Black Ribbon Award

Category: Uncategorized

USE YOUR (DIS)ILLUSION

Screen Shot 2017-10-13 at 10.51.17 AM

In February of 2013 I took a meeting at GQ. Back then its office was still in the original Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square. It was with the research editor in hopes of getting a $25 an hour fact-checking gig. I didn’t know it was freelance at the time, but at least it would have been at the offices, which I much prefer than doing remotely. I wore a suit, my only one at the time, which no longer fits me. Because NJ Transit is selectively functional I am always into the city ahead of schedule. I paced around a cold but sunny Bryant Park just after they dismantled the skating rink. I paced around the spacious, minimally adorned Condé Nast lobby while I waited for approval to go up. (It took about three calls.) I paced around the corridor in between GQ and Teen Vogue before I was finally buzzed in. I passed by an island of drab grey cubicles, which I took to be the research or otherwise miscellaneous departments; the more brightly colored editorial section flashed in my side view like a fluorescent Xanadu. I met the research editor. He was amiable, sharp, and down-to-earth. A fellow New Jerseyan at that. Our meeting lasted about 25 minutes. I told him that GQ published the only John Jeremiah Sullivan piece I  can tolerate. He was grateful. He didn’t have anything for me.

I knew halfway into the interview that I was overshooting, that I had miscalculated somehow, and that this was as far as I was ever going to get. I was not unqualified in the least. I had four previous stays at magazines, all of which are either gone or mutated into forms I no longer recognize. But my career path had led to a very nice cul-de-sac with no vacancies, and this meeting was the roundabout way in which I was being told to turn around. You are actually in a dream, this is the end of it, and when the cold hits you on the way out, you will disappear because, actually, you are not the dreamer. Somewhat related: if it turns out that the Greeks were right after all, I would be not the least bit surprised—delighted, in fact—to find myself being taken down the river Styx by a bespectacled Gen X Charon, in jeans and a nice sweater.

Discouraged, I did nothing for months, which I regret. I should have been plotting my next conquest as early as the trainride home. The outcomes would have been no different, but I would have benefitted from the bringing the lesson that was merely implied in the original encounter out from the shadows and right in front of my nose.

Here you may be tempted to stop reading if you haven’t done so already. What use is it to hear another rose-colored praise chorus for the character-building virtues of failure? Only pain gives way to gain, you see? And things that don’t kill you can only ma— yadda yadda yadda, who cares? This is not that. Not that you won’t stop reading soon after this, as what I have in mind is much worse.

“I actually haven’t survived the fickle world of media that well,” Choire Sicha admitted last month, answering a question icons of midrange fame in this professional quadrant will never avoid. And in fact he continues as if he was carrying this reply in his back pocket for years:

I’ve moved out of apartments in the middle of the night, I’ve owed massive amounts of money to the IRS, I’ve searched for gas and cigarette money in the couch cushions. I’ve done all these things as a grown adult man, not as a 19-year-old, and it was not cute. I think everyone makes it look easy when they have a good job or are wearing nice shoes, but anyone who wants to work in journalism has downs and ups, and we don’t want to talk about the downs as much as we should.

Sicha’s disarming bluntness has been much abused over the past decade. An agile cynic can easily ferret out the humblebrag. Most media denizens are immediately cognizant of the industry’s material limitations. They manage them either through generous parents or through developing the shrewdness to discern influence and access as the more substantial currencies. The naïve dreamers pouring into major metropolitan areas with Big Ten BAs and visions divined from Showtime or wherever are in the minority, and they coast soon enough into public relations, event planning, or law school. But since I touched on bitterness in a previous post, I’m opting here to take Sicha’s words at face value and follow their implications elsewhere.

I occasionally hear and read about this era they call the Golden Age of Media. Depending on who is addressing me, it is either right this moment, or about 15 years ago. For the latter it was a time when one could walk into any communicative hub and hold a job for more than five minutes, when “associate editor” had some measurable distinction, when writing had substance, and when video editors were not leaping from the dark corners of your ideation capsule to scalp you. I don’t doubt that such a time had ever existed, but I tend to turn a deaf ear to those who lament it with entitlement rather than a tragic sense of good fortune upended. Congratulations! You were at the tail end of the blip of stability in an otherwise chaotic industry. But maybe don’t take my word for it.

Daniel Defoe is best known for having written a novel that everyone reveres as a classic but that no one seems to like. Charles Dickens famously summed up Robinson Crusoe as “the only instance of an universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry.” But Defoe’s novels were written later in his life, with the years previous being taken up by his copious pamphlets and journalism. Like his Augustan peers/enemies Addison, Steele, and Swift, Defoe did not earn income primarily through his written work—in his case he was a merchant and tax collector—but he is nonetheless recognizable as the first modern hack. He was a political pundit, a disaster reporter, an economics analyst, and a content farmer.

Defoe would have understood the struggles of today’s media grunt, and might also have thrived among them. His anonymously published 1702 pamphlet The Shortest-Way with Dissenters was hailed as a rigorous (and violent) defense of high church orthodoxy against Presbyterians and other freethinking faiths. When it was revealed that the Presbyterian Defoe was making the opposite case through irony, he was imprisoned. Defoe was also an eager networker, making business contacts while also working as a spy for the crown in Scotland during the unification. Though he never could escape debt, and it is said that he died in 1731, around age 70, evading his creditors.

