Black Ribbon Award

Month: December, 2017

DARK INTERESTS

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Scene: Stone bench in a cemetery on an overcast winter afternoon. A male GOTH, mid- to late-20s, sits hunched over while his thumb glides rhythmically over his phone screen. There are two Starbucks cups placed at either side of him. After a few seconds of silence, an OLD MAN, mid-70s, hobbles slowly to the bench with a walking stick and sits next to him. The GOTH glances briefly and blankly at him before looking back at his phone. More silence.

Old Man: Are you …

Goth: Sorry what?

Old Man: Sorry … didn’t mean to bother.

Goth: No … no. It’s fine. I’ve been zoning out.

Old Man: Are you … um …

Goth: Yeah?

Old Man: … in … mourning?

Goth: Oh, um, no. No, not really.

Old Man: Ah.

Goth: Yeah.

Silence.

Old Man: Are you, if I can put it another way, mourning … generally?

Goth: Mourning generally?

Old Man: Yes.

Goth: I don’t understand.

Old Man: I suppose, what I’m trying to say is, is that I might have asked a silly question.

Goth: Have you?

Old Man: Maybe even a stupid question.

Goth: Well I don—

Old Man: Of course they always say there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Goth: I’ve heard that, yeah.

Old Man: There are, though, stupid sayings.

Goth: I guess.

Old Man: And that is one of them. [Pause.] Because that was a stupid question.

Goth: I wouldn’t say that.

Old Man: No you wouldn’t, nice boy like you, but the odds are in stupidity’s favor here.

Goth: How so?

Old Man: Easy. This is one of the oldest graveyards within a 50 or so mile radius.

Goth: Sure.

Old Man: It’s very well known on various … websites, you could call them, for its aesthetic allure. There are, I’d hazard, no burials that took place here after, I don’t know, the 1950s. You know what was going on in the 1950s? A whole lot of nothing.

Goth: I wouldn’t know, really.

Old Man: Take my word for it. But, to get back to my point, I think it would be a safe assumption for me to say that you might not have immediate or even distant relatives buried in this graveyard.

Goth: Well … you’re right.

Old Man: Ah ha! So then it would also be a safe assumption for me to say that you are a general mourner. Now by that I mean you mourn no one person buried here, but you in your own way mourn all those buried in all manners throughout the world. [Pause.] And, if I can be bolder here, all those as yet unburied.

Goth: I never really thought about it.

Old Man: I won’t assume much more than that.

Pause.

Goth: Some people are offended by that.

Old Man: By what?

Goth: By my having … dark interests.

Old Man: Who could possibly take offense to that? In this day and age? Where the levels of quirk and idiosyncrasy in personal hobbies have never been higher?

Goth: Just … people.

Old Man: “Just people.” People on that shiny rectangle there?

Goth: Sure.

Old Man: They barely qualify. What do they know? What is even the matter with “dark” interests? Is it not of value to drift up and down these rows of old headstones? Checking the dates, ages of death, the clever designs, and haunting elegies? Is it not a reflection of our inevitable destinies and of the fortune of having a proper and peaceful resting place? [Pause.] What you need is to forget the silent judges, and be with likeminded people. [Pause.] No maybe that’s not the word I want. Simila— … no. Well, you know what I mean. People like you. People who mourn the buried and as yet unburied as you do right now.

Goth: Well, as a matter of fact, that’s what I was hoping to do today.

Old Man: Oh?

Goth: I was hoping to meet this girl. But that was supposed to be almost an hour ago and …

Old Man: Stood up?

Goth: Seems like it. The perils of online dating, I guess.

Old Man: Oh you met her on … what’s it called …

Goth: No … um, I met her on c0v3n.

Old Man: Coven?

Goth: No, c0v3n. Lowercase c, with a zero in place of the o and a three in place of the e.

Old Man: I see.

Goth: Here, let me show you. [Moves closer, holding phone screen so the OLD MAN can see.] So the app will randomly generate a user of your gender preference, like usual, but also practice preference. Like, are you into witches, wizards, high priestesses, vampires, glampires, enchantresses, druids, esoteric magicians? That kind of thing.

Old Man: What’s your preference?

Goth: I’m a splatterpunk looking for a rivethead.

Old Man: I see.

Goth: And so if you are interested you press the star pentagram, which casts a “charm spell.”

Old Man: That’s … Wiccan? Which is good?

Goth: With this interface it is. So if you’re not interested you press the goat head pentagram on the right, which casts a “death hex,” and you never see them again.

Old Man: And who was supposed to me today’s lucky lady?

Goth: Right here.

Old Man: Meredith … Jeanine.

Goth: Jeanine Meredith actually.

Old Man: Oh, well the grey streak really brings out the eyes. Did you tell her that?

Goth: No.

Old Man: Kid you’ve got a lot to learn. [Pause.] But don’t let it get you down. You’ll get into the swing of things. At least you got coffee for her.

Goth: What, oh no, this one is mine; this one was here when I got here.

Old Man: This might be fortune giving you a nudge.

Goth: Yeah. [Pause.] Yeah. [Pause.] So, I take it you’re in mourning? Actual mourning, I mean.

Old Man: Well, my grandfather and grandmother over back that way.

Goth: I’m sorry.

