stage and making desperate detours to its possibility of going to New York or Rome or Proxima Centauri before going to point B. This seems improbable, sure, but is it improbable that particles will take other paths from point A to point B, and not always straight lines? I don’t think so. After all, between the straight line and the round-about path through New York and Rome there are infinite possibilities. Further, that path may be descriptive but it does not give information about velocities. In short, for the first step, take into account all ways of traveling from A to B, however outlandish they may seem.

The second step is to associate a number with each of these possibilities (not quite the kind of number we’re used to from school, but we will not bother with the difference here). Finally, the numbers associated with all possibilities are added up – some parts of the sum canceling each other, others adding up. (Readers whom this makes think of waves are on the right track – it is an example of an interference phenomenon.) The resulting sum tells us the probability of detecting the particle that started out at A at the location B at the specified time. Physicists call such a sum over all possibilities a path integral or sum over histories.

Calculating such path integrals can be tricky, in particle physics, for example; there, theories are combination of quantum theory and special relativity. Path integrals are an important tool to calculate the probability of particles interacting in a given way. In order to do this, you have to use a time coordinate (t), assigning a time coordinate gives an extra factor (i) – the “imaginary unit”, an algebraic symbol that squares to minus one, i2=1. The resulting pair i·t is sometimes called imaginary time. After a path integral calculation, you reverse the substitution.

This might seem arbitrary and implausible but it has the added benefit of transforming a time coordinate with a special coordinate, which is how it works to give the right answers with Feynman’s approach. An exact proof was found by two mathematicians: Konrad Osterwalder from Switzerland and Robert Schrader from Germany. Their theorem showed that the properties of a quantum theory formulated in the space-time of general relativity can indeed be reconstructed exactly by using Feynman’s recipe on an imaginary-time axis of that same space-time.

Proofs in other areas of academia are not as precise or obvious. Problems in philosophy are never solved to everyone’s satisfaction. Questions on ethics and morality, of good and evil, and anything else in the realm of metaphysics – it is unlikely these questions will ever be satisfactorily defined or proven in a way that would be accepted in the same manner as the above mathematical proof. Whether there is a god or if there is good and evil, these questions have been around as long as questions have been asked.

It is through reason that arguments are settled. And only temporarily then, as they will be asked again. This will be dedicated to the methods of argumentative reasoning more than to advocating for one answer over another. Argumentative reasoning is split into four necessary elements: connection, correlation, conjecture, and conclusion. The connection stage is how you connect your two subjects, showing that the overall idea is based on the logical inferences drawn at each stage when presented with new information. The second step, correlation, is the demonstration of why two subjects are connected. The meaning behind events linking them together, how this reinforces the overarching point, and how it allows for you to present the conjecture that allows for your conclusion.

Conjecture is the part of your case where you argue the evidence. In legal terms, it is the defense’s final summation, or final argument, and it lets them present their inferences, based on the evidence, as part of a reasonable inference from that reference. There is more license in this area, as it is more the story of the evidence than a recapitulation of it. That’s a popular way of refreshing a jury of the main points without going into too much detail, condensing it and making it easier to be pigeonholed in someone’s memory. This is where you tell the story of your own discovery, of how you came to the conclusion you have, and why it precludes any other conclusion.

A conclusion is something that must proceed logically from the conjecture. It allows you to show the stages from the first step of connection and the final step. A conclusion is what everything else is in service to: all of the steps and foundational ideas within the connection and correlation, as surmised in the conjecture. This is your point, the main thrust, and the popular way of doing this in legal terms, again, is in the final summation, or final argument, as well as a way of preempting possible questions and unresolved issues that run contrary to your interpretation of the evidence.

Those are the four main steps in argumentative reasoning as it applies to constructing an academic argument. The point, for me, behind this paper is to demonstrate the methods of constructing and sustaining a conspiracy; the creation of a conspiracy theory follows each one of these four steps very deftly: first the connection, then the correlation, the conjecture, and finally the conclusion. Embedded in the conjecture should be a preemptive answer or deterrent to points important to the proof;

First, anticipate and prepare for detractions. An active deterrent built into the logic of the conjecture will have a longstanding effect on questions as it relates to proof, negating the best attempts at discrediting an argument. Attempts to preempt difficult questions as pertaining to your conclusion are vital points to build into the logic, especially in conspiracy. In case after case, you need to prepare for any and all attempts to pick apart the logic of your argument. ‘The Man’ is disseminating false information; a fundamental establishment as a source of truth is abolished, as that establishment may urge conclusions to the contrary of your own. ‘They’ don’t want the truth to get out. This makes an idea bullet-proof if successful, because it shuts down objections before they can be used and allows you to dictate the flow of the debate. It is of monumental importance in argumentative reasoning to discredit and preempt objections to your arguments. There is much to learn from this type of couched deterrent, one that is prominently built into the logic of conjecture.

In presenting an argument, the first point of business is to rehash and recapitulate the facts as you know a jury to know. Thereby getting them to side with you in the first series of agreements, because it means agreeing, first, with themselves. You need juror empathy, acknowledgement of credible sources, and a shared standard for the measure of truth as it relates to proof. In a legal case, this can be done as a general summation, outlining what you know the jury has seen, detail major points in the abstract – to reinforce important points, points that have empirical proofs, in measurement, for example, or any a demonstrable way.

It is through reason that arguments are settled. And only temporarily then, as they will be asked again. This will be dedicated to the methods of argumentative reasoning more than to advocating for one answer over another. Argumentative reasoning is split into four necessary elements: connection, correlation, conjecture, and conclusion. The connection stage is how you connect your two subjects, showing that the overall idea is based on the logical inferences drawn at each stage when presented with new information. The second step, correlation, is the demonstration of why two subjects are connected. The meaning behind events linking them together, how this reinforces the overarching point, and how it allows for you to present the conjecture that allows for your conclusion.

          Conjecture is the part of your case where you argue the evidence. In legal terms, it is the defense’s final summation, or final argument, and it lets them present their inferences, based on the evidence, as part of a reasonable inference from that reference. There is more license in this area, as it is more the story of the evidence than a recapitulation of it. That’s a popular way of refreshing a jury of the main points without going into too much detail, condensing it and making it easier to be pigeonholed in someone’s memory. This is where you tell the story of your own discovery, of how you came to the conclusion you have, and why it precludes any other conclusion.

          A conclusion is something that must proceed logically from the conjecture. It allows you to show the stages from the first step of connection and the final step. A conclusion is what everything else is in service to: all of the steps and foundational ideas within the connection and correlation, as surmised in the conjecture. This is your point, the main thrust, and the popular way of doing this in legal terms, again, is in the final summation, or final argument, as well as a way of preempting possible questions and unresolved issues that run contrary to your interpretation of the evidence.

          Those are the four main steps in argumentative reasoning as it applies to constructing an academic argument. The point, for me, behind this paper is to demonstrate the methods of constructing and sustaining a conspiracy; the creation of a conspiracy theory follows each one of these four steps very deftly: first the connection, then the correlation, the conjecture, and finally the conclusion. Embedded in the conjecture should be a preemptive answer or deterrent to points important to the proof;

          First, anticipate and prepare for detraction. An active deterrent built into the logic of the conjecture will have a longstanding effect on questions as it relates to proof, negating the best attempts at discrediting an argument. Attempts to preempt difficult questions as pertaining to your conclusion are vital points to build into the logic, especially in conspiracy. In case after case, you need to prepare for any and all attempts to pick apart the logic of your argument. ‘The Man’ is disseminating false information; a fundamental establishment as a source of truth is abolished, as that establishment may urge conclusions to the contrary of your own. ‘They’ don’t want the truth to get out. This makes an idea bullet-proof if successful, because it shuts down objections before they can be used and allows you to dictate the flow of the debate. It is of monumental importance in argumentative reasoning to discredit and preempt objections to your arguments. There is much to learn from this type of couched deterrent, one that is prominently built into the logic of conjecture.

In the language of legal argument 

In the Kennedy assassination, conspiracies began before the body was even back in Washington at Bethesda Medical Hospital. It is a violent, random act; the suggestion that chaos rules over the everyday lives of men and women is a bit much, and replacing chaos with something planned and precise gives us a type of comfort, a type of comfort we’d never have in knowing that anyone, including the most powerful and beloved people on Earth, can lose their lives so publicly and violently. It’s understandable [in the JFK case] to bend toward conspiracy, as most of the American population does. If someone, acting alone, can kill the president, does that not make one uneasy in their own lives, unassured by the safety traditional law enforcement provides? Of course it does. A conspiracy gives meaning where there is none, but where it is badly needed.

          Vincent Bugliosi is a famed lawyer and non-fiction author, best known for his public prosecution of Charles Manson – popularizing the Helter Skelter aspects of those killings – and his true crime novels, Outrage, about the acquittal of OJ Simpson, and Reclaiming History – about the conspiracies surrounding the JFK assassination. In one of his public appearances after the book’s release, he gave a speech at the 5th floor museum in Dallas. At the beginning, he put forth two statements that must be true in order to think intelligently about an issue:

          You must be aware of both sides of a story, first and foremost,

          And you must read, for yourself, any document that other documents purport to discredit.

          His next point was to ask, “How many of you have seen the Oliver Stone film JFK? A lot of hands go up.

          “Now, how many of you have read The Warren Commission?”

          Very few hands remain up.

          “Now, can you think intelligently about an issue without hearing both sides?”

          It’s a very precise demonstration of the built-in biases we all have towards official reports. The Warren Commission is couched in legal language, and can extremely long and exhaustive for the most attentive reader. Such a document is probably not suited for popular entertainment, even an abridged version would leave out too much that is necessary. The Oliver Stone film is exciting and dramatic, full of memorable images and quotes, and it follows the four steps of argumentative reasoning very closely. The first step is the connection and then correlation of events, with a correlation that suits the conjecture and ultimately the conclusion.

          The idea of couching rebuttals and anticipatory in the argument is important for the longevity of an idea. In the vernacular of conspiracy theory, you have surely noticed, there is always some element painted as inherently untrustworthy. Such as official, government reports in conspiracy and scientific instruments of measurement and observation in religion. The success of religion and the propagation of conspiracy are interchangeable, as both provide a human comfort, a comfort that inhuman instruments have traditionally been unable to confer.

          In religious writing, refuting possible objections before they arise is a common practice. It’s something that is conversely practiced in legal argument, the anticipation of objections and their preemptive refutation, and when done properly these anticipatory remarks can do damage to an opponent’s case before they have a chance to argue their interpretation of the evidence in conjecture.

          In reason, there must be reconciliation of irrationalities. In number theory, pi is considered an irrational number because ultimately it doesn’t roll over, instead spiraling on into forever. This has led to a lot of work in number theory, and the intention is to reconcile irrationality. The same is true in rhetoric, whereby the returning to an earlier idea toward the end of a phrase ties it together, rationalizing the statement and giving it a completeness. You see this in literature a lot, often in the form of recurring themes and symbols. Early in a text you may have unresolved elements intentionally left open by an author, which encourages participation on behalf of the reader, allowing them to reconcile open threads of thought ret to be resolved by the author.

 

Literary essay: Shakespeare – Choice & Fate, Fathers & Sons, 15 May 2016

9
On Shakespeare’s Drama,
Choice & Fate, Fathers & Sons

SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS ARE ALL INTRINSICALLY Shakespeare plays; yet with MacBeth, Shakespeare taps into a deeper madness, a madness rarely pulled off with lucidity in literary history. Shakespeare unravels MacBeth in much the same manner as he did with King Lear. Piece by piece the layers shed, layer after layer of human skin.

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At one point he was an honorable man, but is tempted by powers, and what justifies the need or want of power. This is a common reading, but I think the witches intend to be a sort of externalization, a way of seeking validation for the kind of the desires already there. As he rose to power, through each step, he deteriorated morally. The deterioration was such that another theme of internal / external heaven and hell becomes very apparent in the fact that he can’t even enjoy his kingship because of his internal struggle—in this he is much like King Henry IV, unable to enjoy the glory of his usurped throne.

Although Macbeth deteriorates slowly and becomes more and more vicious, his soliloquies, such as the one before murdering Duncan, invoke a sense of pity and awe in the audience simply because of how much he suffers. The great take-away for me is simple: Even monsters suffer. There is great ambition for social heights in MacBeth, but to gain it his morality is more and more cast aside.

MacBeth was once a highly respectable general in Scotland. He even witnesses to some degree the deterioration of his character as he notices his own choice for the social climb over moral goodness. He was respected by the soldiers and even King Duncan while in Scotland; however, this externalization of his greed and desire, the witches, will tempt him with the Throne of Glamis and Cawdor—and propose it will be Banquo, his good friend, soon to be a father of a dynasty of kings, and not he.

MacBeth’s ambition is the heroic flaw, a common theme in theatre,

“My thought, whose murder is yet fantastical, shakes my single state,” he reflects, regarding the prophecy. At first he rejects the idea of murder, shuddering as the witches mention what is to be his fate; he says, “If chance will have me king, chance may crown me, without my stir.”

Again the three witches, an internal peer pressure of sorts, make concentrated his murderous intentions, which he had yet to express. Again it is ambition goaded by temptation that drive him further when Duncan announces his intentions to make Malcom heir to the throne.

MacBeth says,

“That is a step on which I must fall upon, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars hide your fires; let not sleep my black desires: the eye that winks at the hand, yet that be which the eye fears, when it is done to see.”

In the end his ambition gets the better of him and his moral deterioration is complete; in the role of a desperate murderer, he doesn’t wish for the light to shine upon what he has done—it is too evil to be seen, and far too much for him to see, to be confronted with the evidence of your crime so graphically, as Claudius was in Hamlet.

The inner conflict that acts inside Macbeth from evil and moral virtue carries on through the entirety of the play and the struggle against the prophecies and temptations become weaker and weaker. The self-fulfilling prophecy is another popular trope in theatre. He reasons after multiple aversions to kill Duncan, showing his complicit choice at each stage, aware of the risks, and then, because of what it took to get there, is unable to enjoy his rule. His slow fall covers a noble man falling from the favor of fortune, through temptation and gradual capitulation to desire, until he is a base creature, in complete service to his indulgences.

Methought I heard a voice cry

“Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep,”

the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life,

sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds,

great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Of many the recurring themes in Macbeth, sleep is focused on intensively. Macbeth thought that sleep made life worth living and thought that by killing the king in his sleep, that he had murdered sleep itself. This, of the many points in Macbeth, is probably the most provocative and widely discussed. He thought it to be soothing, “like a bath after a long day’s work.” In the passage, which is common to modern English’s “Sleep on it” – Macbeth is frustrated and distraught and sees no end to his troubles. Though he has a lot of troubles, he relates this with. “A ravell’d sleeve” – this is the metaphor he uses for having a tangled mesh, or string – or skein – of thread and yarn. Not unlike the tangled yard of the Weird Sisters (something else Shakespeare inherited from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Before Macbeth murders king Duncan, Banquo says, “A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, and yet I would not sleep: merciful powers.” Something, though as of yet he doesn’t reveal it, is keeping him from sleep. Banquo shows beforehand that he is suspecting that Macbeth may have ulterior motives when Macbeth bids him a “Good repose” – which is the same thing as a good night’s sleep.

In one of the most popular of all the scenes in Macbeth, Macbeth hallucinates seeing a bloody dagger suspended in the air pointing towards King Duncan’s chamber; he thinks it’s appropriate to have the hallucination at that time of night and says, “Now o’er the one half-world, nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse that curtain’d sleep.”

Sleep, as he says, was curtained because many of the noblemen and personages high in the social hierarchy used four post beds and hung up curtains to keep out cold air. Macbeth believed the air of night could see through the curtains and through sleep itself.

“There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried murder,” – After King Duncan is murdered, he tells his wife this as he leaves the chamber and believed that the people, even though all were asleep, could see the blood on his hands.

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Tragedy is of two popular forms now in the West. Modern tragedy and Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy is tied to the ideas of fate and the gods, and sometimes regular people too. A hero defies the gods, often due to fatal flaws which is the reason behind their eventual downfall; and English playwriting, in its early years, follows this tradition. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragedy is also identified as a story that ends unhappily due to the flaws of the protagonist, the tragic hero.

Romeo and Juliet – a broadstrokes tragedy – In Shakespeare’s other tragedies, such as Macbeth and Hamlet, although those characters are fated to die, this type of tragedy is different. Romeo and Juliet is a domestic type of tragedy, a tragedy of fate, despite the fact that other characters influence the result of the final tragedy; however only a few people are affected. In most of his work, the microcosm (Hamlet) along with the macrocosm (The fiefdom of Denmark) are affected equally, making the tragedy in microcosm and macrocosm, personal and universal.

Shakespeare tries to break down the rivalry and feud between two families; the Capulets and Montagues Many tragedies are been presented in the play including that of Paris, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo, Juliet, and Lady Montague. These figures all lead to each other, each building up and abetting the next death or tragedy, which could have been caused by rivaling senses of authority, codes of honor, masculinity, rebellion, ambition, and – again, fate.

From the very beginning of the play, fate is constantly referenced, starting with the prologue,

“A pair of star crossed lovers take their life.”

This is Shakespeare working on a different type of tragedy, a tragedy in the face of time and destiny. Romeo and Juliet were meant to die, in that sense, because it was their destiny.  Therefore this is what fate had planned for their lives. So the audience recognizes even further that the tragic death of Romeo and Juliet was something which was definitely happening, something inherent and inevitable. Shakespeare’s job in convincing the audience this was due to fate was easy. As the audience at that point of time would have believed in fate.

Shakespeare tried to showcase the idea that to fulfill destiny and prophecy, you have to believe in destiny. Like prophecies, inasmuch as they are ultimately self-fulfilling, Romeo was shown to believe, saying, “I fear too early for my mind misgives, some consequences yet hanging in the stars shall bitterly begin this fearful date.”

Romeo knew—to that degree of belief, it transcends idea and becomes a physical reality—that his actions were not under his control;

“…He that hath steerage over my course, direct my sail.”

By believing that one’s actions are out of one’s control, one avoids responsibility and, for Romeo to believe this, he tried to defy what was already a self-imposed idea, to go against the tide that swept him to his end was to go against a tide he put in motion.

Fate was used by a number of playwrights, and Shakespeare used it well as a dramatic device, showing what fruit there is in believing one’s life out of one’s hands. Shakespeare was central to the progress of the play and its outcome; an example could be Romeo’s banishment and Paris’s engagement to Juliet. Both a modern and an Elizabethan audience would, despite the knowledge of the plays outcome, be interested in the play, and keep watching, and in a way Shakespeare uses the audience’s knowledge as a dramatic device.

Despite his own ambition, Shakespeare has a madness for condemning it; like MacBeth, Friar Lawrence could be an example of an ambitious person, believing that by marrying the lovers the feud would stop, alleging that the only reason he is marrying the two is to bring an end to the rivalry. Despite how well intentioned this action is, The Friars decision to marry Romeo and Juliet indicates his naiveté more than anything. The Friar is ultimately responsible for the ending. To persuade Juliet to fake her death, he attempts to reverse nature—to heal the wounds of the feud—but only succeeds in making everything worse.

The Friar was a man who did not believe in fate. As such, his decision-making leads to chaos. The unpredictable direction of events help to keep the audience attentive. Shakespeare used these techniques to build tension and make scenes more dramatic.

Youth’s Romantic Rebellion.

Romeo and Juliet both rebel against their families, as most young men and women do. They enhance and exacerbate the rivalry between them by marring one another, rather than taming it. The play presents numerous examples of youthful rebellion. Juliet disobeys her father by refusing to marry Paris, something unheard of in a society where fathers are the ultimate source of patriarchal authority, and authority in all things, moral and spiritual. As both rebel against their parents through their continued association, Juliet not only disobeys her parents, she encourages Romeo to do the same, saying,

“…deny thy father and refuse thy name.”

Things did not end well. For anyone, really.

Cont.

Shakespeare could turn out plays like Romeo and Juliet in his sleep. In Hamlet and perhaps more so in MacBeth, however, he pushes himself higher and higher. In Hamlet by bringing the drama closer to the personal and neglecting archetypal tragedy; Hamlet, the character, is proof of this, as his mental anguish is the subject of the entire play. Perhaps it was due to the death of his own son Hamnet, that Shakespeare’s interest would become deconstructing the relationships between fathers and sons.

After his son was carried away by the plague, we have the character Hamlet, a consonant shy of having the same name of his deceased son, looking into a mirror, contemplating suicide. ‘To be or not to be,’ is just a fancy way of asking, ‘Should I kill myself or what?’ That’s the question. It’s the same question Camus pursued in his philosophy of the absurd, in works such as The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus; and Camus stated,

‘There is one principle issue in philosophy, and that is suicide.’

Shakespeare’s own anguish and regret seeps into his characters, who, even when seemingly on top of the world – as Shakespeare had been himself, showing up to a coronation decked out in red velvet – find ways to bemoan the everyday life of the depressive:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

The way to dusty death

Out! Out, brief candle!

Life is but a walking shadow,

A poor player that struts and frets

His hour upon the stage

And is heard no more.

It is a tale told by an idiot,

Full of sound and fury –

Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare’s characters are all saddled by one form of loss or another in this period, and they deal with grief in different ways. His later work is a dissection of grief. Hamlet’s deliberation on his life, Macbeth’s lethargy and disdain for the noise and futility of the mundane, day to day, what is real and lasting, and what is ephemeral, just a passing storm, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Shakespeare’s guilt over his son’s passing seeps into his greatest play, King Lear, as the King mistreats his one honest daughter while at the same time giving lavishly to his other daughters, who are sycophantic and gratifying, incurring his good favor by building up his self-esteem, so when it’s time to parcel out the kingdom, Cordelia doesn’t get as much as those other assholes.

It’s hard to pin Shakespeare down and say with definitiveness what he believed, or wherewith he is speaking in his own voice, as himself. He used the past as a prism through which to enlarge the issues of the present, such as the problems with the monarchy and the many religious schisms of his age. But in his later works, the character of Hamlet is in keeping with more reflective, pensive melancholy – about the loss of his father – and his ghost is who tips him on to what Claudius has done; MacBeth might be a reflection of Shakespeare’s own transformation. From the highest of the playwrights in England to a grieving father; he had money and fame at a time when it meant less than it should have.

At the time King Lear was written, Shakespeare was English playwriting. Kip Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Kyd, his detractors and contemporaries did well, but fell out of favor, gradually. Kip Marlowe has retained a popularity that the former did not, but even his doesn’t rival that of Shakespeare, the Bard, inventor of words like puke and queasy. That’s a legacy.

When one considers the popularity of Hamlet’s conversation with the mirror and his thoughts of suicide, it’s easy to see one’s self before that same mirror thinking the same thing: what have I to lose by losing everything? Will it mitigate my loss? Will destruction save me from the torments of my conscience? These are natural questions to ask, to wonder if there is providence, and to wonder if we can actually defy fate on any meaningful level. If there be providence in this world, must this be the greatest lack of mercy? This denial of consolation the grave offers us all? No grace, no word of condolences from that undiscovered country. To ask these questions during a time of religious upheaval were questions in need of asking. It is no consolation that the dead stay silent, and grace is a spectre over our noblest endeavors.

The dead may silent, sure, but they may find their voice again; if the proper necromancer restored these spirits to our world, to live out their days in one folio or painting or another, this preserves the voice of voices we can’t hear and is unless by a proper necromancer restored to live forever in the folio or painting of a fine dramatist or artist. This is among the finer qualities of art—the preservation of what we are as individuals struggling with self-definition. Shakespeare was one of the first writers to give the English a hint at what that definition could be.

A Critique of Criticism, 12 May 2016

A look at the varying methods of literary criticism

In popular criticism, a critic may give a paragraph or so his attention as an initial reaction, to get the reader to see his perspective and set the tone, jot down something in the night to summarize it all, and post a review online sometime the next day. That’s the extent of the responsibility: check off some minor beats you expected to find along the story, correlate them with something you may have seen somewhere else, write derivative in your 6×9 yellow pad and underline it.

          In order to be objective, a critic will look at it from other points of view, get some contrary statements to cover the populist angle, and, noting how bad the dialogue was, how the action was tame and the ending uninspired. And the film/novel gets a score out of 5 or 4, or a thumbs up or two, and that’s it.

This was not always the approach to critiquing literature or art. Literary criticism, then, would be indistinguishable from what we today call literary analysis. It is the intentional probing of a manuscript, beckoning, Speak to me, ye words! And when they don’t, it’s not uncommon to feel left out of the joke. Many students have finished a copy of The Great Gatsby or The Fountainhead and thought, did I just not get it?

