(B)logging Off

It is hard to write or speak openly and honestly in this country, at this especial moment, without risking one’s reputation. Naturally, if one’s surname is rare and city is small the risk extends to his family members. I’m talking parents, siblings, brothers- and sisters-in-law in particular. If one is a boor with women, his mother’s friends may hear of it. If one is an office boob, his father’s might. And if one writes boldly, if not stridently on occasion, to the editor of his local newspaper (or in a diaristic blog), they certainly will. I do, and they have.

Ben Franklin sometimes published as Caelia Shortface or Silence Dogood, Washington Irving as Diedrich Knickerbocker, Eric Arthur Blair as George Orwell, Karen Blixen as Isak Dinesen. In the Age of Information and the internet, a pen name may ultimately do very little to obscure one’s identity (and protect his loved ones). Then again, with a little ingenuity and tact, it may “do the trick.” Claudio Gatti says Anita Raja is Elena Ferrante, but doubts persist. (Ask any disgraced public figure: once sown, they endure.) And, even if Gatti’s revelation is true, such intensive sleuthing couldn’t possibly visit a nobody, moi, for whom fame—ha!—and fortune— ha ha!—won’t come, if ever, until he is long dead. 

I don’t think I’ll go mononymous, like Stendhal or Voltaire or Tupac. (One should earn that kind of ostentation.) And Pseudonymous Bosch is taken. (A pox on you, Raphael Simon, whoever you are.) But it’s decided: going forward I will write (hide) under a nom de plume, a fraud through and through. I want to be free to broach chancy subjects, to speak inappropriately and unreservedly, to die on my cross. I don’t want to bring shame or embarrassment to the living, unless they deserve it. (None whom I love does.) So, I’ll be changing (transitioning?), and moving.

I’m only sorry I can’t bring you along.

In Abstentia

He is not here, you who

See by pink and little light,

His clothes therein discarded, limp—

A smirking stranger too, in white.

He is not here, the eye

Confirms what happened by the night;

The heart however galloping

And speaking without words takes flight.

He is not here, the first

To break the spell of sleep, with bright

Contortions morning tries and comes

And turns to fools the erudite.

He is not here, and yet

He is, incredulous by lens and sight;

He is not here—alas,

He is out bringing low the high and might.

The Trouble With Being American

Note: This piece, you’ll find, is dated. It was written during an Indian summer late last year. Fearing it to be too much of a drag, I wavered and decided, ultimately, to table it. Rereading it in our post-Trump era of accelerating ensauvagement I found my pessimism—and anxiety—hasn’t waned. My country is diseased. It is bipolar. I worry, perhaps like any loving son, that it is “on the skids.” But this is not so much an obituary as a portrait of the nation as an old man.

“Do you have the nagging feeling something is wrong with you?” 

I note the sensation of being reeled-in; the mononymous “Sadiq,” sender of the unsolicited email, is on (up?) to something. His premise—promise—is tantalizingly nonspecific—the second coming of Christ would be a close analogue—and yet augurs my own prophecy of an impending, streamlined solution (“Click here now!”) to the Gordian knot that is this year: “Become the man you used to be, guaranteed!” Not only does Sadiq divine with surgical precision two cherished pet afflictions, my nostalgia and Weltschmerz; he pledges, with a rinky-dink brand of pomaded enthusiasm, to fix me up. The mensch.

What is the matter with me? I’m constipated, lethargic, undersexed, underemployed. (Full disclosure: I’m now full-time.) On occasion my ticker trips into and out of an arrhythmia of free jazz. (Think Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Arkestra.) I fall asleep to reruns of Firing Line and wake up besieged by dreams of Brooks Brothers ties and pens flocking overhead like Canada geese to warmer climes. I have resorted to bottom-shelf syrahs and a flip phone. I am a writer.

“Sorrow,” wrote philosopher Henri Bergson, “begins by being nothing more than a facing towards the past […] And it ends with an impression of crushing failure, the effect of which is that we aspire to nothingness.” Sadiq’s email forgoes elaboration of its seductive carrot—probably it links to a black market trade in phony pills for erectile dysfunction. Decline, and all of its melancholic correlatives, is its implicit theme, at any rate. (The id is willing, but the flesh is weak.) The falling part, in practice less a postscript than the fag end of the same thing, also goes unmentioned—that would be a tad uncouth—but is, at any rate, a well-documented phenomenon (see the Roman Empire, Mankind, the Life Alert lady). I’ll admit my redeemer has hit a spot of bother, and that perhaps I’m lodging a wily serpent scheming to carry me wither I wouldest not. To a psychiatric clinic, for instance. 

How’s that for solipsism? Forgive me—Science insists I am a product of my environment, a child of our time (a child being a “product of conception”). Who would conceive of such times! Such weird times, living out the planned obsolescence of an already defective product. Yes, I am an American. (We are always a decade or two behind Europe.) But orchestrating the ritardando of a nation—President Obama called this “leading from behind”—is a storied pastime. “There is just something missing in everything,” sensed Austrian novelist Robert Musil, “though you can’t put your finger on it.” His book, The Man Without Qualities, was published amid the heinous events of the second World War and the Shoah, yet the sentiment still lingers “in the air.” The essence of deficiency, of a malignant cynicism, the acrid fumes of this summer’s Grand Guignols—I smell rotten eggs. More conspicuously it is in the streets, in our politics, our mores and social (mis)behavior. You’ve seen the pictures. And you know the drill. Revere, Spengler, Toynbee, Houellebecq—the soothsayers of Western Civilization have again lit the lamps of the Old North Church. Only it is not the redcoats, nor a Red Scare, for whom they sound the alarm this time, but for America’s own feral (defective) children (products)—We the People. The call is coming from inside the house. We are haunted. “Are you Cioran by any chance?” the gloomy French philosopher was asked one day by a passerby. “I used to be,” he says.

During a plague the shock value of this realization is somewhat tempered by the circumstances—being indoors is de rigueur. I find myself, in the spirit of A. E. Housman, a “stranger and afraid, in a world I never made,” myopic and pajamaed, betting my salvation on the last great refuge of hucksterism: the spam box. Click here now! Perhaps you can put a finger on it. For a moment, picturing my transfiguration, I feel positively Micawberish, a stupid half-smile lifting in proud defiance of reason to the dead bulk of the computer screen. The mouse hovers over the text, the text over a cheap mystery, mystery over my Sadiq. But I hesitate and navigate the arrow twenty or thirty tabs over to the good stuff, real manna—the ever-breaking news—a dog to his vomit. Kismet be damned. Click. 

To be, or not to be saved. If not the question, it is an apt one for quicksilver times like these. Oswald Spengler is emphatic: “Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue.” (From a watery grave Captain Ahab silently pumps his fists.) There will be no champion—Wilfred of Ivanhoe, the disinherited knight, never shows, and Rebecca is burned at the stake. Herod’s minions overtake Bethlehem before Joseph gets word and Christ’s assignment ends with his nativity. Is this the font of my misery? My surmises that the cause is irrevocably lost? That our tale does not end with a “happily ever after”? This is not a spell of triumph for the patriot. The élan vital of the American is gagged, suppressed as much by administrative zealots (“Six feet, or else!”) as interior conflicts of purpose, identity and meaning made inexorable (again) by “the Course of human events.” (Internet pundit Eric Weinstein has observed, “The Big Nap is over.”) Is it—this tohubohu—a cycle of remission and relapse endemic to high culture, perhaps existence on the whole? Something seasonal, like sleep (or journalism, says Terry Teachout), “made to be drifted into—and out of”?

No, “The world has always been in turmoil,” said Whittaker Chambers in the throes of his witness against Alger Hiss and communist infiltration into federal institutions; its dysfunction, in the parlance of Weinstein’s “intellectual dark web,” is a feature, not a bug. (Even the world’s end, warned a sardonic Thomas Merton, “will be legal.”) It has not, however, always collaborated—the nouveaux enfants du siècle with their sympathetic magistrates in corporate towers and government—on such a monolithic scale in its own demise. Defeat—the Éric Zemmours of the age would call it suicide—seems the point, erasure the intended effect, death—in classic Freudian gloom—“the goal of all life,” if not the bread of it.