Old Man: Don’t be. I barely remember them at all. I was a boy when both of them keeled over. In fact my grandfather’s walking stick—this thing here—is the first thing I ever inherited.

Goth: Ah cool.

Old Man: Shit lot of good it does me now. Crotchety bastard was a foot and a half shorter than I am. [Pause.] But … you could say that I am in mourning.

Goth: How so?

Old Man: I, too, was stood up by a … similarly minded woman.

Goth: Really?

Old Man: Well, it’s slightly more complicated than that. You see, I’m not as unfamiliar with “dark” interests as it may appear. In fact, you could say I had quite a few growing up. Like you I was gloom-minded, dressed like an undertaker nearly every day. Dyed my hair with shoe polish. Of course back then there was no newfangled internet as you might guess. Phones were connected to wires and were operated with rotary dials. I bet you or someone you know has one for the aesthetic appeal.

Goth: Well not—

Old Man: Well you’re goddamn right; those things are beauts. But we didn’t have things like c0v3n. We had maybe personal ads. But those were dicey. Every now and then you’d hear about a “Blind Date Killer” or a “Backpage Bandit.” Terrible stuff. Luckily I was the only boy with dark interests in town, which made dating the only girl with dark interests in town much easier. Dina Allen was her name. Maybe not by conventional—even darkly interested—standards a pretty girl, but boy did she have the look and the sense of a sorceress. I don’t know that we ever dated seriously. But we had a routine. Poe at school, Baudelaire at home. Roger Corman at the drive-in, Mario Bava in the city. We requested Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on the radio every chance we got and danced to it in my rec room whenever it played. And of course frequent sojourns to this very cemetery.

Goth: Really?

Old Man: But we were savvy about it and avoided Mischief Night and Halloween when all the other idiots suddenly remembered it existed. We’d go on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. We’d watch the fireworks on the Fourth. And for the two Valentine’s Days I knew her, we’d pick our favorite epitaphs and put them in cards, and exchange them on this very bench.

Goth: Wow. [Pause.] So what happened?

Old Man: Well, that’s a bit more complicated, as I said, but … one summer, I’d say between junior and senior year this was, we’d go to the cemetery quite a lot. I think it’s because we both had jobs nearby. She was at the pool snack bar, I was over there.

Goth: At Chipotle?

Old Man: It used to be my father’s dental practice. Anyway, one night we came here doing our usual thing. Nothing racy, mind you. Yes, sometimes we’d kiss, sometimes while lying on slabs. But mostly we’d just be together. Avoiding our mutually drearier situations including but not limited to being the only people with dark interests in town. Now you see that mausoleum all the way at the edge there, the one with the opened gate?

Goth: Yeah.

Old Man: One of the oldest plots in this place, for the first rector of this church. It was our favorite place in here. We’d sit and make up stories about the rector. That he was this powerful warlock and that he would cause women and children to disappear in service to his satanic desires.

Goth: [laughs]

Old Man: Yeah, so stupid in retrospect. One night we had some of her dad’s bourbon, each taking some strong swigs out of it and she started running all over the place. I happily and dizzyingly chased after her. I found her swinging on the loose gate of the rector’s tomb reciting parts of Le Spleen de Paris. She was amazing like that. I told her to get down but she went inside. I followed her in. She was sitting on the slab smiling more giggling and giddy than I’d ever seen her. She came back down, said something not really comprehensible then so a lot less so now, and gave me a burning bourbon-scented kiss on the lips. Then she ran out. I saw her duck around back of the mausoleum. I thought I was chasing her around it but when I stopped she was neither in front of me nor behind me. She was nowhere. I called out to her. Nothing. I ran into the woods just behind the tomb but only vomited. I went home and vomited some more. Never saw her again.

Goth: Did you tell anyone?

Old Man: Of course I did! I may have had dark interests but I was no blackguard. I called her home and asked where she was. Her parents said they were about to ask me the same question. So they called the cops and I gave a painstakingly pathetic rendition of that night for the police report. But with so little other evidence to go on they just treated it like a runaway.

Goth: Were there suspicions?

Old Man: Of me? No. Ridicule, though … plenty of ridicule. [Pause.] I don’t want to say the town broke me, but … after a while some regular items in my wardrobe became less regular. Traded in the black suits for cardigans and denim. I washed most of the shoe polish out of my hair. My first car was an Oldsmobile 98, not a hearse. My favorite book is A Fan’s Notes—go figure. [Pause.] But I stuck around. Got a degree in library science, and I’d come back here every so often. Hoping she’d come back and we’d carry on as always but mostly to mourn what’s probably lost forever. I don’t know what else I can do. I tried keeping her memory alive in the local lore forums but the moderators are fucking draconian. [Pause.] One thing I never got rid of, though, was this. [Goes into his coat pocket and takes out a small pin.] It’s pin with a skeleton on it. She gave it to me one Halloween.

Goth: That’s really awesome.

Old Man: Got kind of rusty over time.

Goth: It’s still pretty cool.

Old Man: I see no reason not to give it to you.

Goth: I … I don’t thin—

Old Man: No, I insist. It doesn’t seem right to hold onto this.

Goth: I … Are you sure?

Old Man: At least I know you’d appreciate it. [Hands over the pin.]

Goth: Thank you, sir.

