All posts by Brandon Stuhl

I am currently a graduate student at Chapman University (Orange, CA) working towards both an MA and MFA in English Lit. and Creative Writing. My academic area of interest is metafictional works (such as the writings of Danielewski, Nabokov, Tomasula), and my creative work reflects that interest. In my free time I maintain the Prism Collective Podcast, study percussion, and surf as much as possible.

“Trump’s Nuts Roasting on an Open Fire”

The other night two late-teen boys rang the doorbell. I looked through the peephole, “Fuck. Damnit.” I opened the door. They were dressed like elves: bells, green, red, pointed ears and shoes, the whole bit. One had a bucket of candy-canes, the other held a small jar with a few bills and some change.

As soon as they saw me they started singing “Jingle Bells” not entirely in harmony with one another. I stopped them before they could finish the first line, “Whoa, hold up there, kiddos. What’re ya sellin’?”

“Nothing, just singing for tips,” one said, the other extended a candy cane to me, which I waved off.

“Okay, wait right here,” I went and grabbed some change, about a dollar fifty. I returned, and dropped the change in the jar, “I’ll pay you to not sing, how about that?” They were a little shocked, clearly.

“Uh, okay,” one said as they walked off.

“Ugh” I said after I closed the door, “Christmas music.”

Now, if they had shown up dressed as Wookies I might have been more inclined to watch and listen. But, they didn’t, so, humbug!

I am, admittedly, a regular Scrooge, if you haven’t already condemned me as such by now. So, I guess my sentence is that I have to spread at least a modicum of holiday spirit. Here it is. Take it or leave it.

However, here is a far, far more suiting xmas carol compliments of my dream girl, Fiona, as she sings “Trumps Nuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”

She sang this at a the We Rock with Standing Rock concert that was a benefit to raise money for the people of the Standing Rock Sioux encampment in North Dakota.

One can only hope that there are enough of us that are thoughtfully enraged, mobilized, capable, active to resist the government. Until then, I’ll leave the optimism to the optimists, and joy to the joyful.

“Because it’s got electrolytes”

Yesterday morning I woke up, and, for the first time, I participated in the “Black Friday” race to the socioeconomic bottom. There could be no more reproduced image of your typical American capitalist denizen than that of a lower-middle class, minimum wage-earning white male handing over a credit card to a Target employee in his early twenties in order to purchase an iPad. As I walked out of the store I looked down at the box in my hand and thought, “Because it’s got electrolytes.”

Then, last night, I went to see the film Arrival for the second time. The first time I saw it I was alone in the theater, and even surprised the theater employee when I stood up to walk out. She almost dropped her broom when she realized I was there.

I mentioned the film to  a mentor of mine, Nancy Ward, curator of the Artistic License Fair. She had already seen it, she said “It was amazing– a poem.” I couldn’t agree more.

As I walked out of the film the first time I couldn’t help but wonder that, if the film had come out before the election, would it have had any effect on how people voted? At the moment, I can’t point to any evidence to support the notion that the broader American audience is capable of understanding a film like this. My “heart mom,” Lisa Marie Oxenham, said “We may have to accept that people aren’t ready for this kind of film.” However, there is a very striking line in the film. Louise, the protagonist of the film, says to her daughter, “You’re unstoppable.” The little girl, Hannah, responds, “I’m unstoppable.” Inevitability. The ineluctability of the girl’s presence, her significance, should be absolutely arresting to anyone whether or not they are “ready” for her. That is, everyone should recognize Hannah as an image of the inevitable change that our species and the planet will experience. Whether or not we survive that change is anyone’s guess at the moment.

Matt Taibbi wrote an editorial in Rolling Stone about the experience of the surprise Trump win of the presidency for journalists and others in the media. Of course, the film Idiocracy just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary and many have referred to the film this past year. Taibbi points to the film saying that it is “ostensibly a comedy but destined now to be remembered as a horror movie” (Taibbi, 38). He goes on to say that many reporters “found themselves thinking about this film when we [heard] voters saying they were literally incapable of understanding the words coming out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth. ‘When [Trump] talks, I actually understand what he’s saying,’ a young Pennsylvanian” told Taibbi, “‘But, like, when fricking Hillary Clinton talks, it just sounds like a bunch of bullshit.’”

This is, of course reminiscent of the scene in Idiocracy when Joe wakes up after 500 years of cryogenic sleep and is unable to communicate with people. He is “able to understand them. But when he spoke, he sounded pompous and faggy to them.”

It’s a humorous moment, for sure, but when we begin to recognize, further still, our current judicial system in the courtroom scene of Joe’s trial the humor turns to dread, especially considering Trump’s Supreme Court nominees are likely to be as technologically, sociologically, and scientifically illiterate as his executive cabinet is turning out to be.

I’m reminded, also, of something Jim Jefferies says when referencing the distinct repudiation of even the most basic form of critical thought on the part of Trump supporters.

What happens is, he says really simple shit that means nothing, and then fuckin’ dummies…right? If you’ve ever said this sentence, ‘I like him because he’s a straight talker,’ you’re as dumb as shit. Just because someone says something simple that you understand, it doesn’t mean they’re a straight talker…he says ‘I’m gonna make America great again,’ and you’re like, ‘I got every word in that sentence!’

If posts on social media from my Trump-supporting friends are any indication of the sensibilities of the rest of the 42 million Americans that voted for him, then I, along with many others, I’m certain, are greatly concerned, not simply about the way his election has emboldened neofascist groups, or the racist and sexist rhetoric during his campaign speeches, but with the “wave of anti-intellectualism,” to borrow Bill Hicks’ phrase, that has defined the the cultural identity of this country. I will acknowledge that there is always some headline, “Americans are increasingly X,” “Y is on the rise in America,” and so on. Yet, when our federal government, ostensibly directed by an internet-troll, of all things, has vowed to remove itself from the Paris Accords much to the dismay of all of the other COP20 nations, when the Education Secretary does not have a degree in the field of education, etc., it is absolutely alarming when direct parallels can be drawn to the Executive Cabinet in Idiocracy.

Zizek argues that the mechanisms of manufacture of consent are broken, but I think it’s quite the contrary. Those lulling mechanisms– media, tech companies, prime time, advertising agencies, etc. –have done their job so well, that now Americans are statistically unable to distinguish an articulate career politician (for all her failings) from a developmentally stunted schoolyard bully who brags about sexual assault, and the same being true for down-ballot races across the states. Disney, HBO, Netflix, Call of Duty, and UFC have all done their part well to lull the electorate. To quote Zach De La Rocha, “They packed the 9, fired into prime time. The sleeping gas, every home was like Alcatraz…You’re brain dead, you got a fuckin’ bullet in your head.”

I’m conditionally inclined to agree with Taibbi when he and others suggest that identity politics have gotten in the way of a clearer vision of the true issues (climate change, nuclear proliferation, the global refugee crisis, healthcare, and so on), and that “America’s cultural elite [has] trained for so long to think in artificial distinctions like Republicans and Democrats instead of more-natural divisions, like haves and have-nots.” Go figure, Rollings Stone’s editorial board, in its endorsement of Hillary Clinton earlier in the campaign, outright dismissed Bernie Sanders by arguing that these issues were fringe, marginal, but now those very same issues seem a distant utopian future where national dialogues might include such elevated topics. However, I agree, also, that we must be careful not to level blame at those who have fought for civil rights and basic cultural and legal representation, for as Melissa Warnke writes in her LA Times editorial “progressivism isn’t a cause divorced from consequence.” Those representations are, predictably, likely to be met with social resistance from other ethnic and cultural groups, but they are still a noble and just cause.