What on earth is wrong with us? Bruce Robinson’s cult classic Withnail and I makes a prescient diagnosis from the bowels of better days (“For whom?” I hear my critics howl), Tom Wolfe’s “‘Me’ decade”: “We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell, making an enemy of our own future. What we need is harmony, fresh air, stuff like that.” But, “what dreams may come,” warns The Bard, “must give us pause.” Some three centuries on, the wounds of Dresden and Dachau still wet, Aldous Huxley gussies them up: “the dream of Order begets tyranny, the dream of Beauty, monsters and violence.” And the dream of Power, I’d add, begets deceit. “Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer,” smirked G. K. Chesterton. Imagine his heartburn at the prospect of trading blows with a buxom, expecting “woman” who only yesterday made water standing up.

If only we could speak of little leaves! (“The fundamental task is to achieve smallness,” argued economist E. F. Schumacher.) For it is happening, again—tawny and fire engine red ones, frostbitten and dislodged by rain, have bunched at the curb and wedged their petioles into the windshields of cars that no longer go anywhere. Piled like bones they give cover to toddlers and fumbled footballs. And in the evenings, with a breeze, they skitter like rats across lawns, break up and into quiet houses on the soles of wet cleats. The dream of Summer begets the Fall “with slow and lingering descent,” as Rilke observed. “It is the law.” He who has eyes to see, let him weep.

Perhaps I’m dressing our dilemma in so much poetry because this moment looks and sounds so predictably dreary, so much like the perfect realization of Guy Debord’s “spectacle” that affirms the degradation of life into mere appearance and script. (“There is life no longer,” says Theodore Adorno.) I haven’t read The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit but I feel a sequel—how about They/Them In the Drawstring Black Hoodie—may be in the offing, ripe as the moment is for caricature and “deconstruction.” In the dream of the Clean Slate devotees of The Good Life are seduced by and subsumed in a one-dimensional, vulgar and banal preoccupation called organizing. (Or disorganizing, if you’d rather.) You’ve seen these pictures, too. To paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville, nothing is less poetic than the life of a man in these United States. (Our women fare somewhat better, save the Cardi Bs and HRCs who seem to have confused the deadly sins for the heavenly virtues.) Case in point: this generation’s fetish for disorder. Having scorched the good in search of novelty, they turn to the bad and call it good. Hence, “the highest degree of illusion,” says Ludwig Feuerbach, “comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.”

I confess, it’s got me down in the mouth, all this talk of “burning it down,” of endings and decay. Even Angela Merkel, Germany’s indefatigable chancellor, sometimes longs “for a room in which I can go to be sad.” Her disarming admission—not for nothing is she endearingly nicknamed “Mutti,” or “Mommy”—is perhaps evidence of a collective wish for less, for the world (of Gene Deitch’s The Hobbit) “before men came to power and ruined magic forever.” (Ladies, carpe diem.) Perhaps we long to turn off, to return, as Milan Kundera imagines in The Joke, to the “mute stage of evolution when there were no words and people communicated by simple gestures, pointing at trees, laughing, touching one another.” The days, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson (preempting psychedelia), when, “Earth laugh[ed] in flowers.” She must cry now in bullhorns, riot shields and tattoos. 

Must she cry now in bullhorns, riot shields and tattoos? All these wagging fingers and judge-y tongues; it’s too much. (I hear the Grinch—and my dad—lamenting, “All the noise, noise, noise, noise!”) “You’re too this, not enough that,” yell the Little Caesars. It’s hell, said novelist André Malraux of “the attempt to force human beings to despise themselves,” to saddle them like he-goats with the crimes of the dead. Yes, the mot juste for it—the mood, I mean, in these United States—is diabolical. Stańczykian. Do you know the painting? Jan Matejko’s Stańczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona in the Face of the Loss of Smoleńsk. A crestfallen jester, stunned by news of his country’s defeat on the battlefield, sits alone in contemplation, his bauble tossed aside. To his right, in lavish digs, the royals and their flatterers muck it up, unperturbed. To his left a shooting (falling?) star streaks across the night sky, a portent of doom. 

Are we not losing Smoleńsk, too? The news stings—syphilis cases in Alaska are double last year’s tally—and dumbfounds—Scots, for fear of a second pandemic, are not permitted to visit another’s home until the ministers of Riaghaltas na h-Alba say, “jump.” And the French, once the fierce stewards of liberté, nonetheless tolerate the despotic insults of Manu’s ecology minister, who has put the kibosh on traditions of “totally unjustified energy consumption,” such as drinking coffee on a heated terrace in winter. Because climate change, as the kids say these days. Skolstrejk för klimatet! Dodge one hell only to be thrust into another. 

Why have we largely acquiesced to, and even accommodated, such ham-handed top-down perversions of the social contract? Because we despair, poet Les Murray would say. “You feel beneath help, beneath the reach even of Godhead.” The new vernacular we parrot with the same enthusiasm of the cognoscenti through muzzles—Peter Hitchens-ese for “masks”—festooned with demands (“Vote,” “Stay home,” “Wear a mask!”), demagoguery (“This was preventable,” “Masks shouldn’t be political,” “I can’t breathe!”) and run-of-the-mill shout-y slogans (“Read my lips”). Voices, disembodied and vague, somehow slither through, but they are the thrown utterances of the ventriloquist dummy—all eyes, no mouth. The effect is unsettling, surreal—spooky action at a socially sanctioned distance—and deceptive. Frankly, the act—and it is a strange, boring breed of performance art—is unworthy of a people commanded to “love thy neighbor.” For the heart is wicked—what it cannot trust it will doubt and dismiss, or worse.

We take the face, said the late Roger Scruton, “very seriously.” It is “the image of the soul within” and, if God’s word has any currency, that of our Maker, too. The surgeon, the trick-or-treater, the skier and bride veil theirs—for protection, make-believe, warmth, seduction—with an understanding that it is abnormal, a brief caesura in the routine. The criminal shares in the custom but hides his in order to exploit. Such is the power of the face in a free society—that its concealment, contra that of our bodies, is largely objectionable. Scruton pushes even more forcefully: a covered face broadcasts plans “to take advantage of the community without belonging to it.” France (again, but in a more sober state of mind), instead of compromising their allegiance to fraternité, had the gall to ban the burqa and niqab. For the protean American, loyal only to her feelings (and followers), this level of conviction—of (gasp!) discrimination—is likely too “problematic.” (Dare I say, racist?) 

And that’s the rub—whatever its value in mitigating the spread of disease, the mandate to cover the face has benefited one figure unfailingly: the social engineer. He has not been idle, reconfiguring the world—to the specs of Hannah Arendt—into one primed for “the experience of not belonging to the world at all.” The pandemic (and its stooges) has made of us émigrés—trespassers, really—within our own communities. The effect is not unlike the modish carnivalization of cities into mises en scène of amusement and spectacle at the expense of livability; authenticity is sacrificed at the altar of vanity. (A visitor to my hometown may solicit a “wheel of fortune” to decide for him the next stop on his tour of mindless debauchery.) The celebration of autonomy—remember that?—can now preclude that of others and will even be officially endorsed in designated (occupied) spaces replete, like Russian matryoshka dolls, with smaller segregated “free speech zones,” a kabab stand, “grief rituals” and screenings of Paris Is Burning (see Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone). Little is more American than secession—we have been “bowling alone” for decades, at will. But we do so now by fiat and custom (or—see above—illegal commandeering), finding solidarity (or is it sorrow?) in our shared uselessness and isolation, creature from creature, just as sin divides creation from Creator. 

Decline, disenchantment, separation—these are staples of the human condition, the nougat-y center of dis-ease that is the perennial experience of living in finitude. Eve eats the apple. Oedipus fills his eyes with the dagger-like pins of Jocasta’s brooch. The limp flesh of neighbors and brothers in blue and gray turns Antietam Creek an unnatural rouge. New York City health officials press the amorous to fornicate through a hole in the wall—to mitigate the risk of infection from COVID-19—while men in pillow-white hazmat suits dig mass graves on nearby Hart Island for the virus’ kinless victims. The horror! The horror! As a day is to God like a thousand years, and a thousand years a day, so it is with human folly. We are, in 2020, still immersed in the arguments and atmospheres of 1862, 1968 and Eden. Sadiq’s bait was a ruse—the snake! We are already the men we used to be. 