Old Man: Don’t mention it. [Pause.] You should probably work on your charm offensive, though. And maybe consider coffee before the tombstone stroll.

Goth: [laughing, fixing the pin on his jacket lapel] Yeah, thanks again. It looks nice!

Old Man: So it does. Glad to pass it on. [Pause.] Is there even coffee in that other cup?

Goth: Good question. Let me— [Opens the lid of the cup, winces, places it under the bench.] Oh good God no.

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RENTER’S REMORSE

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The green door is found at the back of the house that I rent with two other men. None of us have any good answers for it. Visitors—whether friends, family, or prospective lovers—open it in hopes of finding a bathroom, only to meet an eight-inch indentation of the surrounding plaster wall.

Every time this happens we get the same look from everyone, one that suggests we’d been hoodwinked in some intangible way; or as if we’d been lazy, or desperate to get out from under our parents’ basements. It’s as if, to them, our situation has only deteriorated. Evidently we shouldn’t have bothered.

When the realtor was showing us the place, she avoided the door somewhat unnaturally. When we made gestures toward it she turned it back on us, wondering how such fine young men became so out of touch with the wider culture. “These days,” she told us, “a single house can have many doors—too many to count. Some are purely utilitarian. Some are purely decorative.” Our landlord, God bless him, acts as if “green door” is the one phrase in English he hasn’t mastered.

Not that any of us are complaining. Far from it. All things considered, we live in an adequate house that is almost pushing beyond the threshold into good. It’s affordable between the three of us, well insulated in the winter and well ventilated in the summer. The neighborhood is fine and the neighbors don’t mind if we have more than a handful of people over from time to time. Sure, the Wi-Fi gives out every couple of days, the house has some cracks, creeks, and rodent issues befitting its age, and there’s a Rottweiler with no tags walking up and down the street every so often, but at least we’re within reasonable distance from everyone’s work. Yet … the door … it’s just there, and almost insists on being so. We’re not actually sure if that room is for living or storing. We keep a mop and bucket in the corner and a few chairs around. We use it mostly to smoke when it’s cold. There’s a small window that lets us see out into the backyard.

We like to think that the room represents life in some way. The window is the small portal into wider adventure and opportunity. The green door is a more accessible passage to obstruction and stasis. A mutual friend was actually quite fascinated by the door. Though not fat, he had a protruding gut from steady alcohol intake, and was quite humorous about it. After we fed him some more beer, he stood in the wall indentation and laughed as the door bounced off of his jiggling abdomen. “I’m gonna sick the Zoning Board on you’ll [sic],” he slurred repeatedly. It took two of us to hold back our housemate Ryan lest he put the guest in a coma.

We try to not to let it sit in our minds that we’re those people, who settled on the property with the design flaw. Most days it’s fine. Save one night when I was getting the recycling ready and came back to the room to find Ryan sitting tensely against the wall across from the door, clutching a broom.

“Oh I was wondering where that went,” I said offhandedly.

“You don’t hear it?” he replied.

“I hear a lot of things.”

“But not it?”

“What is it?”

“Forget it, this doesn’t concern you.”

“Well, it does kind of.”

He said nothing further. And with nothing further to do than to return to my room and text “house meeting tomorrow night work?” to Adam, my other housemate, who was asleep, as if that would somehow help. I got the “ok” reply in the morning.

There was no sign of Ryan the next day. The broom was where he left it, though I suspected a pile of magazines I had missed being tied up and left on the kitchen table was his doing. I texted him about the meeting, by lunch it was still undelivered.

I decided to work from home, setting up a makeshift office in the kitchen. I made some coffee, put on Discover Weekly, and pored over my spreadsheets. After about three hours, the names, figures, and overall purpose of my job seemed to lose some clarity, but it was like having an unobtrusive day visitor at the table with me. My company’s home-office policy is lax up to a point, but for the first time in my professional life I could kick back before noon with my hands clasped behind my head and say “I could get used to this.” And with no elevator ride between me and my wind-chilled cigarettes, the back room was more inviting than ever.

It was about two in the afternoon and I was on my third break. It started to snow outside, a light accumulation of thick flakes, like drifting shreds of cotton. I tuned out my other obligations, both sensory and professional, as I watched the flakes arrange themselves onto the yellow grass. It was a good 10 minutes before a sudden but familiar squeal shocked me back to attention.

I turned around and the green door was open. A man I did not recognize was peering halfway in from the other side. He was young, acne-pocked, with a well trimmed and thoroughly pomaded head of blond hair. He was wearing a varsity sweater, but I could not see from what school or in which sport. But in his left arm I saw a copy of Walden, an war adventure comic book, and what looked like an algebra textbook all in retro packaging that lacked the wear and tear of lost time. Behind him I heard the faint swelling of other voices.

I lost track of time again staring silently at this boy whose eyes were frantically darting to me and to the rest of the room, as if he still trying to figure just what his mistake was. From his side I heard a bell go off. “Shit” was all he said, realizing finally that he was late and not where he was supposed to be, and shut the door. When I went to open it all I found was what was always there. I slapped the plaster surface hard as if that was really going to accomplish anything.

Ryan had still not received my text, so I did the unthinkable and called him. It expectedly went to voicemail.