I am in no position to teach nascent journalists, I do not intend to seek one, and no one else offers it to me. But if anyone I know ever does and deigns to solicit advice, mentioning the Defoe example in some manner is the only one of substance I can offer. It serves two purposes. First, it instills students and interns with the full measure and timelessness of the professional hustle they need to foster in themselves. It is far better than getting it from any “mentor” whose history is in flux as long as he or she is living and is at liberty to adjust the levels of romance and pathos as desired. Second and most importantly, it eases the young into the inevitable disillusionment they are going to have to face—and not merely in journalism.

But introducing disillusionment education at the college level is not soon enough. Unlike failure, disillusionment is not a setback that can be reversed or learned from, nor is it an exclusive byproduct of failure. In fact it is possibly more often wrought out of success. Disillusionment should be taught in elementary-level health class at the earliest. Because it is like pregnancy: a natural occurrence that could become a crisis without adequate vigilance. Yet many of us fall into teaching the opposite lessons of positive thinking and “dreaming big.” “Positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology,” Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it.”

Culture is seldom wanting in sad platoons ready to drown in optimism’s moat. And really no one wants to deal with a cheermonger anymore than they want to deal with a buzzkill. But there’s always a kind of hedge being made, or a delusion being conjured, when telling people to manage their expectations. Realism, the preferred hedge, means getting a key to a mansion that is actually meant for a bungalow on the other side of town. But there is little to be said when one gets the key to the mansion only to find it filled with bedbug-infested furniture.

Part of it might boil down to simple optics. The realist is grounded in maturity. The failure rises up from tragedy. But the disillusioned is weighted by defeat. To determine that one is disillusioned means also to determine that one is a loser. Not that it is easy to determine. Disillusionment sets in at a pace custom to the one at a loss. Sometimes the losses are slight, but can often accumulate into a larger malaise. Other times it is a gradual degradation of single objective that outwits, overpowers, and finally buries its opponent. In either case, the end result is an equalization of every experience into drudgery. The disillusioned should not always be expected to be outwardly miserable. They may be perfunctory, almost mechanical in their actions, whether at dinner with a romantic interest, getting groceries, or reading their child a story before bed. After a certain point disillusionment is impossible to prepare for, and only identifiable when it is too late. Two instances in popular culture demonstrate this.

One is the Amazon Prime comedy I Love Dick, in which Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn) becomes sexually obsessed with Dick (Kevin Bacon), a Marfa, TX-based artist who is sponsoring her husband’s academic fellowship. Based on Chris Kraus’s experimental memoir/epistolary novel, the show explores some interesting contrasts. The most buzzworthy is that between female loserdom and male humiliation; but more broadly it offers two distinct forms of disillusionment. Chris is a struggling filmmaker who plays second fiddle to her barely more successful husband in a town whose quirky customs and haute aesthete population constantly get the better of her. Dick is an established artist and local icon, who has not created new work in years and drifts palpably into isolated irrelevance. Their situations are familiar but carefully drawn enough to constitute much more than two midlife crisis dramedies crammed into one. Chris and Dick are drawn to and repelled from one another in stranger ways than mere lust can handle. Theirs is an affair, really a duel, of inadequacies, which compliment as well as best each other.

The other is Donald Trump, whose behavior over the last nine months has been more plainly indicative of one who is (a) ill-prepared for his current job and (b) frustrated by its trappings. As hazardous as his Twitter use is, Trump displays an unprecedented transparency by letting anyone with internet access into his thought process as any other user would, and in all their increasing jaundice, petulance, and boredom. In a more customary situation we would hate Rex Tillerson and Jeff Sessions somewhat more than we do now. But Trump’s disdain for his position puts everyone near and far to him under the same thunderdome of defeated victory. The strange (albeit very trivial) solace is in seeing what happens one man makes bold claims and just enough people call his bluff.

If these examples have anything to add to teaching disillusion, it is mostly in demonstrating the challenge of rising up from it. Conceivably it can at least be mollified, but by acceptance, not improvement. Trump could stabilize but he’d still have to take his loss. This seems unlikely, as refusing to give ground is his only distinctive attribute. Relieving oneself of burdens, achieving a kind of emotional minimalism, even asceticism. This is not to encourage self-denial but to accept that there is only so much one person can take on in a lifetime. Here Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” is ripped out from cliché and put back in its place as pointed diagnosis. A lot can be said against Thoreau, being disillusioned cannot be one of them. “I am not worth seeing personally,” he admitted, “the stuttering, blundering, clod-hopper that I am.” We can’t help but believe him.

The ultimate trouble with disillusion is that it has no end; only a cycle one falls into. Of going to bed at night waiting to be throttled all over again by a new day; and of waking up in the morning one day nearer the grave. There beneath the truth of daily living is its skeleton. It has no cure. One can, I guess, take up the activity of grinding the bones to dust with all the diversionary splendor of building model train sets, no one will go out of their way to pass judgment aloud. For the more cold-sighted among us, there is the work of accepting and walking in the truth, and prayer that those not currently chaffing under its intensity will do so in time.