Blame free will, peeve of the bipedal animal that aspires to immortality. This little piggy wants what he should not. This one wants too much. Perhaps Walker Percy’s Little Way, “not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh” is enough. But moderation long ago went the way of the lamplighter, percipience the way of the cloister. Blame serpents. Blame the arc of history. (I hear Bill Buckley, with a mouthful of Red Wing peanut butter, still yelling, “Shhtop!”) We have a rendezvous with destiny, do we not? Think of it—a New America! Who cares if the way to it is crooked or straight, paved in strife or love, lies or truth? (Pontius Pilate, his arms draped about my Sadiq, shrugs, “What is truth?”) Let the leaves fall. It all ends in tears anyway.

Image: Matejko, Jan. Stańczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona in the Face of the Loss of Smoleńsk. 1862, the National Museum, Warsaw.

These Strange Days

In The Design of Everyday Things author and researcher Donald A. Norman makes a shrewd observation of man-made objects that has profound applications to the human condition at-large. “The difficulty of dealing with novel situations,” he argues, “is directly related to the number of possibilities.” In other words constraints—physical, semantic, cultural, logical—are a hallmark of good design that allow and encourage experimentation and enterprise. Too many options—the “tyranny of choice,” as psychologist Barry Schwartz has described the phenomenon—can, instead of satisfaction, generate symptoms of unhappiness: regret, unrealistic expectations, paralysis. (“Dank meme” aficionados—and “Weird Al” Yankovic—call this a “First World problem.”) Anyone old enough to have witnessed television’s transmogrification from coaxial cables and “two-four-six” to today’s glut of programming understands the bewildering effect. (Thanks in no small part to the advent of digital streaming there were, in 2019, over 500 scripted series presented in the United States alone.) Passive non-participation has become too much work. (Our eyes are only so wide.) It is exasperating—blessed though we are—to drink from the proverbial firehose. (Our mouths are only so plastic.) God forbid we must surf it.

Every age has certainly aspired to maximums, to the crossing of thresholds, to perfection. (The Toy Story mantra, “To infinity! And beyond!” is, however trite, perennially apropos.) And each has encountered (and, largely, respected) limits—natural, intellectual, technological, theological. Ours is certainly the first to have achieved a state of abundance, complexity and idyll that—in wanton betrayal of any deference to said restraints—far outstrips the finite abilities of the mind and body to comprehend, experience, consume and organize it. By contemporary norms the hard and software that ships with the standard-issue human being is not enough. (“If it turns out there is a God,” goes the joke in Woody Allen’s Love and Death, “I don’t think He is evil. I think the worst thing you can say about Him is that He is an underachiever.”) Our age is a veritable smorgasbord of opportunity and temptation—everywhere, all of the time, conveniently. And our passions, being fathomless, and imaginations, being singularly cunning, have evolved accordingly, if not asynchronously with our flesh. Almost three-quarters of Americans are overweight. Half are obese. A third—of the men—say they’re addicted to pornography. Six hundred and fourteen are billionaires, each of whom owns, on average, nine homes and nineteen cars. At least one allegedly bedded over 20,000 women, about the population of Laguna Beach, California. The historically sound practices of people in a state of lack (conservation, cooperation, thrift, abstinence, moderation), which describes almost the totality of the homo sapien adventure, appear démodé to our extravagant, individualistic sensibilities. The gift is deficient—we reject it, as it rejected us, the “children of disobedience,” from Eden. (“Freedom,” said Jean-Paul Sartre, “is what you do with what’s been done to you.”) Instead it—this remaking, this so-called Anthropocene (literally, the “Human Age”)—is the rapid oasification of desert by desire, specifically the desire to have, to be satiated in aeternum, of which we now dream.

And yet one gets the impression (via headlines, polls, Twitter feeds, osmosis, self-checkout kiosks, embryonic telepathy abilities maybe) that everyone benefiting—I suppose I can only credibly speak for mine own countrymen—is miserable. (This depression long predates the global blues occasioned by the novel coronavirus and exacerbated by its sister social cataclysms, however.) “You have people in Zimbabwe more optimistic than the French,” says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet of The Telegraph. Indeed you have whole hemispheres with high-speed wireless internet; high-definition televisions in each room; high-inducing personal apothecaries of state-sanctioned pharmacological marvels; high-end meats and whiskeys made in laboratories; highbrow conceptions of civil and human rights, air conditioning, leisure, love. You have people drunk with desire—“so as not to be the martyred slaves of time,” as Baudelaire put it—and endowed with fantastic good fortune and wealth without the presumed concomitant of happiness. The conundrum is a coelacanth of spiritual philosophy. 

Karl Marx explained the paradox this way: humanity’s perceptual powers—“the senses five” that William Blake called “the chief inlets of Soul in this age”—had to wither to an “absolute poverty” in order that our individual troves of experiential “inner wealth” could be turned inside out and committed to external, material demands. (President George W. Bush’s counsel, in the bleak days following 9/11, to “go shopping” could be the reductio ad absurdum of this evolution in consciousness.) This deracination of an entire system of metaphysics did not happen overnight, of course, and it was not a clean split. (We still carry the anthropological memory of what we were.) The divorce, in other words, was not amicable—it placed sadness in the pit of the human experience, sadness for the loss of being once wedded to the circular rhythms of the cosmos, sadness for the ebbing of ignorance, serendipity, mystery and disorganization. (Insert René Descartes’ maniacal laughter, or Adam’s tears, here.) The linear ruling regime of civilization and progress, despite the obvious advantages, still chafes. It is, for many, still our wont to wax nostalgic for what was, though we know of it only through hearsay, cultural refuse and an inchoate residual memory that in combination is dissociating, otherworldly. 

Happiness, wrote novelist Milan Kundera, is “the longing for repetition.” Ritual, order, expectancy, presence—intrigues of the Old World, a place without maps (ergo, without a future). “The supreme absurdity of the modern world,” said Chesterton, is “that it imagines that it can introduce anarchy into the intellect without introducing anarchy into the commonwealth,” into us, into our very bodies. As Nicholas Kristof observes in a recent edition of The New York Times, that predilection for disorder is evident even in a man’s sperm, which increasingly “loll aimlessly in circles, rather than furiously swimming in pursuit of an egg.” (His reporting blames a suite of chemicals known as endocrine disrupters.) Our sexual wells may in fact be poisoned, but the sperm also exhibit the behaviors of the melancholic—perhaps the life-disgust of Sartre’s schizotypal Roquentin—who has mistaken mirage for truth, sand for a spring. (The Empty Quarter is—the Bedouins know—rather empty after all.) Time, instead of something to which we submit and ride like a carousel, is to our hubristic intuitions a force to be manipulated and tamed. Anna Bowman Dodd envisioned such a society over a century ago, one in which, tête-à-tête, “the entire population seems to have but one really serious purpose in life—to murder time which appears to be slowly killing them.” 

“All is vanity,” King Solomon posits in Ecclesiastes. (I imagine millions of sperm pondering the merits of existence on their fitful pilgrimage through uterine moil to the Temple of Life.) He’d traversed Blake’s roads of excess, tasted every sweet ambrosia and arrived at the (understaffed) ramparts of the palace of wisdom. The Isa Upanishad, the Tao Te Ching, Christ and Muhammad too—all warn of the folly of indulgence in transient stuff. In Charles Allan Gilbert’s pun-laden memento mori of the same name a beautiful woman sits at her, ahem, vanity and together with her reflection in a large round mirror composes a Rorschachian image of a skull. It gives futility a face, that of death, the shadow side of pleasure. (In France, for example, the post-intercourse comedown is often referred to as la petite mort—“the little death.”) His is a seductive mien, enchanting even. “It can never fail to be exciting,” author Graham Greene argued, “this curve up to success and down to death.” (He had in mind the disgraced arc of an infamous con man, Sweden’s “Match King.”) But is this really the face we seek? To have and to hold, till death do we realize our imprudence. Why, then, given the option of an escape—of a glamorous suicide—choose its austere antipode, life? 

