Black Ribbon Award

Month: January, 2017

APOCALYPSE TBD

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Traveling by air used to be a wonder. Then it became a tedium. For me it has always been nerve-wracking. But in the span of a weekend it has become politicized on top of all of that. Donald Trump’s authority has made it so. Under the auspices of his new office, he placed fresh dung on a much older dunghill, having imposed an order temporarily blocking the admission of people from select countries in the Middle East, whether they are refugees from Syria or green card holders visiting Somalia, or wherever. In response, his many opponents have descended on numerous airports to protest any detention or expulsion that may take place.

Trump’s orders are unacceptable. Legal grounds and moral grounds are glaring, but perhaps preeminent over those are the grounds of sheer operative expediency. That which has united the bickering cliques seems to be the brashness by which President Trump hands down his orders filtered of the clouds of procedural clemency. The amount of chaos and confusion he imposes upon an already confused bureaucracy, and his apparent indifference to any of it, is staggering even to sympathizers; as if the dunghill was also a wasps nest. Evidently taken with the trappings of his Twitter celebrity, Trump seeks to project them outside of the internet bubble. His orders are as he has stated them, with the implication that his “followers” are all instantly aware of its utterance and its intent. Secretary Mattis, Director Pompeo, and the border authorities didn’t have their notifications on is all.

Donald Trump, in a style similar to Hugo Chavez, has fully embraced the politics of contention, and thus positions himself in such a way that he will usually win. Opposition, strident opposition especially, may hinder him in the short term but validates him all the same. This is partly due to Trump’s love of dramatization, as if he’s using the presidency to restage King Lear. But even that is mostly a glittered paint job over the driving force that is his administration’s searing sense of principle, one derivative of Enoch Powell’s in ideology and temper, being similarly welded to its truth, hardened and determinant, and unwilling to compromise an inch. Now subtract Powell’s political isolation and basic respect for process and you have an executive leadership of righteous empowerment and bottomless contempt.

It is a politics that is new only in the sense that we may not be able to move on from it as we have been able to from Obama and Bush, as from Palin, Nixon, Johnson, Wallace, and on and on. Trump would much rather that we not, that we remain fixed in his drama and in the roles that he assigned us. I don’t know how to overcome that. I can only approximate where we should go from here. But it is not as simple as going away from Trump.

Trump has flouted the rather bizarre tradition of being asked what presidential or political biographies he has read in the lead up to taking office. “I never have. I’m always doing a lot,” he told the Washington Post when asked the inevitable question. But predictable anti-intellectualism has not shied from history. Indeed, someone is aware of the precise dimensions of Trump’s moment. Amidst the flurry of executive orders, Trump found time to have a portrait of Andrew Jackson hanged in the Oval Office. It is a twisted irony. After debating who might replace Old Hickory on the 20-dollar bill, we installed someone into the White House who believes his presidency, if not himself, to be the renaissance of his vision. Ironic, but fitting.

This has not gone unnoticed by any means. It would make sense that supporters would find parallels of a strong populist executive just as it would make sense that detractors would see the mercurial architect of Indian removal gleaming in eyes of the nuclear-capable visionary of Muslim and Mexican exclusion. “Jackson’s authoritarian will, his eagerness with the veto pen, his unprincipled use of federal power against non-whites, and his ugly patronage schemes changed forever the character of the Republic,” Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote. All fair and accurate, but Jackson’s example also reveals the genealogy of American power. Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, but Indian removal as a policy originated with Thomas Jefferson who had been enacting his own removals as early as 1802, breaking land treaties in the process.

Jackson’s Indian removal was far more brutal, leaving thousands dead out of tens of thousands expelled westward in the prototypical act of modern ethnic cleansing. Trump’s tribute invites consideration on the kind of bold decisiveness he seeks to emulate. On the campaign trail, he broke taboos on what can and cannot be expressed as pursuable policies: Muslim registries and bans, a revival and even more liberal application of torture, mass immigrant deportation, and so on. None of these are quite new in our policy, however; they just never took center stage. Torture, bombing raids, deportations, and executive overreach either existed upon discovery or were announced under the most clinical circumstances but less like an item on a to-do list more like a stage in digestion.

The sub-debate beneath the overriding debate, then, is between short-term and long-term aims of moral correction. It seems productive only in the sense of illustrating how the moral-political landscape is shifting under Trump’s national guidance. The short-term and more obvious goal, as supported by libertarians and leftists, is cutting Trump’s decrees and other enactments at the knees. While the long-term aim, urged on largely by paleoconservatives and other leftists, seeks to reverse the brute imperialist mindset that makes these policies and their consequences habitual. Both positions are correct. Both positions are difficult for their own reasons, but both are beneficial to each other and to the American people.

During Donald Trump’s first week in office, sales of 1984 spiked, probably for the first time since the signing of the Patriot Act. Though the circuitry of this moment is only broadly applicable to the tone and political context of Orwell’s prophetic satire, it shows a certain willingness to cope, or to attempt to cope, in the midst of an oncoming crisis. We will not be Winston Smiths. Yet the prospect of a boot stomping our face forever seems comforting compared to the prospect of coming out on the other side of it. And maybe that’s wise, that thinking is not as prevalent as assessing the immediate effects of Trump’s Crazy Eddie Jacksonianism. But the moment beyond Trump is something worth contemplating, though not because it is comforting.

I suppose most people have their own idea of the Trump apocalypse. Most of them seem to tilt a certain way; though for the moment, sales of The Road remain unremarkable. But the Trump apocalypse, as I see it, should unravel within the traditional meaning of the word: of uncovering rather than destruction.

For all of his taboo shattering, Trump as the icon of American mutation and standing alone athwart a tide of corrupt and ineffectual busybodying does little to show how engrained Trumpism is in the American mindset. He has indicated as much himself, it is in his words. “I am your voice,” he proclaimed at his monumental convention speech. It seemed arrogant to detractors and refreshing to supporters, but in the end may be simply accurate. Trumpian drama seems now like King Lear 2, but over time may come to look like Scotland, USA, with Trump cast as the Porter and the Americans in place of the Thane of Cawdor.

Macbeth did not handle his ascension to power very well, and his play’s adaptors like to dwell on that. But Macbeth, as Harry Jaffa wrote, “is a moral play par excellence.” Far from relishing in tragedy, it serves to show why it needs to be abated. This being America, no one will agree to what the moral order restored will look like. (In a way, the key is not who is Macbeth, but who is Banquo.) For those thinking in the immediate moment it is a simple fealty to justice. For those thinking further toward the epilogue it is a fealty to sanity. Sanity is a broader, harder ask, however, and rings like a pained history lecture. More accurately it is a call for modesty in a time when it is not wanted. It is hoping that the “shining city on a hill” becomes the house at the end of the road: shuttered and quiet, cordial and kempt, empty of old secrets and uninterested in those of others. We just need to be able to move there.

AGAINST INDIFFERENCE

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I spent a good portion of the summer of 2016 trying to write something that should never have been written.