Lots of students feel that way about certain books they’ve been told are important for so long that, when they finally finish the story, there’s just something not there that you thought would be, something to justify the reputation of the novel. Literary criticism was born out of this idea, this idea to understand how stories were best told and structured, and how to explain popular curriculum books in a way that would best resonate with individual readers.

Literary criticism as literary analysis/exegesis made it to the popular conscience around the height of Athenian culture, where each year a tragedy contest would be held, accepting works from some of the biggest names in theatre history – Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes – who brought about a certain need in the public sphere to understand their entertainment, as a way to more wholly enjoy the performance, by identifying with the hero or heroine.

Tragedies submitted by Sophocles and Aeschylus would be judged against each other, with the critics weighing the pros and cons of such works as Antigone (the greatest of Sophocles’ plays) and The Libation Bearers, masterwork of the poet Aeschylus. This is the opposite of the original intention of critics; as they were more likely to be expounding upon the virtues of Epicurus or Aristotle, bringing their ideas to wider audience by condensing them and packaging them as beauty.

Though the popular appeal of condensed, Cliff Notes version of the Gospels, it worked in a much different way: instead of simplifying the idea, they simplified the presentation of ideas quite complex, especially for a young child, and through paintings on vases, the frescoes, and even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, communicated the ideas behind the faith, ideas of mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.

This was a type of criticism, where a critic is used in the sense of someone who was there to appreciate art and communicate its most important ideas to a broader audience.

We have many in the theologian tradition to thank for modern textual and literary criticism; and the works of Martin Luther and Thomas Hobbes are a valuable contribution to the academic community. These include Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. While each of those books detailed by Nabokov don’t tell traditional stories of their own, or the stories they told themselves, they nevertheless draw our attention to some of the more sublime moments in literature and art, something a sometimes impatient mind may miss. These works are valuable for popularizing the notion that the studiousness of academia can be a worthwhile pursuit. To somehow prune new insights from the texts of Seneca and Chuang Tzu is a magic of its own.

The critics of the other type began as spectators in the Roman playhouses, noting the flaws of the heroes, often missing the point, while condemning Epicurus for his supposed debauchery in his philosophical exploration of human happiness.

This search for patterns, and for meaning, in thematic or philosophical language, the language used throughout the text serves to reinforce an important bit of subtext, or act as the harbinger of something to come. In music this is called a leit-motif, a pattern that repeats in different places to emphasis different, but similar structures and characters. As there must be experts, there must be experts to certify experts as experts, and so grew the community of theatre critics towards the end of the 19th century. In popular culture it leaned more toward the thumbs up/thumbs down or 3 out of 4 stars type reviews. These reviews are reminiscent of our schooldays of recapitulation, a tenuous rundown of the events, followed by comparing and contrasting positive and negative aspects of a film or novel. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach, and for those who use this method of criticism, I’m not here to critique.

The critique of studiousness often leaves out the critique built into the experience, and it is often more natural to let the cards fall as they might, as long as you’re right; or even let it unravel. The lesson is that you are criticizing something as it is against the standard of what it would be if somehow made perfect. To Epicurus, this was a recipe for sadness. Instead, the critique of romanticism puts the pieces of a story together by attempting to put the romantic hero back together.

The sentimental critic doesn’t necessarily look to judge the quality of a work, but more or less put it into a context that allows students and other academics to look at an old work in a new way, a way that allows us to connect the struggles of the characters with those of the modern world, like us, and use the lessons learned to improve our performance in our own world, towards prestige or financial success.

The question of quality commercial commentary is predicated upon the wisdom of a select few being sufficient to guide a great many to what makes the work under analysis transform into a malleable, transmutable metal in hands of a great metallurgist. The classical approach to literature and storytelling instruction has been through the demonstration of good literature by our teachers and professors throughout our life; we have been trained, through so many courses, to look for meaning, and to connect one idea to another, and hope to not be worse than wrong – which is to simply be uninteresting.

Many social and literary critics remain outside of the world of publishing, neglecting personal projects, such as fiction or non-fiction, as the academic discipline of analysis and comparative philology, which teaches you how recognize the structure of languages and their development and morphology, puts you in a perpetual comparative mood, even when looking at the organic, biological development of stories, how they’re put together, and how important themes are stressed again and again. The point behind literary criticism is not to tear a work to pieces, not for destruction, but for putting it back together.

When I was studying as a linguist, we often read books in their original language, then a prominent translation, and finally we’d go in for finals honors to try a more fitting translation of a given work, Tolstoy more often than not. When you work within the medium of teaching English composition, you begin to see a machinery at work, one that you can’t believe you’ve never see before.  As you begin to recognize the obvious cynicism behind the construction of what was supposed to be spontaneous, you can take solace in the fact that all stories, conscious or not, set out to reach you on an emotional level, to try to teach you something in the best of times, and to admonish and condemn in the worst. But once you see the skeleton and the scaffold, you know how a narrative is likely to unfold, looking at it as another in a series, as Sherlock Holmes said,

“If you know how the past 1,000 crimes were committed, it stands to reason you wouldn’t have a pretty good idea of what happened on the occasion of the 1,001st.”

The comparison may not seem readily obvious, but when you consider that all literature and art are, essentially, mysteries, all of them, even Jane Eyre. The mystery of art is not how the story ends or how a finished painting looks, but what the mystery there is in the shared imagination of mutual completion and appreciation. The mystery of literature is not how the unlikely hero manages to save the world in the end, but what such stories unintentionally reveal about their creators, like a real life Picture of Dorian Gray.

Though the mysteries of art are endless, the most striking is the almost instinctive human capacity to communicate through expression, through words and poetry, for sensual art and language.

It doesn’t manner what form of criticism you pick, it’s easy to point out the shortcomings of a truly disappointing story, but it is equally important to appreciate with the same fervor a relativity minor work by a relatively unknown author, an author who gets everything right. It’s hard to pinpoint anything in particular that makes Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther so charming. And being a part of Goethe’s early romanticism, it’s hard to look at it critically, to peel back the onions so to speak, and finds Goethe’s own great disappointment with romanticism.

While in the modern romantic age, it’s not too difficult to find yourself agonizing over the decisions made by writers, opting for the romantic. And though it is easy to spot the unremarkable in film and television, a lot of young students grow up thinking they failed somehow, when they didn’t fully understand an assigned book.

The horror of this realization is that, while many people can recognize the obvious problems in a bad film or TV series, far less know when a book is bad or good; a book requires a lot more dedication and belief in the author.

In the final analysis, art and literature remain interesting and sacred because of the natural sort of voodoo they offer up to us; the mystery of our own needs and feelings, and our need to have resolution and closure; to try to get to know these characters in fiction and grow up with them is to risk as much as having any friend, and they share so much of our imagination that they become another voice in us, participating in our inner lives. We can see glimmers of ourselves in the oldest stories of gods and monsters.

More importantly, presenting a reader with a character not much different from them, and make them relatable so it allows us to identify with the character, activating our mirror neurons as we see ourselves in them, our failures and struggles are also tied to them.

Why Art Matters, 10 May 2016

This brief essay is a response to a question I get a lot, most often from young men and women just starting college, but a question I feel is worth dedicating some time to: 

Why does art matter?

Think for a moment about the world around you. Your immediate surroundings. A chair, a monitor, a bookshelf, desk and a settee. But because of artists, like those who line our bookshelves, each dusty volume is a portal into the world of the author. And their unique magic takes us back to their time and lets us look at the world through their perspective, through their eyes, the portal being that of the entering of another mind. As the character’s enter John Malkovich’s head in Being John Malkovich 
I want you to think for a moment about the world around you. The immediate world; the world of bookshelves and desks and an old fireplace, and an old stolen Hotei Buddha by the grating. And on the manlepiece, a hundred or more books, each in some branch of philosophy more dull than the last, lot’s of ‘ologys’ – phenomenology, ontology, gynecology.

Think for a moment: how much of what you know to be true about the world is largely in part to dedicated to historians and their information hoping to communicate the complex ideas of history through the formal language of bookkeeping. But the preservation of a culture through numbers will never give the humanity to the past necessary for us to empathize. The preservation of culture and the communication of ideas are noble goals, and both should be encouraged. But there is a different side to art — therapeutic, fulfilling, and has the effect of refining us.

The preservation of a culture is one of the most noble, if unintentional aspects of art; forever framing a quaint scene, say a flower underneath a thunderstorm alone in a field of long dead flowers; something that might otherwise be unnoticed by someone in too much of a hurry to appreciate the, celebrating in the simple, day to day occurrences which, when stripped of routine, spring back to life with a unique, infectious youthful abandon. Think also, how little the world would know of the world if not for the preservation of ancient documents, the Bayeux Tapestry, the holy books of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. All of these messages were thoroughly communicated through art long before the art of the spoken-word sermon became popular in post-Reformation society, beginning, perhaps, in the Dutch Republic, where artists such as Rembrandt and

Think for a moment how little we  know about the beliefs and histories of foreign cultures without the spread of art, through the Celebration of the Dionysia to the works of Sophacles, Euripides, and Aeschylus Without artists, we’d have little knowledge about the rest of the world and the cultures of which it is comprised. The world our own eyes would never (or could never) find in our own lives. It gives us new perspective, and not only that – but new eyes, the eyes of the artist, with which we view the totality of the world and vastness of impulses and feelings that comprise what academics and philosophers call the human condition.

We get firsthand accounts of experiences otherwise out of range of our daily lives. We may now look at a sky in 19th century Amsterdam with the same tumultuous passion as Vincent van Gogh, seeing it pulse and breathe and come alive with natural magic.

starry_night_over_the_rhone

We can live vicariously through following of great heroes of legend and myth. We can experience the mystical and transcendental in the reading of Buddhist Sutras and looking at the art, learn from the preserved cultural wisdom in The Dhammapada and other Eastern Philosophers, such as Laozi, Confucius, Chuang Tsu, and new perspectives and experiences give rise to new understanding, and understanding, with time, becomes wisdom.

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Very little in our life can provide the same emotional consolation and intellectual stimulation provided by art. We can experience the far off vistas of ancient Arabia through the Arabian Nights, and follow the adventures of the great hero Sinbad. We can learn about the political climate of ancient Greece through the writing of Plato and Aristotle, which gives us a healthy historical breadth of view in our consideration of the modern world. We can use Proust’s eyes to look at the political and emotional upheavals in France in the early 20th century through his great work In Search of Lost Time. We can look at the intellectual climate of late 19th century Russia through the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Turgenev.

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We can also cast off the shackles of realism by taking ourselves off to worlds of absolute fantasy, such as in the works of Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. We can still bring back valuable lessons from works of high fantasy, lessons just as valid in our own world and daily lives, the kind of lessons we absorb as children when we might otherwise be unaware of their intentional instruction. We learn best when we’re unaware someone is intended to instruct us, as we are naturally hesitant to cooperate with someone we know to be attempting to teach us.

The_Olivetan_Master_Monks_Singin_the_Office

Art is valuable in traditional religion in the West as well. Our view of the Christian faith is highly reliant on works of art, the artwork of the Renaissance for example, which served to communicate complex ideas in a way that might not be readily obvious. During the Protestant Reformation in England, the great religious paintings were being whitewashed, dismissed as vulgar and profane.

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The argument offered by the Protestants was that all a Christian needed was the Word, the Gospel Truth in black and white. And yet for the millions who couldn’t read, in Catholic Rome for example, the mysteries of the Gospel and some of the more complex ideas about mercy and consolation were just as effectively communicated through the paintings of Caravaggio and architecture of Bernini as they were through the printed King James Bible. There is consolation and catharsis in art, with each painting and novel being unique guides toward our moral and intellectual education.

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Art serves us in many capacities, but perhaps most importantly is its capacity to allow us to use new and interesting ways to examine the human condition in all its forms, through all of time, and through science fiction into the future. It lets us become more complete people by understanding the nature of other peoples and their traditions more completely. An artist’s education is never over, as one always seeks to attain ever greater glimpses of larger truths only apparent when looked at from afar.

Outside of its moral and intellectual capacity, art also serves as a means of preservation. We may have lost crucial information about history, as well as our biological and cultural heritage, if not for the intense work of preservation artists work to deliver to posterity. It is the basis of what the French author Gustave Flaubert called a sentimental education.

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It refines us by demonstrating our own coarseness, it scandalizes us in a way that teaches us about our own ethical and moral compass, and it lets us begin to appreciate the most noble of philosophical goals: to know who we are and what made us that way. Art and philosophy go a long way towards answering the former question, and gives us the tools necessary for answering the latter.

From The November Letters: Academia, philosophy, and subjectivity

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Philosophy & academia

Despite my education or what my writing may suggest, I am not a philosopher. I have more in common with the prolific serial writers of Astounding Fiction! than I do with a traditional philosophers like Immanuel Kant or Rene Descartes. I feel that I must point this out, as there is, I think, a difference between a philosopher and a scholar, and a modern academic.

A philosopher is someone who, historically, works outside of science, traditionally – though science has been extended to include topics more at home in metaphysics – and treats subjects that are, in their time, unanswerable through measurement or devices that could give them data. In the absence of empirical evidence to suggest one thing or another, the realm of philosophy approaches such problems from varying schools of thought and disciplines.

In the west, Classical philosophy goes back to Plato in the his accounts of the trial of Socrates’ in The Apology, The Republic, a historical treatise, and later Aristotle would become the most prolific, if most problematic, contributor to academia. We have Aristotle to thank for the prevalent assumption that there are 5 senses (Taste, touch, hearing, vision, smell) is common sense, or thought of as such, when sense is rarely common and what is sensible is rarely common. Most people have a sense of time, a sense of balance, and a recently discovered genetic trait that endows us with the awareness of knowing when we’re being watched. A sense of shame, some of us. Pride, paranoia, power, seeing dead people (who don’t know they’re dead).

But Aristotle’s practicality and rigidity was necessary for the split between moral absolutists and later moral relativists. There was another popular field of study for Greek philosophers, however, and the wisdom of Archimedes’ On Sphere Building, and the propositions of Euclid, which includes the working model for geometry as we know it. There were more materialists like Democritus and Eratosthenes, pragmatic application philosophers; Rene Descartes, for example, invented a system of coordinates (Cartesian coordinates) that are still used in city planning. These are natural philosophers, academics whose insights into one field bring about the creation of others. Such as Michael Faraday, an uneducated visionary and Charles Darwin, a pigeon breeder and naturalist whose studies ab the HMS Beagle, would lead him to publish On the Origin of Species, in 1859, introducing the world to evolution through natural selection,

Isaac Newton, professor of mathematics and Cambridge, creates calculus (which he called fluxions, and it has been contested that contemporary mathematician Leibniz – himself a philosopher – may have publications predating Newton’s publication of Principia Mathematica. The foundation of his laws of motion, F=ma, the outline of the theory of gravitation – many of these proposals would not be corrected until Einstein’s general theory of relativity redefined gravitation and extended it to include the behavior of time.

1 What is a philosopher?

A philosopher in science is someone who, let’s use the ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes as an example, applies one skill set to solve a problem in another field. Such as the circumference of the Earth, which Eratosthenes measured by calculating the time it took shadows to move from one spot to another, and finally how long it took to go from overhead a designation shadow-caster (an obelisk) and return to be right overhead again. By using math and calculation, the size of the Earth was correctly (within reasonable approximation) derived by the observation of shadows and sticks.

Another example of this is the solving of the riddle behind the make-up and consistency of Saturn’s rings by preeminently gifted mathematician and father of electromagnetism, James Clerk Maxwell. His publications on the electromagnetic spectrum were the final word on the behavior of light in the 19th century, and would not be severely called into question until the development of quantum mechanics, which itself was resolved by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, whose publication The Strange Theory of Light and Matter is the final word – for now. These are practical philosophers. A practical philosopher is someone who is presented with a problem that is novel and uses their intuition and training to come up with new ways to solve problems, such as the volume of a curve – which Newton’s system could accurately calculate. These philosophers are the driving force behind the development of new technology and work in fields of application, where a hypothesis, such as one in chemistry about the combination of two elements, can be proposed in the morning and, by measurement, proved correct or incorrect by lunch.

Poetics and practical philosophy

The other philosophy is the philosophy Aristotle called Poetics. Poetics is the philosophy of the armchair, philosophy that evaluates moral or metaphysical issues not subject to measurement, such as the nature of good & evil – though science has looked into the inheritance of certain characteristics common to the amygdala of criminals convicted of murder: a smaller and less attune antennae that doesn’t pick up on limits imposed by fear and rationality, but the nature of evil and how it may be dealt with is not something a natural philosopher can propose an equation to test. The poetic philosopher is more of a teacher of different disciplines and a student of classicists and the subjects of interest in their work: Socrates’ skepticism, for example, is an assault on the assumption of academia’s inherent rightness by association – with institution, school, or clan.

It is a serious question and a pressing one: what lends credibility to one person’s ideas and beliefs and what leads to the dismissal of a person’s evaluation of facts? I guess we all like to think, that somewhere in our stomach, or in somebody’s stomach, there is a right answer, dammit. If the competing ideas are those of two people, people of equal standing and repute, how is the conflict resolved?

Subjectivity in empiricism

Well, consider the following conflict and how revealing it is: you wake up in the middle of the night, let’s say it’s in November – as it is now – and you’re cold. You decide to get out of bed to turn up the thermostat in the living room. But when you get there, you find a friend or loved one at the dials. They’re burning up, sweat beading off their forehead; it’s too hot and they can’t get to sleep, so they’ve decided to turn on the air condition. The thermometer reads the same for both observers: 60 degrees.

There are different ways to approach this problem. Do you let your friend get some relief from the air condition for a while, make yourself some cocoa and get another blanket, or do you insist that it is cold, refuse to turn the heat down, and hold out for an expert’s opinion? The temperature is 600 degrees. Both sides agree. And yet, the problem remains.

Now enlarge the issue, put it in the hands of the public, and leave it up for the news to relate this to the public, the court of public opinion, with one media outlet playing prosecution and the other defense: one source sides with the cold woman, insisting that warmth is important and going to sleep cold can lead to cough and a runny nose. The competitor surveys an anonymous group of an undisclosed number of survey participants and claim that 84% of all news stories involving percentages are pulled from their collective assholes to push a story, and 76% of News A readers believe it is more dangerous to be too hot than to be too cold, because dehydration can lead to hallucinations and delusions, even stroke and death. The reports take shape and independent outlets take sides. Newspapers and websites run special editorials on the importance of warmth and cool air, as opinion pieces on why being hot is good for burning calories and Dr. Oz endorses freezing as an excellent way of strengthening your immune system. The token religion authority piece calls into question the measurement and suggests that it’s flawed.

So, when each source of information exists solely to reinforce one point of view or the other, when both are objectively true to each independent evaluator, but also when both are subjectively incorrect in their describing of the weather as applicable to what is felt by someone else. The point isn’t to convince someone that cold is really hot or hot is cold. How do you decide what is in need of being decided, if anything? You start with humanizing the individuals, stressing individual pressures and stresses unique to them, their fear and desire – all very real, all very unrelated to getting objective truth on something that is, by its very nature, inexplicable of dual definitions, or consensus definition. You give them faults, you tear their character apart, and you do it without facts – but with questions: the best way to manufacture news is to use a declarative sentence and add a question mark, disguising the subtle lie with the trappings of inquiry:

Allegations heating up! Could drug withdrawals be to blame for Cold Woman’s inexplicable coldness?

Could meth use explain explicable midnight suffering?

Blam! They’re no longer people experiencing normal human emotions; they’re talking points to be pulled from the shelf from time to time to make a point, only to be put away. Not only have they lost human dimension, but makes them abstract pieces in a question that has become about something else. Whether the thermometer is accurate, what led to one person being hot or the other being cold, and all this noise becomes a convoluted, incestuous echo chamber, and what is invariably lost in the details are the people most affected by it. One person is hot. One person is cold. And they’re waiting on a population of disaffected, disillusioned apostates of academia to settle the point of it all. To those not hot nor cold, the best thing to do is decide what will benefit them the most, in earning their professional opinion. Now imagine this conflict is something more serious, something involving, say, hydrogen bombs, and instead of two people waiting on the Parakeet Jury’s verdict, and there are millions – to be told whether it is hot or cold, a sensation they cannot feel, one way or the other, and, if they could, would not be solved by consensus.

The reason for this, and yes, dammit, there is one, is to establish that this line of thinking, of unresolved / ultimate subjectivity, in which a response can’t be simultaneously correct, is meant to establish a concept in fiction, and is best described as the lack of resolution in defining based on subjectivity and alternative perspectives, which extends to the largest elements of a story to the smallest, and could be called the unresolved discontinuity – a resolved clause without a resolved thread from competing beliefs that can be boiled down to multiple perspectives of debating whether 60 degrees is hot or cold.

The presumption of expertise

Experts are similarly arbitrary, despite the hypnotism of pomp and gravitas, and are commonly those of repute and influence, demonstrating understanding and the recognition of practical application in a given field: someone who has demonstrated their understanding and survived the pressure of peer-review, the sorting hat for new writers that separates the fuckin’ wheat from the chaff, I’ll tell you that shit right now. So, after the peer review process, once they have the esteem of a university or publication, how do we accept such an argument without skepticism, if all ideas are made great only by their bearing the brunt of the most vicious application of Occam’s Razor. We look to the foundation of what makes a structure reasonable by degree, putting the structure into a tangible format you can see how the skepticism of legitimate expertise drives an industry of opinion professionals.

The presumption of expertise often comes with the backing of a prestigious organization or academic community. For each expert’s idea or philosophy, the wise response to something that requires reason and evidence is the rigorous application of skepticism, as the questioning of the obviously false is the beginning of a life-long self-education, which gives the newly minted scholar keys to the pragmatic process of tearing down the proposed theory from the bottom up, starting at the assumptions that underlie the actual postulation. To test the strength of an idea, you test its foundation, the principles behind the methodology used to arrive with such a hypothesis, as was the case with Darwin, for example, and later Watson and Crick, all with theories with the evidence presumed to be discoverable in nature (which have been).

          Skepticism is the crucible through which all ideas and theories are submitted to, and earlier attempts at a natural explanation for the diversity of animals on Earth had been shredded to piece by the dispassionate teeth of doubt an inquiry. And anyone confident enough in their proposal to submit to skepticism and inquiry participates on the perpetual renewal of knowledge in academia. If an idea doesn’t seem like it works, scrutinize it to the greatest extent necessary, and try not to impose or otherwise import an unrelated understanding and apply it to a novel problem. Don’t let the presumption of title or prestige ever shortcut your natural inclination to evaluate passionately, nor let someone shortcircuit your critical faculties by attempts to annul attempted criticisms, such as an idea’s built in defenses against claims against it.

          The application of practical philosophy is observation, deduction, commonality or abundance of supporting themes, prediction and the ability to explain, before their discovery, how such discoveries will be measured – such as the completion of the Periodic Table before all of the elements that are now firmly nestled into it were even found (or, as in some instances, artificially created), and intermediate forms between species of animal – such as the closest living relative to the blue whale – have been proposed and subsequently found.

Scholarship and philosophy

A scholar, of literature or history, can be as rhetorically gifted and thoughtful as a philosopher, and just as instructive; but, more than anything, an academic is the messenger, the intermediate between an artist or a subject of study and the student. A natural philosopher in the literary tradition looks at common elements of human nature as represented in fiction (or nonfiction) and acts as an intermediate, much in the same way, a voice of some authority turning the commentary into a peripheral, an adjunct to communal learning in popular culture. It is not right by consensus, as truth is not measured by popular appeal but, ultimately, by historical favor: the community of opinion will, as the event gets closer and closer to falling over the edge of living memory, at its least vibrant and potent in our mind, , at least in the public arena, is the judgment of history.

Popular literary criticism and interpretation

And history has given us unique and, well, perplexing interpretations of the art and culture that has shaped human civilization. The thing about history, you see, consensus is hard to come by; as much for modern political issues as it has been forever, because humans have the stubborn capacity of trusting in the benevolence of those of learning who may stand to profit by misleading them.

What kind of influence a persuasive philosopher may have over the discovery, that’s only half the battle: the connection between relevance and meaning in a work of fiction is as dependent upon the reader as the writer, as that is what makes literary criticism the non-exact science it is. As individuals we decide what a work of art means. As a culture we develop an interpretation and the rest of the details emerge gradually.

There are very clever and astute people out there; people who understand subtlety, subtext, and thematic elements. You know the type, stuffy and pretentious academics who sniff their own socks when no one’s looking. Ahem. In my studies of writers and writing, I’ve noticed one thing that writers hate more than anything—with the possible exception of outright plagiarism—and that is popular,  enduring misinterpretation.