The particulars of that riddle are the concern of Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin, whose narrator—“protagonist” feels too generous, too heroic a descriptor in this instance—has come, like Querry of Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, “to the end of everything.” Like his spiritual forebear Henri Michaux, Houellebecq gives the impression he is “writing to you from the end of the world.” Where Michaux found leaves (“There is nothing between them and the tree any more”), Houellebecq finds (or searches for, at any rate) women—lost loves—and a not dissimilar cleft between expectation and experience. (“I felt nothing, radically nothing,” says Serotonin’s aforementioned antihero, Florent-Claude Labrouste.) The novel, in other words, is haunted by a palpable aura of disappointment, the attendant suffering and its inevitability. (Oh, and drugs—every trauma of this “generally inhuman and shitty age” is soothed with mind-altering palliatives.) As Greene learned, it is “something which will always be provided when it is required” (the grief, I mean, not the drugs, though perhaps both are reliably in season nowadays).

Existence unadorned, straight—the given—offers Florent only pain. It must be disturbed. (Even his name, which he thinks in its hyphenated form is effete, is indefensible.) He is, in this regard, an inheritor of Thomas De Quincey’s “desperate adventures of morality” in mind alteration and eudaemonic sojourning. The “moral ulcers” oozing from his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater introduced to Georgian era society a dissonant chord that Houellebecq has carried into what he believes is the coda for, broadly, protean, end-of-history liberalism. (Not incidentally do both Serotonin and its predecessor, Submission, begin in essentially the same fashion—in a mise en abyme allusion to the West—with each narrator realizing “that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.”) The archetype of the jaded hunter of “authentic experience”—the worldly person who Max Weber says is unable to “take a side” or face the tests of ordinary routine “because the various different value systems in the world are in irresolvable conflict”—is now a common fixture on the page (and the street), but Houellebecq seems preternaturally disposed to drawing-up its paragons and dancing them like double-jointed marionettes through the psychologically napalmed and morally equivocal, pluralist vacuums of end-stage epicureanism, just as Theo Van Gogh was and did for the silver screen. (Both, perhaps unsurprisingly, have expressed nationalist and nativist loyalties—“Nationalists can talk to one another,” Houellebecq wrote in Harper’s—and one was assassinated as a consequence.)

The first thing we learn of Florent—the book’s curtains have parted but a smidge—is that waking is peak-suffering. Coffee and a cigarette are of little comfort. He presumes the second act of his life will mimic the first in its “flabby and painful” descending course, and tells us his greatest consolation is “a small, white, scored oval tablet” called Captorix. The antidepressant is his—and the book’s, literally—Alpha and Omega, his god, supplemented with a pantheon of lesser gods (calvados, Grand Marnier, various wines). In a potent dose of irony and ideological symbolism the pill renders the sex-obsessed civil servant impotent. While his perversions fail to reach the seedy heights of previous creations in the Houellebecq canon—see Bruno of The Elementary Particles and Platform’s Michel Renault, especially—Florent is nonetheless a man inarguably guided by his crotch and an errand to locate its perfect complement. (“Perhaps I will be rebuked,” he predicts, “for placing too much importance on sex.”) In a Foucauldian sense he is convinced the meaning of his life will be (and had been) revealed through orgasm, that the promise (and sentiment) of this dream is, per Shakespeare, “giddy Fortune’s furious fickle wheel,” that his die is cast—that death, as Georges Bataille writes in Story of the Eye, will be “the sole outcome of my erection.” 

Only our subject, remember, is now a eunuch, a plainly unlikeable one. (“He put a repulsive character at the heart of the novel and set about making him compelling,” says Graham Greene’s biographer of the writer’s debut, A Man Within.) His modus operandi is one of retreat—from confrontation, from love, from humanity, from duty. “Nothing,” he admits, could stop his entropic social descent “to zero.” It is kismet. And yet Houellebecq repeatedly presents the man with salvific opportunities, ripe possibilities, new beginnings. “Assume responsibility,” Houellebecq seems to command of Florent, “now. Do it now.” But he is untethered and adrift, happily (perhaps there is a better word), in a miasma of his own making. Florent’s type is the offspring, if not the begetter, of liquid modernity, a term popularized by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. He is committed to nothing, no one, resigned to the fate of a leaf, hurled about by great social forces of which he is primarily a voyeur, hardly a player. (His bumper sticker philosophy could be summed-up as, “save your own arse.”) For much of the book Florent is a guest of an old friend who runs a dairy farm and lets a collection of bungalows for additional income. The man’s wife has ensconced to London with a home-wrecking pianist, management of the farm has become untenable and he drinks, heartily, beginning at breakfast. He organizes a protest of government malfeasance in the pricing of milk, and there, at the zenith of his despair—the unforgivable sin—takes his life in a performance not unlike those of Tibet’s self-immolating monks. (In non-fictionalized “real life,” according to a state report, every other day one French farmer does the same for largely the selfsame objections to the “gallows of globalization,” as one union leader starkly illustrated the situation.) “What are we going to do with the cows?” Florent asks investigators the next day. (Their keeper is dead, the particulars of their care suddenly in doubt.) “In the end it was their problem, not mine,” he concludes and departs. “Who was I to imagine I could change the course of the world?” 

God, thinks Florent, “is a mediocre script writer.” Indeed, as one reads of him eating pork sausages and watching midnight mass on television, alone, on Christmas it is difficult to argue with his thesis. (If—in a clever puncturing of “the fourth wall”—by “god” he has in mind instead his author, Houellebecq himself, Florent isn’t necessarily wrong, either.) He is incapable, it seems, of beholding life as anything but a sequence of preordained entertainments, most of which hold his attention for only as long as they stimulate him erogenously. “I needed love,” he admits, “and love in a very precise form, I needed love in general but in particular I needed a pussy, there were so many pussies—billions on the surface of a moderate-sized planet, it’s crazy how many pussies there are when you think about it, it makes you feel dizzy.” (Sentences with more elegant structure and logical punctuation have been composed with crayon in wide ruled notebooks and bathroom stalls.) Words fail him, women fail him, strangers fail him. “Something in heaven,” he thinks, will intervene. In wanting to have life happen to him, to have his circumstances improved without an attendant improvement within, Florent cannot conceive—with any nuance, at least—of his autonomy, even as he wanders aimlessly from place to place, partner to partner in what the Mundaka Upanishad calls “the paths of unwisdom.” (An encounter with a “chestnut-haired” Hebe—“probably the last possibility of happiness that life had placed in my path”—and the lukewarm self-contempt that he repeatedly stokes in the aftermath of his non-action speaks volumes about his temperament.) He is yoked to externalities, to their manipulative essences—alien, says James Allen, to the real “gaolers of Fate,” his own thoughts. (Serotonin, paradoxically, rarely emigrates from the confines of Florent’s skull for anything beyond the flimsiest sketch of dialogue.) He is, alas, emblematically beheaded, a man simultaneously of and estranged from his time.

And Houellebecq, perhaps more than any other contemporary writer, is hailed as its unflinching chronicler (and, some critics argue, most gifted clairvoyant). The early reviews of Serotonin conspiratorially connected the work to the gilets jaunes, the proletarian “yellow vest” campaign roiling France at the time of its publication. Houellebecq was again hailed for his Nostradomus-like faculties—Submission’s theme and publication on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris eerily foreshadowed the red-hot debate about Islam and immigration—which certainly moved units, but by its publication in English almost a year later the movement had simmered, and reading it now—stateside, at least, and distracted by an Iliad of other social calamities—the prophecy lacks potency. In fact, nothing resembling the gilets jaunes enters the novel until page 208, and a hundred later the whole thing is over. (The event, in other words, plays a bit part.) The habit of marketers to first distill a work’s relevancy to the au courant is understandable, but the critic who regurgitates such an interpretation reflexively isn’t entitled to such license—it is her job to examine a text and its asteroid belt of publishing junk, to judge it against an appropriate oeuvre of literary accomplishments, to find (or fail to find) in it a raison d’être that justifies its place in a reader’s hands. One has a duty. And it is in the shirking of it that one recognizes the condition afflicting the forgettable bulk of this generation: a deficit of courage. In its prognosis of that Serotonin is a coup de maître, searing and exact. Prescience alone, however, does not a master make.