For much of the year, many of my friends and a few publications with which their sympathies were aligned, in one way or another, were burning rhetorical funeral pyers for liberalism. Some on the left erred on the side of tragic heroism, but only barely; while many on the right were more triumphal, perhaps a little too much. But those slight differences did not diminish the force of illiberalism’s oncoming tide. And having resolved to take Trump’s candidacy seriously upon watching his extremely persuasive convention speech last July, my concern that liberalism was imperiled had become similarly resolute, and required defending. And of course the person to defend it was myself. Never mind the fact that I’ve never written for a liberal publication, that I don’t count very many liberals among my friends, and that I spent much of my 20s bemoaning the vanity politics with which Aaron Sorkin, Jon Stewart, etc. had infused it. I was John Dos Passos in the ambulance coming to liberalism’s aid on the ideological western front; or more provocatively I was going to be liberalism’s Joseph de Maistre thundering fire, brimstone, and blood for the old order. Whatever the case I was very stupid and I’m sorry I even brought it up.

Summer lurched into fall, and it looked quite plain that no amount of written persuasion was going to prop up liberalism, or what was broadly being called “liberalism.” And to be frank, little was indicated to me that it was deserving of my or anyone’s energy for its reinforcement. It wasn’t so much that its most popular media avatars, having been so long emboldened by their opposition’s cluelessness that they were caught off guard by a new opposition that just didn’t care about their “norms,” but that there wasn’t much there for me to defend with a straight face. Liberalism is not without merit. Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Wayne Morse, and Jimmy Carter are people I consider positive political role models; men of principle, sincere paragons of peace, freedom, and American moral authority. They were also tremendous failures.

Instead Bill Clinton harvested the fruits of liberal power, completing what the rest of his political generation started in the 1970s: its transition into a kind of secular prosperity gospel. The success of liberalism, henceforth, was inextricably linked with economic plenty and hazy “triangulation.” Though it had well-meaning roots in the antiwar movement and the blowback against Nixonian paranoiac excess, its political adulthood had the heart of Henry David Thoreau and the brain and muscle of William Graham Sumner. That, anyway, is how I’ve come to understand “neoliberalism,” a premium plan for Voltairean enlightenment; on-demand Millsian “experiments in living.” And the Democrats were wrestling with that legacy. In fact for the first half of 2016 I was convinced Hillary Clinton was going to coast into the White House solely on the ‘90s nostalgia of my parents, pining for a time before anemic job markets, empty McMansion developments, and heroin.

Earlier last year, Azealia Banks burned through all the good will she earned from her critiques of Iggy Azalea by endorsing Donald Trump in a series of tweets. It generated an expectant amount of outrage, and her Twitter account has since been suspended for some unrelated controversy; but of course the attention did a disservice to what I actually saw on her feed. “I am very pro-Africa and pro-africana,” she tweeted, “but American exceptionalism and the American paradigm is super fascinating to me.” She goes on: “I have no hope for America. It is what it is. Capitalist, consumerist, racist, land of make believe.” And finally: “I think Donald trump [sic] is evil like America is evil and in order for America to keep up with itself it needs him.” Donald Trump’s election has been celebrated and scorned as a revolution, what Jeet Heer called “regime change … at home.” But Banks’s subversive endorsement saw it differently, not as revolution but revelation. Trump was a lifting of Lon Chaney’s mask on a national scale, revealing the scarring of policies long predating Trump, which had been on the radar of libertarians, the left, and some conservatives, but not Clintonian liberals.

The outrage was understandable. Given that the Clinton campaign was framing itself on earnest optimism, irony, let alone suggesting America was evil, was flatly unacceptable. Perhaps evil is not the right word. After all, Clinton’s proposed criminal justice platform admitted that “more than half of prison and jail inmates suffer from a mental health problem” and that a Clinton administration “will ensure law enforcement is properly trained for crisis intervention and referral to treatment as appropriate.” The problem here, however is that criminal justice reform is not centralized, and that some states will be harder to bring to heel than others. Such as Florida, whose abominable treatment of mentally ill prisoners was laid bare in the New Yorker last spring:

When Krzykowski told her that she’d heard “guys aren’t getting fed,” Perez did not seem especially concerned. “You can’t trust what inmates say,” she responded. Krzykowski noted that complaints were coming from disparate wings of the T.C.U. This was not unusual, Perez said, since inmates often devised innovative methods to “kite” messages across the facility.

Krzykowski mentioned that she had overheard security guards heckling prisoners. One officer had told an inmate, “Go ahead and kill yourself—no one will miss you.” Again, Perez seemed unfazed. “It’s just words,” she said. Then, as Krzykowski recalls it, Perez leaned forward and gave her some advice: “You have to remember that we have to have a good working relationship with security.”

Banks’s breakdown of American exceptionalism was one of the more salient points made in a noisier than average election year. It echoed Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me. “I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously,” he writes, “subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists … an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.” Though he, too, uses the word evil, and clearly there is a case for it, I’d again argue for something different. Being generous, I’d go with naivety, being less so I’d say indifference.

Talking about the election with committed supporters of Trump or Clinton was identically challenging. Particular issues that concerned me—war policy, the perpetual and many-leveled institutional rot, etc.—were of little interest compared to the moments the election of these individuals would usher in. Certainly each campaign was broadly geared toward bringing outsiders in from the cold. But their ideas of outsiders were abstract and conflicting. The Trump order sees itself in the mold of a Zarathustran Caddyshack 2, the Clinton order sought to be more like a Unitarian Burning Man. My interests were really not going to be heard. And so despite numerous egregious (and probably unsolicited) shame attempts by Democratic sympathizers, I voted for Gary Johnson.

In seeking to defend liberalism, I became less interested in calling into question the sentiments of illiberalism, and more into pushing back against the Sorkinization of American democracy, which both campaigns embodied, though Trump’s was the more effective one. It’s not a new gripe, to be sure, but one I wanted to counter with a call for humility and mercy in the face of mass indifference to suffering, to the brokenness and disorder of our system which can’t quit seeing its mentally ill as a storage problem, or any number of other broad interest groups as threats or burdens. More ambitiously and more quixotically I became interested in making the moral, and not merely practical, case for communitarianism as a boon rather than a barrier to inclusion of people any of the campaigns considered “outside society.” I wanted a liberalism less concerned with grand exceptionalism or vision and more concerned with the thankless task of living with one another. After a while I came to see my defense being further away from liberalism and much closer to Christianity.

Whether this project would ever have had legs shall remain forever a mystery. But with the funeral procession for liberalism behind us, I come away with it somehow more hopeful than when it was in its death throes. Maybe hopeful is still too strong a feeling, but, again, taking the claims of the most earnest Trump supporters seriously: that this moment is the positive unseating of elite control on the gears of power allowing for more popular influence, as opposed to a nationwide suicide mission, this would lend much weight to my hope that we may get beyond the stultifying left-right binary in favor of more experimental concoctions of social existence. (Such as what we’re seeing with the emergence of pro-life feminism.) I could also be very, very wrong. I’m no seer, and it’s much simpler to predict everything crumbling into ashes. But this should no longer be about the ugliness or brilliance of one person, as it should never have been to begin with. We’ve moved beyond liberalism into uncharted and (possibly) more fascinating territory.

Again possibly.

 

PET HATREDS

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I live amidst two and a half bustling metropolises. Granted, the shadow of one imposes itself over the others from across the river, but none should feel any less validated as promising, if not ideal, centers for any manner of proclivity towards youth, urbanity, or some arranged marriage of the two. I visit them whenever I am able. They are where everyone I know and care for make their homes and earn their wages. Certainly they have their downsides of varying degrees, but they are more than enough made up for by the upsides as to warrant mostly splendor whenever I am there, less so in transit to and from them, however.