“I’ve come back! I’ve come back!” Ryan yelled in his recorded message. “Apparitions … of all shapes and contents. I want to describe them all! I’ve come back! And I’m nev— [beeeeeeeeeep]” I hung up, having no talent for voicemail.

I returned to my kitchen-workspace, opened a Word document and mulled over the most delicate way I could explain this to Craigslist users.

A WINTER WALK

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I am not by nature a melancholy person. This attribute appears rather distinct in the colder months, when it seems everyone else is inseparably infatuated by therapy lights. I never understood it, quite plainly. Sure, the cold itself is a bitter mistress, but winter taken as a whole is a delight that can hardly be rivaled. Not even summer is quite as splendid or as invigorating as winter is. And there are few things quite as enchanting as going out just after everything around me has been freshly powered with snow. It is like waking up in an alternate, and much improved, version of the world.

Last year I found myself fortunate to have had three days out of a week in December with snowfall, not a common thing in this part of the country. So for the first time in a few years I had no excuse not to go out and literally walk in a winter wonderland. True, the most indication we have in our neighborhood of the approach of Christmastime are a few sparsely decorated homes and the tree-shaped adornments that stay up in the lamp posts well past Valentine’s Day. Though at least much of their tinsel had not yet been shed by the elements.

On one such walk I came by a lake not too far from my home. It’s not really a lake, I think. More of a glorified pond, with neither the space nor a sturdy enough frozen foundation to accommodate more than maybe one ice skater at a time. So it is usually a rather peaceful place this time of year, a kind of untouched oasis, like a mediocre painting of unknown origin in an odds-and-ends shop just waiting to fill a dentist’s wall come to life. Walking toward it, however, I saw that it was not entirely deserted. One figure sat on the stone bench at the edge of the lake, hunched over in a blue down jacket. It was Daryl, who lived a few houses down from me. I can’t say we’re friends, but my wife and I got on fairly cordially with him and his wife as couples in the same just-on-the-cusp-of-middle age demographic tend to do once they’ve hacked suburban home ownership. So I felt I had enough reason to approach him.

“I hope the Mrs. is getting you one of those ergonomic chairs for Christmas,” I said with the pep of freshly certified middle school math teacher.

“What?” Daryl answered more sullenly.

“From Sweden. If you lurch your shoulders down like that for long enough you’ll be a hunchback by 45.”

“What are you, the posture police?”

“No … I … from just over there you could pass for something made out of stone.”

“Funny you should mention stone.”

“Pardon?”

“I was just thinking about rocks.”

“Like about geology?”

“No, like Medusa. Lately I’ve been thinking about that myth from the perspective of the victims. Of the people who made eye contact with her and were henceforth petrified.”

“I see,” I said as I took the space on the bench beside him.

“I think ‘victim’ is a misnomer. I’m starting to wonder if it is not such a stroke of poor luck to find yourself transformed into a rock. I guess it’s terrifying in the process but I imagine you’d get used to it eventually. Just think, a life without flesh, without consciousness, conscience, or memory.”

“Well … I never thou—”

“No hunger, no desires, no pain.”

“It seems interesting in the abstract, yeah.”

“I think the myth would be improved if Medusa’s ‘victims’ were at least given the option of being transformed moreover into a boulder. I don’t think it’s enough to be free of human material but not also the human form. You should be able to have less than even that.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“It just seems better to be shapeless and indefinite. I see a large rock and am actually quite comforted by how unknowable it is to me and how unknowable I am to it. I touch it and feel its cold. It may not know the cold I give it in return, but it’s there.”

“Ah ha, well … I mean you cert—“

“And another thing about boulders … they cannot be moved. Or they cannot be moved without a lot of effort and risk of injury. You can’t deal with them passively or ignore them completely. It’s there but it’s not … present. Maybe that’s not how it goes.”

“Maybe I was wrong. I hope you get a pet rock for Christmas!”

Daryl did not react to my joke, not because it was bad (though upon reflection it probably was) but because he was transfixed, staring in a silent, contented glaze toward the icy lake, which was giving off a notable heat and, upon looking at it myself, flames. They were thin flames of pale blue and orange, as if we stood before a giant flambé.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing, Daryl?” I asked. It was futile; he was clearly attracted to something and paid no mind to me. I walked up to the edge of the lake but was knocked onto the snow by a wave of heat. “Holy shit, what the hell is going on?”

I looked over at Daryl again, now standing and moving towards the lake himself. A hole had broken through at the center of the ice, and crawling out was a figure of indeterminate shape. It was red, that much was certain, but otherwise enshrouded in a kind of erratically pixelated distortion, like an image on a badly tracked video. From the increasingly serene look on Daryl it appeared that he was seeing something different, perhaps even recognizable. His serenity grew as the figure walked across the ice and reached out an appendage to invite him on, which he took gladly. And they waltzed across the flaming lake. Their rhythm was seamless, though I heard no music. After a few minutes another breach was made in the ice and they spun slowly into the water. The flames vaporized and the holes were covered again, as if nothing had happened.

I took a rock and a stick and walked carefully onto the ice, but I fell through on my fifth or sixth step. The depth went just under my knees.