Houellebecq’s novels are not a joy to read—they don’t dazzle or test their audiences with innovative plot devices or showcase the phenomenological possibilities of the craft. (He is certainly not a “writer’s writer” in the vein of, say, a James Salter or a Clarice Lispector—stardom has closed that door.) His aesthetic is a sterile forcemeat of rational minimalism, operating manuel-ese and plodding reportage often arranged with a beguiling clumsiness. (Slate’s Cody Delistraty has deemed it an “anti-style.”) In English, at least, he is not inclined to the artful construction of sentences, to poetic flourishes or emotional heft, nor does he catalyze the focused collaboration of faculties that, on rare occasions, elevates a mere book into the realm of literature. (The marked resemblance of Shaun Whiteside’s Serotonin translation to Lorin Stein’s handiwork on Submission in technique and tone suggests the same is true of the original manuscript in the French, but I’m speculating.) Take, for example, his odd repetition of the word “parallelepiped”—to me an unfamiliar, clunky mangling of English that nonetheless communicates something not wholly unlike its dictionary definition. (“In geometry, a parallelepiped is a three-dimensional figure formed by six parallelograms.”) The first time it appeared in the text it stood up on the page, like a zit. A new word! (I keep an ever-growing compendium of unfamiliar ones on my tablet.) I may have smiled. The second time, it being such an unusual expression, I winced. (“It could, perchance, be only an oversight,” I thought to myself.) When it appeared again, mere pages later, I suspected the translator—or perhaps Houellebecq himself—of gross malpractice. To employ the same word—particularly one so gangly—thrice (hell, twice) within such a small window or perhaps in the same book, or even—if the word is peculiar enough, as this one is—in the course of a literary career, is foolish. It is like telling the same dirty joke to different groups of people at a party—too inconspicuous. Someone will overhear it on multiple occasions and think you an imbecile. Once is, in fact, often too much. Parallelepiped, in other words, is a miscalculation, especially as it is employed to describe things as wildly disparate as an iPad, a hifi speaker and a shopping mall. My memory of Serotonin is forever wedded to (and bruised by) it.

Houellebecq’s works are, in a sense, thrillers, page-turners, beach reads with a veneer of astute social commentary and existential philosophy. They are monologic, internal affairs—his dialogue is fragmented, stilted and adds little color to his characters. So commanding is the narrator’s—Houellebecq’s—voice that when someone else speaks one still hears his, albeit in costume. It is a kind of ventriloquism. (“They do not live,” said a reader of Storm Jameson’s characters.) He seems an ungracious deity, inhospitable to the autonomy of his creations. Instead of existing within the world he’s made, oblivious to the maker’s hand, they seem less inventions than recruits—movie “extras”—privy to (and noticeably bored with) its moving parts. (I sense they wish, instead of getting boshed with cowardly bureaucrats in the 5th arrondissement, that they’d studied something practical—education, nursing or computer science—and that they dream of the rural life.) It is unnatural to take pity on the sadist, on the debauched and the damned—even the fictional, perhaps especially the fictional—but with Houellebecq it is also impossible; he doesn’t provide the scaffolding, the requisite dimension for such a feeling. Florent postulates that society, endlessly iterating and reprising and transforming, “[is] a machine for destroying love”—I wonder if Houellebecq is himself such an instrument, if not its hapless custodian. I wonder if his own avowed impotence of influence—“You can only observe and describe,” he told The Paris Review, regarding sweeping social changes—is only an aversion to culpability.

Serotonin—from an oblique angle, in the right light—wears the visage of a veiled, belated mea culpa. How much guilt should a man like Houellebecq, or Florent, bear for the descent of civilization into “a call for oblivion?” If, as Bataille said, “the depiction of happiness is boring,” what is the cost of an artwork—and a life—modeled on (and infatuated with) misery? What is the accumulative effect of such habits on a culture? These are echoes of questions asked long ago, and Houellebecq is certainly not the first to disguise them in the shape of a novel, the perfect vehicle for the examination of our radical fidelity to ambiguity. But, says filmmaker Adam Curtis in his new series Can’t Get You Out of My Head documenting our political stalemate and polarization, “These strange days did not just happen—we and those in power created them together.” Querry, Greene’s man who has “come to the end of everything,” nonetheless continues vacantly “practising pleasure” because it is all he’s known. (It’s his “end of the bargain” with society.) Likewise Florent is unable to observe life through anything but the lens of hyper-sexuality—an ideology reinforced by his doctor, who assumes his malaise is primarily a symptom of his genital dysfunction (not the inverse). His slavish devotion to it, to past scenes of coital triumph—an “existential configuration which I had not left, which I would probably never leave, and which, to tell the truth, I had no intention of leaving”—is his undoing, his bugbear of desire. And this is condoned by the moral authorities. (“You do you,” is the instruction of the moment.) Querry, however, seeks an escape, a transition to an existence concurrently elevated and reduced—to possess “a simple and uncomplex heart,” perhaps a kindling of faith—but is exiled in his unbelief, in the flotsam of a culture that has rejected Him. He is a boy raised by wolves—ambivalence is all he’s known. 

“From society in general I have had nothing.” It will, in return, have nothing from Florent. What he manifests is not a life of piteous and quiet desperation—that implies effort and investment. No, he personifies in his mask of unexceptional affability something much more sinister and infuriating. The coward. The ingrate. The quitter. As a reader it is benumbing to not only encounter but inhabit a character as pathetic as Florent. Chickenshit defeatism is tolerable, even compelling under the stewardship of a writer like John Updike—I’m thinking of his hotshot screwup Rabbit Angstrom—or Charles Jackson—see Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend—or John Fante—his alter-ego Arturo Bandini. There is an absurdist sheen to each of these creations that, in the tragicomic tradition, courts sympathy, and each is worthy of it because there remains in his peril the slim possibility of redemption. Houellebecq—in girding Florent with a predicament so unceasingly dour and contrived—denies him it. (What is the utility of hopelessness?) Florent is instead burdened with an unscalable self-consciousness—he is less a subordinate than the author’s peer. He is—in spite of the leveling effects of his “small, white, oval, scored tablet”—impressively cerebral, scholarly, a thinker of rare erudition. Perhaps that—the habit of the intellectual to obsessively scrutinize and overthink—is the provenance of his perversions, his impenetrable ego, his suicidal fatalism. (Does it really matter?) He is, at any rate, ensnared by “the mechanism of unhappiness”—the most primordial stimulus for his debasement that is endemic to this kingdom. “I was hoping he’d escape in the direction of nobility,” writes Jean Giono of a radicalized friend in his wartime Occupation Journal. But the promise of disorder—of enmity and death—proves too alluring. His pacifist credo, his humanity, atrophies and is rewritten by his desires. Houellebecq is intimate with the temptation, how in its innumerable guises—the latest being the mouvements à l’américaine advancing like an invading battalion through French universities—deconstruction, i.e. self-negation, has entranced and foredoomed the West. (I must give the devil his due.) Appearances, however, are deceiving, no? Le bon Dieu est dans le détail—“the good Lord is in the detail”—said Flaubert. Look and see: of course the old giants of the Occident are only hypnotized—Serotonin discerns as much, but declines to intervene. Nobility? Pshaw! I was hoping our Florent would first escape the clutches of his creator and then himself, in the direction of sentience, for there will be no white knight. There will be no new drugs.

Image: Dalmeu, Andreu. Houellebecq smoking. N.d. Photograph. Shutterstock. Web. 6 March 2021.