I will likely come back to Arrival in a later post because there is much to be unpacked from the film. As I’ve told all of my friends, it combines three of my favorite elements in narrative: linguistics, aliens, and stunningly gorgeous redheads. Until then, if there’s one theme from the story that I think is worth articulating as clearly as possible, it’s this– we, as a species capable of drastic global consequence, absolutely must raise the level of literacy in all academic fields. We need to “Make America smart again,” said Neil deGrasse Tyson during a spot of the Late Show.

America, in particular, must rediscover the value of intellect rather than disregarding it as elitism or “liberal bias.” As Albert Einstein once warned even as far back as 1934 when addressing the Progressive Education Association, the stakes are too high. “Security of the United States, as for other countries,” he says, “lies only in a satisfactory solution of the world peace problem. Youth must not be allowed to believe that safety can be obtained through political isolation” (Einstein, 57-58). I would go a step further to argue that cultural and economic isolation are equally obstructive. “The spirit of international solidarity should also be strengthened,” Einstein continues, “and chauvinism should be combated as a hindrance to world peace. In schools, history should be used as a means of interpreting progress in civilization, and not for inculcating ideals of imperialistic power and military success.” Education should be valued by a society, it’s the greatest investment in it’s own future that society could ever make as a sort of insurance plan. Much like genes are passed down through biological generations, knowledge should be passed down through the generations to “interpret [the] progress” of society, and the education system is the conduit for that knowledge. Never again should our society tolerate the fact that its electorate was able to vote for a candidate who has promised to “bomb the shit out of” someone in another country without being able to so much as point out where that country is on a map.

And yet, our government attacks, and defunds it’s own education system for the specific purpose of lowering educational standards and privatizing and monetizing schools. To yet again quote Chomsky, at some length because, I think, he brilliantly summarizes the value of public education:

We see it in the attack on public schools. Public schools are based on the principle of solidarity. I no longer have children in school, they’re grown up. But, the principle of solidarity says that I happily pay taxes so that the kid across the street can go to school. That’s normal human emotion. They have to drive that out of people’s heads, ‘I don’t have kids in school, why should I pay taxes. Privatize it,’ and so on. The public education system, all the way from kindergarten to higher education is under severe attack. I mean, that’s one of the jewels of American society. You go back to the ‘golden age’ again, the great growth period in the 50s and 60s. A lot of that is based on free public education…The US is way at the lead of developing extensive public mass education at every level…Now in half the states, most of the funding for public colleges comes from tuition, not from the state. That’s a radical change… In the 1950s, there was a much poorer society than there is today. It could never the less handle, essentially free, mass higher education. Today a much richer society claims it doesn’t have the resources for it. That’s just what’s going on right before our eyes. That’s the general attack on principles that, I mean, not only are they humane, they’re the basis of the prosperity and health of this society.

Again, more on Arrival soon. Until then, as President Not Sure says, “I don’t know, read a book or something.” Just don’t do it in a waffle house.

*Update 12/4/16*

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed three women who are directly involved in the fight to protect American public education– former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, Center for Media and Democracy Executive Director, Lisa Graves, and member of the Detroit Board of Education, Tawanna Simpson. Ravitch brings up an important point, that education voucher systems break “the long history of a separation of church and state because most of the vouchers that are used in the states that now have vouchers are for religious schools. And most of them are not going to — it’s not enough money to go to an elite school or to the best school, it’s usually very, like in the South, it’s backward fundamentalist church schools that have uncertified staff.” Watch the whole interview here:

___________________________________________________________________________

Works cited:

Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. Ed. Cal Seelig. NY: Three River Press, 1982. Print.

Taibbi, Matt. “Trump’s Payback: Journalists and politicians blew off the warning signs of a Trump presidency– now, we must all pay the price.” Rolling Stone. Issue 1275, 1 Decmber 2016. Print.

 

“How did our politics get so poisonous?”: Colbert, Chomsky, and Hicks

On November 8th, Colbert’s live show aired after most of the results of the electoral votes had been released. He starts off by saying, “I don’t think I could sit down right now.” At that point the popular vote was still being tallied, but the electoral votes were already confirmed as far as most of the country was concerned. Of course, as we now know, the popular vote has shown far in favor of opposition. Nonetheless, something in Colbert’s response should raise alarm, especially considering how subtle, and seemingly well intentioned it is.
He says, “I think we can agree that this has been an exhausting, bruising election for everyone.” It goes without saying, exhaustion is always part of the process, as maybe it should be. Perhaps the fatigue of the campaign trail, having to constantly address constituent concerns, and having to endlessly defend one’s position is systematic method to expose a candidate’s policies and moral character. That same exhaustion is also detrimentally weaponized against the true interests of the populous. Elections are now, clearly, wars of attrition, for the question is always how long will it take for the public to buy in to the narrative they’re sold, and, as it turns out, not long at all– only about a year in this case. By the time the people are handed a ballot, they are bruised beyond self-recognition, and seek a quick end to the atrocious perversions of their government.

Colbert goes on to quote a Washington Post article highlighting a PEW statistic which indicates four in ten voters think “the other party’s policies are so misguided that they pose a threat to the nation,” and later “More than half of democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them ‘afraid,’ while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party.”
“But you know what?” Colbert responds, “Everybody feels that way.” The key word, here, is “everybody.” That is, it’s a catchy phrase, invokes a sense of healing, sympathy and empathy, starts us down the path to reconciliation, the aim being, most importantly, unity.
I’ll admit, when I first watched the segment, my bitterness was hard to quell, yet “everybody feels that way” stood out to me for every bit of the healing that I, and millions of Americans sought. However, as Colbert continues, my skepticism grows, I return to his notion of unity, and realize that “everybody” is not, indeed, the case. “Four in ten voters” is clearly not “everybody.”
Since that night, and over this past week, the zeitgeist of bitterness has been unbound, “Not my President” demonstrations have been held in major cities, including here in Santa Ana. The protests have been denigrated, condemned all over social media as “stupid,” the protesters themselves being dismissed as “whinny.” Even high school students who’ve staged walk-outs are savagely attacked for their protests even though it is they who stand to lose the most, and whose futures have been condemned by the election of a climate-change denying plutocrat.
“They designed an election that was meant to confuse us,” Colbert argues. The confusion has led to all kinds of internal conflict among the public. “Get over it,” is the general sentiment from those on the right and the centrists, those who have no sympathy for what is clearly the mourning process happening on a national scale. I even saw one particularly thoughtless meme that read, “Wanting Trump to fail is like wanting the pilot to crash the plane that we are ALL on.” However, after eighteen months of a campaign that flagrantly established its platform of division through the demonization of minority groups, it’s abundantly clear that the burden of proof lies with the right and the centrists, not the protestors. What “unity” is the Trump administration asking for? What does “coming together” look like when the rhetoric which has defined the campaign is filled with phrases like “they’re rapists,” “crooked Hilary,” “crazy Bernie,” “grab her by the pussy,” “this is a nasty, nasty woman,” “I’d like to punch him in the face,” “young and beautiful piece of ass,” and so on.

“How did our politics get so poisonous?” Colbert asks.

Quite some time ago Chomsky answered this question. He has long argued that the “masters of mankind,” to quote Adam Smith, do not want solidarity among the population. There are entire facets of industry and policy that ensure the population dedicates it’s resources– intellectual, financial, psychological, social resources–to fighting among itself, ensuring the disenfranchisement of whole swaths of the people, that they act against their own interests, and vote against solidarity. Thus we have the joke–

A banker, factory worker, and a beggar are seated at a table, two cookies in front of each of them. The banker takes his own two, both of the factory worker’s, and one of the beggar’s cookies, then says to the factory worker, “You had better stop the beggar, he just took your cookie.”