I suppose I am a part of this world. Even if certain obstacles keeping me from being in them more stably on my part are hard to overcome. They are places much maligned at present, though, in light of events construed here as unfortunate. A whole way of living has come under notable scrutiny. Urbanity, it has come to be seen, has some weaknesses made evident in months previous. Or rather, it has willful insulations. City dwellers have constructed around themselves a “bubble,” to protect against any odd thing that gives them offense, while foisting outward any number of their own values—tolerance, inclusion, polyamory, Westworld, goat yoga, and so on. By virtue of the designations of our electoral map, their judgments and their scorn are doubly fortified and more pointed, irrevocable as any biblical edict from on high. It is, in other words, open season on deplorability, on the avowed Trump voter. Open season to be what, precisely, I can’t say. Mocked? Very possibly. Ostracized? Foreseeable. Organized against? On it. Systematically oppressed? Deplorable sympathizers accept it as granted. But I do not hasten to venture one way or the other in any general sense. In fact I would like to be able to put these concerns to rest. I find it hard to accept in totality that anyone I know who heeds closest to young urbanite stereotype can harbor such ill intent. Not, of course, because that by not seeing it myself that it is not there, but that because in every sense they lack capability. I would know.

To loathe the Trump voter is no hard task. Indeed, it is a source of catharsis and glee. Whereas some may seek pleasure in skydiving or world travel or posing, for some reason, in the presence of sedated beasts, or professing interest in any of these things to impress the opposite sex, such joys are mindless and trivial compared to pouring out all available reserves of bitterness, rectitude, rancor, and ill-feeling onto the ones who’ve invested all hope in American Greatness and pulled the lever for our president. There is, presently, no known science to detect conclusively any one who voted for Donald Trump; one knows one when one sees one, presumably. The musk of retrograde is as distinct as any putrefaction. It is unyielding in its intensity, this effect they have, whether they know it or not. And it erects existential walls of considerable thickness and height between them and me. They are not inhuman, but unhuman, ulcers that have escaped the bodily confines to walk among us in red hats. By day I envision how to bring about a social order where such people are politically, psychically, and somehow visually beneath my gallant gait. By night I concentrate as much mental energy as possible to have dreams of being secluded in a cavernous black castle, streams of magma flowing cleanly from its center out into a moat, and surrounded on all sides (or at least as far as Staten Island zoning ordinances will permit) by head after enspiked head, crookedly jutting like lawn flamingos. Alas, I dream of rainbow-colored claymation ponies frolicking in fields of licorice whip. Or my teeth falling out.

This might surprise people who know me, at whatever level of intimacy, as a man of seeming good-nature: polite, nice, kind, overall inoffensive to a degree that might seem pathological. Which, I guess. I’ve enough cognizance in manners to see value in everyday civility and, moreover, to know the variations rather than the overlap of politeness (functional), niceness (decorative), and kindness (deceitful). I err on the side of politeness, scorn niceness, and hold kindness at arm’s length.

Kindness is not bad but it is tricky. I know some people who are very much my opposite in presentation, who exude untold intensity of spite and curmudgeonliness in any direction, yet when confined more intimately have shown kindness so endless in depth that if my heart was literally made of ice they would have melted me into a happier oblivion. On the other hand, I’ve met people who, though outwardly kind (that is, not just affable but warm, cheerful, amiable, and active), have a talent for vexation. It comes out like sweat in exercise and is no less pungent. Meanness is not a mood or an emotional cast, but a kind of aesthetic pose at best and a moral entitlement at worst. When the meanness is concentrated and sustained, as the righteousness to which they aspire, it wounds like a blade, when it is spontaneous and directionless it lacerates like shrapnel. I suppose neither camp would readily count me among their number, so I will say that I respect and envy the curmudgeon but commune among the “kind.”

But to commune does not necessarily mean to commiserate. For I do not seek so much as to place pride upon my meanness as to merely not deny it, to state plainly its existence and its manifestation in the current climate. It is doubtless possible that by admission of having directed my hatred towards people who voted for Trump, I will be applauded. I will be an exemplar of acrimony, a mentor in vitriol. To that I can only say that so long as we are free they may applaud. But I do not choose necessarily to hear them, as I don’t see much point in applauding something so innate in me, that is conveyed in natural feeling, with the automation of breath, a prejudice so inborn as to be as infinite and fine-formed as the soul. Such a thing cannot be turned into craft, nor can it be made to fit properly into a moral frame or projected through a social prism. Imagine instead a stray animal that meets you at your doorstep whenever you go out and hasn’t moved an inch by the time you come home; mangy, noisome, ceaselessly hungry, and diseased enough to be visibly repulsive but not physically debilitated or debilitating, not yet anyway. It is something that you yourself must choose to tolerate or see about putting down, it won’t go on its own and it is not something whose responsibility extends to anyone else. And it grows and hungers in unforeseen ways the longer it is left to be.

This pet hatred is an extension of myself, my makeup, my passions, and my sins, not the world in which I move. My world, to whatever extent it will have me, does not know me as I know myself, it does not hate as naturally as I hate, nor does anyone hate me as much as I hate me … er … fuck it.

LETTER NO. 10: ON THE MEANING OF LIFE

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Dear Grandpa,

I was a bit blindsided by your request to for a letter on the meaning of life. I’ve tackled several subjects since the beginning of this month, but none seems more susceptible to bumbling headlong into a quagmire of platitude within the strictures of this medium than this one. And with more indulgence it risks sending all involved into an existential tailspin. But I’m thankful to have caught upon my self-centered error quickly. Of course you would ask me about the meaning of life. You’ve probably mulled it over countless times in the course of your career. How many humans have you personally brought into the world? Hundreds? How many of them are on the cusp of retirement age? Have you not supplied an entire generation of northern Floridians? I admit I never considered what it would be like to witness, time and time again, first breaths being drawn, umbilical cords being cut, or to be depended upon to help perpetuate family trees. Maybe I’m being a bit operatic here, but this is not something that I have properly appreciated, I admit, and it certainly helps serve as a contrast to where I intend to go here.

There was a video game released in 2008 called Euro Truck Simulator. Available for Mac, PC, and Xbox One, the player would travel the digitized continent by truck and earn money by picking up and dropping off cargo from country to country. I’ve not played it myself but I’ve seen demonstrations of it on YouTube. Its realism is something to behold. The player is literally a truck driver, possessing powers limited by those of the vehicle they drive and their ability to drive it. Their obstacles would seem to be the traffic conditions and laws to which any other European driver is subject. I’ve not seen what happens when these obstacles prevail, but I can’t imagine they reach Grand Theft Auto levels of excess.

I have a friend named Sarah who wrote a book on the ethics of childbearing and suicide. It is a largely empirical study, written in the analytic and moral tradition of John Stuart Mill, albeit with a degree of wit that was impossible for Mill. In it she asks “If human life were a video game, would anyone choose to play it?” The question may have been put rhetorically, but the answer, it appears, is quite literally yes, as Euro Truck Simulator has not only spawned a sequel but also German, British, and American spinoffs. But not everyone is suited for gaming, and Sarah’s book is a fascinating study of the motives of and moral questions surrounding those who are even less inclined to it. More than that, though, the book asks the reader to consider whether a child “might be harmed by just being created.”