War on Error

The scene on the Capitol steps is chaotic. Photographs and videos show islands of plaid and camouflage, fire engine red and fluorescent yellow cutting across shifting waves of black hoodies and blue jeans. Flags—Betsy Ross, Don’t Tread On Me, Blue Lives Matter, Trump 2020, South Korea, South Vietnam—are ubiquitous, rippling in a steady breeze beneath the rotunda and an overcast winter sky. A tear gas canister opens a wound in the crowd and is hurled back at the security forces between it and Congress. The range of expression on the hundreds of faces runs the gamut—wrath, surprise, boredom, amusement. Heads are topped with Stetsons, beanies, paddy caps and buckskin. Superman and Paul Revere are here. At some point in the melee Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick is struck—with macabre symbolism—in the head by a fire extinguisher and dies. It is, in a word, a siege.

Inside, behind a single barricaded door, Senators are prostrate beneath their seats. A man in a Carhartt vest swaggers between portraits of Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, and John C. Calhoun, defender of slavery, with the Southern cross. Another swings the same astride the Cavalry Charge component of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial on the easternmost edge of the Capitol Reflecting Pool. Someone erects gallows on its opposite. In images more semblant of Paris than D.C., demonstrators ascend the Peace Monument, their banners whipping across the figure of Victory. Above her, weeping into the marble shoulder of History, is Grief.

It is, in another word, abominable. But in a year of abominations it is only the latest, if not the most egregious. Journos of every stripe and caliber have since picked the event’s carcass clean in search of disease, spilling retributive talk and ink enough to make a cri de coeur for penance from the cheap seats wholly unintelligible. Knowingly or not—the latter, I think—they have instead found (and wish to linger at) this political moment’s angle of repose, i.e. the event horizon beyond which things become irrevocable. This, of course, is a precarious point at which to plant one’s flag, for both journalists and Americans at large. Clarity tends to come at a remove—how can we discern a way to reconciliation when our view is so microscopic? So myopic? Everything is foreground—most of what I see and hear today are lashing tongues. 

When the Russian military invaded Prague in August 1968, Josef Koudelka pointed a camera down his city’s streets, made strange with tanks and trucks of soldiers with bayonets. He saw faces twisted into sculptures of fury and dread. One man—perhaps he’s a lawyer, or an ad man—stands stock still in the self-conscious costume of the consummate professional—briefcase, trench coat, carefully combed noggin—a passing array of heavy artillery betraying the ordinariness of the scene. It seems he has just emerged from the office with thoughts of dinner still pulling him towards the train station. 

I’m experiencing something of his bewilderment as I watch footage of foul-mouthed men (and women) stalking the halls of Congress. Hunting. “Where are they?” one asks. It is, in a third word, despicable. Was their burglary a coup d’etat? I don’t think so. Brezhnev’s putsch at least glimmered with the sheen of plausibility. (The presence of T-55s will do that.) This one reeks of mere happenstance, if not staggering incompetence. The faces of the participants—others have called them insurrectionists or traitors, simply protestors and, not inaccurately, terrorists—have the swollen look of the “see food, eat it” dieter, the over-acted grimace of unproven, self-mythologizing proud boys. Where are the adults? 

In my city, at least, they are distributing needles in parks to drug addicts. In my state, at least, they are instructing kindergarteners (four to six years old) how to identify nipples, the vulva and penis, anus and clitoris. They are brawling on airplanes, driving stoned and opting out of civic duties for online glory. They are seduced and consumed by fantasy and conspiracy. Politics has, naturally, become dramaturgy. (Perhaps it has, to some degree, always been so.)

Viktor E. Frankl writes in The Doctor and the Soul of a “deformation” that humanity experienced in the concentration camps of the 20th century. Most of the inmates, he says, “had once been ‘somebodies’ and were now being treated worse than ‘nobodies.’” He describes, however, how a minority tended to cohere around a “megalomania en miniature,” assuming a “power altogether out of proportion to their sense of responsibility.” Instead of calling on an inner spiritual strength to resist apathy and anger, this group had succumbed to “the physic-psychic influences” of the camp. The circumstances of the environment had, perhaps understandably in this case, superseded the will.

Is this not the psychological condition on display at various scales—and on both ends of the political spectrum—in the United States today? Of course none of us is bound to a concentration camp—that is my point. Minority groups, united in a shared illusion of victimization, have impressed upon the majority their particular grievances, often with intimidation and violence. As a consequence it is difficult to distinguish perceived oppression from the actual. Feeling betrayed and unjustly described, the accused return a volley of smite upon the accuser, and they dance. Neither party sees the open grave in the path of their tango.

And yet one gets the impression that it is their desired destination. Destruction is tantalizing. Is it surprising that our penchants for voyeurism and spectacle have achieved their fullest realization in the political sphere of the 21st century? (The exiting president’s election—and his interminable contretemps with media and critics—was perhaps the zenith.) The pageantry is irresistible, hypnotizing even. To that effect, I’d argue the events of January 6 and this past summer’s nightly sprees are two kinds of personal vision quests masquerading as acts of service to this-or-that cause. (The actors, remember, are the cultural descendants of the “‘Me’ Decade,” of Ian Brown of The Stone Roses wailing, “I wanna be adored.”) The obedient servant of a censored ideology does not ascend the throne of a supposedly illegitimate king and pose for a selfie or pause to phone a friend, as the bearded invaders did in the Senate chambers. No, he takes an axe to it. January 6 was narcissistic self-care taken to its ultimate, ugly and pathetic extreme. 

One tends to turn to antiquity when modern analogies fall short. Perhaps it is unavoidable; “democracy,” “policy,” “tyranny”—the most potently charged strands of our national discourse have their origin in the Latin of the ancient Mediterranean and its storytellers. Narcissus is too on-the-nose, a too-innocuous mascot for our times. Pygmalion, on the other hand, seems more representative of the sinister thing that seems to have found a host in the American people. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses he carves a woman out of ivory—he is, by trade, a sculptor—and becomes infatuated. He so fervently wants the delusion to be true—wants her to be real—that his wish is granted. The simulacrum overthrows blood and bone, except that outside of literature and mythology simple physics eventually intervenes. The left has described the failure of the coup-y uprising on January 6 as the “triumph of democracy,” in so many words. In truth, it was the triumph of the hard sciences, of physics over fake. 

In physiology, the scientific study of biological mechanisms, Westphal’s sign is the absence of a “knee-jerk reaction” to a doctor’s tap on the patellar tendon. It is abnormal, in other words, to lack an automatic reflex when presented with a stimulus. So, perhaps the news- and podcasters (not to mention our neighbors, colleagues and local letter-to-the-editor scribblers) can be forgiven for preferring the “hot take” to the deep rumination—it is to-be-expected, both culturally and biologically. Time, after all, is of the essence, we are told ad nauseam. Now is the time! 

Indeed, it always is. Ring the bell, then, and resume class. Let this awful recess from responsibility and compromise be over. Put the troublemakers in the corner—vengeance cannot be allowed to pull civilization, in a prideful and awestruck trance, into its clutches. Are we not men? 

We have a new president, Joseph Robinette Biden, who “will to the best of [his] ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He may, and he may not. There is little I can do about it. Writer André Gide advised “gentle and total resignation” as an antidote to the mess and inexorable suffering of life that, from Schopenhauer’s vantage, results from striving. Renunciation. It has been a difficult lesson for me to learn. To that end, I’d like to put the keyboard away for a minute. In my folks’ yard, there are tulips breaking through their beds. (It is not yet February!) The sun, with each passing day, is more patient in his arc. There are still strawberries in the markets! Death is real! Christ has overcome! Let us turn (our cheeks?) from our screens and face each other, again, as men, not ciphers. 

Let us shut up a minute.

Ginning Up Trouble

Note: This piece was written in August and pitched to The Spectator USA, who, after indications to the contrary, decided against running it in a December issue “drinks special.” So, on the eve of the Electoral College’s momentous (if not predictable) vote, here it is: a toast—to feigned civility, our dysfunction and my cocktail of choice. (And a stiff middle finger to any temperance zealot in high office who has, with stunning arrogance and ineptitude, brought ruin to the bistros and saloons of his or her constituency this year.)

“Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past,” says Bernard DeVoto in the opening tick of The Hour, his salty salute to this country’s cocktail tradition. He had in mind rum, but the instinct to make such a raw confession in the hangover of cataclysm—it was 1948—is not peculiar to his generation; we too seem poised for, ahem, a fall (and, let’s be real, a winter) of self-flagellation and discontent.