The remainder of my holidays had me fixed on making sense of what I saw. Yet each new day of trying seemed more impossible than the last. Research into local and state lore offered no near equivalent of what I saw. There were no reported chemical or industrial mishaps either. No black vans speeding to the lake to take readings. No aviator-sporting strangers coming to my door to “ask me a few questions.” In fact no one did, not least of all Daryl’s wife, who I last saw just before New Year’s making a snowman with their daughter. She waved me down and we made some small talk about the weather and potholes while their daughter was finding the best angle to memorialize their creation with her phone.

After a while I just asked flat out: “Is Daryl around?”

“Who?” she replied quizzically.

“Your husband.”

Oh. Oh. Oh. Yeah. Of course. Sorry. Brain fart,” she forced a chuckle, which I replicated. “He’s out of town for a while. Consulting. You know how it is.”

“Over Christmas?”

“Oh, we never really did much for the holidays. His work is pretty important.”

“What is his work, I don’t think he ever told me.”

“You know,” she said tapping her finger against her cheek in mock pensiveness, “that’s a good question. Oh sweetie, don’t drop your phone in the snow, you just got that.”

Soon I began to return to the lake at the approximate time the incident took place. First every day, then every week from the day, and then pretty soon every month—all to no effect. Soon it was nearing spring and I was running out of options.

Walking back, however, I stumbled over a small rock on the sidewalk. I would have kicked it away in annoyance but for the epiphany it gave me. Thinking back on Daryl’s final words I got the sense that he was one of the melancholics, and that that might somehow connect with his flaming ice waltz. So I returned to the lake again and tried to assume Daryl’s mindset and to replicate his thoughts. But it was not easy. My happy, rational disposition could not fathom what drove his mind to appreciate rock formations as he did; or rather, his desire to be anything other than what he was at that moment. Much to my disappointment I was still happy with who I was, and content to live my life.

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that my answer was right under my roof for the past six years. It had somehow escaped me that my wife was just then approaching week two of her most recent sleep marathon. I was quite annoyed with her that she did not inform me. She usually doesn’t, of course, but this time she could have helped, given me pointers, clued me in. No matter, I realized. She could still help me. It took a day of coaxing but I managed to get her outside to join me to the lake.

I walked briskly and excitedly on my usual route. My wife hobbled a few feet behind in her own down jacket, sweatpants, and slippers, the wind moving her stringy, matted hair about like limp tentacles. Sometimes she would wander off as if she was looking on the streets of our town for the very first time and had to lead her by hand. Once we reached the lake, however, the situation was less than ideal. Much of the snow had melted by then, it was an indifferent 42 degrees, and the lake was half-thawed. I sat her down on the bench just as Daryl was. And waited.

“What are we doing here?” she asked in her half-wakened fry that ground like a can opener.

“Just getting some air, isn’t it nice?”

“Not especially.”

She was in the right headspace, but the agitation was starting to boil. Surely something would give now, I thought to myself. I put in so much effort, goddammit. I deserved some kind of payoff. But minutes passed, and nothing. I sat down next to her in resignation, feeling an unprecedented sense of failure. But when I turned to my wife to ask if she wanted to go back home, I was faced with the most bright-eyed and exuberant expression, one I had not seen since maybe our wedding. Something was happening. But as I was getting my phone ready toward the lake I saw nothing. Then a feeling started to come over me, starting at the feet and moving steadily upward, a kind of heaviness and tension. Soon I was paralyzed from the waist down, then from above the waist up through my neck and to the very tippy top of my skull. More than that I was frozen, not just frozen, but petrified.

As you can see, there was a lot of wishful thinking in Daryl’s ramblings. I’ve achieved his dream of life as a rock, and yet I retain just enough cognizance to replay these moments over and over and over again, and all the while still conscious of what’s happening around me. I never left the bench, and no one seems to notice that I am there for the duration. They sure make use of me, make no mistake: for their shit, for their spit, for their vomit, their cigarettes, their cum on occasion. I receive it all, like a Christmas without end.

As far as I know, Daryl never came back out of the lake. I sometimes have enough remaining synaptic energy to think of what I’d do to him if he ever did, provided I regained the power. He would be fortunate to exit just as he entered, though, amid the fresh snows of December, which are still not common enough, for my taste. I appreciate their purification more than I ever thought possible.

THE SPECTRUM OF OBSOLESCENCE

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Reading the New Yorker this week, I came upon a feature by Tobi Haslett on Susan Sontag that included this quote of hers: “What the word intellectual means to me today is, first of all, conferences and roundtable discussions and symposia in magazines about the role of intellectuals in which well-known intellectuals have agreed to pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which … they belong.”

The story of Susan Sontag is one of decline, from the heights she reached as a critic of unrivaled elegance and intimidating authority to the tragic lows to which she fell as a dithering and dilettantish fictionist. It’s a story written by other critics, of course, disillusioned by the fact that Susan Sontag herself had become disillusioned with her work and its value. “Her work rustles with the premonition that she was obsolete,” Haslett writes, “that her splendor and style and ferocious brio had been demoted to a kind of sparkling irrelevance.”