Advertisements

GOOD VIBES AND THEIR DISCONTENTS

giphy

I had looked on Matt Spicer’s debut feature  Ingrid Goes West with keen interest for a few weeks before seeing it. It tells of Ingrid Thorburn (played by Aubrey Plaza), a lonely Pennsylvanian, whose combined obsessive streak and lack of social skills cause her to interpret online notifications as gestures of intimacy. Much of her free time—and there is a lot of it—is spent scrolling her Instagram feed, “liking” posts and agonizing over the proper wording of comments. When her greatest fixation gets married, Ingrid crashes the wedding and sprays mace in the bride’s eyes. After her release from a psychiatric institution, she finds another, a professional #authenticlife social media influencer named Taylor (played by Elizabeth Olsen), in California. With a $60,000 inheritance from her recently dead mother, she moves to Venice and the process starts again with even worse outcomes.

As a pointedly bleak satire on the people who (sometimes literally) profit by social media through the eyes of the people at its mercy, there was much to commend it. Spicer and cowriter David Branson Smith have a precise aim on culture’s over-commoditized state. They depict a world where no one reads books, where art is commentary on secondhand camp, where food is more pleasing to the eye than to the tongue, and where shrewd judgment merits success far more than skill, taste, or personality. The most scathing of its scenes is when Ingrid, out of toilet paper (not to mention money and electricity), uses pages from Joan Didion, which she bought based on Taylor’s endorsement, in desperation, clogging her plumbing.

And yet the film fell short of my intuited suspicion that it might be among the best released in 2017. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hobbled itself from greatness. Its satirical gaze was easily diverted by the allure of the unlikeable protagonist. When the film drags its secondary characters to earth, it pulls Ingrid down to the molten core. Any salient lob is undercut by Ingrid’s penchant for criminal behavior (kidnapping dog and man alike), Single White Female tendencies, and an almost lethal selfishness. And her gutting video selfie cum suicide note is set up only to get knocked down by her ultimate, cartoonishly rendered irredeemability (more on that later). Though a friend of mine who also saw it made a valid point that suggesting a sociopath could infiltrate lifestyle Instagram without much effort is a pretty hard-hitting own, I still thought it let more deserving targets go free. The Day of the Locust in X-Pro II filter this was not.

Part of my disappointment can be put to bias. Did I have an ax to grind against a certain socially Teflon style of human? Maybe. Did I want to empathize with, even root for, the titular (anti)heroine? Yes. I have affinity for portrayals of the inability, as opposed to the unwillingness, to integrate into popular norms. It’s a dilemma made all the more acute by social media’s insurmountable dominance. A sharper film may yet be possible; for now I work with what I have.

If IMDb is to be believed, Aubrey Plaza was born on June 26, 1984. If my birth certificate is to be believed, I was born on June 22, 1984. The film does not give Ingrid temporal placing outside of her generation, and though this framework may be questionable for one reason or another, I find it a helpful convenience. I recall Thomas Hobbes’s mordant quip that “my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear” when panic over the Spanish Armada’s launch caused her to go into labor prematurely. So far as I know, the circumstances of my birth were unremarkable, but abjection always seemed to me my own secret sibling, that trailed my path as if in envy of my shadow. But this had no proper articulation until I saw Ingrid, whose character does more to compliment than contrast my predicament. Granted, she confronts the predicament in ways I would not think to, and cannot altogether excuse. But I also cannot, like any attentive sibling, misunderstand.

There’s nothing very offensive about the social media influencers when I think about it. They are probably more in tune than I am with flaw, error, and disorder. It takes a certain obsessive caginess to arrange a living room just so with 40-year-old unread back issues of the fashion magazines they are killing; a turntable with a blues record freshly wiped of dust; secondhand books on witchcraft and ancient sex positions in between potted plants that are replaced biweekly; and furniture, fashion, and accessories that have to be meticulously catalogued because they’ve chosen to make their lives a catalogue to others. They supply happiness, but they don’t really own or control it. Their end presentation is like a cell—a diorama, even a zoo. Happiness is the corporate body that grants them their franchise. They are happy to work more than they are to represent any set form of that happiness.

Each character in the film has happiness as their object. Considerable dialogue is spent discussing what they want to do. Ingrid’s landlord wants to write screenplays (and also to be liked by Ingrid), Taylor wants to buy another house in Joshua Tree to turn it into a boutique bed and breakfast, her husband wants artistic talent. Ingrid wants someone all to herself, preferably another woman, to fill a bottomless void. But here happiness comes with ground rules that some follow better than others. Ingrid takes them so seriously as to consider baggage anything that doesn’t cohere with those rules; like her past, her health, or rule of law. Ingrid is an emotional extremist who was denied consistent moderating influence. But even extremists who are more attuned to it and seek out moderation will never be fully prepared for each new test happiness hands down.

Unlike Ingrid, I am not a fast adapter to the internet. I’m not the type of person who, rightly or wrongly, was excited by the ease with which people and information made themselves known on it. I mean, early on there wasn’t a lot there to begin with, but even so I was predisposed to not only being overwhelmed by what could be accessed but to question most of its veracity. For all the celebration and condemnation of what can be exposed online, so much more can be obscured. But I prefer the idea that nothing so easily found should be taken in total as a complete truth. Certainly not people, and especially not friendship, which for me requires some effort to be earned if anyone wants to rise above the suspicion of being a catfish. On the internet, everyone is a pornographer peddling a fantasy.