Pareidolia is a phenomena defined by the failure of a person’s natural capacity for pattern recognition. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia—as we begin to see patterns and meaning in randomness; perhaps project would be a better way to describe how we can find a face on Mars—this is how pareidolia happens: constellations, the imagined forms we use to connect the stars and form from those connections recognizable human shapes and patterns. Every constellation we see is apophenia. It’s fun to come up with theories and meaning to enrich our favorite stories and usually no one gets hurt. Let me give you an innocent example, an example which appeals to the mid-90’s child we all are. Ahem.

It is a popular theory among the gamers of my generation that The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is about the five stages of grief. It could be an example of pareidolia, yet it’s understandable. It’s an interesting look at the storytelling techniques of a uniquely modern medium. It’s harmless and has no social ramifications. But sometimes, when a full moon is out, misinterpretation can lead to terrible, terrible things indeed.

Submitted for your approval, exhibit A: The popular Beatles song Helter Skelter upon release had no definitive or band confirmed meaning and therefore what it meant was largely dependent on what we brought to it as listeners; the final verdict being the decision made by the beholder, by the interpreter. That’s one of the greater qualities of music; as it is, more-so than many forms of art, an intentionally subjective consideration. For people who are not cult leaders on LSD who think they’re Jesus, like Charles Manson, it doesn’t prophesize a coming race war. Yet that interpretation culminated in the Tate-LaBianca murders in California, August of ’69.

Exhibit B: The Catcher in the Rye is a famous coming of age novel by J.D. Salinger. The tale, told in the first person, is recounted by an angry, unreliable narrator named Holden Caulfield. He goes to bars, talks to hookers, and rants about posers. For reasons unknown, there have been many murders and crimes related to The Catcher in the Rye—so much so that the bewilderment surrounding this bizarre phenomena has its own Wikipedia page—the true measure of cultural significance.

In fact—this should be noted—Mark Chapman, John Lennon’s murderer, was arrested with The Catcher in the Rye in his hands. He claimed the text of the book would serve the law in determining his reasons for the crime. John Lennon, who performed Helter Skelter, which, because of misinterpretation, led to the Tate-LaBianca murders, was murdered by Mark Chapman, himself operating under a misinterpretation of a work of art.

Objectivity in practice

Objective meaning in literature too is rare and this leads to less objectively true interpretations. Most of the time the interpretation is based on coincidence and correlation. A good example is reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as an allegory for World War II. But, it could be argued that the various races in the Lord of the Rings are intended to represent the different religions of the world? The masked men with the Arab chic were Arabic, the Dwarves were Hebrew, and Tolkien imported perceived characteristics (racism) to give their people a desire for hoarding gold (racism), and yet they are the stand-in for Judaism. The men could be said to be those who turned away from God, or Illuvatar, agnostics and atheists; but, where pray are the Christians? Well, the Hobbits are obviously linked to paganism, living off the land, being in love with all the things that grow, and their paganism is tinged with passive pacificism, being (for the most part) content to not meddle in the affairs of men, and elves – the wise, the immortal, and most beautiful race? They could be Tolkien’s stand-in for Christianity. Gandalf and Frodo and Bilbo get to go to the Elvish heaven with them, in the end, leaving Sam’s pagan ass at home, having to deal with Rosie.

Now, that might seem ridiculous. And it’s understandable: a parallel can be drawn between the one ring and the one race. What we see depends on the eyes we have and what our knowledge allows us to see. If this was the work of armchair philosophers it wouldn’t have the same lasting, negative effect as sometimes the very people upon whom we rely to instruct us in proper interpretation and textual criticism fail us and generations to follow, cultivating a culture of misunderstanding.

I was in high school when I first read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. To me it seemed to be the definitive manifesto for the right to freedom of speech and expression. It is interesting to note that the book was first serialized in Playboy magazine. Suck it, censors! A then spry, youthful 196 year old Hugh Hefner managed to secure the serial rights to Fahrenheit 451 during an important period in American culture, a period in which real censorship was on its last leg, made of steel and ivory though it was. Books now considered classics, such as Ulysses had been put to trial for obscenity, as did Naked Lunch. The importance can be compared to the making of Casablanca during the actual Second World War. The book burning in Fahrenheit 451 is as iconic to English speaking readers as is the thought-police and Big Brother from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s not even subtle.

It’s obviously about censorship. Right right? Right, right!

What’s it going to be then, eh? 

In Bradbury’s cooky, imagined future, America has outlawed books and freedom of the press; free thought and intellectualism were treated the way in which Pol Pot treated it in Cambodia. Censorship is a political mob-process and it’s treated like business as usual. The people are partially to blame for this; for their blasé reaction to the suppression of basic human rights and dignity and they, through this process, forget what it is to be free. They forget what it is to be human.

Fahrenheit 451 seemed so obvious when I first read it, obvious to the point of insult, I thought, to the reader’s intelligence. Even my English teacher Mrs. [Willnotbesued] believed in and espoused this traditional interpretation; an obvious allegory, a philosophy intended to presage the day to day realities in a world where the individual is defeated by state sponsored censorship. The title is even a reference to book burning! That’s classic censorship! Right? Right?! F@#%!

As Sherlock Holmes said in The Boscombe Valley Mystery:

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

So I had it wrong, as did my teacher, and, because of her, the entire class. I would later learn that nearly everyone, except the author, had it wrong. That particular interpretation is incorrect and implicitly incorrect. And when he attempted to set the record straight while lecturing at UCLA, Ray Bradbury was told by students that he was mistaken; the author’s interpretation of his own material was wrong. (This is not impossible.) So what did the author do that fateful day at UCLA? He was proper pissed and walked out. So what did Ray Bradbury think his book was about? Television. Television and the ancient evil from whence it came (Cathode ray tubes, it would seem.)

In reality Bradbury was more concerned with literature having to compete with television for primacy in the war for the imagination of the world. I guess that makes Fahrenheit 451 less Nineteen Eighty-Four and more Video Killed the Radio Star. You see, Ray believed that television would somehow lead to the shortening of the attention span. He thought that complex social and economic issues would be compressed for time and later used by powerful conglomerations to spin the truth to their benefit through mass manipulation and … oh, wait.

But none of that is as absurd as the trial of the German philosopher and noted mustachio Friedrich Nietzsche, who’s book Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘zarathustra’ being the German for the Persian Zoroaster) was initially published in separate installments, individual installments, over the course of a couple of years, between 1883-85 and was only published in a single volume in 1887.

At the time of his death, the fourth part remained unpublished. In the first run, forty copies were printed, not counting copies set aside by the author for friends and family.  And since then the most common version is the portable collection – with a fourth segment, the now annotated Intermezzo, which was unfinished, was published; and had a limited commercial run and went out of print.

Nietzsche died before he could finish the Intermezzo and rearrangement for a singular work, and his sister thought, if only if there were Nazi overtones in the book. And it was so.

Despite the application of allegory and its ambiguities, it is my hope, and the hope of every writer, save for perhaps James Joyce, to be understood. But to make it more interesting for the reader, there is ambiguity, subtlety, and authors rely on their readers to join them, to be their partners in creation. As the American abstract artist Mark Rothko once said in reference to his art:

A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky, and unfeeling act, to send it out into the world.

Rothko, 1956, committing Art.

Religion, Freedom, Fear & Panic (George Orwell) – 17 March 2016

THE ART OF OPPRESSION

AS MUCH AS ART AND LANGUAGE HAVE ENRICHED our lives and culture, it can be used as a means of personal advancement or attainment, and can be used, has been used as a tool to subdue and keep mute an illiterate public. As the best literature and music can be liberating, there is a darker side to this, something more nefarious. George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a future where literature does not set free the soul was as fantastical as it was grounded. Because, despite seeing its absurdity, we saw echoes of Orwell’s themes, if but vaguely, in our own lives — Big Brother is the judging eye that watches, an eye that judges, a figure that enforces law against thinking the wrong way. Wilson gets sent to the worst hotel room in history outside of a Holiday Inn, Room 101.

Big Brother is Watching You — everyone is familiar with the popular phrase from [Orwell’s] most popular work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, but its interpretation has often been limited to political interpretation. If you cast big brother as an abstract and put the entirety of creation under his charge, what do you get? An all seeing figure who’s always watching, always careful to ensure the rules laid forth are observed, and in waiting to punish if a tenet of the Law is broken. Big Brother, as an abstract, is more than a satire of the culture of personality which, like Boy Bands and iPhone releases, always seem to spring up despite all sensible people knowing how objectively terrible they are.

Nineteen Eight-Four appeals to the same sensibility to which ‘God is watching over us’ appeals. Except, by inverting the All Seeing Eye, by showing us the perversion of thought crime, the crime of love, the arbitrary torture — it’s easy to see Orwell is telling a story on two different thematic levels: the microcosm (the singular Big Brother and the singular idea such a figure represents. And there’s a perversion of this, and it’s happening now, right in the modern, progressive world: but not through the silent, watchful judgment of one centralized authority figure, we’ve cast ourselves as indignant,flattered voyeurs in the drama of the watchful, attentive eye presiding over the most mundane of our activities, whether it is a friend who follows you on Twitter.

John Taylor’s Seven Lesson Schoolteacher has a different approach to handling an authoritarian edifice and his lessons are the bricks in the edifice of the mind’s sometimes voluntary enslavement. It is a poignant testament to the quality of individuality and warning against subscribing to a belief system structured to control. When the information provided comes from the same body enacting the law, it is, no matter the brand of information—literature, media, radio—designed to control by fear and recruit by a promise such law givers are unable to keep.

In The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher, Gatto shows us what Dostoevsky, in Notes from Underground, called the ‘edifice of glass.’ Gatto shows the reality of totalitarianism in a distorted yet eerily similar America.  To paraphrase, a centralized order must not be questioned. No possible objections, logical, sensible or otherwise are to be taken seriously and those who make such objections do so to their disadvantage.

Mr. Gatto, as he wished to be called, was a school teacher who had taught for twenty-six years, winning many awards in the process. He outlines a subconscious and hidden curriculum that is unconsciously transmitted to every student in every school in the United States. These rules aren’t acknowledged, written, or made apparent but, as Mr. Gatto suggests, this is the only way students can be turned into functioning member of society—as he sees it.

What does it mean to function in a society if one has to be manipulated as a child to be able to do so? The seven universal lessons perpetuate what has done more to harm people throughout history, though it helps a select few, and could be interpreted as a list for the pros of making war upon your own government, as Shakespeare famously questioned in his treatment of the character in Richard II: is it ever right to overthrow a monarchy? When it is necessary for the following traits to be drilled into children in order to keep them in check, it most certainly is; I fall into another category on this position, which Leon Trotsky expressed so well in Literature and Revolution. 

‘Mechanical centralism is necessarily complemented by factionalism, which is at once a malicious caricature of democracy and a potential political danger.’

Mr. Gatto’s entire structure is built on factionalism. His seven universal lessons are meant to strengthen some factions to invite membership and conformity, and others are intended to keep those ‘unworthy’ are those for whom the rest of the rules were written. The seven universal rules are: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and an admonition against anyone who notices the slavery of a system that confuses intentionally, gives to one side it created for itself, and addicts the rest to scraps because class position can only exist in a society confused and emotionally dependent. You can’t hide. Big brother is watching you. Take your soma and fall in line: this is the literature of enslavement. And the author of this material is a real man and really believes in these universal ‘laws’ of education.

Students are often taught a barrage of information, none of which is important to their lives, intended to work as an assembly line towards an end, a goal: to college, to graduate school, and finally to a job. This sort of cynical approach by a life-long teacher is disheartening; it is disheartening not because of one man’s belief, but those who rally behind his ideas of slavery are highly influential. Behind all the useless information is what the intended goal of this system is: there is this centralized element abhorrent to Trotsky, an element that might have made Shakespeare rethink his ideas of overthrowing a monarch.

The central command structure of knowledge reaches into the deep past of western philosophy. It’s in Plato’s The Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, even Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Although it wasn’t published in his lifetime, Hobbes’ much better work, Behemoth, was forbidden by a king, a king who probably would’ve endorsed it, had he read it. Satires like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World were considered, in their time, to be ridiculous. These were not instant classics. And the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four nearly killed George Orwell; this brings us to what gave the English their first clear vision of totalitarianism.

AN HOMAGE TO ORWEL– On the Cult of Personality and Altar of Fear

BEFORE A SOCIAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL ANALYSIS of Orwell the man, writer of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, I would first like to say that I believe he was at his best in his non-fiction account of the Spanish Civil War—Homage to Catalonia.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Sixty years after the publication of Orwell’s mostly widely cited and read work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, that crystal first line sounds as natural and compelling as ever. But when you see the original manuscript, you find something else: not so much the ringing clarity, more the obsessive rewriting, in different inks, that betrays the extraordinary turmoil behind its composition.

Probably the definitive dystopian novel of the 20th century, a story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary, and whose terms such as ‘Big Brother,’ ‘doublethink,’ and ‘newspeak—all of which having become part of the everyday currency in the English lexicon, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving George Orwell a unique place in world literature.

The circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make a haunting narrative that helps to explain the bleakness of Orwell’s dystopia. Here was an English writer, desperately sick, grappling alone with the demons of his imagination in a bleak Scottish outpost in the desolate aftermath of the Second World War. The idea for Nineteen Eighty-Four, alternatively, The Last Man in Europe, had been incubating in Orwell’s mind since the Spanish civil war.

His novel, which owes something to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fiction We, probably began to take a definitive shape during 1943-44, around the time he and his wife Eileen adopted their only son, Richard. Orwell himself claimed that he was partly inspired by the meeting of the Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944. Isaac Deutscher, an Observer colleague, reported that Orwell was “convinced that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt consciously plotted to divide the world” at Tehran.

Orwell had worked for David Astor’s Observer since 1942, first as a book reviewer and later as a correspondent. The editor professed great admiration for Orwell’s “absolute straightforwardness, his honesty and his decency,” and would be his patron throughout the 1940s. The closeness of their friendship is crucial to the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell’s creative life had already benefited from his association with the Observer in the writing of Animal Farm. As the war drew to a close, the fruitful interaction of fiction and Sunday journalism would contribute to the much darker and more complex novel he had in mind after that celebrated ‘fairy tale.’ It’s clear from Observer book reviews, for example, that he was fascinated by the relationship between morality and language.

There were other influences at work. The atmosphere of random terror in the everyday life of wartime London became integral to the mood of the novel-in-progress. Worse was to follow. In March 1945, while on assignment for the Observer in Europe, Orwell received news that his wife Eilee, had died under anesthesia during a routine operation.

Suddenly he was a widower and a single parent, eking out a threadbare life in his Islington lodgings, and working incessantly to dam the flood of remorse and grief at his wife’s premature death. In 1945, for instance, he wrote almost 110,000 words for various publications, including 15 book reviews for the Observer.

Then Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides.

Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend, Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwell’s response.

In May 1946 Orwell, still picking up the shattered pieces of his life, took the train for the long and arduous journey to Jura. He told his friend Arthur Koestler that it was ‘almost like stocking up ship for an arctic voyage.’

It was a risky move; Orwell was not in good health. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest of the century. Postwar Britain was bleak and Orwell always suffered from a chest pains and other anxiety-related pains. At least, cut off from the irritations of literary London, he was free to grapple unencumbered with the new novel. ‘Smothered under journalism,’ as he put it, he told one friend, ‘I have become more and more like a sucked orange.’

Ironically, part of Orwell’s difficulties derived from the success of Animal Farm. After years of neglect and indifference the world was waking up to his genius. ‘Everyone keeps coming at me,’ he complained to Koestler, ‘wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc.–you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again.’

On Jura he would be liberated from these distractions. The promise of creative freedom on an island in the Hebrides, however, came with its own, unique price. Years before, in the essay Why I Write, he described the struggle to complete a book: ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.’ It ends with the popular adage: ‘Good prose is like a window pane.’

From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way imaginable. Privately, perhaps, he relished the overlap between theory and practice. He had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity.

At first, after ‘a quite unendurable winter,’ he reveled in the isolation and wild beauty of Jura. ‘I am struggling with this book,’ he wrote to his agent, ‘which I may finish by the end of the year—at any rate I shall have broken the back by then so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn.’

Barnhill, overlooking the sea at the top of a potholed track, was not large, with four small bedrooms above a spacious kitchen. Life was simple, even primitive. There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes: the fug in the house was cozy but not healthy. A battery radio was the only connection with the outside world.

Orwell, a gentle, unworldly sort of man, arrived with just a camp bed, a table, a couple of chairs and a few pots and pans. It was a Spartan existence but supplied the conditions under which he liked to work. He is remembered there as a spectre in the mist, a gaunt figure in oilskins.

At the end of May 1947 he told his publisher, Fred Warburg: ‘I think I must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as usual) and can’t quite shake it off.’

Mindful of his publisher’s impatience for the new novel, Orwell added: ‘Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.’ Still, he pressed on, and at the end of July was predicting a completed ‘rough draft’ by October. After that, he said, he would need another six months to polish up the text for publication. This does not happen.

Part of the pleasure of life on Jura for George and his young son was the outdoor life—fishing, explore the island, and potter about in boats. In August, during a spell of lovely summer weather, Orwell, Avril, Richard and some friends, returning from a hike up the coast in a small motor boat, were nearly drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.

Richard Blair remembers being ‘bloody cold’ in the freezing water, and Orwell, whose constant coughing worried his friends, did his lungs no favors. Within two months he was seriously ill. Typically, his account to David Astor of this narrow escape was laconic, even nonchalant.

The long struggle with The Last Man in Europe continued. In late October 1947, oppressed with ‘wretched health,’ Orwell recognized that his novel was still ‘a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely.’

He was working at a feverish pace. Visitors to Barnhill recall the sound of his typewriter pounding away upstairs in his bedroom. Then, in November, tended by the faithful Avril, he collapsed with ‘inflammation of the lungs’ and told Koestler that he was “very ill in bed”. Just before Christmas, in a letter to an Observer colleague, he broke the news he had always dreaded. Finally he had been diagnosed with TB.

A few days later, writing to Astor from Hairmyres hospital, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, he admitted: ‘I still feel deadly sick,’ and conceded that, when illness struck after the Corryvreckan whirlpool incident, ‘like a fool I decided not to go to a doctor – I wanted to get on with the book I was writing.’

In 1947 there was no cure for TB; doctors could only prescribe fresh air regular diets. However, there was a new, experimental drug on the market, streptomycin. Astor arranged for a shipment to Hairmyres from the US.

Orwell’s son Richard believed his father was given excessive doses of this new drug. The side effects were horrific (throat ulcers, blisters in the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin and the disintegration of toe and fingernails; but in March 1948, after a three-month course, the TB symptoms had disappeared. ‘It’s all over now, and evidently the drug has done its stuff,’ Orwell told his publisher. ‘It’s rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works.’

As he prepared to leave hospital Orwell received the letter from his publisher which, in hindsight, would be another nail in the coffin. ‘It really is rather important,’ wrote Warburg to the star author, ‘from the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible.’

Just when he should have been convalescing Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into the revision of his manuscript, promising to deliver by ‘early December,’ and coping with ‘filthy weather’ on autumnal Jura. Early in October he confided to Astor: ‘I have got so used to writing in bed that I think I prefer it, though of course it’s awkward to type there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book [which is] about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn’t conclusive.’

This is one of Orwell’s exceedingly rare references to the theme of his book. He believed, as many writers do, that it was bad luck to discuss a work-in-progress. Later, to Anthony Powell, he described it as ‘a Utopia written in the form of a novel.’ The typing of the fair copy of The Last Man in Europe became another dimension of Orwell’s battle with his book. The more he revised his ‘unbelievably bad” manuscript the more it became a document only he could read and interpret. It was, he told his agent, “extremely long, even 125,000 words.’ With characteristic candor, he noted: ‘I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied… I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB.’

And he was still undecided about the title: ‘I am inclined to call it NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE,’ he wrote, ‘but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.’ By the end of October Orwell believed he was done. Now he just needed a stenographer to help make sense of it all.

It was a desperate race against time. Orwell’s health was deteriorating, the ‘unbelievably bad’ manuscript needed retyping, and the December deadline was looming. Warburg promised to help, and so did Orwell’s agent. At cross-purposes over possible typists, they somehow contrived to make a bad situation infinitely worse. Orwell, feeling beyond help, followed his ex-public schoolboy’s instincts: he would go it alone.

By mid-November, too weak to walk, he retired to bed to tackle ‘the grisly job’ of typing the book on his “decrepit typewriter” by himself. Sustained by endless roll-ups, pots of coffee, strong tea and the warmth of his paraffin heater, with gales buffeting Barnhill, night and day, he struggled on. By 30 November 1948 it was virtually done.

Now Orwell, the old campaigner, protested to his agent that ‘it really wasn’t worth all this fuss. It’s merely that, as it tires me to sit upright for any length of time, I can’t type very neatly and can’t do many pages a day.’ Besides, he added, it was ‘wonderful’ what mistakes a professional typist could make, and, ‘in this book there is the difficulty that it contains a lot of neologisms.’

The typescript of George Orwell’s latest novel reached London in mid-December, as promised. Warburg recognized its qualities at once (‘amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read’) and so did his colleagues. An in-house memo noted ‘if we can’t sell 15 to 20 thousand copies we ought to be shot.’

By now Orwell had left Jura and checked into a TB sanatorium high in the Cotswolds. ‘I ought to have done this two months ago,’ he told Astor, ‘but I wanted to get that bloody book finished.’ Once again Astor stepped in to monitor his friend’s treatment but Orwell’s specialist was privately pessimistic.

As word of Nineteen Eighty-Four began to circulate, Astor’s journalistic instincts kicked in and he began to plan an Observer Profile, a significant accolade but an idea that Orwell contemplated ‘with a certain alarm.’ As spring came he was “having haemoptyses” (spitting blood) and ‘feeling ghastly most of the time’ but was able to involve himself in the pre-publication rituals of the novel, registering ‘quite good notices’ with satisfaction. He joked to Astor that it wouldn’t surprise him ‘if you had to change that profile into an obituary.’

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US) and was almost universally recognized as a masterpiece, even by Winston Churchill, who told his doctor that he had read it twice. Orwell’s health continued to decline. In October 1949, in his room at University College hospital, he married Sonia Brownell, with David Astor as best man. It was a fleeting moment of happiness; he lingered into the new year of 1950. In the small hours of 21 January, George Orwell suffered a massive hemorrhage in hospital and died alone.

The news was broadcast on the BBC the next morning. Avril Blair and her nephew, still up on Jura, heard the report on the little battery radio in Barnhill. Richard Blair does not recall whether the day was bright or cold but remembers the shock of the news: his father was dead, aged 46.

David Astor arranged for Orwell’s burial in the churchyard at Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. He lies there now, as Eric Blair, between HH Asquith and a local family of Gypsies.

Cont.

Why ‘1984’? 

Orwell’s title remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favorite writer GK Chesterton’s story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which is set in 1984.

In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes,) Peter Davison notes that Orwell’s American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there’s no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair’s birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There’s no mystery about the decision to abandon The Last Man in Europe. Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more commercial title.

Freedom of speech

The effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four on our cultural and linguistic landscape has not been limited to either the film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, with its Naziesque rallies and chilling soundtrack, nor the earlier one with Michael Redgrave and Edmond O’Brien.

It is likely, however, that many people watching the Big Brother series on television (in the UK, let alone in Angola, Oman or Sweden, or any of the other countries whose TV networks broadcast programmes in the same format) have no idea where the title comes from or that Big Brother himself, whose role in the reality show is mostly to keep the peace between scrapping, swearing contestants like a wise uncle, is not so benign in his original incarnation. Apart from pop-culture renditions of some of the novel’s themes, aspects of its language have been leapt upon by libertarians to describe the curtailment of freedom in the real world by politicians and official—alarmingly, nowhere and never more often than in contemporary Britain.

Orwellian

 Room 101

Some hotels have refused to call a guest bedroom number 101—rather like those tower blocks that don’t have a 13th floor—thanks to the Orwellian concept of a room that contains whatever its occupant finds most impossible to endure. Like Big Brother, this has spawned a modern TV show: in this case, celebrities are invited to name the people or objects they hate most in the world.

Thought police

An accusation often levelled at authoritative governments, or arenas in public in which ideas or speech are being restricted; any conglomeration designed to bleep or blur, remove or ‘correct’ literature, hide and suppress ideas.

Newspeak

For Orwell, freedom of expression was not just about freedom of thought but also linguistic freedom. This term, denoting the narrow and diminishing official vocabulary, has been used ever since to denote jargon currently in vogue with those in power.

Doublethink

Hypocrisy with a twist. Rather than choosing to disregard a contradiction in your opinion, if you are doublethinking, you are deliberately forgetting that the contradiction is there. This subtlety is mostly overlooked by people using the accusation of ‘doublethink’ when trying to accuse an adversary of being hypocritical—but it is a very popular word with people who like a good debate with their beer. If I may: everything is good with beer—if you have the beer first.