For it is evening, again, in America. In February’s State of the Union address the President, channeling Ol’ Blue Eyes of ‘64 (and the Reagan of ‘84), promised, “the best is yet to come” and “the sun is still rising.” Lo! How it has fallen. By March it was evident the fault, dear Brutus, was not in our star, “but in ourselves,” that—as a body politic—we were lodging mortal pathogens of both a biological and psychological phenotype. The American gaze, already steeped in the cults of Narcissus and Trump (but I repeat myself), turned inward, brows furrowed and our tongues (and stomachs) twisted into knots (or, in the cities, into guns). Who are we? What is our creed? In the absence of truth—God, remember, is dead—Caesar reascended the throne, his thirst for answers to such metaphysical mysteries perennially unquenched, his rictus of perplexion now concealed by a bandana.

“Countries used to change slowly,” said poet Joseph Brodsky. “More slowly, at any rate, than people.” No more. By late May the die was cast. Dampened by Sino-like government malfeasance Lady Liberty’s torch was then turned to deleterious effect against her most ardent defenders. “Burn it all down!” yelled her nemeses. The cognitive dissonance of the arsonists—and their abettors—proved impervious to discourse; naturally, deprived of baseball, we resorted to the throwing of shade. We seem to suffer now, collectively, from a kind of rapid-onset dysphoria—pioneered by the gender-bending set—and mania for bedlam, simultaneously longing with Shakespearean paradoxy “to find ourselves dishonorable graves” and be “rescued from mediocrity,” per Ernest Hello, “by the Hand that rules the world.” 

Reader, if that hand—whatever its celebrity or hue—extends to you a beverage riddled with alcohol, take it. Until we have a champion—until it is morning, again, in America—we might as well have a drink. As Evelyn Waugh concedes at the close of his debut novel, Decline & Fall, “Oh, damn, what else is there to do?”

Right or not we deserve—no, demand!—a cure, if not a balm, for our ressentiment. “You are confused,” Lady Philosophy would say (and does, through the pen of Boethius), “because you have forgotten what you are, and therefore you are upset because you are in exile.” What we are, of course, is a matter of contentious debate (“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!”), but perhaps we could agree that what we’ve been of late—Foucauldian explorers of “the creative potential of disorder,” in the words of biographer James Miller—and how—impetuous, puerile, smug—has indeed orphaned us in foreign territory; we are all at sea. Why not redeem our noble inheritance and study instead the creative potential of something just as heady, but good? Something to lift our spirits.

Consider the humble gin and tonic, devised in the early 19th century by officers of the British East India Company, statues of whom are surely a-wobble. Better that our subject—our salve— be an import from old friends than a debauched French nihilist or, heaven forfend, the labs of Pfizer, no? For the apostle Peter warns, “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” Better then that we are the toys of a Georgian era potion than a Georgian era king. They may have been shoddy landlords, but the Brits know a thing or two about booze.

“An onion smells like an onion ought to smell,” said theologian Fulton Sheen. And a “drink” does what it ought to do—namely, alleviate the soul. It should induce a kind of out-of-body experience where one transcends this for the promise of that—flesh for spirit, suffering for bliss. It is an emigration—out of the workaday and into the sine qua non, out of Sodom and onto the Cross. A “G&T,” properly consumed, should stun, and enlarge with sudden clarity. It places a window where before was only wall, and something hidden is revealed, as if by magic. As if a ruse. Nonetheless, there it is. There He is, Witness Lee would say, in masquerade. “God is our food and we eat him.”

But only on occasion does one appear before you seemingly fully formed, like a Bol Bol on the hardwood. It must be assembled, or “constructed,” according to lasting architectonic postulates. (“Who is ‘building’ drinks tonight?” is my old man’s way of putting it.) It is a craft. There are unassailable rules, processes and pre-political realities to be honored. And just as aesthetic decisions distinguish the work of a Frank Gehry from that of Gaudí—the amusing from the amazing—so too can a drink merely slake or, in a perfected state, stagger like a vaulted nave. But such a thing is a relic of another age when, as the poet Longfellow perceived, “Builders wrought with greatest care […] For the gods saw every where.” In our immanentized eschaton who but the oafs with whom you toast is to judge and appreciate your handiwork? Better that God is not dead.

The glass must be glass. Or crystal. Plastic is the stuff of sippy cups and doggy bags and an ersatz culture. If you can’t discern an ass from an elbow be my guest—or, rather, someone else’s—and proceed. (“It doesn’t,” however, “take much more to go first-class,” says mom, whose German vis viva lends this prescription its uncompromising rigor.) A bijou rocks, or old fashioned, glass with vertical walls is ideal—anything bigger is, like a cigarette boat, gauche. Bagged ice is fine for the college fraternity punchbowl, but for a cocktail the molded kind, or ice from a vintage Frigidaire, is best. Fill your glass with it, first—to the brim. Fill your two-ounce jigger, next, to the brim with Tanqueray and pour it in. Do not “eyeball” it—did Bernini “eyeball” it? We are striving here for majesty, for “The Lark Ascending,” for ordnung, for an antidote to our disenchanted, deconstructed times. There is no place for a Stockhausen at this bar. You are a builder.

And a dramaturg. Fuse the gin with the juice of a lime wedge and add the rind. Top—to the brim, almost—with Schweppes and tuck a small, square napkin beneath; solid white is preferable to toile de Jouy or noisy psychedelia—there is enough ostentation in the glass. Now, agitate with a knife—a cavalcade of bubbles should come hissing up from the depths. Dim the lights, solicit a piano (Ahmad Jamal’s will do) and a comrade or two, and “wonder,” as my grandfather does (in jest, of course, and with a wink), “what the poor people are up to tonight.”

After a few sips the drinker should begin to sense the vague outlines of what novelist Oakley Hall called the “frontier between history and legend.” Such is the power of gin, to unearth Shangri-La. It is the drinker who haunts, dare I say polices, this place with her calvary of melancholics and dreamers pitched against the “straight edge” and its tyranny of sobriety. But per the Peter Parker principal, “with great power comes great responsibility”—this is no task for the timid, nor the Kerouacian bacchanal whose savior faire degenerates into disrepute and vomit before dinner.

No, to today’s air of chi-chi and trivia gin brings a whiff of class. It conjures images of smoking jackets, Brideshead, sarcophagi—a lost world. England. An old England. The past. Perhaps “a composite past, eerie, veiled and obscure,” narrated by Clive Aslet and swirling with visages of Minterne Magna, Glastonbury Tor, mad hatters and Macca (pre-Wings). Gin is an accessory to things vanished, things dimly perceived, to the mysterium tremendum. I pity the man to whom all this is incomprehensible or, if he is Mohammedan, forbidden; he is, to an Albert Einstein at least, “as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”

Indeed, it belongs to another generation and another country. For the American, gin is an heirloom, a vestigial limb we schlep—because, like kith and kin, it abides unconditionally—with beatific patience through bitter election cycles, wasted Advents and disease, borrowed. It will never be ours, like jazz is ours. Nonetheless, it is a gift worthy of our misuse. And though it stirs in the drinker the romance of possibility and premonitions of adventure, it belongs, conversely, to dusk—to endings.

After two drinks all work should be, if not impossible, perverse. To be sweetly taken by gin is to become a sabbath unto oneself. It should nudge one into repose, to assume the mind of the philosopher-inventor. Hummingbirds, snowfall, telepathy, the filibuster (forgive us!), sideburns, the moon, sex (in 1963, according to Philip Larkin)—all are inventions of the gin drinker. For an hour or two she is somehow improved, the very apprentice of God, suspended in a purgatorial soup of pleasant contradictions—she is, in the incomparable tongue of Waugh’s Charles Ryder, “drowning in honey, stingless.”

And then, gradually, it is night, the aura fades and she is—again—solely an American, drowning.

Image: Artist unknown. Public Domain.