One can only imagine the horror of the beggar. The concerns of the beggar, of course, are no concern of the other two. Yet, as Chomsky suggests, we all play the part of the beggar, and we are all made the punchline. The point is, that basic empathy for the fellow man has to be ideologically “beaten out of people.” In this case ideology is put in the form of capital (the commodified cookies). The interests of both the worker and the beggar are immediately perverted and marginalized.

Over the years Chomsky has directly addressed the notion of marginalization of the population. Speaking sarcastically, as though from the point of view of the “masters of mankind,” and during a lecture at MIT in 1999, he said,

so we want to get rid of government interference in the economy, like public schools which have all sorts of bad features, like they cultivate a sense of solidarity, or of care for other people. If there’s a public school system that’s an expression of the fact that you care whether the kid down the street gets an education, and that’s a very bad thing because, you know, you get this message from infancy on through the television set and everything else that the only value of a human life is to maximize what the advertising industry calls ‘invented wants.’ So they’re supposed to invent wants for you, and you’re supposed to maximize them, and that’s the only thing you’re supposed to care about, and not care about anybody else, you know, not care about control of your life and work, that’s out of the door, but maximize you’re own fabricated wants.

More recently he summarized this notion in an interview for the film Requiem for the American Dream:

One of the leading political scientists, Mark Gilins, came out with a study of the relation between public attitudes and public policy. What he shows is that about 70% of the public population has no way of influencing policy. They might as well be in some other country. And the population knows it…What it’s led to is a population that’s angry, frustrated, hates institutions, it’s not acting constructively to try to respond to this. There is popular mobilization and activism, but in very self-destructive directions. It’s taking the form of unfocused anger, attacks on one another, and on vulnerable targets. That’s what happens in cases like this. It is corrosive of social relations, but that’s the point. The point is to make people hate, and fear each other, and look out only for themselves, and don’t do anything for anyone else.

Of course, as the streaming videos have begun to show up on social media of protests in the streets, followed by lengthy indignant comment threads, I wonder if there could be any more poignant image of the “unfocused anger,” the “corrosive” element that Chomsky mentions which has disintegrated a true understanding of solidarity. I can’t help but wonder still, what is the substance of this corrosion? What does it look like now? Where maybe ten years ago it seemed to take on the facade of morality, the morality that the right claimed to assume and the left easily dismantled as hypocrisy, it is not so clear any longer, but it is certainly visible. That is, we stare at it every day, are isolated by it, even from people we are sitting right next to, this thing meant to bring us together.
This brings me to the point in Colbert’s speech from election night that I think is quite alarming.

“So, whether your side won or lost, we don’t have to do this shit for a while,” he continues, “You can put away your ‘I voted’ stickers, and you can get back to your life.” And already, whatever “unity” I might have entertained starts to feel uneasy. “I’d like to try to end this election season by voting unanimously on a few things that all bring us together.” He continues with a list of things that all Americans supposedly agree upon. “No matter where you stand on Hillary’s private server, everyone agrees work emails sucks.” The studio audience shouts out, “Yes!” “Also, no matter what your age, race, or political party, every American can agree that Kit-Kats should be eaten in segments not bitten into like a normal candy bar, you animal!” The audience cheers. “And every red-blooded American knows that if you’re ordering a bunch of pizzas there’s no reason to get a veggie one, no one’s gonna eat it, for christ sake, plain cheese is veggie…and if you make a living pranking people on YouTube, all Americans ask that you walk slowly into the ocean then put that on Snapchat…Deep down, Americans know that Alex Trebek will never die and if he does it will not count because it was not in the form of a question…we stand united in the knowledge that the biggest selling point of CoolWhip isn’t the taste but the fact that it’s free Tupperware…I don’t care, the election is over, you survived…”
To be fair, Colbert acknowledges that some of the points on his list are “silly,” and I think he is unquestionably sincere. However, I’m also quite certain that the marketing staffs of Kit-Kat, Dominos, Youtube, Snapchat, CBS, CoolWhip, Tupperware, and their parent companies were all mightily satisfied by this list. Here’s your sense of unity, America, brought to you by Kraft, Hersheys, Viacom, Facebook, and Google. I mean, this is the sort of thing that is lifted directly from a Bill Hicks routine, “Go back to bed, America…here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this. Shut up. Go back to bed, America…Here is American Gladiators. Here’s fifty six channels of it. Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go America. You are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do as we tell you!”

Hicks was a fan of Chomsky as well, and once said of him, “He’ll squeegee your third eye for you.” I feel as though someone, in their indignation, has poured salt into my own third eye. Whether or not I could’ve ever seen clearly anyway is anyone’s guess. I do know that we are a nation of the blind leading the blind, marred in our struggle to keep up with technology, obstructed by archaic notions of platonic morality, bogged down in and ever misunderstanding of the very language we use to define ourselves. And so, we have a demagogue that will soon take lead of the country and has the full support of a government now completely in the hands of a conservative party that “has become the most dangerous organization in world history.”

To the right, beware, as Nick Hanauer warns, the pitchforks are coming. To the centrists, I quote Zinn, “you cannot stay neutral on a moving train.”

A Way Forward

I have not posted to this blog in the last year. There certainly is a lingering feeling reminiscent to the experience of leaving the music department at Cal State Long Beach, when for almost two years afterward I could not enjoy music, did not listen to music while driving, or generally throughout my day. Music academics have a way of draining passion and creativity. Similarly, in the two years since finishing graduate school I have found it very difficult to write, to engage the process of it, or even to enjoy reading. However, these past few months I’ve rediscovered passion, gained momentum, and will hopefully be much more active on this page. I have no illusions that there is much of an audience here, but I will attempt to continue regardless.

Now, to the elephant in the room; as in, the “bigly,” orange elephant that has forced itself into the room…

Around this time, two years ago during the AWP conference, I found myself on the third floor of the Seattle Convention Center staring down at the corner of Pike and 7th Street. I recalled images of paramilitary police attacking protestors, blood, fire. I spent the whole week walking up and down Pike between the Green Tortoise and the Convention Center, the same street where it all happened in November 1999. “All told, there were about 600 arrests,” and most of them were released because of lacking evidence and “reasonable doubt.” Meaning, they were arrested without probable cause. Nonetheless, they were removed from protests, their 4th amendment rights clearly violated. Years later, staring down into the intersection, I watched a police officer shoo away a street artist, a man dressed in a pink gorilla suit drumming on a plastic bucket, then immediately give a ticket to a homeless man panhandling in front of the cafe below me.

There should be no romanticizing of it, no sentimental memories of these events.

Yesterday a dark, shameful cloud descended upon this country. It is a cloud that has been approaching for some time. Now it is here.

As, I’m certain, many others are, I’m struggling to consider the ways forward. That struggle is characterized, defined by shame, disappointment, uncertainty, disgust, and yes, fear. The conservative party now has claim to every branch of the federal government, and is the majority of state governorships. There is no telling how far neoconservative ideology will reach henceforth.

A former classmate of mine from graduate school, Kenny Connally, posted a brief summary of his thoughts to social media. I certainly look up to him, for he was, by far, the best of us in the program (not to stroke your ego, Kenny). I’d like quote his post here because I think it bears repeating, and poignantly summarizes the nature of the dread that has sunk in these past few hours:

Three lessons from tonight:

1. Opposition to abortion and homosexuality, and nothing else, is the central teaching of evangelical Christianity.

According to tonight’s exit polls, north of 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump, despite Trump being perhaps the farthest thing imaginable from a traditionally Christian role model. Evangelicals will happily jettison every other moral principle if abortion and gay rights are at issue.