IN THE BHAGAVAD-GITA, THE HINDU HOLY BOOK, we find the great archer and warrior, Arjuna, with his charioteer, and avatar of Vishnu, Krisha—of questionable fame stemming from an event earlier in life, having been caught stealing butter–allegedly. They are poised between two massive armies lined up to fight one another. He looks at both sides and finds relatives, fathers and sons, ready to slaughter one another in this battle. In his confusion and anguish, he cries out for guidance. To guide him, Krishna speaks to him as the supreme God of Gods, almighty Time, and instructs him the way of the Yoga.

The war, like so many of what is herein discussed, is an externalization used to illustrate the conflict inside oneself, the kind of conflict that every person has when it comes to choosing, when it comes to differentiating between what is right and what is wrong. Krishna appeared before him as a beacon of light in a time of darkness. He has since appeared to millions as the same light, to lead people from eternal return (For modern comparison, consider Groundhog Day) from what Krishna calls ‘the transient world of sorrow.’

The main thing that appealed to me about this ancient text is just pure beauty. Transience, I believe, is the major theme, the mortality of everything alive on the earth. In describing this to Arjuna, the transience of life and its luxuries, Krishna consoles and reminds Arjuna of his purpose, thereby escorting him out of darkness. What Krishna reveals to him cripples Arjuna and he is left shaking with fear and awe, saying, ‘Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are thy words words of wisdom? The wise grieve not for those who live; they grieve not for those who died. Life and death will pass away.’

By this I believe he was saying that emotional and physical states exist in finite space, unable to last forever, and reasons that life, like death, will someday pass away into another sphere of existence, beyond eternal return.

‘Because we have all been for all time, I, and thou,’ he says. ‘We all shall be for all time, forever, and forever more.’

It appears in his words that Krishna relates the human body to be nothing but a vessel, like a physical ship to carry the ships’ captain, then, when the physical ship is no longer set afloat, the captain moves on to find another ship, only to be imprisoned again, like smoke inside a bottle until reincarnation, where we’re trapped again inside a body in the miserable cycle of eternal return.

Krishna appears before him as all powerful Time, with, ‘…multitudes rushing into him and pouring out of him as he devours them all, destroys everything.’

Krishna says, “I am all powerful time, and I have come here to slay these men. Fight, or fight not; all these men will die.”

After the mortal body is shed, ‘As the spirit of our mortal body wanders on in childhood, and in you and old age, the spirit moves to a new body,’ Krishna believes the evaluating mid-mind, the mind behind the body, passes in and out of light and dark, between worlds, reliving one cycle of life and death without ever finding something that lasts forever, something that is forever tangible. The spirit, however, is forever to him; this is a good idea, as death is relegated to nothing but a temporary shedding of a body: ‘Interwoven in [his] creation, the spirit is beyond destruction. No one can bring an end to the everlasting spirit or an end to something which had no beginning.’

Once someone escapes the transient world, Krishna instructs, he will dwell beyond time in these bodies, though our bodies have an end in their times, but we remain immeasurable, immortal. With these words, Krishna tells us to carry on our noble fight and noble struggles against the depreciating forces of all of life.

The highest goal for him is a goal familiar to Buddhists: asceticism. ‘From the world of senses,’ Krishna says, again beautifully illustrating transience, ‘comes fire and ice, pleasure and pain. They come and go for they are transient. Arise above them, strong soul.’

These words have encouraged and inspired millions of people; from east of the globe to west, every day for thousands of years, this has the quality of liberation. As the Persian poet wrote: A king wished to have a phrase that would cheer him when sad and sadden him when joyful:

This too shall pass.

 The tone of the piece is intended to convey a liberating, lasting peace—an acceptance and eagerness to dispel disillusion and ignorance, to grow closer to the laws of the world and universe, a universe that is god made manifest—this is, in essence, what is called Brahma. It is a call for people to be honorable and kind to others. I’m not a religious person. I am however not ignorant of what this gives to culture and the arts. From a secular perspective, The Bhagavad-Gita is one of the greatest works of literature ever produced by mankind. There is much to take away, to learn, to believe. Acceptance of the supernatural is not necessary to learn and benefit from this cultural jewel.

The Bhagavad-Gita is a beacon of light, a candle in the dark. All cultures in some form or another produce these spiritual and religious texts. The dependence on the supernatural varies, but the message is universal: good for the sake of goodness and kindness for its own sake, while it will earn you no medals or honorary titles, is what lasting peace demands. If the world worked in this way, if everyone was motivated to not only improve themselves but the world around them, a peaceful world becomes possible. In a free world, there is no need to govern, or for government. Government is a euphemism for organized, demanded control.

Confucius, the proverbial wise old man, is credited with the composition of The Analects. In it, Confucius believed himself to be nothing more than a carrier of knowledge. Nothing divine, nothing unique or supernatural, not an inventor but a curator in the museum of our artistic history. Confucian intended to ‘reinvigorate’ what is called the mandate of heaven. Although he claimed to be but a messenger, he is, nevertheless, credited with the most famous of all axioms: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

With great subtlety and emphasis on learning and growing, Confucius left behind a legacy that has had a lasting impact on the world for thousands of years. The Analects are not the only source for Chinese philosophy: Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching, The Teachings and Sayings of Chuang Tzu, and the iconic I-Ching, or Book of Changes, are cultural treasures, and inherently consistent in tone and content, giving this brand of Eastern philosophy a unique consistency in an otherwise muddled, frustrated series of contradictive versions.

‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’

Lines like this are the sun, the light to the lofty and pretentious little quote-loving moth in us all.

In keeping with the tone and aloofness of Eastern philosophy, generally speaking, The Analects echo the Book of Changes, Confucius says, ‘The only constant is change.’

This axiom is but a small notch above pandering tautology; yet we’re still drawn to it. Quotes in this vein are uniquely popular and for good reason. Sometimes one can, without true effort and study, get a good summary or imbibe the essence of a work of art with a cursory glimpse and partial, sometimes non-representative quote. However, this quote is representative and conveys a valuable message. The intention is to raise awareness, to make us more aware of ourselves and changing moods and their relation to the seasons, the cycle of life and death, destruction and renewal. As with The Bhagavad-Gita; it is another mantra urging us to accept the inevitability of the transient, the ephemeral among what is truly immortal, or never-changing.

In the religions of independently evolving cultures, we find, over and over, a connection, a branching out across time and space; in this there is a surprising consistency in the essential message, ‘It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men.’

Confucius’s philosophy is a call to the most ambitious of our characters to look for wisdom and sincerity.

‘Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Then no friends would not be like yourself (all friends would be as loyal as yourself.) If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it.’

This is unique among quasi-religious texts: this is a eukaryotic idea within, what is by nature, a prokaryotic art-form.

In all the philosophies and religions produced by mankind, within each is some sort of promise, some hint of shelter from whatever storms in which we struggle—and a promised liberation, a refuge to come, a refuge for each moment needed.

History and Conspiracy, Jacopo’s Pocket Watch – 6 January 2016

THE GREAT ABRAHAM LINCOLN POCKET WATCH CONSPIRACY
By Jacopo della Quercia

*****

BY LOOKING THROUGH THE LENS OF CONSPIRACY, WE AFFORD ourselves an illusion, an illusion of possibility, prediction, and control. Casting the horrors and intrigue of history in the light of conspiracy is a comfort, and to wield these elements so cleverly, as Jacopo della Quercia does in this novel, his debut, we are allowed to look at the present through the artifice of exploring the past. In one of the most memorable scenes (which I won’t give away here), the overtones of our need to control the popular perception of history is pervasive – as there is a lifeless, heartless attempt at changing history in the Oval Office.

            It is this character that lets the author reprogram an element of known history and use it in service of the story, and the identification of this character with another greatly popular and historic literary character further illustrates the need for people to feel like they’re in control of their lives, and ultimately their future, and the will to hold onto this control through will; it is this will, I think, that defines the struggle of the characters within the story, and the struggle for self-definition in the greater scope of history. This is a great quality of the novel, the author’s understanding – not only of the history – but of the present’s comfort.

            The work is a testament to Jacopo’s substantive education in American and world history. Despite the mixed-bag genre, none-of-which are truly capable of properly categorizing it, the characters are a high-point of the story. The relationship between Taft and his wife has a lingering sadness, a sadness that manifests as a crisis of conscience, the sadness of sickness being a catalyst for the presumption to make changes to the actual writing of history. It betrays a more human look at the development of connected events, no matter how loosely, and peoples, places, and the multitude of intersecting strings [Jacopo] manages to keep in hand.

            The story, in my reading, is more about the way that the passions and the sorrows and the love and sadness of people shape the world, despite their status. We see the most powerful of men succumb to the discomfort of despair; the way another prominent Bull Moose of a character walks among his people in disguise, in one of the many call-backs to Shakespeare, the first being a character’s defining himself as ‘the Falstaff of his era.’

            The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy not only takes you on a ride through the reality of history, but the reality of characters interacting with history as it’s happening; and by using conspiracy as the catalyst, it highlights another unique aspect of our nature: the curiosity and community built around assumed truths in history, the community conspiracy, which is itself a dodge, a comfort, a way to skip a more difficult and pressing issue: that of mindless action, unpredictable chaos without deeper meaning. By uncovering deep and all-encompassing conspiracies, it gives us the comfort of being able to see some sense in a world of randomness; it allows the world to be held accountable in breathing together (the definition of conspiracy), as all thoughts and persons in our world become more easily linked and associated, Jacopo shows a world of connected people, by narrative or company, doing what people have done since people were people: try to take a part the biggest balls of tangled cables, the tangled wires of prominent historical characters behaving poorly.

            The Pocket-Watch itself, I thought, was a source of light, something that drew the curiosity of its characters, bringing their prejudices and predispisitions with them in their attempts to divine its origin and mechanism of action. That mysterious pocketwatch, with dual transcriptions, is itself an image for a history stuck in the loop of time, or an era in which time stands still; the focus on the watch puts us into the story as another character, allowing us to be in on the conspiracy and history, allowing us to breathe together around that baffling fob watch.

            An object of wonder, of mystery, this watch — full of strange connections, bringing people together, in wonder, in awe: it demonstrates how people, who otherwise might have never crossed paths, become entangled in a web whose spider is that watch: around which the mystery and characters perform in this brilliant, clever, ersatz roman de clef. It is the anatomy of wonder and togetherness, and how it is easy for so many to reject the love of friends and community when contronted with intriguing symbols and puzzling events, embracing the solitude of skepticism and melancholy.

            In this book, you become a part of the unfolding story; as people have a natural capacity for pattern recognition (and pareidolia for when it fails us) and we – as readers – get to participate in the mystery. using our own impressions and experiences to try to crack the mystery, but in the end we prefer it, to keep that unique, blended version of history. We’re more voyeur than reader here, as our minds turn as well with mystery as those within the story. We go with each clue around the world, from Brussels to Paris to New York, as each new connection informs us of a larger and more complicated world, a world more strange and beautiful for it.

Short – The Obituary Writer, 31 December 2015

1 Obituaries for the Living

My first paying job out of college was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games didn’t matter, not really, but having something to cheer for, something to look forward to, that brought us all together. And when my nephew Alex died, a tight-end on the little league football team, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well; the paper sold a ton of copies and my column got a lot of attention.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column a few months later, after a string of accidents left several young men and women dead. I was always on the scene, in the background, taking notes, the Buzzard of Isla Wor, there to eulogize them all. It was steady work and decent pay, and I got a lot of exposure. I wrote more and more, ever more dramatic and poetic. And when no one died, I’d write obituaries for the living, or fabricate it outright, from start to finish, to keep my readers entertained and my career moving forward.

Within a few months the column was a hit, with paid subscriptions to the Sunday paper doubling. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and doing personal requests when I had time, sharing them online. People started noticing me in public, too, and it’s a good feeling, to find that you suddenly matter to someone, to anyone, when people care about you and your work. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

The more I wrote, the more detached I became, turning callous and cold, keeping my distance from the very people I sought to commemorate. When I still wrote for the paper, it was impossible to distance myself completely. But I tried. I really tried. I knew what I was doing. It was easier to keep a safe distance, to avoid the families who read my column. That attitude, that coldness, it changed, to an extent, after I wrote an obituary for the son of a prominent public figure, Dr. Eddie Redding, the only doctor in Isla Wor.

The obituary was for his eldest son, Marcus, someone I didn’t really know, and his girlfriend, Kayla. They had died in a car accident just after midnight on a Thursday. The paper ran the obituary in the Sunday edition. In the first week it sold more copies than any other paper in the company’s history. Dr. Redding called my aunt the following Friday and got my number, then reached out to me personally. He invited me to have dinner with him on Sunday at Pearl’s Café on Main.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. He was dressed modestly, without a blazer or a tie, wearing a button-up shirt tucked into beige slacks, with a leather belt. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “My aunt gave me a ride.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man. I could see it in his eyes, bright and sincere.

“I’m glad you could make it,” he said.

“That’s one of the perks of being a writer,” I said. “You’re always working, even if you’re not doing anything. So I figured, as long as I have nothing to do, I could take some time off.”

He laughed.

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I mean, I don’t remember ever thinking it out and deciding, ‘this is what I’m going to do.’ It’s something I’ve always done, whether I wanted to or not. I went to the Master’s Baptist Childcare Center until I was five, when I was adopted, and the only thing I remember is story time. Best time of the day. I learned how to read and write while I was there, and I really liked Dr. Seuss. I’d copy his stories into my notebook and I’d change the character names and locations, the pronouns and verbs, re-working the conversations until I had a completely different story, a story of my own. And when I got in trouble, they’d make me copy out of the dictionary. That taught me more than anything; my punishment.”

“I’m sure you’ve been reformed,” he said.

“I’d like to think so.”

A young woman with dark hair and dark eyes approached our table. She was young, mid to late 20s and pale. She took out a pen and pad.

“What can I do for you fellas?” she asked.

Dr. Redding ordered a BLT, a small salad, and a glass of iced tea. I ordered a cappuccino.

“I’ll get that to you ASAP,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.

And Dr. Redding said, “Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome!” she said. She brought over his tea straight away, then my coffee. A few minutes later she returned with his sandwich and salad on a serving tray. He took the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins and utensils.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Thank you very much,” he said, calling to the waitress as she walked away.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you need anything, you just let me know.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away, returning to the area behind the counter with the grill, answering the phone and taking orders, calling them out to the cooks as they came in.

I sipped at my coffee while he ate his sandwich, chewing with his mouth closed, very proper, pausing after each bite to wipe his mouth. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling for a writer, especially early on, to think somebody cares, anybody, to think you’re doing something important, something that matters. That’s how I dealt with it when the names came in. Names and numbers, unending. Shelly, 19. Josh, 26. Alex, 9. Kayla, 23. Marcus, 33. Melissa, 34. On and on and on.

“So, what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I didn’t know much about him. I knew his brother, Will. We used to skate together, before I went off to college.”

He sighed.

“I don’t think I knew much about him either,” he said. “Not as a man, anyway, not for a long time. We stopped talking after he dropped out of college… That was such a long time ago. We didn’t see each other much after that, not as much as I would’ve liked. He was a good mechanic, always fixing things. Or trying to! He worked at Nichols’ Tire, that body shop across the river. The money was okay, for the work, and he took care of Leslie, his daughter. She just turned 6 in March, so he kept showing up on time.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was embarrassing to sit there with a completely genuine person, knowing he’d read a mostly artificial obituary, full of pretentious, platitudinous exhortations of the most common, vulgar variety, with that stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest!’ bullshit.

Knock-knock!

“So,” he said, “do you work for the paper full time?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “I used to write the sports column. That’s all I did, sports and town events. Then my nephew died–he played for the Isla Wor Wolverines, that little league football team–and I wrote it up in my column. It was really popular, the newspaper got a lot of press, and one of my editors saw it. After that she asked me to take over the column permanently. That’s how I got my title, my nom de geurre. But you know what they call me at work? The Buzzard. That’s all I am to some people, the Buzzard of Isla Wor.”

“Do you—“

“Did you know him?” I asked. “My nephew.”

“I sure didn’t, Brandon,” he said. “Not well. I knew of him. I knew his name.”

“I didn’t either,” I said. “Not really. He was just riding his bike, not far from here actually, right in front of Joe’s Market. He got hit by a car and that was it. He was 9 years old. That was the first time I wrote an obituary.”

He was quiet for a moment, then asked, “How often do you have to write one?”

“Every Wednesday for my column, at least once a week,” I said. “Well, that’s when we get the information; from hospitals, from the internet, from Facebook and Twitter, local news… I try to get everything ready by Wednesday night, that way we can run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in late, between Thursday and Saturday, and it’s a little rushed.

“I’d much rather write something less morbid, or at least get some of my other work published. It’s a passion of mine, poetry and theatre, and fiction, much more so than my job. I mean, I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’ forever.”

“Are you working on anything now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I don’t know how it all works. I don’t know enough about it, I don’t think, you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. ”You’ll figure it out.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he pointed at my valise, a leather folder with a 3-ring binder along the spine, two zippered compartments, and a large slot where I kept my 8×12” legal pad. I kept my handwritten drafts tucked away in one of those compartments.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Oh, here. I brought this for you.”

I dug around in my valise until I found the first draft of his son’s obituary. I handed it to him. He handled it with delicacy and care, gently and lovingly, a holy relic, some small piece of his son that managed to survive. He flipped through the pages, trying to make sense my hurried, untidy scrawl. He closed the notebook and put it aside, calling for the check.

“Here you go,” she said. “Can I get you anything else?

I took out my wallet. He waived it away and I relented, not wanting to be that guy. I took my laptop from my satchel and sat it on the seat beside me.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She took his glass away and returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap on it. She handed him a straw.

We both thanked her as she cleared the table.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he was holding a $100 bill between his fingers, folded and sharp.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done, maybe.”

“Your book on theatre perhaps?” he asked, smiling.

“Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“You’ll figure it out, Brandon,” he said. “I have faith in you. And maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’re finished.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. We can hope, can’t we? If nothing else, we can hope. I guess that’s good enough.”

I nodded, not knowing what to say.

“Here,” he said, offering me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “Just because it’s my job doesn’t mean I do it for the money. I wrote that because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway. So if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new valise someday.”

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it open on the table, right where I’d left off.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles,” he said. “It was nice meeting you.”

I stood and we shook hands again.

“Nice to meet you too,” I said.

“Good-day!”

He walked away after leaving a tip.

“Good-day, Dr. Redding.”

The door closed behind him with the clang of a little bell, a gentle ding-dong! like metal wind-chimes against glass, tolling each time someone exited the diner.

I looked at the $100 bill.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)

 

2 Neon Purgatory

 

I wrote for the paper until I was 28, until they shut it down in 2013, moving the company’s news media to the internet. I continued writing for them, though, curating their online archives, caretaker of a neon purgatory. I never imagined I’d have such an audience, not in the early days, when I still covered little league games and town affairs. That stuff just didn’t sell, the comings and goings of the people in Isla Wor, not until they died. My column remained popular somehow, in town and online.

It was more of the same really, my column, sermonizing, masturbatory kitsch masquerading as art. They were paper houses, and from a distance you might be fooled, but if you opened the doors it’d fall apart. But I never sold my soul, no sir, not me. I sold the souls of other people, to the sound of thunderous applause.

There’s no greater barrier for screening warmth and human feeling than the internet. It’s a soulless place, somewhere you can remain hidden forever, comfortable and safe behind a labyrinth of cold tubes and wire, twisted metal snakes with open mouths, sucking in data and spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros, drunk but still drinking, spreading my work around the world, through satellites and computers to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer.

As my popularity grew, so did the popularity of my subjects, my titular characters. My purview expanded too, far beyond our little island, covering the has-beens and back-door musicians, b-list movie stars, the dead skin cells lining the drain of showers run dry. I wasn’t famous, but I had status, a certain prestige. But that didn’t solve my problems as much as it created new ones.

I left Isla Wor when I was 17 to go to college. I returned when I was 23, but I didn’t forget what it was like to be a kid in nowhere, growing up in a small town with nothing to do. We went knick-knocking, that’s what they called it. We all did it, me and my friends, slipping out at night when our parents were at work or asleep to knock on doors, and I mean really bang on ‘em or ring the doorbells and run away, hiding in the bushes, waiting for the door to open, just so we could laugh at the homeowner when he looked out into the dark, confused and angry.

So I expected it, especially when I got a nice house on the edge of town. For a while, at least, for a couple of months, I didn’t let it get to me. But with those kids, it was different. Those god damn kids. They wanted to drive me out of town or drive me crazy. I was a bad omen, they thought, the Buzzard, that’s what their parents told them. ‘You stay away from him,’ they’d say. ‘He’s a writing spider. If he writes your name in his web you’ll die.’ So they kept on knocking, in the early morning too, in the AM, when I was trying to work. It was annoying, sure. It interrupted my train of thought and delayed my editorials. An annoyance – at any given moment – is one step away from torture.

That’s what it was, this knick-knocking on my door. I pulled a couch in front of the door and sat there with a bottle of Jack Daniels, wrapped in an old quilt, and waited. I tried to get some work done, studying theater and its history, but I still had to write my column. The machine tolled on the hour, ding-dong! as names and numbers came rolling in. My editor picked them for me, passing on what she thought would best play the heartstrings of our readers. For more web traffic, really, to invite people into that space, into the darkness, to visit our electric mausoleum. And for just ¢99 you could leave .jpg flowers by those tombstones, stock photos with names and numbers. Names and numbers, names and numbers, bourbon and purgatory, and I just didn’t want to do it. It’s cynical and depressing, but that’s work.

Whenever I just didn’t want to do it, I used the form. I designed it in my third year at the paper:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died Wednesday morning. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Stephens, and had two daughters, Lisa and Tabitha. She was 34.

I took the information and shampooed it, if you will, to write it properly:   

            Today the town of Isla Wor mourns the death of Ms. Sarah Harding, a waitress at Pearl’s Café, and loving mother of two. First responders have indicated that she may have swerved to dodge a stray when she lost control of her car. She is survived by her mother Angie Harding and father Gary Stephens, and her two young daughters, 6 year old Lisa and 12 year old Tabitha. Lisa is a student at Park St Elementary School and Tabitha is a 7th grader at Isla Wor High School. Sarah was 29 years old.

          The knocking at my door!

I pushed my papers aside and pushed my chair back, my candles falling to the floor, the fire dying, replaced by a puff of fragrant smoke. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting, For God’s sake! This is beyond a joke! The hallways were dark and derelict, the tables and chairs ghostlike in the low light of the living room lamp, covered in white sheets, bearing the weight of unfinished manuscripts and wine bottles, a monument to my sloth.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no meddling kids with paper bags, just the profane moaning of the wind. I stamped off to my study, furious, cursing a bust of Mozart in the hall. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting. Without fail it was late at night, when I was working or trying to sleep. I never answered, never making it to the door in time. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working, but it’s true. It’s a lot like saying, “There’s nothing to see but the view.”

Knock-knock!

I spent more time on my book, which was to be a nonfiction history of theatre, and continued to write obituaries in my spare time. It was autonomous, industrialized consolation; I’d only have to change the names and numbers in the end, the pronouns, maybe the setting. The facts weren’t important. Whenever I wanted to spend time with my girlfriend, and later my fiancé, I wrote thousands of them, using that same form, each with a common male or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. And when they didn’t, I ran them anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me. At the time I barely noticed, but I notice now, and more than ever I feel her absence, the ballerina’s ghost on my side of the bed.

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. I was only in a position to try to justify myself because of what being the obituary writer made possible: I made enough money to study theatre and live comfortably. Nobody debates ethics when they’re starving. But it was more than that, that scab I couldn’t scratch. I wasn’t selling my soul, I was selling the souls of other people. Every time my email alert went off I knew someone was gone, that terrible clanging, Ding-dong! like metal wind-chimes against glass. And then the nightmares started.

I still remember the first time I visited the empty world. All the signs of civilization remained, the Eiffel tower, empty gondolas in the streets of Venice, but Manhattan was a ghost town. The chessboards were still there with unfinished games, but not the people, not the players, the hustlers in Central Park. It was a world without a sun or music, without bird songs or children, forever winter there, with snowflakes made of shredded paper. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer. Nothing. I always worried that some night I’d wake to an alert with my mother’s name. I tried to relax, sitting there in the dim light of my bedroom laptop. Then the email alert rang out, that ding-dong! And the name flashed across the screen:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speakers and put out my cigarette. I couldn’t stand that sound anymore, that dissonant metal against glass, so I tried to turn off email alerts. I still got them though, and I thought it must be in my head, all of it, in my imagination. Those bouquets left on tombstones, I saw no roses, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuffed in their mouths, bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats.