I would do the piece an injustice to go on about it at length, but it is quite fascinated by the melancholy of Sontag’s later years that seemed to spark a quest for meaning about her vocation. As Sontag is among the few people of confirmed genius, I hardly begrudge her attempts to apply it elsewhere (though Haslett argues that success was mixed), but I’m at the same time surprised it took her such a long time to come to that conclusion. Chalk it up to the times, perhaps: that vaunted mid-20th century aristocracy of ideas that offered enough solvency to put off facing the darker truth of intellectual uselessness.

We of the blistered 21st century know better. Intellectuals are ever the brick-heavy iPod of forgotten yore. Alas, genius of Sontag’s kind is hard to come by, making helplessness endemic.

But fear not! For I have looked into the matter and divined a whole spectrum of obsolescence, which clearly shows that not all descents into it are equal. Indeed, it appears we’ve been going about it all wrong. We’ve been estimating intellectual merit on a passion-based scale of dispensability. No one is dispensable, of course, but every so often one or two intellectuals are indispensable leaving everyone else in an odd lurch. No more! Now everyone shall know precisely where they stand and, if nothing else, find clarity. I’ve come up with five intellectual types, listed them in order of most to least indispensable before revealing their more accurate obsolescence reading.

So peruse the list, find out where you stand, do it with a coworker or a significant other and compare, it’s probably fun.

The True-ass Believer
Of all the groups, the True Believers are by far the most respected and the most envied. Not for bad reason. True Believers are characterized by fearlessness. Nothing in their general makeup exists to filter their courage, to sedate their resolve, or to obscure their clarity. They take a stand and refuse to settle. This has lent them an air of simplicity, at least with preferred True Believers. Less preferred True Believers betray some notable distinctions. Some are so earnest (à la Robespierre) that they make you want to commission a contraption that claws your eyes out, slits your throat, and uploads the procedure to YouTube. Some are quite clever (à la Pascal) and make you want to do much the same thing. True Believers are not an especially wise bunch, but they have ample heart and energy for what they care about. If metal bands could coalesce into single individuals, this is the type they would be.

True Believers are exposed to considerable risk of obsolescence. They live or die (sometimes literally) by the temper of the times. If one does not have a high threshold for suffering or great personal security, it is a frightful gamble. These are hard terms, but terms they are likely to accept, as they only see the task before them, which only force will restrain them from achieving. Compromise or evenhandedness is worse than death. What is death or purging compared to the disgraceful ostracism of having survived? Ah, to not be Edward Dmytryk, that is Heaven, the True Believer says in the mirror in the morning and on the guillotine in the afternoon.

Obsolescence probability: 50 percent
Risk factors: Aside from temporal shifts, obstinacy, a taste for chaos, and inability to impose order.
Notable True Believers: Ian MacKaye, Mencius Moldbug, Amanda Marcotte, dog owners, Trump era Mike Cernovich, Kurt Vonnegut

The Hard-as-shit Pragmatist
No one wants to be a Pragmatist, or really to ever have to deal with one. Generally they are quite humorless and boring. They think almost entirely in figures, parts, outcomes, balances, contingencies, and logistics. They appreciate a grand vision only insofar as they are able to dismantle it and reassemble it once they’ve determined the most essential parts and the most efficient process. They are quite sensitive about an apparent absence of belief and go to such lengths to delineate their beliefs as to appear bloodless and, um, somewhat subjective.

And yet, Pragmatists are ever in need. What they lack in humor they more than make up for in flexibility. They can accommodate the views of all sorts and take on working relationships without much thought to optics or pleasantries. And they have a sharper than usual sense of calling things as they see them. Where the more intransigent among us see nothing but light, the Pragmatist is leering at the shadows just out of view. It’s a peculiar set of talents, and not talents one can hone so much as talents one gets to have and continuously apply.

Obsolescence probability: 30 percent
Risk factors: No social skills whatever. None. Zero. Total losers.
Notable Pragmatists: Megan McArdle, Edmund Burke, Henry Rollins, Hillary Clinton, mainline Protestants, 85 percent of the American population

The Craven-motherfucking Opportunist
The Opportunist is the closet humans have come to an animal. It’s not so much that they have failed to evolve into human decency, but that they may have evolved away from it, beyond it even. It is as if the Opportunists saw the True Believers and the Pragmatists, took their worst qualities, and made them worse still by utilizing them for the narrowest possible purpose. From the True Believers, the Opportunists take their single-minded determination and slash-and-burn intensity. From the Pragmatists, they take their rigorous cost-benefit cast of mind. The Opportunists mix them into a self-serving protein shake, which makes them more agile predators. What do they hunt? Whatever sustains them. Once that no longer does, they move on to the next kill. Such instincts may, at first, appear exciting, even noble; but Opportunists can’t commit for very long before substantial demands are made on them, and so they are prone to quick leaps. Many crash and burn; but others settle into a predictable pattern, once people see their animalistic habits, they are treated as such, and placed in a kind of zoo of public understanding, watched as much for curiosity as for security.

Obsolescence probability: 87.7 percent
Risk factors: Ends-justify-means instincts, nocturnal.
Notable Opportunists: John McCain, Gamergate era Mike Cernovich, human sexuality professors, actual good journalists, non-pet owners, the Duke of Marlborough

The Chickenshit Cynic
Some may find this inclusion to be redundant. After all, are not Pragmatists and Opportunists guided predominantly by cynicism? I’ll concede that. But one must concede as well that Pragmatists and Opportunists are, at bottom, principled groups. Granted their principles are somewhat malnourished but they have enough strength to drag their respective sleds on the right path with little wavering or drifting. Cynics, on the other hand, are confused by principles. I’m not even sure they can identify a principle should a principle present itself.