2. In the Internet Age, you can fool most of the people most of the time.

Trump began his political career by making a movement out of the utterly groundless birther conspiracy. Having found success there, he moved on to make easily debunked claims the foundation for every aspect of his presidential campaign and his policy proposals. At every stage, the mainstream media doubted he could keep it up; surely a platform composed of pure nonsense would not fly in a general election. But it did. With print journalism dying and more and more people engaging with politics only from within a partisan social-media bubble, we’ve passed a tipping point where Americans can no longer assess the basic facts of any politicized issue. Look to see many more national politicians in the near future copying Trump’s attitude toward facts: they’re irrelevant.

3. Republican voters predominantly support a strong, authoritarian federal government and oppose free trade.

Though educated Republicans tend to be pro-business neoliberal types, Trump has run very successfully on the most naive kind of protectionism; his proposals terrify economists and markets. And after 8 years of accusing Obama’s administration of fascist authoritarianism and trampling on states’ rights, Republicans have gleefully voted in a candidate who openly idolizes foreign dictators and promises that he alone can restore “law and order” to the lawless wilderness that is our country by expanding police procedures that courts have ruled violate civil rights, torturing suspected terrorists, killing their families, and cracking down on the free press.

It’s clear that the neoliberal agenda has taken center stage in our country, though, I’m confident that most would not be able to identify it as such. Neoconservatives will vehemently protect that agenda  through the practice of “law and order.”

I am trying, in vain it seems, to reconcile the grace– which I’ve spent the last number of years learning to embrace –with the sense of justice, the moral imperative to act against the zeitgeist that has hijacked this country. It’s very difficult not to point fingers, succumb to anger, because in restraint, I feel, we risk apathy, we become complacent, passive. At this moment I see no medium between rage and humble concession.

Now, scrolling through articles from the winter of 1999 and 2000, seeing those images again, it’s very difficult to imagine a way forward that isn’t defined by mass incarceration, blood, violence, especially considering the newly elected conservative party leader has promised it.

This Morning’s Wave

This morning was the first time I’ve been able to surf in about two months. The report said that high tide was at 9:58 a.m. with light wind and a SSE swell coming up from hurricane Sandra. My break of choice is the Bolsa Chica jetties. The people are generally friendly there, and it’s rarely crowded.

Every time I get to the water’s edge, start to feel the cold of wet sand, my gut starts to tighten, my heart begins to race. No matter how many times I’ve paddled out before I still get nervous as I dip my cupped hands into the water and pull. A wave begins to build in front of me and, uncontrollably, I whisper words to myself. Words, such as “inevitable,” “destroy,” “failure,” “passion,” “disbelief,” “structure,” all evaporate into the ether of history in no particular order, and somehow, while they are not part of any phrase or complete thought, they all seem to fit into context of one another as some desperate response to oncoming waves. The paddle out is a struggle against time, the weight of the water, and past defeats. This morning, though, the word I whispered to myself over and again was “nightmare.”

There is a moment in House of Leaves, the moment where Will Navidson is lost inside the house and has just discovered that he is no longer supported by anything. He is falling, not down, or up, or in any direction. He’s not suspended, he just is. There are no more walls, no floors or ceilings, doors, nothing with which to triangulate his position. There is nothing separate from his being with which to define himself as a separate entity at all. He realizes he’s been falling for quite some time and desperately attempts to redefine himself, to reaffirm his existence. “I am,” he says. It’s hopeless, because hope is a non sequitur in this house, for it implies an end where there is not even a means to that end. Ultimately,

Navidson’s words, tunes, and shivering murmurs trail off into a painful rasp. He knows his voice will never heat this world. Perhaps no voice will. Memories cease to surface. Sorrow threatens to no longer matter.
Navidson is forgetting.
Navidson is dying. (Danielewski 482-83)

This is the closest comparison I can make to how I feel when I am in the water. The ocean is is alive, ever in motion, consuming. Yet, it is also senseless, unaware of my presence, and altogether uncaring. The moment I think I have figured it out, crouched down on my board and gliding along the face of a wave, something unforeseen happens, a ripple in front of me lifts up, the nose of the board pearls, and I am suddenly under the surface. It’s dark in the water, cold, there are no shapes to discern, the growl of the passing wave has silenced, and I am falling. Of course, I hold my breath, but I’m never certain if I will breathe ever again. All sights and sounds disappear and even the memory of what has happened only a second ago already begins to fade. There is no voice to heat this world.

I floated out in the line-up for quite a while, maybe forty-five minutes, give or take. It’s hard to be certain. The current El Niño season has kept the water temperature around 60°F, but the November morning air has retained its bite. I stared at my board, followed the line of the stringer from underneath me to out beyond the nose and through to the horizon. The grey of the marine layer blurred the threshold between the water and the sky.

I saw something that I had never seen before. A few feet in front of me I noticed what looked like glitter or confetti twirling in the water column right near the surface. It was a shoal of sardines, or maybe smelt. I generally notice them only out of the corner of my eye, a flash of movement, the only evidence of which is the ripple on the surface left behind as they hurl themselves out of the water and fall back in.

Is this not all that experience is anyway– phenomena that eludes observation, a cause that is only evidenced by its effect?

Johnny Truant experiences this when he visits the Whalestoe hospital his mother died in. His emotional state is heavily strained, to say the least. He wanders the country aimlessly, albeit to escape his fears. Though, it is a path of escape which leads him directly back to the origin of those fears, where “no cry of light, no glimmer, not even the faintest shard of hope to break free across the hold” has shone (497).

It’s a melancholy moment because he is initially convinced that he has become “a creature unstirred by history, no longer moved by the present, just hungry, blind and at long last full of mindless wrath” (497), and yet when he is unable to sense the spectral presence of his mother, he is unable to rectify his “mindless wrath.” So, he begins to break down. That is, he is indeed moved knowing that he still carries the memory of her. However skeptical he must remain of that memory, it is nonetheless unshakable. He sees his life as the ripple of her own nightmarish life.

All things observed are ripples. In which case the only quantitative or qualitative understanding we have of a cause is the memory of it, the effect. No one remembers the birth of their parents. Instead, those memories are passed down through language and the vernacular of genealogical history. For Truant, that language is collected in the feverishly written letters he receives from his mother, and it is the same language he uses in his own journal.

Someone else’s. Someone else’s memories…Oh god what constant re-arranging of thoughts, an endless rearrangement of them, revealing nothing but shit…The journal too. I thought I’d only written a few entries but now I can see–I can feel–it’s nearly full, but I don’t recall any of it. Is it even in my hand?…October Three Zed, Ninety Eight. That’s the day today. That’s the date. Top of this page. But the first page in the journal isn’t October Three Zed but May one. May one mean–meaning, I mean–months and months of journey. Before Lude died. Before the horror. Or all of it horror since right now I can’t connect any of it.
It’s not me.
It cannot be.
As soon as I write I’ve already forgotten.
I must remember.
I must read.
I must read.
I must read. (498)

Truant’s journal is still another ripple in the chain of causality, but his experience resembles a feedback loop. A question arises– is Johnny an end in of himself? When memory ceases so too does experience. Since Johnny cannot recall the experiences he  has apparently described in his own journal, his only true experience is the vicarious reading of his past. He is merely the audience of his own narrative, not the subject.

This is how I often feel about surfing. At best I can only describe the experience through my mind’s journal, the memory of the experiences in the water. Yet, I must remain skeptical of these memories because, as we know, memory is a severely faulty thing, easily altered by emotion, and all the thousands of factors constantly imposing influence. The wave that I caught this morning, according to memory, was multifaceted, deeply complex, nuanced. How can I trust the notion that I remember every detail of it? Of course I can expand the wave metaphor to many other memories– childhood, school and profession, romantic relationships. Because my only understanding of those experiences is gained from my memory of them, I feel as though I too am merely an observer. I am the audience witnessing the downward spiral a self-defeating character who loathes the dichotomy of future and past, and who is obsessed with the means to his own end in order to finally disintegrate that and all other binaries. Each wave is a ripple in the closed loop of his narrative.