This is a comfortable status quo compared to the alternative, where everything is on display as it should be. More effecting than any pornography is the glut of authenticity that is more prevalent on any social media platform, especially on Instagram, whose “explore” feed moves like an ooze as one falls into its scrolling hypnosis. No one goes there in a state of contentment and so is made vulnerable to gross displays of people living their best life, to varieties of experience never before seen and levels of elation never before comprehended. But whereas Ingrid will go above and beyond to emulate it, I come to resent it.

Resentment seems comparably lax against Ingrid’s mayhem. But if it is not worse it is also not better. On a good day I can accept that happiness is rather illusive even in an easily fulfilled life. It comes in jolts rather than in waves. I can accept that success is an ambiguous concept that, if it comes to one at all, it comes at its own pace and stays at its own whims. I can accept that validation is not always valid. I can accept that depictions of love and family are idealized and belie the hardship of long-term maintenance. And I can accept that I have not and may never meet the most advocated-for standards of happiness and success in any age. That does not stop me from suddenly wanting everything I see, often solely because others have it, and letting it boil over into a rage that discolors every interaction into dialectical frameworks like have and have not, give and take, or privilege and rejection.

The intensity of one’s resentment depends on certain factors. It is possible to manage if one’s self-confidence and expectations are within moderate limits. Not all of us are so lucky. Some build a self-perception girded from top to bottom in total assurance and control. It is not untrue, but somewhat biased with little to no outside input but completely dependent upon outside validation. When that validation goes unmet, as is often the case because personal and outward wants are rarely so in sync, the assurance melts like ice cream before a flamethrower.

The resentful doesn’t lash out, but retreats into a mental space as barren and hopeless as the torture chamber in Videodrome. Modernity is at turns arbitrarily rigid and chaos writ large. The resentful, craving objectivity and order, seeks to establish one but imprisons himself at the lowest rung, having failed conclusively. There is dignity in that rung but dignity is always a higher value, a prize that is somehow won by arrogance, and is not recognized in any other sense. The resentful proceeds to bury himself in his own narrative, the truth of which being entirely beside the point in favor of pure bile. You may reach the pinnacle of your abilities and prudently expend every ounce of your promise while I waste it on shortsighted pettiness, the resentful says to everyone and no one, but I will still be better than you. You may find that you are loved and wanted and depended upon and receive joy and safety in return while I will be perpetually discarded at the table of one, but I will still be better than you. You may go down into posterity for your talent or your charity or your bloodline while I will never be found, but I will still be better than you. You may be at ground zero of the atomic fallout while I languish at the edge of the blast making, perhaps, for a fossilization less desirable to whatever bipedal race has the misfortune of replacing us but I, by what reasoning I can’t determine right now, will still be better than you.

At a restaurant that Taylor frequents, a waiter introduces himself to Ingrid with the question “What is your biggest emotional wound?” He points over to a board on the wall. “It’s the question of the day.” It’s an odd flare of darkness from a Good Vibes zone. But it is entirely consistent with the film’s overall message. At Venice Beach, therapy is just another yoga and mental suffering has no place here and is not our problem. It’s that second point where the film truly fails, more or less suggesting that it is a damn good thing, too. At the same time, the film does get right, if by accident, that Ingrid’s suffering (emotional extremity, mental illness, whatever you want to call it) cannot be contained in an arc. That was the great lie of other, supposedly more humane, institutionalization films of the past—Girl, Interrupted, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and so on—that treat a stay in a psychiatric ward as a rite of empowerment. Mental suffering is a long-term concern, by no means limited to the sufferer, none of which should be sidestepped as it was.

That is yet another better film that can be wrung out of the one we got instead. But, as ever, I can only work with what I have, and what I have is years of self-moderation and self-improvement barreling toward a conclusion that is no clearer now than it was 15 or so years ago. Occasionally some squishy watchwords—like perspective or wellness—come to have clearer meaning. But the process is slow. The middle ground is a temperate but soggy foundation. I sit on it in rotating barstool. Between me are two possible ends for this wild modernity I have to navigate. One is where everyone is given happiness; the other is where everyone, for their own good, is given none at all. I rent out my talents to the former when they are called for, I give my heart to the latter without condition. All the while I try not to sink.

And on that note …

giphy

DEATH FOR THE DEAD

Screen Shot 2017-09-30 at 11.24.55 AM

Banned Books Week is upon us. Or was upon us, I guess. I’m always reminded of its passing because some writer or other of a conservative bent inevitably uses his or her platform to rail against it. This year it fell onto Matthew Walther, who comes at it ax-in-hand for The Week. It is “far and away the worst” of our fabricated holidays, he writes, a “festival of cloying liberal self-satisfaction beloved by people who like the idea of reading more than they do actually sitting down with Edward Gibbon or even Elmore Leonard.” It ratchets up pretty steadily from there.

It’s hard to disagree with Walther in the general. To say that Banned Books Week is an empty gesture is to be generous. It is a spectral gesture, but more like a specter that always haunts the wrong house. It is that kind of offspring born from an orgy of civil servants to be offered at the altar of a liberalism whose adherents are out of power for the duration and so are coping by binge-watching The Deuce with a “borrowed” HBO Go password.