I don’t know if you’ve heard of antinatalism, but had something of a moment a little over two years ago when True Detective first premiered. Frankly I can’t imagine a choicer sounding board for bleak philosophy than the purred drawl of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust “Life is a Flat Circle” Cohle. “I think about the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this meat,” is one of several such lines, which are echoed from a treatise by horror writer Thomas Ligotti called The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. On the map of the humanities, antinatalism is more of an overgrown, under-lit detour than a proper destination. But it has a genealogy, a canon, and a set of principles, prime above all being that the preference for existence is not unanimously accepted as granted. Though pronatalists are not naïve to the inevitability of human suffering, the antinatalist solution proposes the ultimate radicalism. “Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way,” Ligotti wrote. “It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun.”

In mentioning this it is not my intention to shock or to stake my place in one position against the other and rule on it. But I think it necessary background to be better transparent about how I think.

When it comes to thinking about life, or really any other subject, I have a habit of never being of a single mind about it. I credit Mom and Dad with this to an extent, neither of who ever clung willfully to the abstract. As I see it, belief for them came out of those things material and tangible, whatever could be put to use or which could produce desirable results. I mean this as a compliment. It is a thinking that has served them well in building a life and in most respects I and the other three are the richer for it. But at the same time, as a wider way of thinking, time has not proven it to be very flexible. As times of stability gave way to uncertainty, certain people (me) had begun to lose a great amount of faith in the contingency of contingent thinking. But using the method instilled in me to see nuance in absolutes, I have over time begun to use it against that thinking. It has allowed me to approach ideas as a mechanic would approach spare parts, which in this case are pessimism and realism.

Ideas like antinatalism, and its nearest relatives depressive realism and antihumanism, do not offer me a concise system for living, let alone inspiration for programs to be implemented on a wide scale. They are part of a tapestry I have been making for myself for the last 15 years meant to convey what I think a person is responsible for. As I write this, civilians in Syria, regardless of age or gender, are being “shot on the spot” by its military, while civilians in other parts of the world live in fear of drone attacks. In the United States authority figures and those they protect live in fear of each other. And we’ve amassed enough nuclear arms across the world to vaporize it entirely. Whether from civilized institutions or rogue actors, the successive generations are going to come of age with an understanding of horror totally alien to our own. To get to the meaning of life, it is first worth pointing out how brilliant humanity is at bringing about death. “That man is the noblest creature,” G.C. Lichtenberg wrote, “may be inferred from the fact that no other creature has contested this claim.”

I’ve come to see the optimism in which I had been raised as a bug rather than a feature. And to perpetuate it now would be as egregious as any act of war, because hope is as strong an enabler of war as fear is. I would like it, in fact, if we as a race all stopped thinking as we do. If we stopped thinking that existence has a clear endgame rather than, if not a totally absent one, then at least a mysteriously defined one, and that that end is anthropocentric. Moreover, if we stopped thinking that goodness, while right and true, is not a default, let alone an entitlement. This past year has had talk of new emerging “countercultures” and “revolutions,” but the only revolution that remains to be waged is the self-removal of our species from its pedestal. Not as an act of self-denigration but of self-abnegation. From there a whole reordering of priorities would take place. But the contradiction of human life is that even this thinking is fanciful. So it lives in my head and makes scant appearances in my acted ethics.

John Gray wrote that “other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” Aim, of course, is different than meaning, and possibly a greater demand. Few have the time or the opportunity to see much further than what is in front of their faces at a given moment. Another friend once said that culture today is overweaned on meaning and underfed on mattering. He was talking about the predominance of criticism over art, but when I think of John Gray’s question I can see it fulfilling a different purpose.

If there is a balance that can be achieved between the grand tragedy of humanity and the rougher reality in which it lives, it is to accept and even embrace a world in miniature. There isn’t much wonder in a life bereft of significance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there can’t be joy where it can be gotten. One does not need a grand plan to get out of bed in the morning. For my part, I have no idea where this life is going; I’ve come to expect mostly curveball after curveball. If I have gained any solid truths in the process they are these: friendship is like bread to the starving; family is like a foreign language that is beautiful in cadence and tangled in grammar; and peace is something we go out of our way not to deserve or want but which we need in increasing, perhaps critical, doses.

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This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.

LETTER NO. 9: ON AGGRESSION

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Dear [REDACTED],

I suspect that your choosing of the topic of aggression for me to write about is, at least in part, linked to my ongoing—possibly misguided—attempt to synthesize the intensity and culture of punk with “the life of the mind,” so to speak. Of course, this could just be my natural obsessiveness and/or my rank opportunism speaking. It may be that I am overlooking with cruel indifference a longstanding fascination with the theme that eats away at you every bit as much as my own projects tend to eat away at me. So in going about this it seemed only appropriate to erect in my mind a Thunderdome for these two possibilities to settle this amongst themselves. It was a short cage match, alas, and regretfully any spirit compelling you toward aggression unrelated to mine must lurch back to its crypt with its participation ribbon. Because giving out participation ribbons at a theoretical Thunderdome makes total sense.

But, to be sure, exploring the subject on my own made me realize that I’ve long had an odd relationship with aggression. Or at least what I think is aggression. Truth be told, as a first in this series, I actually felt the need to look up the word; and by “look up” I don’t just mean “typed into Google.” I sought it out in the physical Webster’s dictionary I acquired through some kind of family book collection osmosis. “Aggression” is a word I’ve heard and read in a number of contexts. I have a taste for aggressive music. America is an aggressor against international peace. Canadians are aggressively polite. An unanswered text message is a blatant act of passive aggression. There are also microaggressions, which I had forgotten about until now. Aggression has a fluidity that rivals “obscenity.” Something is aggressive when it speaks unequivocally to our distaste. Yet it’s not as acute as rage, as confused as frenzy, or as inescapable as violence. It is a provocation and an atmospheric shift, but one that steadily lowers the temperature as much as raises it. Aggression’s ends are seldom clear, neither are its targets locked, even when it’s being put to use with full awareness.

Though I’ve been entangled in punk for the length of an entire childhood, I’ve actually never attended very many shows. I wouldn’t call myself an armchair (or cafeteria) punk, but the twisted physics of the shows most worth seeing being at once the hardest to access and the most draining to endure affected me pretty heavily. I’d say the last real show I attended was ten years ago when I saw Converge supporting Mastodon at Irving Plaza. And when I did it was always at the edge of the action, my closest encounter with mosh pits being entirely involuntary. Watching The Locust open for The Dillinger Escape Plan in Philadelphia in 2004, a pit teeming with bandana-masked Circle 9 members erupted a kind of solar flare into my corner of the venue, knocking me and a college classmate to the floor. The Locust could barely tolerate it before they couldn’t, stopping the show to call the moshers out, and in the insect costumes tightening around their rail-thin frames (people apparently do not eat in San Diego), it looked terribly silly.

But the moment framed a conflict as familiar in punk culture as it is unresolvable, striking, in fact, at the culture’s beating heart.