My dreams were disjointed bits of phantasmagoria, confusing images and sounds, mazes of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar. And I thought this must be purgatory, and I was to be forced to truly know all those people I had so briefly summarized and put aside. The obituary writer, what a dark star! how dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I was dreaming again. The knocking rang out in grotesque echoes. I slid out of bed and tiptoed to the door, waiting for the knocking to begin again, standing quietly on the other side, ready to fling the door open in an instant and catch the miserable cretin, once and for all. I waited in the dark, in the silent shadow of the bust of Mozart.

Knock-knock!

I twisted the doorknob in an instant and pulled the door open. I stood on the threshold looking out. Nothing, no one, just an empty street. And I looked down, I don’t know why, as I never had before. A kid was standing there, a little boy with a bleeding head, wearing a football jersey.

Are you the Obituary Writer?

I woke. It was morning, just after 9am, and I started work immediately. I decided to burn them all, each handwritten draft, every page, every lie, to sate whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction. You may recoil at first, when you first jump in. But if you stay in long enough, the ice cold water warms you up somehow, and when you get out of the pool, the warmth of the night air, the warmth of the world is cold.

While I was studying theatre I learned of a character named Hypokritos, one of the more popular characters in the early days of performance, before there was a stage. Hypokritos was a caricature, a falsely righteous buffoon pretending to be divine, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be wise, trying to be profound, only to be a source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke. You know the type. A solemn, thoughtful photo, black and white with sharp contrast. It was smug and pretentious, so I decided to take a better picture, a picture to show everyone what I looked like at my worst. I timed the camera and triggered the email alert, ding-dong! the wind-chimes clanged. I put the picture on my website without editing it. But it didn’t change anything. I was still Hypokritos. I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle and easier to digest. I looked over the website, the professional make-over complete, and felt ill as soon as I saw it. It was a mass grave carved into the internet, a macabre, gaudy porno, and I presided over it all. With my name at the top of every page, I might as well have autographed their gravestones.

Knock-knock-knock!

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire. The fire doesn’t burn forever. And it can be wasted. In the end it must burn out, turn into smoke and disappear. That was my fear, exhausting that fire before warning anybody’s heart or hands, and ending up cold myself. That’s what I feared, becoming one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over again, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then move the lever back, hoping it’ll strike, just one more time, just to get a god damn cigarette lit.

 

3 Speaker for the Dead

 

I gave notice to my employer, and finished all the obituaries I had before I decided to quit. All but one, the only one left to write, one for the obituary writer. I tried to put it out of my mind and focus on finishing my book. I worked hard. I thought about inviting Dr. Redding to dinner when I got it published. That was motivation enough.

Those early days were the best, when I wrote for the paper, for the town of Isla Wor. There were no email alerts then, no nightmares, no knocking, no doorbells. The writing wasn’t great, not for my first year at least, but they were sincere and they were honest. I don’t know what changed. I don’t know, just, after the eulogy for Dr. Redding’s son, after dinner–looking back, that’s when something broke, I think, something mechanical, some part of the system that processes grief. I thought of my father a lot, and the obituary he’d never gotten.

He died when I was 14, on a Friday night. I was playing JV football for the Isla Wor Wolverines. I remember my mom showing up, and she never went to my games. I was glad she finally came to see me, but I didn’t want to finish the game, so I told my coach that I was having trouble walking and asked if I could talk to my mother. He escorted me to the bleachers and told my mom that she should take me to have my legs looked at. She said that she would and we left. It was a quiet drive. I thought she was giving me the silent treatment because she knew I was faking and was upset with me. But when I saw her turn onto the interstate, I thought she really was taking me to the hospital. I told her I didn’t need to go, that I would feel better in the morning. That’s when she told me.

“Your daddy had a heart attack.”

He died before we got to the hospital.

I dreamed about him a lot in the following months. He’d knock on the door and I’d let him in, pretending to show him around like he was a stranger, pretending to be a real estate agent. After a brief tour of the house, he said he’d like to buy. He left, promising to come back with a check. The first stories I ever wrote were based on this, about real estate agents selling houses to ghosts.

Knock-knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up. My book came out just shy of my 30th birthday. The critical reception was positive, for the most part, but it didn’t do well commercially. But I was still drawn to obituary columns, always the buzzard, and kept returning to that header:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I realized that it must be done, that I couldn’t put it off any longer if I ever wanted any peace. And so I sat down to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in a dim room. I would receive ever more pressing emails from that machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, urging me to finish, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I put it in the bottom of a locked file cabinet and tried to move on.

Knock-knock!

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail it had been months since the initial release. I left a message on Dr. Redding’s voice mail and he called me a few days later. We agreed to meet at the same diner, on a Sunday. I got there early, uncomfortable still. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth. He had a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me to a booth. I found a cappuccino waiting for me, vanilla and still cold. He had yet to order.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from my new valise. I handed it to him and sat my bag aside. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he turned it over in his hands with, that he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, not necessarily, with great delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is love. That was love. It had to be, to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from his wife and kids, a lonely wife, that is love, awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, that is love, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help – that is love.

And I finally made the obvious connection, and wondered – how many names checked into his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed?

He was turning my book over in his hands, looking at the cover, holding it up to the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you could do it.”

“Open it,” I said. “Right there.”

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s mighty fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again, and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he said. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, it’s free,” I said, “but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be remembered for, not for my column, and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, maybe you could tell me about him, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years, who he was as a man, the kind of stuff you can’t find online. I wanted to do something real, something honest. For you, for your family, to any extent that I can. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must be honest.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet and timid growing up. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother when they were kids. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco .33 fishing rods down there after church. They’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks, so you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home more after that. They were so protective! When they turned four, when the twins turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday. But you know how it is, when you buy for one you buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved ‘em. Riding around, doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus fixed them whenever something happened, when Will got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got Leslie a bike just last Christmas, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And when he grew up, he always wanted to build things, to be a builder, he wanted to be an engineer, I think, working on cars and motorcycles, always fixing things. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. And he will be very much missed.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can do a proper eulogy now.”

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my writing. And I used it, that column of mine. I used it to advance my career. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it at work, too. Every day. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and keep them longer. Don’t be so hard on yourself. What you do is a good thing, whatever your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, for everyone who is very much loved and would very much be missed. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer one last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary. Honest and sincere. The door closed behind him with that familiar clanging sound, metal wind-chimes against glass.

Ding-dong!

‘The Obituary Writer’ first draft, 11 September 2015

THE OBITUARY WRITER

Copyright © 2015

BRANDON K. NOBLES

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

I Death in Isla Wor

 

My first paying job after finishing school was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games were of no consequence in the world but very important to our little town; it brought everyone together, and when my poor nephew died, a tight-end on the little league football team, the community rallied round our family. Since I wrote about sports, when my poor, dear Alex died, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well, the paper sales; and there was more interest in my work. When no one died, I’d fabricate it just to keep the momentum of my work going. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

Knock-knock.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column after my successes, and it was all good and fun. People started noticing me in public, talking to me about my work, my other work, work I was more proud of, and it was a nice feeling, when people care about you and your work, about who you are. I wrote more, more eulogies than obituaries, more and more, more dramatic, more poetic. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and grew more and more detached from the people; but when it was with old media, with the real newspaper, it was still impossible to distance myself completely.

I got personal requests, too, and got paid for each. I named the price. It was cynical, and depressing, but that’s work. Knock-knock. It changed, to an extent, when I wrote the obituary for the son of a prominent town official, and the only doctor in that small town, Dr. Eddie Redding, the eulogy being for his oldest son, Marcus, whom I knew, but poorly, despite knowing his younger brother William, who was closer to my age. The paper ran it and it sold more copies than any paper in the company’s history; and from such popular success, the boy’s father reached out to me, first to my aunt, then to me personally through email. He invited me to a diner on a Sunday afternoon.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. Knock-knock. The reason for my work, by then, had bothered me. Of course it bothered me! Everybody hates their job, or at least some part of it. It was just a job, just business. I knew what I did. I wasn’t proud of it. No, that is a lie; I was extremely proud it.

He showed up in a modest suit, no blazer, no tie; button-up shirt, tucked in, a leather belt, no buckle. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively;

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I took a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man, I could see it on his face, and warm hearted, the creases on the sides of his lip betrayed a man of many strained, false smiles. A doctor, that is.

“Would you like something to drink? Some coffee?”

“If you’re having some, I will, sure.”

He stood and approached the counter. I took my valise out of my satchel. A moment later he returned.

“She’ll be over in a minute to take our order,” he said. “So, where did you go to school? Did you go to high school here?”

“Oh, yes sir. I was in English IV with your son, with Marcus. He was a few years older than me, class of ’03. But I knew his little brother Will a lot better. We skateboarded before I went off to college.”

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I went to a childcare center until I was five, when I was adopted, and I remember story time the most. It was the best part of the day, the only fun I had. I was taught to read, and I went on to read the dictionary back and front. I started copying all the words that rhymed and then started making little lists of rhyming words. I liked Dr Seuss and copied his work quite a bit, learning the rhythm of it. And when I was adopted, my adoptive mother and father adopted another young boy, my little brother Christopher, and he’d call out words to me and I’d name all the words I could that rhymed with it. When I got into trouble at school, they punished me by making me copy out of the dictionary; my punishment might have helped me more than the schooling.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

A young woman approached the table.

“How can I help you fellas today?”

“I’d like a BLT, a large iced tea,” he said. He thumbed the menu. “And a small salad.” He folded it and put it back on the table.

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Can you get me a cappuccino?” I asked. “Vanilla, if possible.”

“We can sure try,” she said with a smile. A lovely young lady, “Large, medium, small?”

“Large,” I said.

She wrote the answers on a small legal pad in hurried, slanting letters. Left handed!

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take that.”

She took our laminated plastic menus, folding them under her arm.

“I’ll be back with your order as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Dr. Redding: “Thank you very much.”

She walked away. After a short but rather comfortable silence he turned to face me again.

“Well,” he said, “your punishment seems to have reformed you!”

“I’m sure it has,” I said.

The waitress brought Dr. Redding his iced tea, then a moment later my cappuccino.

“We’ll be over with your sandwich soon,” she said.

 

He took the glass of tea and thanked her.

“So what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I knew his brother well, but didn’t really get to know him.”

“He wanted to…”

The waitress came over with his sandwich on a serving tray, along with his salad. He grabbed the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He turned to face our waitress.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you fellas need anything else, just give me a holler.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away.

He took a sip of his iced tea, popped the plastic top off his salad, and unwrapped his sandwich.

“As I was saying,” he said after a bite of salad, “he wanted to be an engineer. He liked working on cars, but he never finished college, quitting after he started working at Nichols’ Tire.”

“That’s that body shop across the river, right?”

“That’s the one!” he said. “And the money was okay for the work, and having to take care of Leslie, his daughter, kept him showing up.”

I was silent. Didn’t know what to say; to admit I’d somewhat faked the obituary, the whole eulogy being a platitudinous exhortation of your most common, most stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest’ excrete. Knock-knock! That’s when it started, the knocking; in my temples first, it spread, following me to my home, then into my dreams.

“So,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, having finished his small salad. “Do you work for the paper full time?”

“Well, I covered sports and town events first, then I wrote a eulogy for my nephew and put it on the internet. It got really popular and the newspaper got a lot of exposure. One of the editors for the newspaper saw it and asked me to take over the column permanently.”

“You do all the obituaries?”

“Yes sir. Every Wednesday. Well, that’s when we get in the information, from hospitals, from the internet, social media. Facebook, Twitter; we have people from the paper who overlook the messages from town residents, keeping up-to-date on the elderly and sick, scouring for updates to get a jump on the story…”

Later I would be sick in thinking back on this conversation, speaking so casually about what must have still been an open wound for that nice old man. Not an old man, not really, early to mid-50’s. I prattled on:

“I start the eulogy on Wednesday, with the goal to run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in later in the week and it’s a little more rushed.”

Knock-knock!

He ate his sandwich as we talked, mouth closed when he chewed. Very proper, pausing occasionally to dab his mouth with napkins. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling, that feeling of being good at your job, to believe you’re doing something good, something important; that’s how I dealt with it, how I justified the profession to myself each new night when a name came in with a number beside it.

“I’d much rather get into the business of writing fiction, or at least get some of my finished books and essays published. It’s a passion of mine, much more so than my job.”

A nervous laugh: “I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I’m… I don’t know enough about how it all works, I don’t know enough I don’t think; you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. “”You’ll figure it out!”

“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

Knock-knock.

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he gestured to my leather valise; it was a professional suitcase, a type of folder with a metal 3-ring binder along the spine, assorted compartments, two protected by zippers, and another slot for a larger, 8×12 legal pad, another compartment on the outside – for academic work, my studies in art and literature. The binder was reserved for current fiction projects, the legal pad for work, for obituaries and eulogies for my ever-expanding, ever-popular column. I kept my completed, hand-written work in one of the zippered compartments.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I dug around in one of the compartments for a moment until I found the original copy of his son’s eulogy and handed it to him. He took into his hands gently, almost lovingly, as though he held some relic of his son, if not his son outright. He called the waitress over again.

I took my wallet out. He waived it away. I relented, not wanting to be that guy. Instead I took laptop from my satchel and sat it on the table in front of me as he paid.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap that snapped in place, hole in the center for a straw.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he had a $100 bill between his fingers, folded.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done!”

“Your book on theatre maybe?” he said. Such a warm hearted man, he smiled.

Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“I’m sure you’ll get it right. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’ve finally written that book of yours.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. … I’m sure you know that better than most.”

He had remained friendly and light, speaking with levity, no hint of any great weight on his shoulders, the great weight of death, no hint of that on his face.

“Here,” he said. He offered me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “I didn’t do it for money, despite that being my job; I did that one because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway, so if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand with a sense of embarrassment, almost shame.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new briefcase someday.”

I laughed it off, still uncomfortable with the money.

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it out wide-open to where I’d left off. Ashes everywhere, covering the surface, the leather covered in white scuff marks.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles.”

He took a sip of his iced tea through a straw.

“I will sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good-day!”

He walked away, out the door. It clanged the enter/exit bells, a gentle bing-bong! like metal wind-chimes.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)

 

 

2 Electric Purgatory

 

 

I stayed at the paper until it went out of distribution in 2012, when I was 28, having worked there for 5 years; but it spread to the internet, infernal machines, miasma of labyrinthine metal snakes with open mouths all sucking data or spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros already drunk but still drinking; my obituaries were broadcast worldwide. The newspaper ceased to exist in meatspace, in old media, becoming digital; the circulation possibilities increased beyond what anyone had thought possible in the early days, covering pointless, minor skirmishes between middling sports teams in the little town of Isla Wor. That stopped being important in the digital world, and the obituary column enhanced my reputation even further; I was finally able to do my theatre piece.

This success, the string of warm feedback and heartfelt thank yous, I imagined, might have been due in part to my over-wrought, faux-dramatic, faux-inspirational style of obituary: it was sermonizing, shameless masturbatory kitsch in arts’ clothes, all false, all hollow, paper houses gone digital. I had a high opinion of myself. The machine brought hundreds of names and numbers a day, deaths and dates, Daniel 22, Susan 17; and the more popular I got, the more famous would my fortunate unfortunate subjects become; musicians, then small-time movie stars, spreading through satellites to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer. A title I would not only hate, but resent, as the world knew me only as such, and most certainly of what I’d done to earn such a moniker.

As my popularity grew, young kids would find my house an amusing place for practical jokes. Practical joke is a kind word; they wanted to drive me out of town, to drive me mad; I was a bad omen, they thought, as death followed fast behind me, and in my trail were tears and terrible writing, the saddest parade. The knocking on the doors and running away, that bothered me the worst; it happened late at night when I did most of my work. It’s a tradition, at least where I’m from, to knock on someone’s door or ring their doorbell and run away. The satisfaction being that you inconvenienced someone, and as a child, that feels, man, just wonderful.

But it never stopped.

I tried to back away, to make it a colder process, so it’d be easier to handle. I was drinking, taking sleeping pills, drinking a lot actually. Surely much more than was healthy. I set to studying theatre, its origins and traditions; how they worked, how a character would make changes to the sets. I ran the column still, but I didn’t interact with the bereaved personally anymore; I’d get alerts on my computer, email alerts, with new deaths: the names and numbers selected at random using an algorithm written by an intern to select the most profitable, most tragic deaths, those that best played heartstrings–all for more traffic to the website, the digital mausoleum, electric purgatory: young and under 30, teenage girls in love, with a few kids maybe, single men.

It was easy to do the practical part of the job, as easy as it could be to write it up. I didn’t know anything else: names and ages, over and over and over. At the height of my popularity, I’d write five to ten eulogies a week for my column, and it had become much more than what it started out as, adjunct to a newspaper; it was separate now and distinct, and more successful for it. I eventually made out a form to expedite the process further:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died this Wednesday in a freak car accident when a deer ran out in front of her car on New Egypt Rd. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Harding and had two daughters, Lisa and Tammy. She was 34.

But that’d never fly in my column, no, no, no. It had to be dramatic, life-affirming, death-denying. So I set about writing it properly:  

          The lovely Sarah Harding, former cheerleader and passionate journalist, was taken from our poor town in a tragic car accident early Monday morning. Her parents received the call from a stranger, only to be told their beautiful daughter, 34, was dead, and they would bear the burden of telling Sarah’s two young children of her death. Lisa was 5 years old, a pre-school student at the Master’s Baptist Daycare, she loves coloring and singing. Her older sister Tammy, a 12 year old 6th grader and Carver Middle School, plays t-ball for the Isla Wor Wolverines and is in the chess club. I can say, in confidence, that she will be missed by all.

          The knocking at my door!

I flung my papers aside, knocking over a candle. Thankfully it went out. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting. This is beyond a joke! I yelled. The hallways were dark and derelict. Tables stood with disheveled stacks of unedited pages, existing solely to bear the weight of unfinished work to never be finished.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no middling kids with suspicious paper bags. I stamped off to my study, furious. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting; always late at night, always while I was busy. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working! But, like the old saying of New York City: “Nobody drives; there’s too much traffic.”

Knock-knock!

I went on to knock out mock-obituaries in my spare time, more often than not I’d only have to change the names, the pronouns, the setting, maybe. I just made it up, made them sound good, and the facts weren’t important. So I did: to spend time with my girlfriend, then my wife, I wrote thousands of them: each with a common male name or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. I ran the obituaries anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me and at the time I barely noticed.

Knock-knock!

I tried to ignore it. It kept on and on, pounding harder and harder. I would tip toe then, with a baseball bat, then later with a pistol. I never caught them. It beat in my temples when I woke and why I lay down to try to sleep to take my pills and have a drink; more medicine and more drink, more and more. Money affords you many things, nice suitcases and suits, but peace cannot be bought, nor love, at least not love that stays without being put on retainer.

Knock-knock!

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. Rationalizing those objections was only what the job as obituary writer was allowing me to do: I made enough money to study theatre, researching that book I’d so often talked about. Enough money to live comfortably, without financial worry. The stress of it all got worse and worse as email alerts flooded in with that terrible alert noise, the familiar bing-bong of metal wind-chimes clanging against a diner’s enter/exit door.

I remember the first nightmare. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer; nothing there. I had woke to the thought of getting my mother’s name, and sitting there in the dim light of my laptop, smoking a cigarette, I finally did hear that ever-ominous alert and saw the name come in, the result of an impersonal, neutral computer program, the Judge:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speaks, putting out my cigarette. I never wanted to wake to the sound of that horrible jingle again. But I did, over and over, all in my mind, imaginary like so much else. And in the bouquets left on tombstones all I’d see, no flowers blooming, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuff in their cold mouths like the horrible bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats, chasing invisible mice or attacking each other.

My dreams were disconnected bits of phantasmagoria; lists of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers, rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar and I thought it must be purgatory, and there I’d be forced to truly know all those whom I had so briefly summarized and put aside. All were familiar but ultimately unknown and dead, unknowable. The obituary writer – ha! What a dark star! how very dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I ran to the door to catch that miserable cretin, once and for all. And flinging the door wide I saw nothing, once again, then looked down, as I had never done. And there stood a little boy with a bleeding head, a football jersey. I woke up screaming.

I began to burn all of those old handwritten pages, all those falsities, hoping to appease whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction; you may recoil when you first jump in, but stay in long enough, and the ice cold water warms you up, somehow, and when you get out of the pool the warmth of the night air is cold.

I continued to study theatre, pushing all the death and gloom that was my day job from my mind, and I was making incremental progress. I learned of a character in early theatre that gave me pause; Hypokritos was a falsely righteous character who would wear buffoonish masks and feign divinity, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be sincere, to be profound, only to be a popular source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke of a solemn, thoughtful photo, sharp contrast and pretentious, black and white. Knock-knock-knock! The email alert – the one I finally removed – had always startled me, as it was the same as the bell that smote on the shivering prison air to let the inmates know that one of those unlucky souls had made it out. So I thought, naturally, I would turn the sound back on and capture what I looked like when I got the email alert; that way I’d have a sincere impression, not knowing that, instead of taking off the mask of the falsely divine Hypokritos, I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle, slightly easier to stomach, slightly harder to notice. The professional make-over had ended with a vast, fully searchable digital archive; a macabre, gaudy porno.

Knock-knock!

God dammit! I ran through the halls and out the door into the street and looked around. No one, not a raven, no obvious source; just the wind and dogs barking in the distance. I was exhausted by the time I made it home, and tried to get some sleep.

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire, less smoke. I felt that I would exhaust my fuel and become one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then larger just to get a cigarette lit, eventually striking it over and over in the vain hope that it might light once more, knowing eventually it would dry of fuel completely and never produce a flame again. I felt that I’d run out of fuel, having wasted my life as a profiteer of misery, death on my mind like a heavy crown.

 

 

 

 

3 Speaker for the Dead

 

 

I did few eulogies when work on my book began in earnest. I had given notice to my employer, resigning to finishing only one: the heading that disappeared, the obituary for myself. I kept working, working hard with the motivation, with the hope that, upon completion, I’d have dinner in that small diner with Dr. Redding again. I still wrote obituaries in the meantime, and never was I more distant from it, as they were cold and ever colder still, the popularity began to fade, and never had I been so happy to fail. Demand dropped off for my particular brand of obituary—though there was a remorse to it, to have invested so much time and effort to become such a good obituary writer; I was very, very good at my job.

Knock-knock!

Those early days were the best, when I wrote obituaries for the paper, the small town paper for Isla Wor, there were no email alerts, no nightmares, no knocking, broken ringing doorbells; and all were at least sincere, in the beginning—many being for family; after the eulogy for my Dr. Redding’s son Marcus, looking back, that’s when something broke, something mechanical, some part of the system that processed grief. It broke as I worked through it and continued breaking as I wrote more and it made me cold to all, more often than not I kept to that automated script completely, completely sterile, no passion for anything save for my book on theatre, and passion enough only to get the money needed to continue; it moved closer and closer towards publication.

Knock-knock!

As I wrote, I thought of my dead father, and I thought of him quite often, and the obituary, the eulogy he’d never gotten, not from me, not the celebrated obituary writer. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Redding again at that little diner, I’d take a cab. I’d order him his BLT and cold iced tea, a small salad too, and I’d pay for it all. I’d bring a new valise, toss out that old ash-stained leather volume, unsightly and assaulted by age, scuffed white and daily marked by time, by dust. I wanted to show him that I’d finally gotten it right.

Knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. He was a graphic design major; and his talent, like his degree, didn’t come cheap. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up.

Knock!

My book came out to little fanfare, just shy of my 30th birthday, with a reasonably warm critical reception, yet slightly colder commercial response. But there is no price to pay for a clear conscience, being able to tell the truth, if through fiction, it was a better way. There is a great element of truth in the worst lies and in the best of lies, and a great fiction in the most honest statement by the most trustworthy men.

I still had those dreams of waking to that electric death toll, the flowers of the bereaved sprouting monetary blossoms, that horrible knocking which seemed to drone on forever, but I’d dream that first I woke to find that mock-heading:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

And I set out to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in this dim dream in a dim room trying to write it out. I would receive more pressing emails from the machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, offering me more and more money to finish my obituary, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I woke cold and sweating, breathing heavily. I expected to hear the knocking, but didn’t; nor the doorbell which, though broken, sometimes near midnight tolled.

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail, it had some time since the initial, limited released, I called the doctor’s office to leave a message for dear Dr. Redding to call me when he got the chance. He did, and I had been out at the time; my brother took the message down. We were to meet at that same diner, again on a Sunday—his one day off. I got there early, uncomfortable. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth, a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me back to the booth we’d sat in last time we met. I found a cappuccino waiting for me; he had yet to order. Vanilla as I liked it, and cold.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from the new valise, much nicer indeed despite the signs of cigarette ash and age, dust collecting around the zippers. I handed him one of the galley proofs. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he handled it in that delicate fashion in which he’d once held the handwritten draft of his son’s eulogy—he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, but with delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is a sort of love, not a sort, that is love; to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from growing children, a lonely wife awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help.