The future is always a fiction, and it is impossible to actually experience the present. By the time any phenomena is perceivable, having taken even a few milliseconds to travel our neural pathways, it is already past and is therefore committed to memory. The past and our faulty memory of it is the only conduit for the narrative of our lives. So, as Johnny Truant discovers, we have no means of objective understanding. Even a moment of clarity, for all it is worth and what it may seem to be, affords him no answer.

It took me another hour to locate her room. So many of the rooms looking the same, all familiar, but never quite right, quite the same, their dimensions and perspectives never precisely lining up with the memory I had, a memory I was soon beginning to doubt, a surprisingly painful doubt actually, until I saw through her window the now vine entwined tree, every wall-line, corner-line, floor-line, instantly, or so it seemed–though nothing is ever instant–matching up, a sharp slide into focus revealing the place where she finally died. Of course it’s final, right? Closet to the side. Empty. And her bed in the corner. The same bed. Even if the mattress was gone and the springs now reassembled the rusted remains of a shipwreck half-buried in the sands of some half-forgotten shore.
Horror should have buried me.
It didn’t.
I sat down and waited for her to find me.
She never did.
I waited all night in the very room it happened, waiting for her frail form to glide free of beams of glass and moonlight. Only there was no glass. No moonlight either. Not that I could see.
Come morning I found the day as I had found every other day–without relief or explanation. (504)

If the memory of his mother is faulty, he must also keep suspect of letters she had written to him. “Her letter,” he says, “was hopelessly wrong. Maybe an invention to make it easier for me to dismiss her” (517). Johnny realizes that he must also suspect the nature of the narrative these two sources coalesce to create. That is, he must ultimately suspect the very narrative of his life, it’s verisimilitude, and question the truth of his own existence. As we read further, we discover that the last section of Truant’s journal takes a drastic shift in point of view and voice. “I’m sorry,” he continues, “I have nothing left…Except this story, what I’m remembering now, too long from the surface of any dawn” (518). It is a very heartbreaking scene that follows, and one that I think about often, particularly while I’m in the water. It describes a woman who has just given birth to a baby boy with severe developmental issues and is “cyanotic.” The child is not expected to live more than a few hours. Doctors and nurses hurriedly employ an IC unit, an EKG monitor, IV pumps and lines, a ventilator, probes, saturated oxygen. Yet, the “mother sees none of this. She sees only her baby boy, barely breathing, his tiny fingers curled like sea shells still daring to clutch the world.” She refuses that her son “can only survive on machines,” refuses the inevitable, that “she will have to let him go.” To her the future is a fiction, and she can spin her own narrative yarn with her love for this child. She endures the hours clinging to a life that at once she is both defined by and is her only source of meaning. She doesn’t sleep. She sings to him, whispers her love to him. Then, on the fourth day, “ she leans forward and kisses him on the forehead. ‘You can go now,’ she says tenderly”–

And right before everyone’s eyes, long before Dr. Nowell or anyone else can turn a dial or touch a switch, the EKG flatlines. Asystole.
The child is gone. (521)

There is no mystery in this story, only loss. The reader must realize, just as Johnny does, that the entire time they’ve been reading HOL they have, in fact, been reading the life which the mother has imagined for her baby boy, and which she clung to out of love. Johnny is that narrative. As does Johnny, I can’t help but question what I have imagined for myself, and what others have imagined for me. Whether out of desperation to somehow alter the nightmare, or out of love, my life is still only a facsimile of memory, which is itself a facsimile. It’s a scary thought that the perceived world is possibly unreal, is false, for there is no where to turn after that, no trust, no hope of ever getting out of the house built by faulty semiotics and the misleading vernacular of day-to-day experience. After all “the words fail, the voice fails, so be it” (Beckett 406)

It happened in an instant. One moment all is calm, somewhere down the line-up a group of friends chuckled to some punchline I could not hear, a pelican silently floated by on a pocket of air ahead of a swell. In the next moment the face of a wave appeared in front of me, dark, moving fast, amassing as it approached the beach. Just as I had done maybe a thousand times before, I quickly turned the board around and started pulling myself along the surface. Just as I had felt maybe a thousand times before, the leading edge of the wave slid under me and lifted me up. Just as I had done maybe a hundred times before, I pushed myself up and to my feet. What happened in the next ten seconds, though, I am at a loss to reason beyond conjecture. Sometimes we surprise ourselves by our failures to act, to comprehend, or to respond to the ever changing whim of circumstance. Other times, we are surprised by our intuition. My skill level is amateur at best, and ‘innate’ has never been a term I use to describe my surfing. However, something was released and possessed me for those few seconds on the face of that wave. I saw the wave in it’s entirety out in front of me as I took a left for my frontside. Every ripple, dimple, and every breaking section of the wave I saw before it even happened, anticipated it’s every motion. I crouched to picked up speed and looked up to the lip at least a foot over head. I dragged the palm of my trailing hand along the face. Off I went down the line.

It was over in an instant. One moment I banked into my third carve of the wave, and the next moment I lay on my back on dry sand, breathing heavily, eyes tearing up. It was my only wave of the day. It was my first wave in at least two months. It was, by far, my best wave since last winter.
“Wow, man, I saw the whole thing.”
I sat up and turned to see a guy walking up to me. Salt and peppered hair, like mine, and with what looked like a seven-five or six mint-green Becker under his arm.
“You even got a little barreled,” he said.
“No shit?”
“Yeah.” He pointed to the line-up, “I saw it.”
I shook my head, “That’s kind of cool. I’ve never had that happen before. Wasn’t looking behind me so I didn’t see how far into it I was.”
“Yeah, it was real quick, like. But you were in it. Almost happened on the reform, too.”
“Wow,” I shook my head. “No one ever sees me surf, so I can never prove what happened.”
“Nope,” he said nodding, “But I saw it this time. Great job, man.” He strapped his leash to his ankle then started towards the water.
“Good luck,” I said, to which he responded with a thumbs-up.

There is no choice but to move forward in experience, whatever it may be. The best we can hope for is that someone will be there to witness it with us and share in the facsimile, for they see what we can’t, they see what is behind us, perceive it differently, and somehow expand our experience.

Surfing is a very lonely venture to me. Yet, just as Will Navidson was drawn to the depths of the house, and Johnny Truant must wander the country in search of a past that does not exist, I too am compelled to paddle out. In search of what, though, I cannot say. If nothing else, through the unyielding solitude of it I have learned a great deal about the value of others in my life. Though it is only conjecture, I might discern some luminescence in the house with the thought that Navidson has discovered this too. He is prepared to die in the house. In what are his final moments–at least as far as he can tell–his “tunes” and “shivering murmurs” are all meditations on one thing, one subject. There is no voice to heat this world because he is alone, without Karen. As the fictional “Italian translator,” Sophia Blynn, says in her critique of The Navidson Record:

The most important light Karen carried into that place was the memory of Navidson. And Navidson was no different. Though it’s commonly assumed his last word was ‘care’ or the start of ‘careful,’ I would argue differently. I believe this utterance is really just the first syllable of the very name on which his mind and heart had finally come to rest. His only hope, his only meaning: ‘Karen.’ (Danielewski 523)

I am led to wonder whether these short, personal essays are my own shivering murmurs, tunes that go unanswered except their refraction and diffusion off the walls of language in this house.

Still, there is no choice but to move forward, for there are many, many waves to be surfed. “I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on…I’ll go on” (Beckett 407).

Work Cited

Danielewski, Mark Z.. House of Leaves. NY, Pantheon 2000. Print.