To say that punk is aggressive is not to be reductive by any means. It would take a cocktail of cynicism and credulity the potency of which only Dick Cheney could withstand to look anyone in the eyes and say that it is a culture of peace. It is more of a half-truth. If there is one goal that unites all or nearly all of punk’s branches it is the possibility of a just aggression. Youth is collectively within its rights to bite back at the antagonisms of adulthood, whether petty or oppressive, with all the negative energy it has in store, free of mitigations by decorum, subtlety, or compromise. This doctrine, if you can call it that, is its main source of resilience, but it is made complicated by conflicts that arise between performer and audience. The chaos engendered by call-and-response—or rather, appeal-and-condemnation—was mutually beneficial. Punk bands and their masses validated one another through negative reinforcement, both verbal and physical, like an inverted détente, each giving more or less as well as they got. But that would come to a head soon enough.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Judge, it’s kind of deep time even for punks. Founded in 1987 amidst the then-burgeoning New York City straight edge/youth crew scene, the band were a peculiar reaction to the critical flak their peers such as Youth of Today were getting for their willfully generic sound and uplifting but dogmatic message. Judge was more of a living straw man of unabashed militancy than a hardcore band, making explicit the menace that was otherwise implicit in the minds of the punk press, and taking the dogmatic into the reactionary. “A beer, a joint, like a gun to your head,” goes “Bringin’ It Down,” “The price that you pay is the blood that you bled.” As a rejoinder to Maximumrocknroll moralism it was quite clever, embodying Jonathan Swift’s desire to “vex the world rather than divert it.” But it was not so clever as to anticipate attracting outré demographics, like white supremacists. “When you’re in a position where you can write something, and people are going to listen to you, and you don’t take it seriously, ” singer Mike “Judge” Ferraro recalled, “you could cause a lot of damage.” The backlash put them on the defensive, killing the band, and sending Ferraro into a kind of exile upstate.“They wanted an excuse to fucking hurt somebody. And I was their excuse.”

It seems fortuitous that Judge came into existence the same year as Fugazi, whose heresy that punk is as much as refuge for the vulnerable as it is a forum for the aggrieved has proven compelling even outside of the indie world. But Judge’s legacy is every bit as calcified, only less for its satire and more for its righteousness. It’s been taken to earnest extremes by bands like Racetraitor, and Earth Crisis in particular, the vegan straight edge band whose signature song “Firestorm” calls for “violence against violence, let the roundups begin.”

But to hold up even the most problematic examples of punk would mean risking overstatement. Though it was a curious item on news magazines in the ‘90s, there are no roving gangs of straight edge vigilantes beating down on anyone drinking pale ale. Nor were Hatebreed or Converge fans responsible for burning down Woodstock ’99. I don’t even know why I thought it was a good example when there are so many more inexplicable and unsettling forms of aggression vying for our dread. I speak insensitively of ordinary people for whom aggression is, at best, a taxing solicitation of their time and energy, but which in any case seeks the end of wresting some amount of control away from them. With punk, there is at least the sense that its worst outcomes were unintended or at least unforeseen as possibilities. It was a response to rather than an embellishment of the Hobbesian reality outside the venue. CBGB’s Sunday hardcore matinées became too violent, and so to fix that it stopped hosting them and sent their patrons … back out into the city. “Your sun is setting/And your day grows late,” goes Judge’s “Warriors.” “As we walk home/This wasted land of hate.”

There was something deeply subversive in a band like Judge that was and remains rare in American punk. Maybe in the end it’s not just aggression’s case that punk is trying to make, but, in some perverse way, aggressive pacifism’s, or perhaps aggressive communitarianism’s. If there’s any value in my ongoing project to wring critical sense out of this thing I’ve spent the equivalent of at least three graduate school programs observing, it’s in teasing out the alternate ethics it engenders. More than aggression, punk seems flexible and accommodating to any disposition so long as it comes out the wrong way, so to speak, be it intelligence, irony, romanticism, piety, aestheticism, vulgarity, or what have you. I’ve been unable to find anything quite nearly as accommodating in American culture. Perhaps in religion there is something almost similar, but that always seems to risk either trivialization or invites co-opting.

***

This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.

LETTER NO. 8: ON SUFFERING

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Dear [REDACTED],

It probably would not surprise you that one of my most worn-through books in my collection is the Penguin Classics edition of Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer. I bought it maybe six years ago. Whether it speaks to the book’s fragmented construction or to the brisk clarity of its author’s style, it’s not one I formally read through, but picked up and dug into whenever the mood struck. That mood is hard to describe, something combined of boredom and glee, but with the latter more or less overcoming me once I’d read. For all his grumpiness and hatred, Schopenhauer is not a dour writer. But perhaps you know this book, or at least the books out of which the writings collected have been culled. Perhaps you know that the opening essay is called “On the Suffering of the World,” and perhaps you assumed that that would be the first thing to which I’d turn in preparing to write to you about suffering. In that case you’d be right. I did take the book out, I skimmed through the essay in question, and left it at my bedside for about a day and a half before putting it back, having realized this little German could not help me.

Schopenhauer is one of those writers you don’t read so much as nod along to as though he was expressing long-held convictions of your own. John Gray is another such writer. Hume is probably one for others. These writers are like costuming much in the same way that eyeliner is costuming for Robert Smith. If Schopenhauer is instructive at all in informing what I know about suffering, it is that I actually don’t know all that much about suffering.

I wonder how many people flock to a writer not for the richness of his philosophy, but because they see themselves reflected in him. In this case they are likely to see an entitled upper middle class wretch, a primordial Grumpy Gus, convinced of the suppleness of his mind while at the same time deeply afraid of pain and discomfort, and with a disinterest in death that whittles itself down the more death catches up. Or maybe it’s just me.

This personal admission, such as it is, is important. With this letter you ask me to venture into a territory with which I have no familiarity. I am a homebody as much in mind as I am in my actual home. I’m comfortable with angst, with dread, with despair, and with anxiety. In other words I know very intimately what I consider to be the pretense of suffering. I have few birthrights outside of the affectations of oncoming catastrophe passed down from my Mad Men-era foreparents. But I should count my blessings that this territory is mapped, at least in the kind of hieroglyphic language of pop culture I know more or less to a fault at this point. (It is very likely you already know the examples I’m going to give, so bear with me if so.)

In 1960, Michael Powell released his film Peeping Tom, which centers on an aspiring filmmaker who souped up his camera with a blade in one of the tripod legs and a mirror underneath the lens. So when he goes out to kill women, he not only is able to document their deaths, but also their literal facing down of it. Tautly written and filmed in the brilliant color one would expect from the director of The Red Shoes, it completely derailed Powell’s career when it was released. I mention it because this was the first thing that came into my mind—after Schopenhauer, anyway—in thinking about the subject. Horror films deal with suffering to degrees of various extremes, but often in ways that make it kind of beside the point. When we watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance, are we concerned about the screaming woman tied to the chair or are we dazzled by the frontier grotesque that surrounds her? Peeping Tom is controversial because it is so far the only horror film to put hard emphasis on the victim’s suffering. It is not just frightening, but cruel and not a little bit creepy. But even here it is deficient for me. The methodical execution presents the film more as a thought experiment than a narrative, made either by misogynists or feminists depending on how you look at it. You may argue with its lack of utility here, but my scope is much wider.

Come and See is a Soviet Union film released in 1985—and made after an eight-year struggle to gain government approval. At two and a half hours, it is remembered as much as a horror film as it is as a war drama, placing nightmare and fairy tale alongside history. Set in 1943 during the German occupation of Belarus, it follows two teens, a boy and a girl, through the literally scorched earth of their country. Throughout the duration, they witness or succumb to village massacres, live burnings, minefield explosions, rape, apocalyptic battles, etc. The events take a severe physical and mental toll on both, and the end of the film depicts the boy as having aged several years. It remains a film unequaled in its unrelenting harshness, so much so that ambulances were allegedly called to some screenings and that surviving German soldiers were said to have attested to its accuracy.