But there the agreement ends, for the time being anyway, as I think a deeper irony is missed.

The piece, as with its sibling pieces, rests on an irony, of course. Though it is the irony of transgressive censoriousness, a notion born out of our post-liberal reality in which it is now hip to be square[1]. Tipper Gore was right; John Denver and Dee Snider were wrong. John Lithgow #ACTUALLY was the hero of Footloose while Kevin Bacon was literally ISIS. Ditto Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man. (Actually I’ll give them that one.) The irony is rather shallow, however, when compared to the more consequential one surrounding Banned Books Week.

Walther describes Banned Books Week as “a marketing campaign for publishers,” which is true, but it is just as much a nostalgia trip. It harks back to the dark age where the censors seemingly had full run of the cultural asylum. To have some civil libertarians tell it, not a week went by in the peak Cold War years where there wasn’t some kind of obscenity trial for some now undeniably great work of literature. Fanny Hill, Naked Lunch, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, Ulysses, Howl, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are all united in having been put to trial for their corrupting contents and having prevailed. They are all readily available to be read, though I’d hazard none of them really are. Purchased perhaps, but not read. To be deemed by law as a gross but poignant work of art, regardless of any distinction each one has from the others, seems merit enough.

J.G. Ballard did not receive this memo when it was The Atrocity Exhibition’s turn to go to the chopping block. Though the novel (for lack of a better term) also survived its obscenity trial, it was with no assistance from the author, who has not called as a witness for the defense because, in his words, “of course it was obscene, and intended to be so.” And Ballard is correct. It is a masterpiece of depravity, but of a very deadpan, clinical sort; the kind befitting a former medical student and widowed father of three rather than the spoiled, neglectful heroin addict to whom he is often compared. Ballard was perhaps wise to the cult of “redeeming social value” that grew up around these trials. Whatever the Roth and Miller tests did to protect the rights of the creative class to create in the short term, it did so at the expense of artistic merit and integrity in the long term.

“Redeeming social value” has done more to engender the new era of censorship than any reactionary resurgence. Indeed, those young adult fiction readers Walther mentioned are one of its most fervent police forces. If a novel does not defer to their liking to this or that nostrum of progress, it will be tried on Twitter and Tumblr with the hopes of it getting pulled by its publisher. The situation, to paraphrase a friend, resembles LARPing composed entirely of orcs. You see the same mentality acted out person to person at Evergreen State. Also during football games. And it looks like it will stick around for a while, which is annoying and unnerving enough, but made all the more so because it is totally needless.

Censorship of any kind is more about imposing authority than correcting morals. It is a mediocre authority by necessity, requiring the broadest possible understanding of what does and does not repulse public sentiment. But it errs in the Rousseauian assumption of a consumer’s natural innocence, taking little account of his or her innate humanity that is somehow simplistic and unpredictable at the same time. While authorities were working overtime to ban Naked Lunch, the public just went on reading Peyton Place. If authorities deigned to ban A Little Life today, the public would just go on reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Authority can ban all it wants, but the metric of offense is in what the consumer prefers to shun.

This, anyway, is the conclusion I came to while I was writing an essay on Horace McCoy in 2015, whose brutal 1935 noir novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? languished in the shadow of its peers before coming into the limelight in France. It is about two out-of-work Depression era Hollywood actors—the go along-get along Robert and the fatalist Gloria—who try one last attempt at success by subjecting themselves to a grueling dance marathon. When that doesn’t work out, Robert shoots Gloria at her request. The signature of the novel is that the crime is revealed in the first chapter, while the inevitable lead-up is paraded in agonizing and forthright detail. If I didn’t know any better, it seemed as if the novel was written almost with the intent to do actual harm to whoever read it. For all intents and purposes, 20th century literature began with that novel.

But most people didn’t read it. That’s because general consuming habits don’t usually bend to inward-looking widely scoped stories, especially when it comes to scandalous material. They prefer scandal seen from the outside, and which doesn’t make gestures at wanting to get inside a consumer’s head or character. David Simon’s success with everything he’s done since Homicide is rooted in that voyeuristic remove, whether Simon is aware of that or not. Nothing short of a miracle—say, Oprah reading it—would cause a book of unfathomable depravity to shoot up the bestseller list. Most likeminded books remain confined to a lost souls room of sorts, a literary “death for the dead.”

This is not to say that shunned books are, like banned books, implicitly meritorious simply because they are shunned. Hardly. Some of the worst books ever written exist in this category. Anita Dalton keeps track of them over at her blog Odd Things Considered, scraping the dregs of offbeat, transgressive, experimental, and plain bizarre art because the rest of us don’t want to. In a microuniverse teeming with edgelords, it’s good to have a tried and true critic whose tolerance is boundless and whose judgment I can trust.

But shunned books are in any case more adequate gauges of what unsettles human readers and so what might more directly indicate as humanity’s most pressing dilemmas. For every few works of rotten imagination there is one work of real substance that cuts to truth however precisely or however incidentally. Censors and liberals alike are convinced that truth can be manicured into simple lessons either of prudence or tolerance, eliciting respectively maturity or cheerfulness. “The writer has no business making moral judgments,” Ballard said, “I think it’s far better, as … I’ve tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.” Truth, then, might also be posh Londoners seeking sexual gratification through car wrecks.