Beckett, Samuel. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. NY, Grove Press 2001. Print.

Nature and Grace: Dichotomies in Malick’s Tree of Life

Tree of life Requium

There is a line in the film Tree of Life, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside of me.” This motif– an inner struggle between waring subjectivities, dichotomies –runs throughout the film, and it’s closely related to the greater theme of the story, which is in the opening monologue, “The nuns taught us that there are two ways through life– the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow.”

The Tree Of Life: Way Of Nature, Way Of Grace from Otto on Vimeo.

The story is among the heaviest, darkest, yet most illuminating spiritual meditations that I have come across in recent years. This story weighs heavily, hits close to home, and I’m certain many others feel the same way. Malick’s style, like a deluge of river rapids (which, is a prevalent image in the film), is not necessarily inviting. For these reasons I think it’s the type of film that either someone won’t understand on any level, or is entirely subdued by.

Spirituality in the film is heavily informed by Christian theology, but it’s not at all dogmatic. In fact, the story stands as an indictment of steadfast and blind ideology. Dogma– social, theological, familial, cultural dogma –is decidedly an antagonistic factor in the life of the central family, the O’Briens. The family is particularly white, suburban, middle class, the archetypal Texas American dream, sans only white picket fences. However, this family, a token of American pride and sensibility, is fragile, inherently susceptible to it’s own weight. It only takes something so paltry as a telegram, which the mother receives at the end of the clip, to level the family, disintegrate it.

Roots of conflict are seeded in the hearts of the three O’Brien children, but the eldest boy, Jack, is most directly effected. His struggle, the war of dichotomies, factions of subjectivity, nature and grace, is ignited by dogmatism, fueled by immense histories, the ever echoing voices of his family, his mother and father, their cultural legacies that remain a constant din inside of him. “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside of me.” As we follow him on his journey through the annals of boyhood we are forced to ponder our own histories, the legacies of the many journeys that led to our being. Jack bears the weight of these legacies, but he cannot escape his growing suspicions about patriarchal control and matriarchal peace. He watches his father, keenly, studying, his eyes narrowed. He searches his father for evidence of either humility or malice, though is convinced of neither. “Do you love your father?” he is asked, to which he responds with only the certainty of condition, familial dogma.

And yet, Jack is drawn to the promise of strength he sees in his father. He finds solidarity in simplicity, a momentary calming of the factions inside of him. As all boys must attempt at some point, Jack indulges in the violence within him and redirects it outward, essentially relinquishing himself of it. However, Jack’s younger brother, known simply as R.L., presents a challenge to the violence. Jack recognizes that he has followed a path to nature because his brother has followed a path to grace. “Hit me son,” his father challenges, and Jack obliges. “Come on, hit me,” his father then says to his brother, but his brother is reluctant.

Jack wonders about the separation between nature and grace. “Always you wrestle inside of me,” he says. He constantly finds himself on the side of nature while praying, “help me to be good.” At one point violence swells within him. He happens upon his father who is underneath the family Buick for repairs. He walks up and his father quietly, but sternly points at him, dismissing him. Jack then walks around to the rear where the car-lift is positioned. He stares at the wrench for a moment, then walks away. The implication is that Jack momentarily considers knocking the wrench loose to let the car drop onto his father. This is an experience that all boys must have, testing the boundaries of love and anger and the willingness to forfeit one or the other.

Nature, and grace. One defined by the other. The war continues. Much as Jack must face his suspicions and fears, we too have no choice but to realize that, regardless of whether we scale the highest, most remote and frozen peaks, find ourselves lost and hidden in metropolitan back alleys, or are adrift in an unmeasured sea, that inner war will wage. It is inescapable. And so, Jack discovers that there is no boundary between nature and grace. The line that he may arbitrarily draw between past and present does not exist, the two are simultaneous, are not independent. And the war continues into his adulthood, boundaries between factions blurred.

“Feel like I’m bumping into walls,” he says, “Any how, it’s all about your career. But I don’t understand anything.” The way of nature, the way of commerce, hierarchies, architects of industry, resources, exchange. Facsimiles of order. The way of grace, the way of restless imagination, culture, messy harmonic resonance, ideas, humility painfully gained. Facsimiles of beauty. These are all uncertain terms, but we are somehow expected, conditioned even, to simply take them for granted, to commit ourselves to them, without question. Just as each member of the O’Brien family must, we too seek to shrink into the obscurity of nature as a refuge from the tumult, the disorder of grace. And so, we justify our sacrifices in order to fortify our security, equating substance and sustenance, though, we have only confused the two.

The father of the story, Mr. O’brien, fortifies himself and his family with the pleasantries and minutia that have been handed to him through cultural dogma, and he’s come to depend on them. Tithing, skilled work, prayer, discipline, tenacity, a smile and a hand shake, fatherly advice, all tenets of a ‘good man.’ However, as his priest, Father Hayes, cautions in a sermon, “Misfortune befalls the good as well.”

The Tree Of Life: Job from Otto on Vimeo.

After all, what is our place in nature if not a single point in a long chain of cause and effect, linearity where, of course, there is no boundary between the past and future? We do not exist presently, and so we are free of the obligation to actively navigate this phenomena we call our lives, the tempest of the present. Instead, we abstain. It’s easy to retreat into the comfort of nature– a human being. Yet, we recognize it as perdition only too late. At some point we stop planning for the future and reluctantly accept the finitude of the time that we are given. We desire to “be loved because [we are] great.” We are saddened, having “lived in shame,” wondering why we had never risked ourselves for our only passions– a human doing. Desperate, we then seek forgiveness in grace yet cannot seem to resolve a lifetime of fear. We have passively accepted our life having never actively created, or engaged it. We stand at the precipice and peer over the edge, frightful because we see nothing whatsoever below, nothing to make sense of, nothing to verify the separation between above and below, our curiosity beckons us toward self-destruction, to jump, yet we are paralyzed. The burden of guilt, and the endless war.

The Tree Of Life: Life’s Work from Otto on Vimeo.

There is, however, only one thing that silences the war– grief. Utter, and complete loss. In grief all questions narrow, metamorphose into “Why?” There is no dogma steadfast enough to justify the loss that the O’Brien family experiences. Jack also watches his mother, attempts to see through her eyes as she asks “Lord, why? Where were you?” Here he discovers the weight of history. Through her eyes he sees the cause and effect of nature, that all things manifest are inevitable. He sees that loss is inescapable. “Answer me,” she begs. As we understand early in the film because of the telegram Mrs. O’Brien receives, the family has peered over that precipice and saw nothing where they were told they would see God. They are cautioned, though, “does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away?…Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?”

The Tree Of Life: Lacrimosa from Otto on Vimeo.

However deep her suffering, Mrs. O’Brien continues to be a beacon of grace for Jack. He hears her pain, “We cry to you, ‘My soul, my son.’ hear us,” but he carries her voice with him into his adulthood. Her voice is the memory of the times he and his brothers play in the river, the memory of his birth, family dinners, afternoons spent cradled in her lap on the river bank. From the expenses of the past grace reaches out to him, and he hears her voice, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

The Tree Of Life: Love from Otto on Vimeo.

All the skepticism, the tumult, is quieted. Just as Jack has begun to forfeit his tendencies toward nature and begin to accept the way of grace through his family’s loss, we are invited to ponder our own griefs, many as they are. Is there any refuge from grief, and what does it mean to be redeemed? Do we forgive for the sake of love and happiness? “You spoke to me through her,” he says, her voice echoing from the past and beyond even his own recollection. “Lacrimosa,” or “weeping,” resounds from long before even the Earth was formed. The tragedy of his family, it’s grief, is felt long before its own cohesion. He knows this, and asks, “When did you first touch my heart?” The way of nature, though, points in one direction, the direction he will ultimately choose, a path that leads to grace.