Whatever value these examples have from case to case, they help remind me that I’m of two minds on the common subject. On the one hand I’m reminded not simply that I have not suffered but that the prospect of suffering is not something to be welcomed by me or to be inflicted upon others. And if you do inflict it upon others, few other things are more than likely to reciprocate. Suffering, as I see it, is something akin to a psychic natural disaster. Job being tested by God is the signature model, but more often than not it is just man being used by man. It need not always be that, certainly, but I see it as the most worthy of consideration. It is, in a word, oppression. It is the loss of your freedom in exchange for the reinforcement of your weakness, the confirmation of your insignificance. It is the comfort of your particular station in life becoming dramatically less comfortable for whatever reason, perhaps no reason at all. It is more than being humbled, but being degraded. In this sense, my real cultural example should have been Trading Places.

On the other hand, I’m prone to think that some people haven’t suffered enough. And here is where it gets dangerous, where the blob of nuance comes oozing around the corner. Because these are the simple bitter thoughts that come up from me like poisoned food, wherein I tend to see people as sentient cardboard cutouts who, through their own cushioned entitlements, make the world a stupider and more miserable place for people they will never meet. But this sentiment isn’t entirely unique to me. The existence of a film like Come and See is not taken so seriously as to give people pause or to consider the option of not enforcing cosmetic alterations, however seemingly required at first, on human flourishing. Things will be different this time. And the next. And the next. And so on. I want nothing more to upend that dynamic, whether to achieve a kind of balance or catharsis. Of course people have taken that task upon themselves and we see what happens when it does.

I am playing at moralism, clearly, but more bedside than armchair, as there are currently things on my armchair that I refuse to move for some reason. Moralism is a kind of suffering in itself, for the moralist and the moralized. To wit, see me apologize profusely all the while fanning the flames of your burning house. But suffering is more than just suffering. With it you have to account for fear, anger, cruelty, revenge, lust, absurdity, and every other conceivable weakness one human being has at the ready to make able demolition tools against another. I’m not purely logical when I contemplate it. I’m a meat-based engine fueled by fear—and sugar—and it is an embarrassment to me some times, to drop it naked at the feet of the people you admire. Then again, it wasn’t such an embarrassment for Thomas Hobbes or Edmund Burke, far more practical on suffering, the tolls of suffering, and the fear of suffering than Schopenhauer could ever be.

***

This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.

LETTER NO. 7: ON INCEST

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Dear [REDACTED],

As you know, and in fact have witnessed, I’m a fairly proficient walker. I don’t do it as much as I should these days, but at one point—specifically the miserable winter of 2015—I would walk as many as eight miles every day up in both directions through the hilly terrain of our homeland. Similarly notable, of course, is my wandering eye of sorts. The number of times I have skirted testing the limits of my health insurance through injury by way of Instagram fidgeting are probably too many to count. Maybe not that many but enough times. But the vision I want to talk about is a different kind altogether.

Walking with my mom some time ago, she once turned to me and admitted how much she likes to look at each passing house and imagine what goes on inside them. The admission struck me, to be sure, though more for its candor (something my mom always exerted but somehow always surprises us when she does) than for its content. I don’t find anything particularly unique in this kind of aspirational voyeurism. I’ve participated in it myself, and I gather that neither of us are alone, especially among others who have grown up in the suburbs.

There is a favorite quote of mine by Walter Bagehot that I’m fond of recalling: “We see but one aspect of our neighbor, as we see but one side of the moon, in either case there is also a dark half which is unknown to us. We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself.” No insight speaks more plainly about the world in which you and I were reared. Walking past one impossibly pretty property after another, under the almost preternaturally corresponding natural splendor, I become conscious of the dual nature that Bagehot described. Much in the same way we are encouraged in polite settings to speak with our indoor voices, we are in polite society encouraged to obey the outdoor law, through which we uphold the social order and reinforce the common good as public people, whether written in the books or implied by example. But just as there is a vulgar outdoor voice there is a mysterious indoor law, known only to those who obey it within a given space, behind the walls they maintain. Each house on every street is its own little fiefdom, with customs, tastes, and morals that seldom find outward expression beyond the quality of paint jobs or the arrangement of yards. Have you not sometimes noted this distinction? Have you every so often bemoaned the rigidity of your own kingdom while envying the apparent laxity of that of a friend’s? Have you not been eerily fascinated by even the most vaguely eccentric occupant of another? And have you not, upon entering any new house, felt as if you might as well be entering North Korea?

It is with this framework in mind that I would like to take on the subject of incest.

I’ve had trouble determining whether or not incest is still a taboo, or if it ever really was at all. There is something inconsistent about an unspeakable act that we can’t stop hearing about if not going out of our way to talk about it ourselves. I think it has always been around in one context or another. Perhaps not on literally every single person’s mind, but it is not a concealed thing all the same. It is not a Lovecraftian abscess shuttered away in some amateur warlock’s wooded cabin. It has presence and genealogy. For some time, perhaps dating back to the publication of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, incest was perfectly speakable, not as a degenerate act so much as a cultural rite of a degenerate people. Incest seemed the exclusive domain of the Deliverance set, the white trash. Harper’s readers seemingly had a blast scorning and mocking the inbred defects that got George Wallace a platform and Nixon the White House. In seeking to vilify a whole people, a revolting, unnatural act was the main tool.

This changed, however, thanks to the enterprising of David Lynch, whose work I suspect is fueling an interest in incest specifically and parallel morality generally. I may be missing other examples but Twin Peaks and especially Fire Walk With Me put a powerful megaphone in front of the unspeakable act and brought it literally closer to home, and depicted it unsparingly, to the point that the latter film serves therapeutic value for actual victims of incest. But Lynch’s works were innovations on a previous model. The Taboo series, the first (of 26) having debuted in 1980, centered entirely on familial sex in middle class utopia. Twin Peaks and Taboo operate in different styles for different audiences to different ends, but they have a similar fantastical center. The intersection of art film with pornography is not as pronounced as it is in, say, Japan, but there is a trade off between the two works where moments in Twin Peaks are more pornographic and moments in Taboo are more surreal. And these have only reverberated further outward into the firmament.

Putting “indie film incest” into Google, while unadvisable generally, gets more results than one would think. And not only is their abundance astounding but so is their similarity almost across the board. Spanking the Monkey, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, The War Zone, and The Unspeakable Act are all small-scale, little seen films whose depictions of incest—some more overt than others—tend towards stark realism verging on bleakness. But they remind me less of depictions of familial dysfunction and abuse and more of the lesbian pulp novels in which the protagonists always met misfortune as a result of their deeds, the kind of novel The Price of Salt was written to counteract.

Pornography, on the other hand, has perpetuated what Taboo popularized and at the same time scaled it back. A wave of incest-themed films has come over the industry in recent years, but they are often framed as step-familial rather than blood familial. For golden age purists, this may seem a copout by an industry that wants to have it both ways, testing the limits of fantasy while not somehow offending mainstream sensibilities. But this pays dividends, if New Sensations is anything to go by. Even a cursory visit to their site shows a plethora of step-incest films like An Incestuous Affair, I Want My Sister 2, I Love My Mom’s Big Tits 3, you get the point. The “this is totally not creepy blood related stuff” is continually reinforced in the trailers (although they do have one called Kissing Kousins) as if it was a protective incantation. Their portrayal, moreover, are just as earnest as most of the indie films but more in the lighter style of romance novels.