The dumbest of our categories, Cynics are attuned to the music of rather than the meaning behind signals, codes, and tics. Some might say they have a sensitive intuition, others an emotional intelligence. They will make reference to “political correctness” or “nuance” or “intersectionality,” but don’t expect them to stop and explain any of them. Who has the time? Cynics could not accommodate substance even if they wanted to. It weighs down on their chests like cinderblocks. Not that any of it matters, because they more or less reinvent language by sheer self-assurance. The lack of seriousness with which they see their opponents and the masses obscures but does not outweigh how seriously they take themselves. The Cynics are lonely, having mastered all that needs mastering—by their own curriculum, of course—and standing monumentally on a column that only fits one.

Obsolescence probability: 99.99999999999999999 percent
Risk factors: Stupidity, replaceability.
Notable Cynics: Christopher Hitchens, Paul Joseph Watson, et al., Damien Hirst, Tumblr users, Cum Town, et al., Lord Bolingbroke

The Unimpeachable Nihilist
“Nihilist” is lately an abused term, often as a term of abuse. A Nihilist is supposedly one who disregards the #actual good in favor of the totally deplorable, and does so flagrantly and spitefully. The espousals of this Nihilist just so happen to align with whatever set of beliefs the accuser disdains. In fact, every one of the aforementioned types can and will have the label foisted onto them at one time or another.

To speak of Nihilists in this fashion means to make the assumptions that Nihilists (a) actively choose this role and (b) relish it having done so, making Nihilists little more than trolls. Not at all the case. Indeed, Nihilists find being so all very draining. They are as horses being ridden across the great plain by an ornery truth that insists on kicking their sides. They get no water, certainly no rest; they are only driving to a destination that is somehow both ominous and getting further off the more they move. Why it falls onto them to undertake this is not known, only accepted. Occasionally Nihilists harbor fantasies about being “saved” from their trials, but at the end of the day they are just that. Nihilists can only live one way, they cannot begrudge those who do not see what they have seen but can’t really help them either. Nihilists live beyond provocation, beyond expectation. To be nothing of consequence, to be nothing of magnitude, to be nothing, that is Heaven, Nihilists say to themselves on their commute, binging This is Us, or at the birth of their children.

Obsolescence probability: zero percent
Risk factors: None that I can recall.
Notable Nihilists: Ambrose Bierce, Mark Rothko, Adlai Stevenson, Fr. James Martin, SJ, ferret owners

TIM HEIDECKER’S SINCERITY

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Appearing on WTF with Marc Maron, Norm Macdonald went into an extended rant against the peculiar offshoot of humor known as meta- or anti-comedy, to which his own offbeat style had often been attached, much to his obvious dismay. “The idea is this,” he begins. “The performer does not find the comedy he sees to be funny. So he chooses the worst he can find and ridicules it.” After further exegesis, he cuttingly concludes that “anti-comics, when you come right down to it, are critics, which may be why they find favor among, guess who, critics.”

Macdonald is correct. I submit myself as an example. As a frayed postmodernist with little discernable skill beyond observing the comings and goings of culture and expositing on them with a vague semblance of authority, I’ve always been attracted to the detached creativity (creative detachment?) that is born out of diving headlong into something one does not like. Such contemptuous experimentation can risk mutation, but can also be profitable. It stands to logic that I took to anti-comedy with the least resistance.

So it is with some regret that I find myself having to turn the same skill that brought me to anti-comedy firmly, though not conclusively, against it.

I’ve been a fan of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim for over a decade when I saw their first Adult Swim series Tom Goes to the Mayor. I became, as the haters declaimed, a confirmed “Tommunist.” So when that show gave way to their live-action sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! in 2007, I took to it gladly. I liked its Dadaist send-ups of MTV, its tributes to the unconscious weirdness of pre-internet fringe culture, and its premonitions of the memetic vortex of post-internet culture. I even liked its increasingly unsubtle, dark, and self-referential turns in the concluding seasons. Certainly it was not without its more questionable touches. Its use of unconventional and awkward performers had a Diane Arbus/Nathanael West air that didn’t always sit well with me. It was one thing to go off the beaten casting path, quite another to make sure they don’t get much farther beyond it. Also their movie is quantifiably loathsome.

But I let none of those qualms faze me, especially when they branched off into subsequent projects. Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories demystifies Charlie Brooker’s occasionally biting, mostly suffocating Black Mirror. Wareheim is helping to redeem the music video, and has found mainstream success in Master of None. But Heidecker’s own comparably more ambitious undertakings have monopolized my attention as of late, specifically his constantly evolving On Cinema at the Cinema.