The Tree Of Life: Questions from Otto on Vimeo.

And so, whatever Malick’s motivations, he invites us all to heed Jack’s story, embrace our grief, our inner dichotomies, and quiet those factions, to realize that our struggles are far greater than the sum of our selves, so that we can move towards grace.

Having Already Jumped: Thoughts about End of the Tour

I just got back from watching the film End of the Tour. Don’t remember saying “thank you” to the lone attendant at the theatre, but I know I did. Sat on my bike for a long time, engine running, helmet, gloves and jacket on, and sweating in the August early afternoon. I sat and stared for a while, listening. Though, to what I have no idea. Must’ve been the same mode, the same staring at nothing in particular after I saw Mindwalk or My Dinner with Andre, broken only when an elderly woman pulled up in a Buick and parked right next to me, stoned rings on every one of her fingers.

Feeling very ashamed at the moment. Ashamed that I haven’t taken the time to read Wallace’s work. A copy of Infinite Jest has been sitting on my shelf for well over six years now, a clear indication of my status as a lightweight, a poser. How long can one hide from their own insecurities, their own, complacencey, apathy, lethargy? A simple equation S+a/W•w=L, where “S” is the weight of society, a weight that has, throughout the years, hammered one’s confidence down, shaping it into the sprocket necessary to continue the provisions of the wealthy few, “a” is the aggravation that has resulted, the particular dismay learned and conditioned only by consistent failure, “W” is the proposed body of work one is expected to accomplish, “w” is the body of work actually accomplished, and finally, “L” is unbridled laziness. Try this list on the Sesame Street Alphabet segment.

There was an idea brought up around the climax of the film. I’m going to have to paraphrase, of course, because I can’t remember the lines. It’s late. Wallace enters the guest room where Lipsky is staying. The two have been carrying around an awkward silence, an anger pointed at one another, but a circumstantial anger and resentment, one neither of them could help but feel nor distinguish the reasons for or the origins of. Wallace needs to apologize, but can’t find a justification for it beyond defending his need to protect his interests, which, he arguably has lost sight of. He references a section in his book, where a person makes the choice to jump out of a burning sky-scraper. To outside observers, the jump is the horror, the absolute of self-destruction, unquestionable death. Yet, to the person who decides to jump, the fall is the escape from the horror that awaits them otherwise. He goes on to say that he grew up entirely “American,” that he realized his fears, relentless anxieties that had come to define him, were altogether unfounded. That there was nothing to be afraid of. That was exactly the point, that there really was nothing whatsoever behind the veil of his existence. The greatest horror of all, nothing. Sartre one-oh-one. And so, anything that could help him escape from the “faux” of it all, be it television, drinking, a job as a security guard where he had no concerns and was amused by trivial things, all of it could serve to help him escape the fate of nothing. He was free to jump out of the burning building into his addiction, the chance to “turn off,” and fall into the banal world of television.

I don’t know the validity of the conversations that took place in the film, nor what percentage has been altered to fit the context of ninety-minute cinema. I could read Lipsky’s book, and intend to, but again, verisimilitude remains a question. If nothing else, though, the loneliness that Wallace mentions, and how it is inescapable because he sees something that no one else does, this is what will echo through these chasms for a long time. If not in the hollows of my own thoughts, but in the empty zeitgeist that, I feel, society seems to define. Is this not part of the great struggle to find more, or less value in the public and the private self? Is there not a raging conflict between the two? The battles between them have become so constant and ubiquitous that we hardly register the difference between the two. They are one in the same, our selves, ourselves. And yet, somehow both are controlled by forces unseen, colossal influences just beyond the horizon of our perceivable landscape.

During the dénouement, Lipsky attempts to fill in the blanks about Wallace. Wallace steps outside to begin to cut away the ice and snow that has buried his car, Lipsky hurriedly walks around Wallaces home with his tape recorder and speaks into it, listing and describing objects found around the house. He’s desperate to find some substance beyond the esoteric conversations that he and Wallace have had. Soda cans, Mountain Dew and Pepsi, stains on the carpet from the dogs, cigarette burning in an ash tray, cartoon of left and right human brain and a dog brain on the refrigerator, blue toilet seat, postcards on the wall of the bathroom. Lipsky is compelled to gather this information for two reasons. Firstly, he needs copy, something to round out the article. Lipsky is also attempting to reverse engineer Wallace, map him, define the equation that makes Wallace the success that he is, figure him out so that he can then apply the same terms of the equation in his own calculations, and therefore discover his own measure of success. But it doesn’t work. For as he finds these items in the house, he does not see the banality they alert too. They are the drone of the emptiness Wallace mentions earlier in the narrative, the drone Lipsky does not hear. It’s only after Wallace’s death that Lipsky begins to detect but the echo of what Wallace had said.

Right behind you, Dave. Right behind you.

“Poor Stevie”: The Element of the Grotesque and Identity in Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Stevie’s death in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent is undoubtedly one of the most baffling and violent moments in literature. It is certainly a tragic incident in the novel, but when pursuing a more clear definition of its distinct grotesque quality we begin to uncover a multifaceted correlation between each character and their sense of identity. With particular focus on Chief Inspector Heat, we can see that in exposing each successive layer of this correlation morality and social aesthetic become increasingly arbitrary. Thus, it is the element of the grotesque which destabilizes any sense of a singular, unified identity.

It seems the human psyche, no matter how morally resolute, will always be guilty of a voyeuristic infatuation with destruction. This is entirely natural. Take for example a moment from another of Conrad’s works, Under Western Eyes, when the “excited crowd” assembles “round the sledge” of the Minister-President after the first bomb explodes (Under Western Eyes 59). The crowd immediately gathers and it is only after witnessing the awe of destruction that they offer aid to the coachmen and the Minister-President. It’s as if the sight of destruction demands an audience. For what is destruction if not gazed upon and contemplated? To Chief Inspector Heat in The Secret Agent, the fleshy scraps collected from the site of the bombing that are displayed upon the hospital table are just such a sight to be witnessed, investigated, and marveled at. He stoops “guardedly over the table” of the indistinguishable remains (The Secret Agent 70), but what is to be “guarded”? Simply being near the remains, he feels he is in the presence of a “shattering violence of destruction” which threatens to turn he too into “a heap of nameless fragments” with “ruthless cruelty.” He is deeply mortified at the thought of experiencing the violence of having his own body shredded by a fiery bomb blast; it is ironic then that his name is “Heat.” This is a moment for him to ponder his own death, face its inevitability, and he realizes it is consistent with and inextricable from one of the most basic definitions of the human condition– pain. His “calm face” conceals his inner consternation as he peers at the table like a shopper “bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher’s shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner” (70). The image of the butcher shop uses the allegory of the meat packing industry to affirm the sentiment of the moment: an insignificant animal is raised for the sole purpose of slaughter and will inevitably face the cold, apathetic forces of commerce in the form of its complete dismemberment. We get the sense that the manner of Stevie’s death is also inevitable and equally dispassionate for he is subject to the forces of ideological, political, and socioeconomic maneuvering.

This dismemberment greatly affects Inspector Heat because of his instinct to empathize, or his attempt to imagine himself in Stevie’s position. He imagines himself being destroyed by the blast of a bomb:

It seemed impossible to believe that a human body could have reached that state of disintegration without passing through the pangs of inconceivable agony. No physiologist, and still less of a metaphysician, Chief Inspector Heat rose by the force of sympathy, which is a form of fear, above the vulgar conception of time. 