“Like a terse sentence,” Wayne Koestenbaum wrote, “porn offers the sting of declaration, of exactitude: these events occurred.” But would a consumer of incest pornography, or any incestuous art, be it a V.C. Andrews novel or a Pixies song, readily agree to that point? I would say not, and I would agree if only halfway. If I sound like I’m sidestepping real life occurrences of incest, I don’t mean to; but to an extent, the act of incest and the depiction of incest are different things. This is because we never actually see incest in our lives unless we are experiencing it directly or hearing the pleas of others. It is, like anything that happens under a veil, a kind of carnal and criminal Schrodinger’s cat, and otherwise inconceivable as something other than abstract. The idea is potent, and we can ascribe it from our minds any which way we wish.

Its use as a psychological kink is less interesting to me than its use as a psychological projectile. If they say the classics never go out of style they never quite say how, and I can see why. We may not know the experience of incest but we know perhaps the implication of incest, the damnation of incest as we, in our silent ways, foist it on others. Not out of an infernal malice but out of a malignant boredom, of wishing the most unwholesome degradation onto a pristine, inoffensive atmosphere that is at once protectively open and comfortably closed off. The art of incest is a desperate subset of the art of loneliness.

***

This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.

LETTER NO. 6: ON MIRRORS

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Dear [REDACTED],

In thinking about mirrors, it occurred to me that I could list all of the instances in which mirrors played if not a pivotal narrative role then at least a noteworthy one. And moreover I could probably make a case of their respective profundities towards the human psyche and morality that would cause Roland Barthes to burst from his grave and take up vaping. I could reference Candyman, The Prince of Darkness, Red Dragon, the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror,” the Edogawa Rampo short story “The Hell of Mirrors,” the Jawbox song “Mirrorful.” Maybe for good measure I could tie in Stranger Things, which makes maybe one reference to mirrors in the entire first season, but can be so manipulated for my purposes because that is the business in which we have found ourselves. Such a whirlwind of intellectual vanity would reflect well on me in this examination of reflective surfaces. But these instances, while certainly fascinating and worthy of audience in their own rights, seem to confuse the matter.

Mirrors invite binary thinking. For instance, there are two kinds of people who deal with mirrors: those who see in it nothing but themselves and those who see in it everything beyond themselves. To the first kind the mirror is a servant and nothing more. It is a means of assembling ourselves for the sake of those around us. To the second kind, however, it is an entryway. Whether in a symbolic sense or in a more imaginative, escapist sense, they are dazzled by the possibilities in not only a self in reverse but an entire existence, wherein left is right, black is white, what’s bad out here is good in there.

At first I wanted to place myself within this duality—which would be the former, as I find nothing fanciful in exploring this theme. But then I thought the better of it. Dialectics in this matter, as in an increasing number of others I find, revealed itself more as a rhetorical trick out of which little lasting insight can be mined. (I think it would be best not to tell various Communists I know, let alone my twin brothers, that I wrote that.) Nuance is a kind of sickness that, with the right amount of acuteness, verges on otherworldly possession. I cannot help the conditions under which it finds feeding on my soul most optimal, such as the most pertinent desire to talk about selfies.

It used to be that I never liked having my picture taken. I was very uncomfortable with being shot either formally with directions from without (such as during the time my mother insisted that I and my brothers pose like the Captain Morgan rum icon), or in candid cinéma vérité, both resulting in a demonstration of the flexibility with which others may dictate when and how you are permitted to be dignified. But gradually it occurred to me that it comes down more to a dislike of being photographed by other people. When I got my first iPhone four years ago, my first photo was not a selfie, but a wide shot of Camden Yards from a hotel balcony. Nor was my first selfie of my own initiative. A photo was asked of me by an editor to accompany a biography and I had no better option. To be sure, it was not very good, taken quickly, with poor lighting and in a bizarre angle; Max Headroom comes to mind for some reason. But I’ve gotten better.

In taking mirror selfies, I have mastered the following: making the limiting contours of the bathroom an atmospheric asset, looking into the lens of the camera rather than into the mirror, keeping the phone itself out of view in the photo, and various positions of the head—I tried a profile shot while still meeting these standards just to see if I could, and I did. Kim Kardashian, going by Google image search, has not even managed such feats. (Though, in fairness, when one has full-sized mirrors, some of this is moot.) To admit this seems no great calamity, broadly speaking. A 1984 birth year puts me more or less at the head of the millennial demographic; this is my medium, my crowning contribution to culture. This is meant to be derogatory, and it is deserved in part, but I shall hold off on that for the moment.

To say that this act is our genius is puzzling even at a conceptual level. One of the earliest photographs ever taken was a selfie, by a weirdly contemporary looking Robert Cornelius in 1839. A good amount of August Strindberg’s photography consists of self-portraits; in fact he seems to have pioneered much of the aesthetic melodrama we tend to associate with MySpace dwellers. “I don’t care a thing for my appearance,” he said, “but I want people to be able to see my soul, and that comes out better in my own photographs than in others.” That said, there is a sense that Strindberg was born out of time. What he would have done with Instagram is a game of speculation rich with possibilities.

But even all the way into the furthest recesses of the 20th century, just as the idea of narcissism was gaining popular traction, Strindberg rejected its most obvious mode of expression. To certain social critics, social scientists, and take-writers, the millennials’ interest in their reflections—whether in the mirror or in the mirror function on their phones—is the central symbol of a social media-enabled desire to see themselves duplicated, triplicated, quadruplicated until much of the world is replaced by them, with a small clique of leftovers, like the earthly remnants of a rapture, left outnumbered to serve the New Order’s needs. The scenario deserves props for its horrific novelty, but it’s one that doesn’t interest the target of their critiques.

Think of the mirror not as a source of tribute but as a study in contrast. (What was it I said about the hollowness of dialectics?) Yes, the mirror posits that a person exists, but play with the mirror suggests no single mode of existence. The point is not to validate what is already known, but to explore or embellish what is hidden with all the risks that entail. The selfie brings home what was once in the imaginative domains of Dostoyevsky, David Lynch, and Maya Deren. The future allows us to build our own existential Others, our doppelgängers. Through this practice we do not simply copy ourselves, but assemble a new sibling of sorts, as much out of our own neuroses and dislikes as out of those positive qualities we find lacking. This not-so-modern self-portraiture, far from being solipsistic, is a desire to stand outside ourselves; to make strangers of ourselves. What could be more striking and perhaps more damning a source of self-examination?

Anna Kavan was said to have loved mirrors to an extreme degree. She filled her house with them, she wrote her novels in front of one, and applied them as metaphors in those novels. “There was a pause,” Kavan wrote in Let Me Alone, “during which she continued to meet in the mirror the strange pair of goblin-eyes, steady with strange malice.” “There was a small mirror on the wall and Kay stared into it for a while. She saw there a face not unlike her own except that it was rather deteriorated and had an expression of great anxiety almost of desperation,” she wrote in My Soul in China. Kavan applied this as much to herself, changing her name from Helen Woods Ferguson to that of her protagonist in Let Me Alone. And while she did not photograph herself, she painted a self-portrait that is so haunting as to constitute self-harm, which is not far off. She died of a heroin overdose in her 60s having horded enough of the drug “in her house to kill the whole street.”

anna-kavanNo one is Anna Kavan. Anna Kavan wasn’t even really Anna Kavan. But critics doubtless see her as the model for modern mirror culture, even if they’ve never actually heard of her. They see ego and loneliness and condemn them. But the average critic being just as egotistical and just as lonely is merely condemning mediocrity. The offense is not that people are self-reflecting, but that self-reflection has its Model T, and everyone is on the road.