Lovers of Banned Book Week, Walther continues, “are people with cartoonish conceptions of history, in which the vast sweep of human affairs, the march of technological development, the fluctuations of wealth, the accumulations of capital, the misery of wars, the famines and floods and massacres, have been an inexorable progression culminating in America in 2017, where reading a pornographic pastiche of children’s fiction called 50 Shades of Grey is an inalienable right.” Here agreement resumes, but up to a point. Walther, unlike me, is generous not to include all readers in this assessment. Unlike me, he has not lost hope or patience in the habits of readers ever being refined out of this torpor. I look just as clearly as he looks on the vast sweep of human affairs and all that, only to conclude that our work is not nearly obscene enough.

1 Disclosure: this is nothing against Walther himself, who is a friend, an excellent writer, a generous editor, and a man of impeccable taste all around, not least of all in horror.

THE LOVER’S HOUR

832845

Ladies. Gentlemen. Friends of all shapes, all colors, and all dimensions. Welcome once again to The Lover’s Hour. Coming to you live on the Deep Web Citizens Band. I am your host, Greg Hadrian—otherwise known as Greg_the_Impaler1997 on the BBS—and I hope that you are as fortunate to hear me as I am always fortunate to be heard by you.

My friends, we need no reminder of what has brought us to this state. Even though I remind you of it at the beginning of every show. We are in a time of strife, and one where no definite conclusion seems readily possible. One where all the creature comforts of health, income, nourishment, and security of person are mere mythical figments. But friends, that is only the half of it. In fact a world without food, peace, clean air, or ample bandwidth, a world with this deformity or that protrusion, would be altogether preferable if it was also without loneliness. Yes, loneliness. You feel it, don’t you? Like a toxic gas purposefully detonated, asphyxiating us and blinding us from one another. Keeping us even more weighted in our bunkers than any actual airborne toxic event.

It is a wonder how we are ever able to persist, day by aching and endless day.

But we do. You returning to me whenever I am able to broadcast is sure proof of it. But of course we would persist. We are lovers and we are believers! We are lovers of love and we are imbued with the power of belief that the power of love will get us through in the end. Quite how it will get us through is uncertain at the moment, yes. But thankfully love’s power is demonstrable throughout our collective memory. It is our most enduring survivor. Antony and Cleopatra. Bill and Hillary Clinton. Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter. Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. And now, Sven and Nikki.

Found on an otherwise disappointing scavenging mission, the contents of this shoebox depict a true saga of Sven and Nikki’s love. Letter after letter is practically enflamed with desire, devotion, and longing that refuse to abate. And it is through these words that we will be inspired and guided not only to endure, but also to rebuild. I don’t know what became of these Sven and Nikki. But I hope, wherever they are, that they know how deep their impact on our lives have been and doubtless will continue to be.

And as you know, contained with the letters was a USB drive storing 75 songs emblematic of the love so effervescent in these words. I have retrieved the data and continue to play a new song with each letter. Today’s letter is dated April 13, 2013 and the accompaniment is “Don’t Want to Be Like You” by Blood on the Dancefloor. Let me just press play here … okay.

Babe,

I know it’s been a while since we’ve talked. So I’m writing to say that first I am sorry but also that I have a very good reason for the radio silence.

I know you think I’ve been spending more time with the other girls in our arrangement. And because of that you may be comparing yourself negatively against them. But that is just all in your head, babe. Nothing more. Yes, it can be said that Tanya is more tender of soul, and that Stephanie’s gum contouring holds more convincingly. But their value is no higher now than it was before. And if anyone’s value has changed it’s yours, but not in the way you think. Just hear me out. 😉

As you know I was in Ecuador the other weekend, cruising on the surf and getting my head straight with Spray and Casper. I was doing that, but also I was in search of a black pearl. When placed in close proximity to fertility gems, cancelling out their power, the black pearl is by far the safest of the non-lifestyle-deflating contraceptive methods. It’s worked for me 9 times out of 10. Well, 9 and 2 halves. The black pearl can’t simply be bid for on eBay, but after sacrificing much sleep and Casper’s tailbone, I got it.

When I got back I went straight to the Tantric Betterment Alcove to do the unification ceremony. I went with Associate High Priestess in residence Emily to the maintenance closet to complete the final ritual, and I started to feel its effects right away.

Or so I thought.

I found myself overcome by darkness. Not just the darkness of the closet, though. A much darker kind of darkness. Just total black all around me. Then a beam shone straight down. Within the beam was a giant human posterior, lowered from God knows where, to the sound of weeping angels and shredding guitars. I recognized it instantly thanks to the Imagine Dragons lyric tattoo. I moved closer, and saw at its base what looked like doors to an elevator. The doors opened, revealing yet greater blackness. Into the beam light walked a slow procession of every woman I’ve ever met in my life. And when I mean every woman I mean LITERALLY every woman. My mom, my older sister, all my exes, my 3rd grade teacher Miss Tanenbaum, the fucking meter maid who ticketed me last month. On and on they walked through the doors and with each one they ass grew bigger. Then at the end of the line was you. Missing a backside, of course. Everyone’s face was fairly blank except yours, which turned to me and flashed that very familiar pool shark smirk of yours. You went in and the doors closed. I walked up to the doors and hoped they would open for me. They did open, but to let something out: a sharp red light, shooting straight from the darkness. Standing right in its path it struck me. And not only that it split me clean in half from head to groin. What I saw of my innards looked like shards of red confetti.