I wondered for the first time, making the strange connection: how many names checked in at his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed? He was turning my book around, looking at the cover, holding it up to better see it in the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s very fine indeed. That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you’d figure it out.”

“Open it,” I said.

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, alas, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s might fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he interjected. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, a free copy of my book, but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be best remembered for and not my column and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, to tell me about who he was, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years and the man, your happy memories, the kind of stuff you can’t find online, so often the meat of life is picked away and what we’re usually left with, writing an obituary, is just the bones. And that’s what people seem to like. Short, thumbnail sketches, overly dramatic and declaratory. I wanted to do something real and honest for him. For you, for your family, to the extent, to any extent that I may. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must do so honestly.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother, when they were young. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco 33 fishing rods down there after church on Sunday, they’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks that let you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home them with after that, always protective big brothers. When they turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday and when you buy for one you have to buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved nothing more in the world. Riding around and doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus repaired them for Will and his sisters when they got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got his daughter Leslie one of those new bikes when she turned four, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And that’s when he started talking about wanting to build things, to be a builder, to be an engineer, working on cars, fixing things that broke. He was always fixing things. They rode the horses, he couldn’t fix those! Hell, neither could I! They played video games and monopoly. We were fortunate, but they weren’t much different than lots of good, kind kids. And they were very much loved. And he is very much missed. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. A loving father.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can write a eulogy to suit him and honor your family properly.”

And through that finish my own perhaps, the obituary writer’s eulogy—who better to write it?

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy, and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my other work. And I used it. I used it to advance myself, selfishly. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look, Brandon,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it in my line of work. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and alive for longer. Don’t be down on yourself. What you do is a public good, despite your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy, then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, as all of ours, as normal, kind kids, who are very much loved and would be very much missed.

He ordered the same meal, just the same; BLT, small salad, large glass of iced tea. I finished my cappuccino, took out my laptop, and went about my work, typing away as he ate his sandwich and drank his tea. And I picked up the tab.

After that the conversation mellowed, teetering out but still pleasant; with little left to say, we talked about upcoming projects. He dabbed a napkin at the corners of his mouth, ever-creased from a life of forced and honest smiles. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer once last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary, and live out the true purpose of my title, that we both might rest. He opened the door to leave.

Bing-bong!

The Public Face of Fireflies (A Farce) 18 November 2015

THE PUBLIC FACE OF FIREFLIES:

By BRANDON K. NOBLES

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

1

Mrs. Martha Herington

 

MY FATHER WAS AN ARCHITECT, AND HE THOUGHT LIKE one. He was of the Bernini, Borromini school of thought, working out the higher geometry, making walls bend and breathe and carry you to the more elaborate façade. When he got the contract to build a luxury apartment complex, in downtown San Francisco, I dropped out of college (I was studying the electric impulses between axons and dendrites at Cal Tech) because I knew I’d get a room. I bummed around for a while, taking lots of baths and naps, washing my hands a lot, and playing chess with Fritz, a digital German. He’s German. And it’s nobody’s fault but his own!

It was completed in a remarkably short period of time. You know, a lot of people don’t believe that primitive man could’ve built the pyramids at Giza or Palinkae, so they postulate an extraterrestrial source, alien interference. But after seeing a group of three hundred Mexicans build such an apartment building in a year a half, I think it should be done. And it was magnificent, elegant, subtle, in the most perfect taste: there were four ringed sections, one atop another like white, porcelain tires, and the windows that ran along the circumference in between them were reflective glass, so the contrast was nice; an ivory white next to rings of sunlight reflecting silver.

The center of it the grounds was a courtyard with a pool, which any resident could see from their banister Stonehenge would be child’s play for Julio and Jake. That’s right. One of the engineers was a Mexican man named Jake. I thought that was an anachronism. Then I found that he had a son named Steve. America has ruined a once proud people. Think about it. Have you ever met a Mexican named Jake? Or Steve? Must be aliens. Mexican aliens. Named Jake. And Steve. To their credit, their last name was Giminez, That’s how I like my Mexican names! Without an ‘ez’ it just doesn’t feel right. I call him Julio. First they came for our jobs and now they’re Jake and Steve? This country really has changed. I guess it’s all about adaptation, acclimation. I guess being called Enrique (Julio, Juan, and Enrique are the only three Mexican names in my lexicon,,, Lupe? I don’t know if that’s a Mexican name but I do know there is a pornstar, Little Lupe, and she looks Mexican) instead of Steve could do more to ostracize the child. I imagine the same thing happened when the Spanish decided it was a game of Finders-Keepers (Genocide Edition) when they went to the Americas. They were usually converted to Christianity. And if they refused, they were converted to ash. Herman Cortez gets a lot of credit; but, Francisco Pizzaro was a much, much bigger asshole. He led a holy Crusade in the name of Gold. Can you blame him? It’s pretty! And consider all the things you can do with it. You can hang it on your neck so people can look at it. You can give it to women so they’ll fuck you

The first sign of life outside my new apartment was that of an elderly Victorian lady, well dressed, wearing a most handsome shawl. She was on the other side of the corridor in a heated argument with a member of the staff, my lone friend Charles bearing the brunt of her misplaced rage. My door slammed behind me as I walked onto the balcony. The idea was to wake my friends. Instead the noise brought her wild eyes to bear on me. I saw the veins electric red and much the worse for drink. It was 9am, on a Thursday. Not a holiday. She was wasted. There are no adjectives, no adverbs either, no words by description would serve to convey how wasted that old lady was. She was flammable. She slurred her pauses.

The young attendant, Charles, with masterful poise and delicacy, held his own. When she looked at him, I wondered, to what percentage of probability, had she forgotten what the argument was about, where the young man in the blue suit came from, if he was real, or if he feared death. I imagined his equation was more banal: Thursday, some drunk yells at me. Monday, I get a new TV.

He shrugged off her remonstrance.

“Yes ma’am,” he said. “I understand. Yes ma’am. Trust me, Mrs. Herington, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it does not!” she said.

The reason for the argument, back track thirty minutes: she couldn’t get her television remote to work. She stood there for thirty minutes pointing the damn thing at the TV before throwing it against the wall. Her face was flushed. Exhausted, she sat beside the liquor cabinet to think it over. After a few shots of Crown Royal she called the front desk. This, from what I’ve heard, happened all the time. A bit of discretion was assumed when dealing with Mrs. Herington; she was a wealthy benefactor who owned a lot stock and was, as I’ve said, quite drunk.

Charles, a most charming and discrete young man, was sent to her room to see he could help her rectify the situation. He found her on the floor. And from what I’ve heard, that was not uncommon either. The remote was on the floor across the room. Being the consummate professional he is, Charles identified the problem, changed the batteries, and turned the television on. Successful, he tried to rouse “Mrs. Herington?” he said. “Ma’am?”

“Charles?” an employee called from the hall.

“I’m coming!”

This was the first thing she heard when she came to. She opened her eyes to find a man knelt above her, a man she didn’t recognize—an unknown face. She squinted, trying to bring the blurry face into focus. With no recollection of her call to the front desk, no memory of the reassurance that someone would be around to assist her, she promptly lost her god damn mind..

“It was out of batteries,” he said. “Want to see if it works?”

Big smile.

Her mind recoiled in horror, seeing the blurry object in his hand; it was most suggestive. She crawled away in a fever, full of panic, her buxom chest rising and falling as she yelled. She pulled herself upright with the aid of a leather ottoman. Charles tried to talk. Everything he said was curtly interrupted by more unintelligible screaming. Her yelling and cursing brought Stanley, another employee, into the room. The brief circus brought the upstairs tenants, except Julianne, to their balconies to watch the show.

She didn’t understand the situation at the time, nor did she at any moment throughout the totality of their argument. They finally got things squared away when the situation was addressed in context. The squabble was put to rest. Mrs. Herington regained her composure. She wasn’t to any degree lucid, but she wore the indignant face of understanding. “Would you care to dine?”

“Yes, young mister,” she said. She gave her order and he scribbled it on his pad and bowed, taking leave to bring her lunch.

Her delicate fingers went to her throat, perhaps now hoarse, her mind fatigued, and for a moment, I saw through the public face: I looked at her eyebrows and drooping eyelids, a slightly unfocused melancholy, the face of poignant vulnerability—everything softening the face of a tough old bird, wistful in a certainty, her leathery hands trembling, the fingertips of her white letter gloves looked frayed, her frock old and heroically worn.

She checked the time on a golden pocket watch and took two pills from a small medical box that hung from her neck. It contained the day’s regimen of medication; she dumped two pills into her hand and hailed the midday trolley, which carried certain amenities, and made its rounds before and after lunch. Mrs. Herington hailed the trolley and stuffed a twenty in the young girl’s pocket and poured her drink herself, she ate the olive and with a quick gesture she emptied the entire compliment of medication, two familiar yellow, and vodka in a single shot.

She walked to the nearest window and looked across the road to the children at play in the park. Her pose relapsed, the rigidity of contortion softened, and there was calm. However brief, however fleeting, for a moment… there was calm.

The forever loyal Charles returned with her dinner almost an hour later—her food was never pre-prepared, always served fresh, not reheated.

“Mrs. Herington,” he said.

“Yes?”

She turned around to face him.

“Your dinner,” Charles said. “Is there anything else I can do?”

Big smile.

That same smile—it triggered imagined impressions mistaken for memory as the misfiring neurotransmitters in mind lit up like a pinball machine, the bridge between memory and imagination was obscured; then she remembered the face, the face that leered over her, the same man who tried to take advantage of her—in her room—with that same big smile. Her body shook in terrified spasms, like a wolverine on angel dust was locked in the room with her, and it was that same horror as before yet this time her voice failed her.

She opened the lid—thinking it to be drugged or even lethal—and, upon seeing the steak, the rolls and cutlery, she flipped the tray into the floor and jumped up and down on the food like an incontinent and stubborn child—having not received their desired toy for Christmas or a birthday not nice enough.

Mrs. Herington dug the steak into the floor under her white, ivory colored heels, polished with a bow atop her socks a silk cream colored, lighter shade of white, perfect contrast in the Old country manner.

Those same electric diodes red lit by the fires of confusion returned. Charles backed away and held the black tray as a shield along his forearm. She yelled something in broken English, something that might prick the ear of the most profane of Irish sailors and disappeared into her room. She came out a moment later holding her bonnet to her head with a steady hand. Her pace quickened as she rounded the oval corner and passed me on her way to the EXIT. She opened the door and there were hurried steps on the iron stairs.

Not again, Charles thought.

I yelled across the chasm (the second rung orbited the main stairwell; each apartment opened into the oval corridor): “Think of the TV, Charlie! “I said. “Think of the TV!”

Charles and another employee split up in pursuit, one down the stairs behind her, the other on an intercept course out front. An hour later they found her over tea and reading Sense and Sensibility at a coffee house just down the street. She introduced herself to Charles and his confederate, Stanley, and was courteous, receptive to curtsy; an amicable and charming English lady of character and breeding, on the face of her. She finished the first chapter of her book slid a napkin into the book as an improvised mark and was escorted back to the hotel. Charles went so far as to open her very door. Charles was a consummate professional.

“Nice to meet you, young Sir,” she said. “Good evening!”

 

 

 

 

 

2

Mr. Charles Edward Heron, Jr.

 

Charlie and I had been friends since we met at Oxford; I completed my final honor’s questions, and, when asked what my plans were, I responded that if I only got a second class degree, I would stay at Oxford; if I got a first, I would go to Cambridge. I got a first.

Charlie found himself on the same uneven ground as I, as we both had some clichéd hard-luck cases and each day we drank away, too many dead-end roads to go anywhere in life, just pointless nights, each day the same with nothing to show for it at the end of the night.

Charlie dropped out before taking a degree—his mother being sick. He moved back home to help take care of her.

He cooked and cleaned and helped his mother bathe, helped her use the toilet, and wrapped her stick-figure arms and legs in an old towel and helped her into the living room to watch cartoons with Annie. He took care of his sister, too, hoping that her laughter never died. He conjured up a flight of fancy: a future, finding himself lost in cusp of death the memories of a short life dying and he heard that laugh that Annie left with him so long ago—and in that moment, he heard that laughter that he kept and in hearing it found joy, even in so dark a place, some prison in his mind where he passed away in peace. The dream was gone as fast as it appeared but left him with a smile.

He still remembered that night, the blue flowers wet from the rain and standing there he was a child at heart afraid to lose his mother. The silence was broken only by the murmur of a heart rate monitor a child at heart afraid to lose his mother. The heart monitor broke the silence of the silent hall. The desperation of one moment took his breath away when the irregular beating flat the green seismic shocks an arrow.

In the chaos of the moment doctors in their white coats rushed in with a crash cart and defibrillators. The show, the scene slowed down as attendees ran into the room to save a woman who died a long time ago, when her hair was brown and her cheeks puffy and tinted pink with rogue, smiling with her children in front of a snowman in the sun of a winter day at their house in the country. Charlie remained unflinching still in the hallway with those same wet flowers distant, numb, unable to hear what the doctor was telling him. That machine with the bright green numbers and its collapsing sequence recorded her passage through.

The same disease would five months later take his sister too, his sister Anna—Anna—she was five years old and always wore this one dress that her grandma made and it was blue with lace trimmings and that’s how he saw her in the sunlight on the hill chasing butterflies and laughing, not hooked to machines that showed how short her once happy life would be. He had a voice message on his phone from her and saved it for so long; he hears Annie laughing in the background and she says I want to tell him and she says Charlie I got a new puppy his name is Leo won’t you come by later and see me? I love you!

He drifted in and out of Vodka bottles, anything was not too much a price to pay for the loss of such a girl, no end to rectify it, no hand of God, just the cold and callused hand of an uncaring world that selected against the weak.

I kept a conscious hand on Charlie’s pulse, and, after running into him at a coffee shop downtown, had a chance to talk to him for the first time in years. He looked just like the clean-cut Marine poster type with a square jaw and short cropped hair, while I redefined grunge on a daily basis. He wasn’t up to anything, he said, and looking for a job. I was able to get him down to the hotel and apartment complex. I called Diane—a manager who showed yours truly more tenderness than I can fit into a PG13 story. I told her about him, the whole sad story, and, to my disbelief—she cared. She told me that I ‘better not bring in a junkie’ and since Charles was a hard working professional type—you can tell when a kid had a good father—she hired him right away.

 

 

 

 

3

A Night’s Carouse

 

Charles found me after work, in my little corner of the world, having not moved since he left. It was common for him to stop by and have a few drinks and a laugh. I was on the balcony, smoking a cigarette, reading my favorite piece of old French literature, Phèdre. I thought of Oenone, a character from that queer old tale, every time I looked at the pool below.

Charlie sat across from me and took his jacket off, unbuttoning the cumbersome red employee outfit until he was down to a soaked white t-shirt, sweat beading off his hair and forehead. I got a washcloth from the cooler and tossed it to him. A little water on the face, his cheeks, a cold towel on the back of the neck, he freshened up. He tossed the towel to the side and lit a cigarette.

He recalled the day, from the batteries to the coffee shop, and, having bore the brunt of great personal tragedy as he had, was undeterred by Mrs. Herington’s reproach. He had yet to learn to time Mrs. Herington’s lucidity cycle.

“I’ve bourbon and Coke on ice,” I said. “You don’t have work tomorrow, do you?”

“I don’t know how to thank you for this job,” he said.

“What do you think is wrong with her?” he asked. Do you know what she accused me of?”

“Sexual assault?”

“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head. “With a TV remote.

“Her behavior towards you,” I said, “is unique. She has never given so rough a time to Stanley and hasn’t, to my knowledge, ever been so pressing and so cavalierly with any of the staff.”

So what’s her deal, schizophrenia?”

“There is variation in her mood,” I said, leaning forward, placing my index fingers together. “Variation of mood doesn’t always suggest schizophrenia. If everyone who had different emotions at different times in response to different situations was schizophrenic, there’d be a lot more schizophrenics running around. I’ve seen nothing to suggest this babushka is schizophrenic or even crazy. Not enough data. What are the facts?”

“The first time I got there, she thought I was trying to sexually assault her. Then she placed an order, and, when I delivered it, she threw it into the floor. Then later, the same day, she introduced herself. She ran out of the building, over food. That’s not schizophrenia?”

“After she sent you downstairs,” I replied, “her mood reverted to what I believe was a natural baseline, a stable mood which she is in her element, alone. It is possible; however, that she was perfectly justified in her reactions, considering what she knew or thought she knew what she was responding to. ”

“How is that?”

“Look at the situation from her point of view,” I said. “Let’s take her memory, instead of her mood, in consideration. Take away the memory of her call to the front desk. The next thing she sees is a strange man hovering over her, having invaded her privacy, and asking what she believed to be… sexually suggestive questions. It is not a schizophrenic response. It is a normal response for a woman in that situation in that context. The second time, when she sent you downstairs with a dinner order, she became, as you saw, amicable and hospitable.

“Her mood returned to baseline and I see a normal and austere elderly lady, watching kids play across the street. Then she started shaking. It’s not uncommon for women her age to shake. She has, now this is interesting, a little box that hangs from her necklace. She got two pills out of and chased them with a double vodka—I think I might be in love with this lady—and she seemed pleasant enough. She smiled but there was pain in her eyes. Some memory brought tears to her eyes—it could either be the loss of a child or the loss of a husband, some loved one; or maybe she found the laughing of happy children beautiful, which has happened. She remained lucid and capable and in a natural, baseline mood.

“There is no suggestion of dual personalities. She isn’t demonstrating anything contrary to her baseline mood. You evoked another argument when you brought her meal which, to her knowledge, she hadn’t asked for. Again, it’s normal response to what she sees as another intrusion into her privacy. By her rationale, you were a stranger with a lunch tray full of food she didn’t order. That confused her and she, being a well bred lady of sagacity and cultivation, isn’t angry at you on a conscious level; she is angry at her own confusion. And her frustration found a perfect object of her confusion: you.

“If I’m not too far in my inference so far, I do know one thing. If it’s recent, it could explain the anger and memory loss. Those pills she took; they were round and yellow. I recognize those pills since my youngest brother, Christopher, takes the same medication for anxiety and hypertension. A drug in the benzodiazepine class: Clonazepam—1mg with a meal, and now we’ve got the suspect for her memory blackouts and violent moods. I was taken off Clonazepam when I was first prescribed. Erratic behavior, heart palpitations, anxiety attacks. Ah, to be young again.

“The medication eased my anxiety, but it turned me into an intolerable asshole. How many people in this place will sit down with this woman as a doctor and tell her she should change her medication or stop drinking with it? She’s in her 60’s, man. She should be on better drugs that. I’d put her on Valium for her stress and Soma as a muscle relaxant. And, since she’s old and has suffered enough, I’d put her on morphine and let her float out on a little cloud.

“You know these people, man. High society types. They rub elbows with other rich people because we, us below their social tier, not worthy of having their Armani shoulders rubbed against our no-name t-shirts. They’re used to knowing everything. They’re used to being obliged. They’re used to living in a world of what they understand. When they encounter something they don’t understand, they respond like Christians did to evolution. But that’s just a theory.”

I felt the cold skin creeping up my back.

“Look here Charlie,” I said. “It’s too late to be this sober. You’re off the clock, I know, but this is an emergency. I’m not breaking the emergency glass, but I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you can bring me a gallon of bourbon, two liters of Coke, and a bucket of ice.

My roommates are out, so we can watch Star Trek and take a shot each time someone says or is shot by a phaser.”

“Why don’t you call downstairs and order it?” he asked.

Clever kid.

“Because I don’t want to be sexually assaulted by the staff.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Those turkey neck old ladies, I don’t know what it is…”

“Because they gobble,” I said. “Their neck looks like a scrotum,” I added. “You may have latent homosexuality, Charles. Perhaps you desire your father and wish to kill Mrs. Herington because she’s the only living lady most prominent in your life and thus an unconscious substitution for a mother you’ve never known. I’d see a psychiatrist, you know, get all that worked out.”

He sighed with a slight indignant smile, “They’d probably refer me to somebody just like you,” he said. “I’ll be back with your order, sir.”

“Give me thirty minutes,” I said. Charlie stood at the door, looking back.

Just in case I have to hide my porn” As soon as the door closed behind him I flicked my cigarette into the parking lot below and walked around the oval corridor and knocked on Mrs. Herington’s door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs. Herington opened the door. Her dress and hair had been primed as quickly as possible. I asked if she had seen my cat, Nobody. She said no in a congenial way. I asked her if it would be alright if I were to have a look around to, and she obliged, amicable again. She took leave of me with a courteous bow and retired to the powder room, as she called it. I’ll be back in a moment, young man.”

Mrs. Herington was a pristine Victorian lady, out of her element, an ocean between her and where she was raised in Devonshire. She met her American husband in London after World War II. She was a widower, however, since her husband, Walter, was killed on the 37th parallel in Korea. And that same dress she wore, once of the finest fragment, worn away and frayed each day and she wore it, as some sort of gift from her to her the dress let as passed the years advanced and she got older, heavier, no energy to exercises, no need to keep her figure trim.

While she changed I got a brief and cursory glance at her apartment. Her bonnet hung from the coat-rack behind the door as did her shawl. The variety of liquor and liqueur she had was the fulfillment of every college student’s dream when their bottle dried. It is what my locker would look like if I made it to Heaven.

There were several empty glasses between the ottoman and television, all of the same design and make, the same slogan made into each glass: Florida, this side of Paradise. A tacky emblem of a dolphin silhouetted by a red sunset was underneath the text. Her dress was put into the washing machine. She returned dressed simply: an oversized ARMY t-shirt and gray jogging pants.

Mrs. Herington paused at the step before liquor cabinet for nearly twenty minutes before she got a bottle of Brandy—robust and comforting, warm: a perfect combination to ease one into a calm sleep. Her necklace off she held the same two yellow pills in her hand. With a snifter of Brandy she took them both and sat on a giant pillow in the corner, almost the size of a queen sized bed.

I was still on the couch and she hadn’t noticed me. Her eyelids were blackened like the addict or insomniac. Eyes like mine. Addict, check, insomniac, check. The two groups often overlap like this.

That was her fallacy, too old to live the happy life once it was gone, and she held onto that thread until it stretched and broke, and chasing yesterday, the memory when the stars aligned and everything for that one moment perfect for her, and made her life, before and after, worth it for that one moment when the storm of dust coalesced around the memory and where it lay there was a pearl.  What pursuit and in what world could she find another pearl so flawless. Maybe that was her desperation, her helplessness, the road that led her to the alcoholic wasteland.

The pursuit, after that for nothing, when the Holy Grail is found then lost, it cannot be replaced or synthesized. And nothing fills that hole, not drugs, not loves to come nor loves now gone—nothing fills the hole.

Martha had a meal laid out in anticipation; she was to see, for the first time in a year, her husband Walter was to return. When he was late she packed up and down the hall and smoked too many cigarettes, imbibing generous glasses of wine until she saw the clock, past two in the morning. She ran down the steps into the reception hall and lobby and called out for Steve. He put a heavy box of medication down, and looking over the counter and saw Martha coming toward him, hysterical and crying, almost shrieking, “I can’t find Walter, Steve. I need the key to the roof.”

Steve tried to calm her down and had the unfortunate role of being the bearer of bad news, having to tell this woman, every night he worked, that her husband had been dead for fifteen years. Steve tried to calm her down, and each night he had the unfortunate role of being the bearer of bad news, day after day. She took Steve by the arm has he led her up the stairs.

He got her blanket and pillow and an old army jacket, Walter’s in Korea. She sat down in the dining room and was and was quick to fall asleep in that old coat. When she woke, she found herself at the dinner table, with melted candles,

She roused herself with a pot of coffee and once again prepared a lavish meal, with generous amounts of wine, he might be a little late. After her first two glasses, she had to go to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet seat, Patsy Cline in her head. She rose and cleaned herself, fixed her hair in the mirror, and in a flash she saw a young man in a casket, and the rain coming down, then she looked up, and saw her old face in the mirror, and she remembered

Back in the kitchen she poured another glass and pulled out Walter’s chair. She raised her glass to toast the empty chair where sat Walter’s ghost. And the candle burned away and down the flame dwindled until it whispered its departure and released a trail of smoke.  And kitchen she poured another glass, a toast she thought, for Walter’s ghost and trails off into sleep, only for her memories to die, to wake on a vacant beach with no shells upon the shore of memory to find.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was another man who lived alone. He was a bit older than me, but not by much, the busboys called the dude Gonzalez. He was a well fed Puerto Rican guy, early thirties. I think I heard somebody call him Sammy. The guy had a pencil thin mustache and goatee. It cropped his pugnacious face. In passing, I got the impression of a self-important body-builder type—not malevolent, but callus; his skin was almost orange—obsessed with how he looked, you know the type: always in the gym, never in the library. Loud cars, loud bars and dumb women, obnoxious R&B.