Sympathy as a “form of fear” is key to understanding the grotesqueness of the image. The human body itself is arguably the most grotesque object to us for many reasons. There is a primordial aspect about our concept of all objects foreign to our bodies, such as rocks, chemicals, and especially things that are biological like predators or even fungi. This primordial aspect– fear. That is, we assess a foreign object as something to be frightened of according to the level of physical harm it may effect upon our fragile bodies. Rocks are solid and rigid in contrast to our soft flesh, chemicals are associated with burns, predators maul and devour, and fungi decompose, reminding us that the antithesis of life is not death, but the absence of a body’s homeostasis. The body is the only tool we have, or the only frame of reference by which we relate and quantify consequences caused by objective forces to our self-awareness– our identity. In other words, we identify ourselves as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, and this sense of identity depends upon our body’s homeostasis, or its amalgamated and sustained health. Grotesque occurs when the body is pressed beyond its physical limits. We might press those limits via a delusion that the body is infinite in its faculties, but in doing so, we discover that the body is, in fact, flawed and imperfect. This thought of imperfection, or the failure of homeostasis, induces a fear that is “at once underlined and contained by the defamiliarizing of the human” (Phillips 44). In other words, if the physical human body is deconstructed there is no unified identity and there remains instead only unrelated parts which no longer signify a whole. For example, the ball joint of the femur does not make sense without the socket of the hipbone. Much the same, a clump of flesh does not independently signify the whole of Stevie’s body.

This defamiliarizing is consistent with Conrad’s “discomfort with reducing a group of individuals as a ‘public’” because this “results, in [his] imagination, not in a unified, unbroken body but a mass of mismatched undifferentiated features” (Oliver 210). The word “grotesque” is itself “a storage-space for the outcasts of language, entities for which there is no appropriate noun” (Harpham xxi). This is where a “sense of formal disorder” arises in things we perceive to be grotesque and where “ontological, generic or logical categories are illegitimately jumbled together.” As an “outcast of language,” the word grotesque is linked to anarchy in that they both defy definition. Things that are grotesque are thus made up of indescribable parts. For example, while being essentially made up of countless drops of water, a puddle still has a form and is situated in one local, but the rain which formed that puddle is chaotic and difficult to quantify. Originating from visual art, the grotesque is then primarily concerned “with the beholder and the beholder’s attempt to define and categorize” every aspect of human life  according to social norms or moral statutes “to which the grotesque may be regarded as resistant, hence the predominantly negative view of it held during the eighteenth century” (Phillips 42-43). Because Conrad was determined to expand the reader’s experience of his work, this may be why the grotesque is so evident in the novel.

In The Secret Agent, these “mismatched” and “undifferentiated features” become the visceral, unforgettable image of Stevie’s remains. Conrad might have used the element of the grotesque, in this case, as a “strategy for fragmenting rather than unifying his reading public” who, as suggested by the singular word “public,” are otherwise considered to share universally the same experience of reading his novel (Oliver 210). Instead, fragmentation, or the grotesque image of the remains of Stevie’s body, “favors multiplicity and uncertainty” (211). Thus, the definition of identity expands beyond the physical boundaries of the body and begins to test the limits of the psyche. Upon witnessing Stevie’s remains, Inspector Heat first empathizes with Stevie’s pain, then enters the foyer of the existential question– the meaning of life. In that instant of grotesque destruction, where lies the “inexplicable mysteries of conscious existence,” Heat sees a vast expanse of time and human experience (The Secret Agent 70). He sees “long and terrifying dreams” and an “atrocious pain and mental torture” that is “contained between two successive winks of an eye”. He comes to understand that the single most significant element that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is the knowledge of mortality. To ponder one’s own finitude of his or her lifetime in relation to the infinitude of time and space is quite possibly the only acceptable meaning of life, albeit horrific. What’s more, the conclusions drawn from this internal struggle yield no further insight into the nature of identity. Inspector Heat can not even identify the bomber which means that his empathy for the deceased is displaced, and therefore in his attempt to identify with the deceased by imagining himself in the latter’s place he too becomes “mismatched,” formless, indistinguishable, and without identity.

Through his investigation of the bombing, Inspector Heat thus comes to discover that its grotesque aspect signifies a violence almost infinitely deep because it exposes and threatens to destabilize the core of human identity. He is ultimately able to cope with the grim sight of Stevie’s remains because shortly thereafter he discover’s the only psychological weapon to counteract the grotesque. This weapon is not the body– which is fragile and finite –but comedy, or humor. After being awestruck by the remains in the hospital he says “grimly” to the constable on duty, “‘The coroner’s jury will have a treat’,” the irony being that there is so little of the body for the coroner to examine much less make a report on which would add anything not already apparent in the case (79). While comedy may be equally hazardous as the grotesque, it is a great equalizer that renders the profound and the horrific as arbitrary, for “hazard has such accuracies” (208).

 

Works Cited

Danow, David K.. The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. NY: Penguin Classics, 2007. Print.

––– Under Wester Eyes. NY: Penguin Group, 1989. Print.

Harpham, Geoffrey. On the Grotesque. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982. Print.

Meindl, Dieter. American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque. Coumbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1996. Print.

Oliver, Matthew. “Conrad’s Grotesque Public: Pornography and the Politics of Reading in The Secret Agent.” Twentieth-Century Literature 55.2 (2009): 209-231. Print.

Owens, Margaret E.. Stages of Dismemberment: The Fragmented Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Drama. Cranbury, NJ: Rosement Publishing & Printing Corp., 2005. Print.

Phillips, Terry. “A Study in Grotesques: Transformations of the Human in the Writing of Liam O’Flaherty.” Gothic Studies 7.1 (2005): 41-52. Print.

Days Like Today

It’s familiar, routine.

Awake before everyone else in the house, before most everyone in your neighborhood. You smell it in the air, taste it. It urges you, ignites your desire to grab the keys and go. Your muscles are stiff from an entire weekend of having not moved much except to cycle through the list of “honey-do”s. You abhor that list, not just because they are things you do with or without the list, but because your version of the list includes the one thing that you need most. But like a child who is told “you can’t have your dessert unless you finish your meal” you are trapped in the domestic limbo of laundry, cooking, cleaning, walking the dog you didn’t want in the first place, grocery shopping, more laundry, entertaining the in-laws, staring at online job-applications because of course you’re drastically underemployed and underpaid, resenting the process of online job applications because of course you don’t even work for these companies yet and you’re already being undervalued and treated like a peon, paying bills on credit, still more laundry, yet more cleaning, and on to infinitum, everything but the one thing you have made explicitly clear that you need solo time for. But, as usual, your needs have been entirely subjugated and swept under the rug of “doing the right thing, placing others first.” Now it’s Monday. In three hours you will once again be bent over a desk and sodomized for nine hours straight by Uncle Sam and Uncle Wall Street. But it doesn’t have to be so bad if only you could get in an hour or so at your favorite break. It’s not the best spot and you’re sometimes chided by others for preferring it, but whether it’s got ankle-biters or those rare peaks that will cut your head off, you always find it to be a challenge. And lets face it, there’s nothing more realigning, more centering, more wholesomely chaotic than sitting alone on your best heavily dinged, delaminated board while watching a pod of three dark shadows pass directly under you and quietly resurface only a few meters away just as a brown pelican glides silently past you riding a pocket of air in front of an incoming wave.

It won’t happen, again, this morning. It’s now a quarter to the hour. Fortunately your commute is only a few minutes, but have yet to shower, eat, and do all the other petty things we are conditioned to do according to the bourgeoisie schedule. “And miles to go before I sleep” repeats endlessly in your head.

You step over your board bag just as you fasten your name badge to your breast pocket. You quickly glance in the mirror to make sure your mask is on properly, then grab your keys, step out the door and arch your back to accept the heavy foot of Moloch.