On Cinema began innocently enough as a podcast with Gregg Turkington (née Neil Hamburger), satirizing fan culture and the pretensions of amateur criticism. Once it moved to YouTube, resurrecting Awesome Show’s public access fetish, Heidecker and Turkington expanded on their characters, while keeping their real names. Heidecker grew into a holistically obsessed rightwing blowhard, dragging anyone in his orbit through his several midlife crises. Turkington embodies criticism-as-pathology; he is a VHS tape hoarder masquerading as a “film expert.” The running joke is that Tim constantly digresses from On Cinema’s stated purpose to talk about his family strife, his medical problems and the quackery that will cure them, his political hang-ups, and his terrible music. These digressions take lives of their own in such forms as a spin-off fake action film series, Decker, which itself has been spun off maybe two or three times over. Just last month, On Cinema reached its most ridiculous height with the #ElectricSun20Trial, a five-day real-time courtroom proceeding to determine if Tim Heidecker was guilty of second degree murder after vape pens distributed at his unpermitted EDM festival killed 20 19 attendees.

The trial, livestreamed on Adult Swim’s website, was riveting to watch as it committed to the sterile staging of the courtroom just so Heidecker could derail it with his pettiness and egomania. He even dragged Star Trek II director Nicholas Meyer into it. Heidecker filled his Twitter feed with grammatically and phonetically imprecise bravado professing his innocence. On Cinema fans joined the fun dividing between “Timheads” and “Greggheads.” Ultimately, the struggle of the competent prosecution against his maddening, laughable antics, and the resulting mistrial, was a not-so-faint echo of the recent past.

No shit. But that’s fine. Compared to what else is out there—Kimmel, Oliver, Baldwin, Pickle Rick—no comedy is as committed as Heidecker’s is to skewering political normalcy’s rupture over the past year and a half and the angst that has stewed ever since. The On Cinema universe casts a net out into wider American culture, hilariously exposing how the country’s delusions, pretensions, and other hubristic blind spots grow out of control when unchecked or enabled and cause real harm. (A real toxic vape pen doesn’t seem more than a few years away from plausibility.) But for my part, the narrower his focus, the more he risks in spoiling his efforts.

In the weeks before the trial, Heidecker released Too Dumb for Suicide: Tim Heidecker’s Trump Songs. As the subtitle suggests these are songs about Donald Trump, written in haste, mixing his comedic and musical chops with his real-time anxiety. Heidecker is clever to use the styles and structures of baby boomer icons such as Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett, and Randy Newman as the basis for the songs. The songs themselves are more unusual, effectively breaking from his mischievous absurdity to bask in acrid sarcasm. He is wistful of Richard Spencer being punched in the face, pens a blue-collar ballad to plutocratic Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and goes at length about Trump’s fast food-hardened bowel movements. The album got a robust 6.9 from Pitchfork, concluding that it “manages to articulate some of our prevailing confusion and terror in a way that resonates.” But it also noted that its low points engage in “heavy-handed satire” cutting too close to “a bad Twitter thread.”

Tim Heidecker can do whatever he wants with his time, energy, and talent. He has earned that much. Even if he didn’t earn it, he could still do whatever he wanted with his time, energy, and talent. Such is the principle at the heart of America’s twisted beauty. This isn’t even necessarily about him so much as the force to which he and others in his circle have succumbed.

The inability to form a coherent opposition to Trump was a dismal and recurring revelation throughout the year. It appears that the fixation on the man himself, this gelatinous, perpetually grimaced figurehead with bad tweets and an endless supply of abnormally wide neckties, is a considerable hindrance. It could be that Trump’s foibles mask nearly two decades, at least, of pre-existing policy failure and stagnancy for which no one wants to answer. More accurately, that stagnancy, which Trump compounds, feeds into solipsism, one rooted in powerlessness at failing to form a proper pushback that will just be deflected anyway. As 2017 comes to a close I come to see its theme, at least among certain circles of influence, as solipsism en masse. (I refuse to say “depression” as that is an insult to depressives everywhere.) It is the popping of one bubble only to retreat into another, smaller bubble where one struggles to find new ways to say what one already knows.

Heidecker’s comedy is nothing short of confounding. Its genius is that it manages to function long after it stopped being funny or even if it was never funny to begin with. The work of Tim and Eric is best seen as creating a kind of mirror world, not simply where the frightful is funny and vice versa, but where horror and humor have been forcibly coupled, along with shame, dread, and ambivalence to create a hybrid emotion, or in any case their own compound of angst. It is work in keeping with all the great absurdists and existentialists before them. Heidecker’s sincerity, by contrast, is rather homespun and embarrassed. It’s identical with that of so many others who’ve been awakened from a long complacency, but who’ve fallen back on amusement for lack of anything more constructive to offer.

Heidecker’s sincerity recalls that far off time in 2016 when Adult Swim allotted and quickly rescinded airtime to Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace, a show similar to, even studied in, the tone and aesthetic Tim and Eric had laid down a decade before. Though Sam Hyde denies any specific political bent beyond pure provocation, MDE was clearly comfortable with reactionary agitprop, and its rage was barbed and exposed rather than punctuated by pathos. Its cancellation is mired in controversy, and the roots of it (zealous, threatening alt-right fans; the objections of other talent) are probably all true, but MDE clearly didn’t mesh with Adult Swim’s suddenly accentuated vision. There were standards after all, and it would have to take its “post-irony” back to the performative hoax soup in which it was fertilized.

But that is old news. From solipsism and sincerity seems to go atomization. I suspend judgment as to its merits or lack thereof. It does seem more bearable when the atom one happens to be in is shared with people who are, on the whole, inventively funny.