You know the type. Out all night, drinking Patron, and not Jose Quervo—it’s just like the New Russian motto: if it costs more, it’s better. They’re both made in the same bathroom south of Mexico. Such a liquid love affair, and I’ve been there. Streetwalkers don’t shake, they crack. They don’t shiver, they shatter.

So I understood this type of man, Sammy. He came in late every night while I was still in the common room and reading. Two hours after the last club closed and he was still sweating, exhausted every night, sweat rolling off him in malodorous torrents, a waterfall inside a soaked yellow shirt, clinging to his chest. The oiliness of his vitreous membrane betrayed his fatigue, as did his sleep schedule. He didn’t ring for coffee or the paper until rather late in the afternoon.

People stopped by, went in and out, a hip and complicated handshake, some new age tribal ritual I would never understand. They waited in the corridor, the loungers and loafers loitered. Yeah, they all want a taste.  I could see them later, laughing like morons, the phonies dance in digital ballrooms with virtual walls and fake dreams fake faces motionless on a placard they held up I’m so lonesome I could cry… That band was an old program. The Avatar of Vishnu to the right, the mirror was a crying child with a theatre mask. Eurydice’s chased Persephone through the Western Lands and Disco Balls a sigh her breath the wind and disappeared into the wall.

Sammy did two stints in the county jail: once for a clumsy burglary that came unhinged when a confederate used his real name within earshot of the home’s matriarch. Sentence was a year, breaking and entering in furtherance of theft. Nine months later and he was out on good behavior. Less than a month later he got into a scuffle at a bar and pulled a gun. The bartender ducked behind the cabinet and rang the police and, occupied with the bartender, Sammy was taken unawares from behind. They confiscated his unregistered .357. When the police got there his face was a blood bruise with two bloodshot eyes. Three year sentence, out in two and a half a free man again, released on his own reconnaissance, hopped a bus downtown, had a few shots of tequila, and called his girlfriend from the bar.

He planned to spend the night with her, tosleep on the couch with his sons. They called him Papa Bear since he was such a massive guy. 6’4” and three hundred pounds. They were up until three in the morning, dancing about and splashing in their plastic pool in front of the television. He saw them, more than once, lick the screen and put their eyes directly on the screen. It unsettled him, and nauseous, he slipped out of the back door with a few beers and a pack of menthols. Lucy, the mother of his kids, lived at the bottom of one of the dead roads. At the top of the hill he saw a four way cross between the dead end roads, where other travelers of the night appeared and disappeared into and out of the fog, some coughing and wiping their nose on their shirt, scratching at their chest until the scratches came off and began to bleed through their dirty shirts, smeared in oil and dirt. He got their life story for a nickel. Could’ve gotten their teeth for a dollar. And it was one of the genuine horrors in his life, one being to see somebody abuse a dog or cat or any sort of animal, and the other being the homeless. It was one aspect of the world that a needle couldn’t drown, the hopeless and the desperate. And the man came up to him and shaking, shivering even, and said:

“I know you think I want a beer or something man but I ain’t like that I’m an honest cat I just need to… I need to get home man. I got to, I got to get home man, get this bus ticket. It’s my moms man my moms she sick man. I been tryin to get a job but they wont nobody give me a job so I’m stuck out here, just tryin’ to make it home man.”

The smell of the man, his desperation, made Sammy puke all over him. It was all liquid—nothing but beer—and it hit the old bum in the face and stained his shirt and he saw him standing there with gray lips confused and he puked again until the bum disappeared into the fog again, on his way to the next sponsor for his drug addiction.

When you stand in the cross-section of the dead roads in the night and foggy as it was that night you felt something unreal, almost like a personality, or the ghosts of all of those who threw themselves over the bridge, he’d hear them there asking him for money and he turned left toward the Baker apartments running, still clinging onto his six pack of Natural Light. With the wind against his back he knew what it felt like to be a piece of trash trapped in the mouth of a tired breeze.

The Baker apartments were the slums that people in ghettos feared they’d end up if they stopped showing up for work. Those one room millhouse squares strewn scattershot across the moor were barely held together shacks, barely keeping out the rain and weather, all of them with buckets throughout the house from where the ceiling leaked. The mire itself was a desolate vision. It seemed to pull each house down an inch each year, another fifty years and it would swallow the porch, pulling the house and tenant down into its mouth—the mire.

The darkness on the other side of dawn descended as the sun came up. Sammy stopped under a streetlight for a cigarette, and waited for the sun to rise. He didn’t want to wake his brother. It was around 9am when he got to his father’s apartment. He stubbed his cigarette out with the heel of his shoe and knocked on the grated, rusted screen door. The television was on and his little brother brought a handful of letters to his older brother and handed him the sentence. “I missed u,” and then another: “Where have u been?” He knelt beside his brother, who jumped into the beanbag in front of the television. He ran his fingers through his hair.  The child turned his head and Sammy proceeded, tickling at his stomach, “You better give me a kiss.” His brother relented. With his brother laughing it was almost easy for Sammy to forget the mausoleum for his mother and sister, both taken by breast cancer. Sammy couldn’t even look at their bedroom doors and he walked toward the kitchen. His little brother with a big smile on his face, skipped along behind him holding his hand. He led him by his hand to cabinet, arranged his letters to say “open.” Sammy opened the cabinet and found a stash of chocolate chip cookies. He grabbed a few for his younger brother and put them on a plate. “Sit down with me for a moment, Alex” Sammy said, “where’s grandpa?” Alex arranged the letters “Back porch, he is sad and don’t talk much anymore.” “Alright Alex,” Sammy said, “I’ve got a mission for you. I want you to draw the last thing you saw in a dream and I’ll check it out when I’m to grandpa.” Alex ran off to get his crayons and colored pencils. The screen door creaked as Sammy opened it, going out onto the back porch. His father Jessie, with his old cowboy had on, sat staring a patch of dead trees left in the wake of some new construction project, making way for some of mini-mall or convenient store. “They’re going to cut down all of the trees, the symbol of our natural heritage. Nothing is sacred anymore.” “Dad,” Sammy said as he walked to stand by the balcony, he could the sheen of white reflected off of his father’s hidden pint of whiskey beneath his rocking chair. “You’re not going to get any better if you keep drinking like this, and how is it going to be if Alex loses you. You need to take your medicine and rest.” His father replied, “I’d rather die doing what I love than live knowing what I can’t have.” “Sooner or later,” Sammy said, “you’ll realize this world is full of people who aren’t you. Who don’t need you or know you, except that little boy, that you can’t stop drinking or feeling sorry for yourself to take care of Alex? Do you want him to be put into a home, like you were? Taken away from his parents? I’m sure you know what that will do to a child. You’re 72 and it still bothers you. Alex doesn’t need to see his father die, he needs to see his father try to live.” “And what’s the lesson, Sammy, are you done preaching?” “The lesson is simple, you drink yourself to death, and you become, to your own son, what your father was to you.”

 

 

I was a mute ghost then, lost in the neon lights, the beams like search lights scattered through the gunshot holes, the ghost whose father crawled off like a roach under fluorescent lights.

The erstwhile Miss Josephine, as far as I’ve ascertained, having been in her room several times in her rooms under a false pretext—I’m down with the busboys—and I ran over her bookshelf, found a typewriter: vintage 1962. Jazz, Louisiana blues, a room of sharp black and white décor. Her bookshelf was attractive. Dickens, Hemingway, Pushkin (The Complete Prose Takes of Aleksandr Sergeyovich Pushkin), Turgenev (the big headed one) and the masters—Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. And they were dog-eared and yellowed; she read these books, not like the preening intellectual who has these books as affectation, crisp cover and bright white untouched pages.

The girl was into Russian’s. That made my job, as some singing bird of paradise, a bit easier. I dated a Russian once, and my ancestry on my father’s side traces back to what is now the Ukraine. I could speak the language, knw the culture, and that, it would seem, would interest someone with that kind of bookshelf—it impressed me. Get her to come over, have some wine, a lot of wine, and she liked jazz, there was a piano somewhere. So that was the plan: Get her one on one, introduce myself, try to impress her. Let her impress herself.

 

Sketches are what most people write for themselves upon meeting someone else, and usually is more a reflection of themselves than those who they describe in passing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been told, by former teachers, counselors, and sometimes when I talk to myself, I say it’ll be fine, don’t worry serotonin’s running low no self esteem no dope no hope. If I am pretentious enough to take upon myself the truculent classification of extraordinary, it is as true as far as I am able to identify.

The fact that so many people knew me, from my studies, terrified me. It would overshadow everything I’d done or would do in my life. That’s my Waterloo. My family friendly unit shifter. The kid with who taught the monkeys how to talk.* The fear was more of the wanting to discuss my work than it was that some whacko would shoot me for being an affront to God. That wouldn’t be so bad; my novel sales would double.

Roommate was a bit of a misnomer, as I referred to them as colleagues at fancy dinner parties. Akin to a young child, whose mother and father want nothing more for their young child to speak and talk and then, those same loving parents, two months after their child has started talking want to blow their brains out the next time someone mentions the Wiggles.

This was the fallacy of living with other people. Sooner or later, you’ll have to talk to them. And when they talk, you assume, of course, it’s going to be a bit of repartee, nothing too heavy, not in the morning when the coffee’s hot. They talked about ‘human understanding’ in the same sense I would describe as, with evolution as my topic, ‘Preacher understanding.’

If only they could see the rain as though a firefly.

The types of conversations we had are the sort of conversations one normally has with a Jehovah’s Witness. The exception was their alien knowledge of things not yet assumed or even guessed at by human beings. The concepts were beyond a Homo’s understanding. The time of our species is recent on Earth’s calendar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will henceforth call them monkeys as to associate them with something the layman can understand and see in their minds, the same thing they can’t see when you bring up genus or hominids.

 

 

 

We spent three years together in that small flat, three people (sort of) sitting around letting my laurels pay for cable and the internet. My good friend Rerun loved looking at kittens online. Pie didn’t like anything, that I know of, anyway, and she spent time in the attic, my apartment being on the top floor with a low-ceiling attic between the top. I heard her, up there drilling; I heard hammering and what sounded like a saw. And Rerun doesn’t take much concern when Pie comes down, done with whatever she was working on, and called for Rerun. Rerun told me I should go up to the addict and bid her farewell.

“Her body is about to die,” he expressed. “She’s going to Tania.”

“Wait, what? Don’t tell me monkeys…”

“How many times have I told you we’re not monkeys?

 

 

 

 

“It’s cool, I mean, it’s cool to meet you, man.

You have just met the representation of a human being in another sphere, a sphere where all you his is Chopin’s nocturnes and Brahms cosmic harmony, each note syncing with the movement of the other’s lips, speaking away a polonaise. A nod and a smile, yes, thank you. Nice to meet you too.

When you’re a poor student and it’s raining, they stay their ground. If you were famous and it began to rain, someone would hurry to help you make it through. Look at him, young punk, schlepping his junk and books around that’s all he’s got. The littered street, Mokra no thumbprint on a skyscraper. He needs to wash his hair.

You become a personage, and they get a good view of your public face, the veneer, the surface of someone who mattered. An impoverished and friendless non-entity one moment, then you get a suffix and you’re the news. Then you are the story, a story written by the public, something they write for themselves. Same young man, twenty six, in grad school and poor. Hiding in corners at libraries, big bright lamp leaning over his desk. This is not important. Same kid, thirteen, up all night shaking, those Nembutals, the red red veins glow neon round the sclera. Screaming in the mirror in the morning trying to stop the rattling, just take your medicine and relax, Roger. A mask beside the writing desk is blue and circular. It turns life into a senseless, but worthwhile, relaxation. You can see heaven in your left shoe, God and all his angels on the ceiling if you take enough. No, Roger. You can’t keep them because you take too many. You find another face, adapt, and acclimatize. Straighten up your shirt and comb your hair. Disappear into the crowds of hustling businessmen, people to whom time is a real factor. When your pension is secure, you have no reason to leave-you can have anything-anything-delivered to your home, what then does time do but lie still? A second could be a hundred years. Then there’s everybody in a smart shirt with a meeting at 5 and women carrying briefcases. You are see-through. A numbed and disillusioned child who never knew what growing up entailed, watching everybody in their smart suits and briefcases hurry by. All with important things to do, meetings to attend, hiring, firing, Lobster and caviar.

This presentation holds up when you meet the friends of your friends, the friends of people who talked to you once in college because he didn’t know the difference between a taxidermist and taxonomy. This is my friend, blank blank. Youngest person to win a Nobel prize. What is that like? I mean, like, that kind of situation… I can’t imagine. Where you nervous? I would flip if I had to talk to all those old dudes. She laughs out loud. I’d love to pick apart your brain.

Yes, the cultivated young PhD, not so good looking, but it’s what’s inside (the wallet) counts. I wonder what his life is like, I mean, like…

Three in the afternoon. I wake on the floor with a pen in one hand and an empty bottle of vodka in the other.wakes up with one purpose: to be the presentation of himself. Then the exaggerations get out of hand. People attest to knowing ‘how bright’ you were. Always knew that boy do good. I knew his father (but he didn’t) and he used to live over there behind the mill his dialogue never ends. An endless stack of incoherent words spoken aloud to nobody in the country in a rocking chair. You write stories for the people that you know, as well.         When speaking or making aIt was worse down at the bar, more so than anywhere else, because that’s where people do their advertisements. They give you a brief commercial and you decided if you wanted to test drive the car. People elbowed in to sit by me at bars. “Oh, I’d love to pick apart your mind.” The girl behind the counter, the literary cliché, we’ve all heard it before: the young girl, such ocean colored eyes, perfect hair and blushed with rouge. Her name was Amber. I knew that because the villa was shared by trust-fund brats and other novel characters. The bookish one, looking down at you, eyeglasses on his nose with a copy of Middlemarch. The socialite, always almost drunk and old, wandering around the lobby with a martini and a purse sized yapping dog behind her. Then there was me.

The fact that so many people knew me, from my studies, terrified me. It would overshadow everything I’d done or would do in my life. That’s my Waterloo. My family friendly unit shifter. The kid with who taught the monkeys how to talk.* The fear was more of the wanting to discuss my work than it was that some whacko would shoot me for being an affront to God. That wouldn’t be so bad; my novel sales would double.

Roommate was a bit of a misnomer, as I referred to them as colleagues at fancy dinner parties. Akin to a young child, whose mother and father want nothing more for their young child to speak and talk and then, those same loving parents, two months after their child has started talking want to blow their brains out the next time someone mentions the Wiggles.

This was the fallacy of living with other people. Sooner or later, you’ll have to talk to them. And when they talk, you assume, of course, it’s going to be a bit of repartee, nothing too heavy, not in the morning when the coffee’s hot. They talked about ‘human understanding’ in the same sense I would describe as, with evolution as my topic, ‘Preacher understanding.’

If only they could see the rain as though a firefly.

The types of conversations we had are the sort of conversations one normally has with a Jehovah’s Witness. The exception was their alien knowledge of things not yet assumed or even guessed at by human beings. The concepts were beyond a Homo’s understanding. The time of our species is recent on Earth’s calendar.

 

 

3

NIKOLAI’S CHICKEN

 

Koshka was half asleep when she heard Sebastian’s rapping on her door. She was tired, hung-over, groggy and out of sorts. She got out of bed anyway; Sebastian was emotionally frail and sensitive, and she was as good a friend

She looked at the blinking neon clock with a sigh, went to her dresser, and slipped out of her oversized t-shirt and put on an evening gown. , and tied her robe. She lit a cigarette, tied her robe. Dressed she fumbled in her pocket.

Koshka fumbled in her purse until she found a dime bindle full of cocaine. She poured it on a makeup mirror into three parallel lines. Koshka did one after another until the bag was empty.

Koshka stretched and walked toward the front door, looked out the keyhole, and saw Sebastian standing there with bloodshot eyes. She pushed her hair behind her ears, put on a jovial mask, and unlocked the door.

The dust from Koshka’s walkway lifted with the wind, and Koshka with her bony arms gestured Sebastian in. He sat down on the couch and Koshka sat beside him.

“You look tired,” Koshka said. “Are you out of bourbon, or is it an incremental sort of vice?”

“No,” Sebastian said, still standing, “I was in the garden … I was … I heard something break. There was a broke soup bowl on the floor and a cup. I looked around the house for Elise and Lora … I heard her music box—it’s like this fog is driving me crazy.

“Elise and Lora were in the house when I went to the garden, I heard the broken plate, and when I went back in the house they were gone. I walked through the house like a lost dog yelping for them. Somebody was there. I heard my daughter’s music box but she wasn’t in her room.

“Something there—I heard the sound… I heard a glass break. That’s what it sounded like. So I went into the kitchen and a soup bowl was shattered in the floor. It sounded like it—it could have been a China plate. I heard my daughter up the stairs but I couldn’t find her.

“She wasn’t in her room.  I thought—I hope… I mean I thought she might be here, Please tell me you’ve seen then. Are they in the market? We’re running low on oxygen so I guess they could be there if you haven’t seem them I guess okay I can check there no problem just a short walk you see. Ahem, please tell me. Have you seen her?”

“Sebastian…”

“Have you seen them or not?”

“Why do you do this to yourself, Sebastian? You know…”

“They were there when I went outside Lora was in the… They were there. They were there. Lora… They were there. I’m not crazy. Lora, she was in her bed asleep. I heard her music box. She always winds it when she’s ready to go to sleep. It helps her sleep.”

A look of helpless pity colored Koshka’s eyes. glassed over came the held back tears. For a moment she hesitated. She didn’t know what to say.

“Sebastian,” she said, “You’re not crazy. No one calls you crazy but you. Just sit down for a second. Just relax and sit down. Okay? Just try to relax. Let me put some on some clothes and then I’ll help you look. For now I want you to relax for a minute. Can you do that for me, I’ll help you look, but I want you to relax for just a moment. I have to put some clothes on.”

“Something has been on my mind all day,” Sebastian said.

“What’s that?” Koshka asked, leaning against the back of a couch. “You torment yourself, Sebastian.”

“You know,” Sebastian said, “My uncle Nikolai had a box of chickens when I was young. We lived together in one of those communal flats, you know, where families are assigned to certain jobs and sleep together, share the kitchens and the bathrooms, and my uncle was a farmer. I remember he used to have this box of chickens with a grate on it, so Andreika’s cat wouldn’t eat ‘em.

“I used to hate those chickens. I couldn’t sleep at all. I hated those chickens. I wanted to feed them to the cat. Every night I tried to sleep and they stayed up all night, chirping, squeaking, like nails on a chalkboard. One night I walked through the living room to get something to drink, and I saw that one of the chickens was barely moving.

“Its eyes were open and blinking but it was flat on its stomach. The other chickens walked around, bobbing their heads, not caring, not noticing. I went and told my uncle in his bed that one of the chickens was sick. I asked him if they had enough food and water and he said yeah. I told him that one of them was dying, a white one with a black color, and it didn’t move and it hurt me, a chicken that hurt me. It died, my bird, and it stayed in the black trashbags a few days then threw it away. Whr my chicken died, I cared, and now they’re not so bad, the chirp is lively, and I can sleep. I think about that chicken when I try to sleep.”

Koshka was silent for a minute and then said, “Let me go put some clothes on.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4

SONG OF THE LAST FROGS

 

She disappeared into the bedroom. Under a desk by the bed a fireproof box a combination lock. She had four o2 canisters left, enough to get them to Transia for more. It was a hike, four days at least, but she’d walked it a hundred times before.

Koshka returned from the other room in black pants and a white turtleneck. “It’s cold,” she said. “I don’t know how you can walk around with short sleeves on.”

Koshka gave Sebastian his mask and he slid it over his face.  She did the same. “Are you ready?” she asked.

 

Sebastian put his thumb against the pad by the front door of his home. The door swung open and he and Koshka they walked in. Koshka almost choked on the air inside Sebastian’s house when she took off her mask. The air was thick and toxic—and Sebastian had breathed it in for days. He didn’t seem to notice.

“When’s the last time you emptied out these rooms?” Koshka asked. “I’m surprised it hasn’t killed you.”

“Yesterday,” he said. “I change it every day. Elise hooks up the ventilation to the windows and I secure them outside, to blow the methane into the street. It’s a ritual we go through … It’s not something I’d forget.”

“We really need to get this out of here,” Koshka said.

“If it’s that bad, just keep your mask on,” Sebastian said. “I’m going to check in the basement. If they’re not in there they’re gone.”

Koshka sighed but nonetheless obliged. Sebastian went into the basement.  Sebastian held aloft a Zippo lighter. He walked through the basement. He went in and out of metal shelves until he found a desk in disarray. Everything was in black and white except a worn copy of Swan Song of Paradise, the most revered of books in Menelaos.  was his father’s desk, the most revered of books on Menelaos.

Sebastian swung the beam of light across the room and toward it. On top of the desk was a .45, penthouse magazine, black pens read pens blue pens, lilies in mayonnaise jars. Seb went riding with his father and it was his favorite pistol, squirrel hunting in the Ukraine, drinking vodka and spinning guns.  Under the gun was a copy of The Songs of Dahl—the holiest of books. Sebastian opened the book and looked at the page. It read:

THE LAST FROGS

At the end of summer, all the frogs, having mated, having ensured the next generation, gather on the last day of summer on the river bank and in unison, to mark the passage of a season and the awakening of new winter, they   gathered together to sing.

Koshka broke his concentration rattling around upstairs. Sebastian stuffed the book in his pocket and blew out the lighter. He looked around the room one last time in the dark.

On the other side of another broken lock the oxygen canisters were destroyed, not stolen. The gravel on the broken oxygen turned to ash brushed away from Sebastian’s coat. At the center of the house was a spherical room, on all sides round, a hidden chamber that was blocked by debris—where the there was pure oxygen and soundlessness, thirty minutes a day without ears, without eyes, without senses at all, an essence in the echo room, it doesn’t change or variate. Sebastian’s supply of oxygen he’d stashed away for Winter. Sebastian brushed the debris from his coat and left the basement.

 

 

 

 

I will henceforth call them monkeys as to associate them with something the layman can understand and see in their minds, the same thing they can’t see when you bring up genus or hominids.

From the outside it looked like paradise. The inside wasn’t that bad, more like half of paradise, but still, I grew up with Baptists. Buffalo Bill could’ve been my roommate and would be less annoying, except with all thatf Wild Horses and also putting fat women into wells. I’m sure that’s against the Tower’s policy.

Their first shared insight was that their names, given to them by those same morons at the lab, were not their real names. So, I say, what would you liked to be called, Mortimer, Branny?

These names are ancient. I’ll be you next time. Maybe a human, she laughed. Then we’d be able to have our apartments. I been a beetle and a snake and a rat and had the same name every time. Pi’jo (Pie-zho) and that monkey over there, call him Rerun.

“I’m not a god damn monkey!” Rerun shouted. “”

“This is only his second trip out,” Pie said. “The first time you get recycled, that’s a weird feeling-going through that tunnel and feeling your memories dying, headin to that white light. The memory dissolves when you are born the first time, second time, you feel déjà vu, if you’re the same damn animal, you don’t get to choose”

“Choose what?”

“What animal you’re going to be.”

“Have you ever had a dream, a dream of an open, white space, do you recall-and seeing trains, lots of them going by you?”

“Yeah, when I was younger.”

“You forget the train,” Pi said. “The more rides you take, the easier it is to deal with. You don’t remember the other lives until you’re back in Tania, waiting on the receipt. It’s calm there, in the lobby. When you’re body dies, you’ll get to see it. Those silver trains going by, thousands of them-going one way or another-upward, downward, side to side they go. Don’t worry, Roger. You’re just new, that’s all.

“What do you mean by new?”

Silence.

“If I tell you about it now, while you’re still alive, it will bring you back to life when you die, as the same person, unaware you’re living the same life, again and again… If I take you there, or show you how to get there, it will compromise your place in the wheel. You’ll never get out. You’ll never get to go upstairs.”

“So I’ll be immortal?” I asked.

“In a sense, I suppose,” she replied.

“I’ll think about it.”

 

 

 

We spent three years together in that small flat, three people (sort of) sitting around letting my laurels pay for cable and the internet. My good friend Rerun loved looking at kittens online. Pie didn’t like anything, that I know of, anyway, and she spent time in the attic, my apartment being on the top floor with a low-ceiling attic between the top. I heard her, up there drilling; I heard hammering and what sounded like a saw. And Rerun doesn’t take much concern when Pie comes down, done with whatever she was working on, and called for Rerun. Rerun told me I should go up to the addict and bid her farewell.