Minding Ps & Qs

In the back pages of the 1944 Sunflower, my grandfather’s yearbook, an advertisement, placed by The State Savings Bank, reads: “Students of [Topeka High School]: Congratulations on having been born in the United States. Defend our Federal Constitution and our Bill of Rights.” Another page lists the recent graduates who had died, were missing-in-action or had been taken as prisoners of war in service to those documents. Who today can recite the ten amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights?

“Human beings are what they understand themselves to be,” wrote philosopher Michael Oakeshott. If they believe themselves the inheritors of a hard-won civilization founded on the fundamental natural rights of life, liberty and property it is because their culture has endorsed such a belief. When Governor Inslee insists that it is “just too dangerous” to gather with your family this Thanksgiving—or, under the threat of penalty, to operate your business or attend church—he is engaging in a kind of suggestio falsi, i.e. deliberate deceit, to convince you otherwise. Let us remind him of Article I, Section 7 of Washington’s Declaration of Rights: “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs.” 

“Civilization,” the old folk saying goes, “began with ‘Please?’ and ‘Thank you.’” If we believe ourselves subjects beholden to the state—instead of a free people “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights”—it will end with those very words too.

Image: (licensed stock photo)

A Faithful Mistress

In a live, pro-shot take of “Grace” from his debut, Harlequin, Angeleno Alex Izenberg kneads the keyboard of a baby grand as if it is candy glass or smeared with d-CON, as if—with one false move—the instrument might crumble or kill him. The camera he eyes with a look of irritated Westerbergian incredulity. He is—sincerely and, one can assume, preferably—barely there, or wishing he wasn’t at all.

A kindred air of detachment haunts the video that complements “Sister Jade,” from this year’s Caravan Château, in which a disheveled and despondent Izenberg, splashed with projections of psychedelia or cast in silhouette, sings in the dark of a phantom’s heart (his) wooing an imagined lover. He is, again, like the tom keeping time, barely there, an apparition. 

Izenberg’s songs are infused with absences. They are, deceptively, not much—think lacework and cigarette smoke, things a hair’s breadth from ruin. Barroom pianos tiptoeing between schmaltzy violins thinner than the line dividing them from pastiche. Boneheaded beatnik rhythms and skeletal tambourines traipsing beneath his pillow-soft warble and the shy strums of a lone guitar. They are, by design, barely there, beamed from between stations through the static of half a century, songs—in their naivety and harmless pretense—of a piece with the living room ballet recital or a country church ensemble, betraying not the shortcomings of Izenberg’s songwriting but his especial genius. 

Critics are quick on the draw in labeling his sound—nostalgic, poetic, orchestral, baroque, jazzy. The touchstones, to their credit, aren’t misplaced, just dog-eared and—perhaps inescapably—insufficient. (“Writing about music,” said journalist Robert Christgau, “is writing first.”) Yes, Château is literally a product of Laurel Canyon—two of the LP’s eleven compositions were recorded there—and Albion lore—the lines “My Levi’d sister / I gently kissed her” from “Disraeli Woman” are lifted, almost verbatim, from King Crimson’s “Ladies of the Road.” And Izenberg, on wax and in interviews, does little to disguise his aesthetic debts. (In fact his genre, if one can be discerned, tends to flaunt them, ironically, as a hallmark of authenticity.) But his thievery—including the “Revolution 9”-inspired bad trip coda that unravels “Revolution Girls”—should be forgiven; the songs—even the rip-offs—are good, and they’re his.

Château sashays in with a bit of twang and late-night sleaze before settling into a thematic set of forlorn troubadour balladry, a love letter to love, essentially, dripping with Pynchonian allusion and dream-speak. Our lovesick narrator, young harlots and blue-eyed women indulge in vintage wines and sunsets, brave labyrinths and “crimson coves,” speak of “weeping flowers in heaven” and the “sins of law and beauty.” Strangers fall “like leaves” and dance on daffodils. Paint fills the sea. Izenberg, a schizophrenic, is communicating in the language of childish enchantment a vision of things hidden to reasonable, well-adjusted adults. He is an obscurantist, a capital-ar Romantic and seducer born in the wrong century. (“The castle feels my sorrow,” he sings on “Saffron Glimpse.”) His misfortune, however, is our blessing—Château, sauntering to the bar cart in its shambly bathrobe, is a reminder of what modernity subjugates to pragmatism and power in its relentless project to mechanize and perfect: love, our very humanity, true art, wonder, Alan Watts’ “marvelous system of wiggles” that is this world.

The record’s earthy rhythms and tones conjure the seedier side of rock and folk’s Belle Époque—say, Los Angeles in the early Seventies—but there’s something simultaneously medieval and à la mode in its dingy costume, too. Take, for instance, the imagery of the lines, “Bouquets falling in the rain / We were sadness and estranged / Your lips were made of dust,” superimposed atop two “Imagine”-ish piano chords and, eventually, a soaring flute motif, stuttering drums and a bed of sinister baritone saxophones—the effect is narcotic, primordial, endearingly self-conscious. But innovative? Hardly. (“It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time,” wrote Solomon in Ecclesiastes.) It mustn’t be. Derek Jeter will soon reside in Cooperstown beside Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio and Honus Wagner, not because he invented a novel way to swing on a 3-2 slider but because he did it exceptionally well in much the same fashion—on the same diamonds, with the same wooden bats—as the legends of yore. This is how Château—in its sonic vernacular, “old coat” chord progressions and wabi-sabi performances—plays ball, too: in a metaphysical throwback jersey. Everything old is new again. 

Château is, in that sense, palpably classic in its execution and in its fellowship with the iconic works of Southern California’s finest misfit melody-makers. (See Harry Nilsson, Brian Wilson, Ariel Pink, Tobias Jesso, Jr.) The album art (a surreal collage of sea coral, Asiatic ruins, eyeballs and fantastical landscapes), the accompanying font (ITC Serif Gothic, released in 1972, as seen on Scott Walker, Abba and Rush LP jackets), the aforementioned grainy camcorder footage, his pronunciation—without a wink—of “dance” like “ponce”—all of it is part and parcel of a phenomenological tradition hoisted from the dollar bins of a less cynical, less sterile, still haunted age; one of mist and myth and madness. (“Hey hey, my my / Rock and roll can never die,” Neil Young promised.) It may exist now in only a handful of heads—it may, in fact, be only a trick of a single unsound mind—but with Château’s humble pocket symphonies Izenberg has reproduced a kind of date-night Art Brut Camelot of immortal forms and designs to ensnare his Guinevere. Chivalry is dead, you say?

The kings are gone but they’re not forgotten.

Image: Giraffe, Nicky and Juliana (Directors). (2020). Alex Izenberg – Sister Jade (Official Video) [Video file]. Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com

“18 years old, imprisoned since 26 September 1944”

My favorite record of 2019—Beth Gibbons & The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)—asks a lot of a listener in the third decade of the 21st century: patience, time (its 49 minutes are split into only three movements), uwaga (attention) and, for the critic, a reply worthy of the symphony’s emotional heft and historical gravity. This, originally published in the December 27, 2019 issue of the Inlander alt-weekly, is not that. To reduce the record to a paragraph of 100 words is wildly insufficient, perhaps even irresponsible. Nonetheless, voilà:

If ever a piece of art could encapsulate the ineluctable cocktail of horror, hope and sorrow de profundis that was the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s 1976 masterpiece, Symphony No. 3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”), comes close. Krzysztof Penderecki’s take here—with Beth Gibbons of the experimental English pop group Portishead singing soprano across its three movements—is, in its sobering bleakness, transcendent, a revelatory concomitant of Shoah survivor Viktor Frankl’s observation: “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” 

Image: Minton, John (Director). (2019). Beth Gibbons & the Polish National Radio Symphony – II. Lento e largo—Tranquillissimo [Video file]. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com

Reaping

The working man worked 

And drove home

And dwelled a minute on his life

And showered

And dwelled a minute on his life

In blue donegal tweed

And built a drink

In the umber evening light

And reclined on the grass

And dwelled a minute on his life—

He closed an eye

And filled the other with a scene

And fell asleep 

And spilled the cocktail

And his dreams

On his herringbones 

In the long shadow of what is

And never will be his life.