When I came to I was in an alley and it was dark. My pants were missing, but that actually made the most sense. I knew instantly what I needed to do. I ran over to Red Velvet Exxxotic Bakery with a special commission. But in my condition they didn’t seem interested in fulfilling it. But I did not give up, instead going to the Safeway, gathering as much the flour, eggs, butter, sugar, baking soda, and specially colored frosting I could carry. Enclosed with this letter is my result.

I know that it is not an exact replica of your actual ass. That is the point. It is not your ass now; it is your ass to be. It is, to me, the IDEAL, the one by which all other asses shall be judged, and by which each will tremble at its greatness. You talked to me a while back about taking the next step. I can only interpret this experience as a sure sign of what that next step is.

You must let the cake into you. But DO NOT eat the cake. Eating makes the object subservient to you. Here it must be the other way around. You must plead for its entry and it must accept. You cannot force it but you can nudge it along. I’ve spent several nights and a few lunch breaks consulting the people on /r/EsotericOccult, and I’ve come up with what I believe is an acceptance ritual that will work. As a bonus it will also solve my apartment’s rat problem. If I’ve timed your receipt of this letter correctly, I am en route to your place as you read this, with a bag of tributes and a tarp.

Please clear the space in your living room. Also don’t tell Tanya or Stephanie or Associate High Priestess in residence Emily about any of this. 

I am going to build you a pyramid, or some grand temple. Not one you can see exactly but one you and everyone else will feel once we are through and you will be my #1 girl.

xoxoxo,

Your #1 boy, Sven 😀 <3<3<3

And with that, friends, we conclude another chapter in the epic romance of Sven and Nikki. Quite where it goes from here is as mysterious to me as it is to you, be assured. Frankly I’m too nervous to have studied each and every one very closely. Perhaps that’s shoddy on my part, but I want to have hope as much as anyone else. The more certainty we have, the faster hope wilts.

On that note, I’m Greg_the_Impaler1997. Keep loving love, and sure enough love will love you back.

ETERNITY LEAVE

protectedimage

It would probably not come as too destabilizing a shock for one to know that I have a history of neuroses. And in my younger years they were, by very possibly every standard, somewhat eccentric. In elementary school I had a fear of dragonflies. By middle school I risked panic attack every time a classroom was handed over to a substitute teacher. I’m sure this is all very amusing; it is to me, don’t worry. But I can’t imagine it seemed that way to my parents, who had to shepherd me from therapist to psychiatrist and back, not to mention three different elementary schools to accommodate my learning disability, to put me on an even keel.

One of my more acute issues was some variant of separation anxiety. It proved rather resistant to the talking cure, so when I was about eight, my mom took a more proactive approach. On a Saturday afternoon, she drove me to the elementary school I was then attending, sat me at the front bench with a pad of paper, and left me there for some 20 minutes. Though it was a nice enough day there was not a soul in sight as far as I can recall, save two older girls who walked up, asked me what I was doing and, upon hearing my candid reply, looked at each other in understandably perplexed silence before walking away.

Having carried that experiment with the austere dignity of a John C. Calhoun portrait, this pattern would hold for much of my childhood and adolescence. Even in college I was propelled along through Mom forcing me, from 70 miles away, to join things and be social. Though the specific moments of “strong encouragement” were beneficial at select turns, it left an enduring impression on me. If I was to improve at all, it was through effort. Even misfired effort done in good faith, I convinced myself, would bare some reward. I don’t think I was quite right there, but even so, I took it upon myself to assume a self-presentation that was outgoing. I accepted invitations, solicited my time and services, developed personal charm, and traveled alone more often to unfamiliar places, all in the hope of forging a network where I didn’t always have to be so fucking gregarious.

Success was not always consistent, but every time it came it left me wondering why I hadn’t done this sooner. What a revelation it was that being normal wasn’t very hard at all with some practice. In fact I had come to realize that I enjoyed talking to people and could even be very easy going in new company. It was a slow but illuminating education on how humanity kept moving.

But every time I think I have the norm pegged, its mysterious keepers pull the rug up from under me.

“Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day,” writes Jonathan Rauch. “Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk?” This is the opening passage to his 2003 Atlantic article, “Caring for Your Introvert.” In it, Rauch declares himself and others as part of a little-known, perhaps even oppressed “orientation” (emphasis his), who are neither consistently shy nor misanthropic but who are nonetheless tired by people. And they would like some goddamn recognition.

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts’ Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say “I’m an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.”

There’s quite a bit of tongue being planted in cheek here, but it’s hard to otherwise see this as a catalytic document for an emergent national mood. I had known nothing of introverts or the Myers-Briggs test until a few years ago. Now the content farm is bountiful in the introversion crop. Psychology Today gives “Nine Signs You’re Probably an Introvert.” The Huffington Post boasted 23 more. The process, it seems, is to confirm one’s introversion and to report to Buzzfeed in perpetuity. A joke that Buzzfeed assures “will make introverts laugh more than they should” is a tweet that simply reads, “Can’t. On eternity leave.”