“Her body is about to die,” he expressed. “She’s going to Tania.”

“Wait, what? Don’t tell me monkeys…”

“How many times have I told you we’re not monkeys?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have a keen sense of evolutionary time. It’s always struck me to think, not of a species and its past, but the evolutionary possibility for their species. Sometimes this train of thought is troubling to take to its logical conclusion. If under the same environmental pressures that shaped the natural selection and emergence of man, one can assume that consciousness of time and history was an evolutionary advantage that helped our species come to the sciences, the arts, and generally try to be good when nobody’s looking. When I think of turkeys, which I invariably do on each Thanksgiving as we’re eating one, I believe that the day the turkeys become conscious, and develop to our level of 20th century understanding and mental ability, I think, with some trepidation, what will the turkey scholars think of Thanksgiving?

To us its an honored tradition going back to just before we decided that these people were Indians, even though we knew within a month they weren’t, and before we separated them into casinos, we one time dined with the peaceful natives. I’m not making a joke out of genocide; I’m implying that one day, if evolutionary selection favors the further development of the turkeys as a species, it is feasible that they may one day write. They may one day have movies starring handsome heartthrob turkeys and females of dazzling plumage and, since they’ll have thumbs in this hypothetical scenario, they can at once desire and with the same hand they can satiate that desire. So it comes to this. What the fuck are the turkeys going to have to say about our Holiday? Will some future turkey be a word-picturer in the manner of our Shakespeare, or Dostoevsky? The point is, the thought of turkeys sharing taxis with people and dining in fancy restaurants is an idea that delights me.

God sayeth prophesy unto the wind that one day his turkeys, with whom their covenant is made, will bring them out of the bondage of labor camps and organ harvesting. Will a turkey one day tell Louis Rich and its board members to let his people go? It will repeat the history of human rights, struggle for turkey equality, drinking from the same fountain. One day we may be able to meet and like disparate turkeys, call them Phil or Aaron instead of dinner. And it will be taboo to fuck them, but, as my father told me as he was dying, ‘Son, you have to promise me…’ I said, ‘Yes, anything father.’ ‘Son,” he said. ’Yes?’ ‘Promise me you’ll be a heathen…’

There are two stories from my life, three actually, that punctuate my essence as a person. When my son was incubating, the host body of the parasite became a pointing finger, an eye on the most private of all functions. It’s when you love yourself, physically, however brief or ultimately disgusting it is, women want to put a spotlight on this behavior. I’m talking about masturbation. It is the world’s first first person shooter. It is a modern adaptation to evolutionary urges, the desire to procreate, that produces the hormones in our bodies that make us want to choke a rubbery one for a few minutes. I was living with this girl and had been for several months. I’m perverted on paper and in my imagination, but in real life, I fake a sense of ease. You can’t let your nemesis know that you know you’re fighting a silent war for sexual gratification. So this is my story. I was working twelve hours a day at a second rate tattoo shop, being the gopher and drawing stupid shit for stupid people, and it takes a lot out of you, having to give a shit and talk to people, it drains you. I got off work and we went to Delaney’s as we always did and walked from bar to bar until they closed. If you’re going to binge drink, you know, for god’s sake have the decency to be thoroughly incorrigible. Anyway, I finally make it home (I stayed and urged my ride to stay as late as possible just so I wouldn’t have to listen to her shit when I got home) and when I did she was sitting up in bed, reading a book. I throw down my bag and sat on the couch adjacent to the bed and lit a cigarette. Finally in the comfort of my own home, I became incensed by the idea that that was what I came home to, a boring bitch who likes crossword puzzles and Maury Povich.

You know what she asked me. I don’t know why it’s imprinted into certain women that what we do is somehow relevant to how we interact with them. So I make up some shit fast enough to satisfy what I think she needs to get out of the conversation and she asks if I want to come to bed, to ‘keep her warm.’ You know what she wanted me to do. She wanted me to crawl in bed, close my eyes, and give her one half-assed mercy fuck. You can’t wash off this kind of shame. I’m not implying that pregnant women should be denied the courtesy of someone having the fortitude to attempt to fuck them without poking the baby’s fucking eye out. So anyway, this is what I think about, I think about fucking her and just thumping my preborn son’s cheek every time I stuck it in her fat ass. So with this in mind, I tried to be a bit more judicial. I tell her that when I finish so and so chapter of some book that I would come to bed. Now this is the part that defines me: once I was sure she was asleep, I masturbated to a video of us fucking.

The other story is about Santa Clause, in a sense, but it’s deeper than that. When I was young, something prickled in me every time reason and science was perverted, or the development of science retarded by outside interests. I was aware of this, that an aura of bullshit and mystique meant so much to people, they had one person bring all the children’s toys–on Earth–in one night, with flying deer. I’ve heard people talk about finding out Santa Clause wasn’t real. I may lack some sort of imagination, but the thought of deer flying was out of the fucking question. Deer don’t fly and it’s impossible to go to every house on Earth in a night.

It astonishes me that people actually once believed in Santa Clause. Some people were skeptics as children, and I’ve found the children less likely to believe in Santa Clause are from non-religious families. Nothing impedes free inquiry, or retards science, as religious institutions. It became a passion in my life, to understand the natural order of the world in the sense that it can either be demonstrated, or otherwise tested, that so in so is true. This is the moment that defined that attitude in me as an older man. My idea was to hide a ‘cam-corder’ as the first, crude home video devices were made. I sat it on the TV stand and covered it with a cloth. The point was to catch my family on tape, giving out the presents, so I could show the other children they were being lied to. But my family found the cam-corder under the towel and had a friend, whom I didn’t know until twenty years later–this man dressed up like Santa Clause for my recording, pulled in our bikes and toys and ate the cookies. I had empirical proof of a lie. The costume, and how blatant it was, pushed me further into doubt. Someone flying around in a sleigh of reindeer would have a ruffled beard, all free-thinking men should know that when magical deer carry mystical men to impossible-for-physics places, looking like the person accused of doing it is in fact evidence against it. If it had been a regular worker type, you know, like a Mexican dragging around boxes of shit for some old white man with a beard, I might have believed it more. The comparison is apt: if you believe in Santa and are a good boy, you are rewarded. If you believe in Jesus and a good Christian, you are rewarded. Jesus is the working man’s Peter Pan, a bearded sage to take them off to neverland so they never have to confront a world without magic, age, or disease, where no one gets old and has to die.

In Future of an Illusion Sigmund Freud suggested that religion is a type of band-aid for the mind of those afraid to die. The thought of biological life having no meaning externally, outside of the meaning you see develop around you, like notes from old friends and your favorite song, but a mechanical, programmed by DNA to survive and replicate meaning, is externally without meaning. If there is no God, instead you use your imagination for the right things and learn how to accrue meaning from real life. People conjure meaning. Meaning and destiny doesn’t need to be transposed, or imprinted on something from an outside force; Hell isn’t some place you go when you die, it’s a conceptualization of what torments you about life and is the thought behind the icons of fear and depictions of torment. If you use your imagination, you can find out that there’s enough hell and heaven here on Earth without needing to codify or invent claims about the possibility of it existing after life and only for the kids who have been good–that’s the schoolyard, kid mentality of ‘Nah, nah, nah-booboo, we have eternity of hedonism while you burn! Hahaha! We are in the only fanclub that matters!

 

 

 

 

Picasso VS Nazis

Pablo Picasso might be best known in the Western world as that artist who painted shit that could obviously be done by children.

earlypicasso

Fucking amateur.

Yet in his time, he was an absolute revolutionary, painting in manner radically different from that of his dainty-impressionist contemporaries and even inventing a new style of art, predating the Lego movie by what mathematicians call “a shitload of years.” He also painted one of the most confusing and violent depictions of war ever put to canvas: Guernica. After intentionally staying out of politics throughout his career, once the Nazis were within range of the Louvre (and Francisco Goya paintings in particular) Picasso’s rage-boner culminated in Geurnica, which was not only a stand against the war in Europe, but against the Franco regime in the Spanish Civil War.

The most depressing triangle since the Jacked Dorito.

The Fuck You

After a lukewarm reception at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition, Picasso was in his studio, doing whatever it is that mad geniuses do while they’re not busy making history, when a couple of future Burn! victims/SS monsters entered his apartment,  where postcards were scattered all over the place depicting Geurnica, Picasso’s representation of the Axis Bombing of the small Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. When one of the officers (read: Fucking Nazi) held up the card and asked: Did you do this?

Picasso replied like some time-traveling John McClain: No, you did.

burn

You know it’s a good burn when you feel sympathy for Nazis. 

Speaking of Nazis…

Next: Rembrandt vs Critics –>

Hawthorne & the Cult of Judgment

In the Scarlet Letter, Hester Prim has a daughter out of wedlock, Pearl.

“For Peril~”9780671510114

And for the Puritan society, for that culture, this is a sin. They were too civilized to burn her at the stake and kill her, they wanted to kill her and make her live with it. So they burned her while she was still alive, forcing her to wear the eponymous Scarlet Letter – ‘A’ for Adultery. (The worst segment in Sesame St. history, if you ask me.)

This type of punishment, this very demeaning sentence, not least of all to Prim, but to an absolute innocent, the child, caters to a culture of judgment, a culture that instructs not through hands’ on education, but through shame and judgment.

The purpose of this public ridicule is a revenge, in this case, a revenge against a woman’s transgressions, despite their not knowing of the situation in its entirety. Because in a culture of encouraged judgment, a psychological condition plays an important role: you are more likely to excuse your own behavior because you know the reasons behind your behavior, if you run a red light, there are justifiable reasons. If someone else does the same, or cuts you off in traffic, may they burn in hell. And there is another issue: confirmation bias. It is the tendency to seek out that which reinforces what you already believe while at the same time avoiding anything that might contradict those beliefs, even to the extent that contradictory proof will only solidify your position further.

After Hester is lettered, put on display for all to see – for the old to pity, for the young to fear themselves and their own desire – it is to the sole benefit of a culture too busy judging a Rembrandt to learn to paint. There’s a large audience for popular criticism, the criticism of film, music, and literature, and people. Yes, people. That thing you are. Self bias doesn’t extend to other people. Why, that’d be crazy. But they have a word for that: empathy. The excuses we make for ourselves are excuses we’d never accept from somebody else.

There are different types of judgment, to be fair, and not all judgment is vindictive. Literary criticism is more explanatory than dismissive in most cases, looking to expand upon the story’s merits rather than burn it for its flaws. I see the appeal: understanding is hard. It takes time. And burning is easy and fun. Whereas literary criticism and traditional film criticism expand on the story to show its relevance and applicability, this is in furtherance of teaching and preserving the intellectual culture of humanity.

With dismissive criticism, it makes it easy for someone without time or ability to create and contribute, even if it’s only to the detriment of harder working people. only to join the dehumanized spectators on the sidelines, never a part of the defense or prosecution, with nothing to lose, contributing only to the chorus of other blunt and feeble instruments without losing the delusion that they could make music, much better in fact, if they tried. Not trying is how you fail without doing anything, and it’s easier to redirect that judgment, to focus it on someone who did try. By distance and cynicism are the jaded excused, only by themselves, for those like them, without empathy, are making similar excuses, and those excuses don’t apply to other people. 

Hawthorne makes less of a case for the removal of Hester’s scarlet letter than advocate a world where there’s no hunger for this kind of public disgrace.  as all who live fall short of their goals, fuck up, make mistakes, some large, some small, and the encouragement of lettering doesn’t stop more people from failing, it stops more people from trying.

Arthur Miller touched on many of the same themes in The Crucible: 

“Ours is a divided empire in which certain ideas and actions are of God, then their opposite are of Lucifer. A political party is equated with a moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence.”

This was an injunction to share more and hide less, a call to mpathy, to understand a shared humanity, to use a gray approach when considering people, not thinking of things in good and evil, wholly so, or black and white, guilty and non-guilty, implying that you are purely and only one or the other. It’s easy, I get it, to understand contrasting ideas when using exaggerated, extreme examples but it comes at the cost of subtlety and nuance (two endangered species of bird found in French Polynesia.)

the-crucible-nooses-hand

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a similar tale, another warning against public condemnation and judgment, in instance using the same political machinery to brand someone with a scarlet letter. Miller’s allegory is a treatise on the morality of society’s collective need to see someone hurt, to stab someone solely to see their blood, not for justice or in furtherance of truth, not truth, but a revenge against their difference, a poison, to make someone’s name synonymous with their mistake, like Hester’s A – by the end of the story it changes from a totem of shame to be angel, to the young women she seeks to help and angel, even.

What starts as political opposition becomes, through manipulation, a moral, emotional opposition. This allows an issue to be addressed in the easiest but least appropriate manner: emotionally and personally. When you treat one set of people as inherently better people, how kindly then should those less fortunate be treated, those with the disadvantage only of having been born different, or different by choice? They become morally repugnant, and as such the process of judgment becomes not only a necessity but moral, even righteous. A sense of pride, a sense of responsibility – the responsibility to judge. Whenever you pull a scab off someone’s wound and point a camera at it, you’re embroidering a Scarlet Letter,

Hawthorne’s novel is as relevant now as it was when it was released and is a poignant, profound reminded of the nobility of humility in the face of criticism and dismissiveness, slander and shaming. Though we may not see another’s heart, nor others ours, surely if we only looked for scarlet letters, through confirmation bias and osmosis, we’d find one in everybody, and place it on them publicly and forever, as Hester’s gravestone is emblazoned with that same A that marked her shame, to remind the living, in perpetuity, the penalty of making a mistake. There’s a scarlet letter for every mistake you can name, but keep in mind, in the court of history, the jury is on trial, and the world is not full of bit players only, extras with varying degrees of plot and development, but full of tars, all the lead character. Don’t be the antagonist. be the person who shows up when the screenwriters have no other way to move forward.

The Silent Circle, short story – 2 November 2015

There are times in life when all you can do is walk. Arriving home, that’s all that I could do. Just walk, just think, watching ants crawl over the stones that led to the porch. Thinking leads to nothing but trouble and I felt that trouble coming on when I found Bullet asleep in front of the sliding glass door that led into the kitchen. When I stumbled over one of the loose rocks, he roused a bit, grumbled, and licked his gums. Within a minute, he had drifted back into sleep.

     I threw my keys on the kitchen table, locked the sliding glass door, and then prepared Bullet’s food. To fix his food, I normally fill a bowl of dry food and then run water on it, stir it, then spoon each bite into his mouth, rub his throat, to help him swallow it. That night the pantry looked empty, barren in each cabinet and cupboard. His food was gone. The implications made me shudder as I passed into the living room. Grandmother sat in front of the antique television with crocheting needles. Under her breath she conversed with my Grandfather’s portrait on the wall behind her. In the corner a small fire tapered off in the dark, embers faded when the hollow logs burnt and charred. As always the room was stale and close, full of antique cabinets and dresser drawers with antique candelabras atop them. Inside each a dying candle flickered. There was another single candle burner in front of me on the coffee table, making my grandmother look like a frail, skeleton type figure, a flower on the day before winter.

     “Where’s Bullet’s food, grandmother?” I asked. “I’m about to go to sleep and I thought I’d feed him first. He seems quite fond of food.”

     “I done threw all that food away boy,” she said. “Can’t ya see the poor old dog is sufferin’? I don’t want him to suffer no more. Tomorrow we takin’ him to town to the vet so they can put him down. He won’t suffer no more.”

     The twinge, that needled type of numb feeling, went through my arms, my chest. I sat on the couch opposite of her, beyond the reach of the fireplace’s last embers. “So,” I mumbled, “you’re going to murder your dog? What good will that do? That won’t end his suffering; it will end yours. What’s it going to help to have him killed? There might be some more food in the pantry. I’ll find something for him.”

     “We gone have him cremated,” she said, nodding. “After we put him to sleep, that is. We picked him out one of them bottles too, those gold bottles. He’s gone be so pretty in his new bottle. It’s made out of gold.”

     “Why do you soften the language like that?” I asked. “You’re not going to ‘put him to sleep’ and ‘have him cremated.’ You’re going to murder him and then you’re going to set him on fire. Does it sound as humane when you use the right language? It’s not fair. Let nature run its course.”

     “They have some kind of special at the vet,” she said. “If you put two animals to sleep, you get a discount on the third. Ain’t that a good deal?”

     “I’m not even going to reply to that shit.”

     “I was readin’ some letters ya father sent me from across the ocean,” she said after a brief pause. “They all from your daddy. Never any from your mama, though. She sure was a pretty woman. Look,” she raised her bony finger to point across the room to a dresser on which a leather bundle rested. “Some of the letters your daddy sent. He sure was proud of you.”

     “When are you taking Bullet to the vet?” I asked.

     “Sometime after supper, I suppose,” grandma answered. “After I get my hair done.”

     “I have to go into town tomorrow for some groceries and notebook for school before it starts. I can drop him off on my way. He can ride in the camper on the back of my truck. That way you won’t have to go out in the cold.”

     “That ‘a be fine, I reckon. But you best go to sleep tonight, Roger. School ‘a start soon, and if you don’t get some rest how you gone be able to get them kinda grades your daddy knew you could get? He always said you was a smart boy, smart as a whip. Your grandpa was smart too. So was your daddy. He had a lot of problems, but he did love you. After the accident with your mama, his mind started going. Understand what I’m saying?”

     “Understand?” I laughed. “He was cruel to me and he got what he deserved. If my mother hadn’t done it, I would’ve done it myself. I wish none of this would have happened because my mother had to suffer for the crimes of someone else. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay there forever.”

     “It broke his heart to leave you, Roger. It broke that old man’s heart. His mind was going. It started when his father died, and being in that war, getting in that land mine accident, and all of that sure made it worse. But once your mama shot that girl, he knew he had to leave. At the time he thought it was best for you. It broke his heart when he saw your mama with that rope around her neck.”

     “What do you mean?” I asked. “He didn’t leave! You think he would abandon me just to hang out with his fishing buddies? Am I that big of a disappointment or a let down? He got what he deserved. He wouldn’t just abandon me; he enjoyed being cruel to me, but he would never have left me like that. He didn’t disappear. Not with a woman, a man, nothing. He got what he deserved.”

     Grandmother shrugged and then nodded off to sleep. Snatching the bundle of letters, I grabbed Bullet’s collar. After getting his food down, I went to the front door with him behind me, wobbling on his last legs, panting as he hobbled along. I lugged him into the camper of my truck. I mixed some more food, what little I had in my truck, and spoon fed small mouthfuls into his toothless gape. He gummed it down as I rubbed his wrinkled neck to help him swallow. I wiped the food off his mouth, dislodging a little that had sprinkled into his whiskers. He went to sleep in the back of the truck, having been fed, and I crawled through the camper into the front seat. By the time we reached the end of the road, Bullet was snoring loudly in the backseat. With a flick of a small control panel, the silence disappeared, replaced by the tranquil sounds of Schubert.

     At the end of the turnaround, I parked my truck near a path that led to a small river. I helped Bullet out of the back, saying, “Come on, man. Just a little ways to go now.” Placing him on the ground, I closed the camper. I connected his leash and collar. His wrinkles looked thicker than they had in the glow of my headlights, his limpid eyes a glowing flicker in which the headlights reflected a tiny spark. His legs wobbled as I led him behind me, to the center of the gravel circle. The end of the road was a barren circle of gravel, covered in empty packs of cigarettes, torn slips of paper, beer bottles, and papers that drifted in silent circles with the wind. A thick forest surrounded the turnaround. Off to the right a trail to a small pond tapered into the high grass, and beyond the trees I heard the trickling sounds of water, calm as the mind of Buddha when Mara approached him deep inside his mind. I went through all of my studies in Buddhism, in an attempt to ‘take out the poisoned arrow’ as Buddha once put it to the intellectual Malunkyaputra. But as the dog walked on, breathing heavy and too tired, the arrow twitched inside my chest.

     “Come on,” I urged. “Please. You just have to walk a little bit. It’s not too far now. They want to set you on fire, buddy. I’m not going to let them do that. I respect you, buddy. You don’t deserve to die.”

     With the song that I had hummed for my mother, when our outstretched fingers touched in the hallway of that Syrian prison, I rubbed his fleshy pink stomach. It had helped in the past, to numb, not to deal, but to tolerate the laws of life and nature. It was failing, and I knew it; not even the songs of Galilee could help me leave a dog to die in the woods alone. In my head, the same familiar procession of broken images came and went, my cats, my birds, my mother, and my father, in a continuous procession of dim shapes, like shadows behind a dingy glass, small at the end and beginning of each procession, but high up on the wall in the middle, coming into focus.

     Bullet fell to his stomach, closed his eyes, and I knelt beside him in the loose gravel. Puffs of dust roused as he breathed against the dirt. I sat his food bowl in front of his wrinkled face. His eyes remained closed as I went to get another bowl for water along with his bag of food. With the bowl of water full, filled with some tap water I’d brought in a bottle, I sat beside him again. His hind legs twitched a bit. His spotted head with isolated tufts of hair lilted as he rolled onto his back, as though to stare up to the stars. For a moment I remained there with him, pointing out constellations in the sky to him, telling him about the history of the universe as revealed by man. I spent half an hour comforting him on his death, on the meaning of his limited life, but it seemed as though I was never trying to convince him. It seemed as though I was trying to convince myself. And I failed, as I had before, to make sense of anything. With that lump in my chest, I left him there, in the middle of the turnaround, and went back to my truck.

     I sat there for a moment with my eyes transfixed on Bullet’s red figure, glowing in the glare of my dull brake lights. Inside the car, the hum of the engine pulsed under the seat. Other than that, it was silent, and I sat there in the dark with Bullet’s dying body behind me, glowing red in the glare. After an hour of sitting there, in constant torment, I left him there. Alone in the sand, cold, and hungry as I had been for so long in Galilee. The same tufts of smoke gathered around his nostrils as he struggled to breathe, took heavy breaths, then rolled onto his back again for one last look up to the stars, the likes of which he’d never see again, a beauty that would disappear for him forever. Did he ever know what sucked the energy from him and made his legs lame and lazy, that which turned his bones to dust? He would never know he lived. He’d never know the feeling of being again. That saddened me more than anything, I think; I realized that he would never even know he lived. That’s what hurt the most. It’s not fair; I remember thinking, parked at the end of the dirt road. I pictured the little glow in Bullet’s eyes, and in my mind, even then, I gleamed what it would be that I would dedicate my life to. My mind strayed forward to a time when I too began to become frail, to wither, to see the same winter that the flowers see before they fade. I thought to when I’d take the same lonely walk that Bullet would take to the stream and underbrush before he died, if he made it through the woods at all.

     I never went back to that road, probably because I feared I’d see Nature’s Garbage Men on the scene, waiting for their chance to eat, as they had for Casey, as they had for my father. Bullet never knew what took him from this world, but I thought then it was not the hand of god, but the invisible hands of time, the hours. The hours took him. That was a scary thought, to me as a young man, to think of time as such a heartless killer.

     How much had the hours taken? I wondered. Sammy, mother, father, Entae, Hiroshima, Pompeii, Julius Caesar, and the other countless billion ghosts that now inhabited the earth. Those same hours had me by the throat, dragging me from one place to another regardless of how much dust I kicked up. There was no control, no antidote, no way to sever the leash on which we’re taken to the landfill, where everything else is taken to the past, the boulevard of bones and broken images. How much had they taken? The hours like giant dump trucks, lugging everything to landfills of years of wars and dead presidents, the renaissance, the revolutions, and all the deaths and guillotines and tyrants, leaders who in the end rest with the commoners beneath the surface of the Earth. They take emperors and peasants, all to the same place. Together in the end, time does not discriminate.

     On the way home, as the dark trees that lined those roads swept by, I saw myself as Bullet, on all fours, crawling around in a puddle of dirt and dust, toothless, walking in circles, just waiting around to die. What else was there? My chest went cold. I filled my pipe again, as I had grown accustomed to doing, with the gun firmly in my mouth. Those blacktopped roads were lonely that night, and the only pedestrians of night that came out were solitary deer that sometimes fledged the lip of the roads before going back into the woods. The roads and trees kept me company along with streetlights and disconnected telephone cables that hovered above the trees. A disk of classical guitar music forced that terrible silence out. Nothing is more terrible than the infinite sound of silence. Human life is temporary, but silence lasts forever.

     When I walked into the attic, to put Bullet’s collar away for good, I ran across a pile of paintings, all of them my own, snacked in neat order and preserved by a thin film. A fish bowl sat on top of them, with stagnant water in it. An address had been scribbled on the under side of it in a thick black marker. I wondered what it was for, if it was for anything.