The bad moralist sees all this and finds self-adoration. The slightly better moralist sees this and finds self-voyeurism. The human being sees this and very quickly looks away. The etiquette that is required when someone stumbles upon someone else in the midst of vulnerability practice is quite unambiguous. Even when such a thing is posted it is a crosshairs in which one should not get caught. One does not see the wisdom in putting a pause on their business to consider the motives of why and the intricacies of how one car collides with another. Or that is usually the expectation, and it’s the expectation we should apply here. Though not as violent, or even as despairing, as any disaster, precisely how a person is encountering him or herself in reflection is no less chaotic and no more anyone’s concern. The burden is not on someone to abstain from sharing, but from someone to abstain from gazing.

***

This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.

LETTER NO. 5: ON BODIES

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Dear [REDACTED],

H.P. Lovecraft has a story called “The Whisperer in Darkness,” in which a literature professor travels to rural Vermont to investigate reports of strange phenomena. This turns out, of course, to be a winged alien race who’ve come to earth, they claim, to show its inhabitants their own world—Yuggoth—the contents of which are “wholly beyond the utmost reach of any human imagination.” All that is required of travelers is that they allow them to remove their brains and place them in a special cylinder that keeps them alive, purely for practical transportation purposes, of course. This is an incomplete gist, I admit, and if you’ve read the story then more power to you. But in thinking of the subject at hand, H.P. Lovecraft, and this story especially, seems relevant.

“The Whisperer in Darkness” holds an odd distinction among Lovecraft’s stories as one of the more hopeful-seeming out of his otherwise bleak oeuvre. There’s no strong consensus on this point, but for my part that radical interpretation makes some sense, if only because of Lovecraft’s unique treatment of one of the most consistent, if not always central, preoccupations in his fiction: the body.

We don’t tend to think of Lovecraft as a very physical writer. His characters, his protagonists especially, are never more than ciphers. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s abstract, his narration is often a frenzied, almost mystical, overflow of archaic verbiage that obscures the environment more than it describes. And of course there are his various otherworldly monstrosities that were sometimes so horrifying as to be beyond any coherent description. But when not tending to his duties as the prophet of the cold, indifferent cosmos, his physicality makes itself known in notable ways. A Massachusetts town is darkened by generations-long interbreeding with an amphibian-like race dwelling off its coast in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” In “The Outsider,” a lonesome man encounters a creature with “eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines” revealing “a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape,” only to find out that he is looking into a mirror. And in “The Colour Out of Space,” a comet smashes into a farm town, releasing a globule that degrades all life in its environment.

Lovecraft was a man of many hatreds, but encompassing all of them seemed to be an overwhelming hatred of the body. He hated that it grew and changed. He hated its required maintenance. He hated to touch or to have it be touched by other bodies. He hated its variety. Perhaps more than hatred of the body, it was a hatred of physical existence in total, and so the notion of a disembodied mind being taken anywhere but here would appear to be the single net positive in the Lovecraftian universe.

“Adulthood is hell,” Lovecraft wrote, somewhat appropriately, at age 30. Adulthood is many things to many people, of course, but above all it is the acceptance of oneself as an independent physical object. Indeed, modernity defines itself by the accommodations it offers to us as beings untethered to our past obligations and the restrictions they might have placed on us. Our bodies, and the sensations we invite upon them, are ostensibly our own. Adolescence is the preparation for its hazards, but no rigidity is, or can feasible be, imposed as to how we apply its lessons, for good and ill. But this is no great dilemma. People in vast numbers take their physical embodiment as granted. Even if it does not satisfy them there are plenty of avenues for revision. Our bodies are a visual and active extension of our priorities and character.

One of the novelties of the bizarre Equinox gym advertisements is the more explicit flaunting what their brand is offering: not proper health, which you can get through simply walking, but affirmation and inclusion. Participation levels are not fixed in our society, but there are clearly some that are preferred more than others. Equinox is an easy target for petty moralists who wish to decry vain individualism—or vain uniformity a la The Stepford Wives. But a virtuous homeliness is half-baked in its own way. And Lovecraft throws the vacancy of both notions into radical relief.

For Lovecraft, mind and body never seemed to be simpatico. They never seemed to want to do the same things or fulfill the same functions. Lovecraft was most suited with pursuits intellectual and imaginary, spreading his ideas and creating his worlds. On the other hand he was less suited for the demands we acquiesce to without much resistance: of being a living thing, with substance, integrity, and wants and needs. He did not resist these things in total, of course; he married, moved out of his hometown, made many friends, and traveled. But these were not constants in his life. There’s a lot of faux aristocratic presumption in his attitudes, to say the least, but seemingly coinciding with that is this idea that one’s physical make up is not only a burden on oneself, but can actively work against one’s interest. It is an idea expanded upon by John Carpenter in The Thing and David Cronenberg in Shivers, The Brood, and The Fly.

Once when I was walking in town, I passed a small gym where a man was supervising two women dragging ship anchor chains back and forth over the parking lot. (It doesn’t seem right that their arms were bent back, but the chains were huge, and that’s how it registers in my head.) Down the street from the community pool, and in between a carpet cleaning company and an industrial equipment supplier, it proved a rare glimpse of suburban Gothic, something out of Todd Solondz.

CrossFit, and likeminded regimens, are like Equinox in that they offer more than the standard human mechanical tune-up, but it goes a few steps beyond organic refinement. Most people tend to wave off CrossFit as an extremist subculture, a cult or a fetish. But there’s an anxiety underlying its intensity that should garner some sympathy. Simple vanity of “peak performance” doesn’t quite satisfy its ambitions. I see it as an extended plea for existence. It is a kind of body horror survivalism; cellular fortification against any form of subversion from within or invasion from without. It is a cure, of sorts; if not for mortality full stop then for the inevitability of mortality. “I do not go until I say I am ready,” their fine-toned flexes seem to announce. “I will be here for as long as it takes.”

All this is probably a bit boilerplate. The fetishization of exercise has been well established, not least of all in those who undertake it. And surely out of all the enemies to our bodies, we are not our worst. And I agree. In fact, I don’t particularly mind who does what with their own body. It’s the libertarian itch I insist on scratching. But I keep returning to the idea that the ailment is the body itself, and that we are biding our time until a more conclusive cure is found. But there is one in sight.

The film Her speaks to our infatuation with both artificial intelligence and humanity’s propensity for loneliness. (Weirdly, it is also about a professional letter writer.) But while talking with a friend on Twitter, I began to think about it in a different way. Instead of having someone create an AI surrogate, I started thinking of a technological advancement that would allow a person’s consciousness to be uploaded onto a server, from which people would be able to purchase robot companions with real memories and personalities, which they could switch on and off at their leisure. It is a Black Mirror episode that writes itself, to be sure; for I can much more clearly see the desire of someone wanting to forfeit their physical existence than I can see someone’s desire to purchase one for their smarthouse. But it doesn’t seem far-fetched all the same. What is social media but a kind of training for robot friendship? Has it not shown us a way out, albeit with imperfect results, from the rampant loneliness? Does it not also relieve us, with similar imperfections, of our physical burdens, allowing our minds to do the talking?

Perhaps the frayed state of our current social media landscape makes this both impracticable and unappealing in the short term. But it would not shock me to one day hear of a TED talk given by a dimestore Elon Musk about how he or she spent months sequestered in a Bay Area U-Stor-It plugging away at code for the “Yuggoth Cure.”

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This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.