I suspend judgment as to whether the wave of introversion is sincerely felt or part of an ongoing trend (I can’t recall where the Myers-Briggs classifications were likened to astrology for the Neil deGrasse Tyson set, but it works). Its impact is more certain to me, and it’s proving at the very least to be competitive with other social phenomena (Trumpism, heroin) for long-term tangibility and consequentialism.

Ever since it was profiled in Fast Company earlier this week, the service startup Bodega has been pilloried without relent on social media. Founded by former Google employees, Bodega “sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the ‘store.’” The pantries are designed for multiple locations: gyms, offices, apartment and dorm complexes, etc.

The outcome, as it is framed in the article, is to offer a more convenient alternative to the convenience store. But Bodega was very quickly taken down several pegs by the fact that Bodega sounded like a glorified vending machine, and that similar, less convoluted pantries are already in place in offices and hotels. Helen Rosner at Eater agrees that Bodega is ridiculous. Its business model is a mess. But Rosner pushes back against critics saying it’s just another redundant product like Juicero. “I think a better analogy is Blue Apron,” she writes:

Like Bodega, Blue Apron took something that involved leaving the house and engaging in moderate human interaction — in their case, grocery shopping for dinner — and slickly repackaged it in a way that it seemed actually to be selling a balm for recipe anxiety. Bloomberg’s always very smart Matt Levine called it “a tech company in the sense that its product is not meals, or ingredients, but simulacrum.” The problem was that the simulacrum wasn’t proprietary. As soon as it became clear that there was a demand for meal kits, everybody else got in on the action, too. (Emphasis mine.)

Companies like Bodega and Blue Apron are, as Levine puts it, “virtual-reality companies,” curing modern life of once-unavoidable daily hassles like shopping. But as Rosner points out, Blue Apron is struggling in an oversaturated market, and so will Bodega. I would not dare to question the more immediate and far more sophisticated analysis of these two, but I find the essence to which they cut both services down hard to overlook. Indeed, to look at the creators of Bodega as actual businessmen, with a practical strategy to turn a profit, is a mistake. Many entrepreneurs go out of their way to pose simultaneously, perhaps primarily, as visionaries. For once this might actually be the case.

If the Bodega creators and other internet and tech titans lack any feasible way of doing actual business, they have at the very least a coherent understanding of where society wants to go: nowhere. It wants to stay in, to curate, and to exclude. The problem of overstimulation is eased by the ability to manage stimulation. The freedom of access gives way to the power to mute, even to block. The global village of Marshal McLuhan gives way to E.M. Forster’s machine-dependent, physical interaction-repulsed cell dwellers in “The Machine Stops”:

There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

This is the shut-in economy. It will come about gradually of course, and with little to no enabling of a devastated earth as it had been in Forster’s story. One botched beta test or sunken IPO will, in time, give way to a genuine article. And then another. And then another. Each inconvenience falls like a profane icon. Soon the personal population of one’s life is brought down to the most brutal of bare minimums. Soon neighborhoods will become quieter, and homes less lively, evinced with no greater activity than the glow patterns in the windows. Soon no one may notice when one goes completely dark.

The shut-in economy is not steeped in laziness but in hyper-minimalism, first of the material kind. “The cyber-lords have already convinced us that maps, paper, pens, and even push buttons are somehow incredibly inconvenient and clumsy, leaving us scraping and pawing like drooling bug life on their flat digital dildos,” writes Ian Svenonius. “Google’s search engines and applications have likewise taught us to refrain from using our apparently out-of-date and hopelessly inefficient brains.” And then of the emotional kind. We would be cleaned of all unnecessary strain on our social graces and patience. This hits service, retail, and shipping first and ruthlessly. Then it eats into relationships. What is a relationship? It is at once right next to you and passively filed away somewhere, to be accessed as need dictates.

We’ve become accustomed to a great deal of this already. The power to while away weekends with whole televisions seasons that melt time almost in an instant is an impressive gateway drug. But people looking for a sudden reversal or “cure for convenience” are encouraged to read, I don’t know, Matthew Crawford and not me.

My history of anxiety is ongoing. And though my current afflictions are less comical than they once were, they remain burdensome. I am afraid of driving, not the right thing to be in the suburbs. My journey to get my license was long, ending after two attempts on the road and as little as five attempts on paper. But anxieties can invigorate as much as cripple. One thing I didn’t see coming as I sat stiffly on the school bench was my aversion to inertia. These are never easy to reconcile, but a world with far fewer people and far greater space might be the surest way to their management.

Even with easy sociability I still take pleasure in near-empty consumer spaces. I go to the diner, the grocery store, the library, and sometimes the movie theater outside of peak hours. I am tantalized by the prospect of a society where all hours are off-peak, and where the new norm is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Not that this is sustainable, of course. Each business will vacate in time, leaving plaster and concrete husks to the elements and to a social being made new thanks to the retiring multitude. I will miss their company. But if they want to live vicariously through my Instagram feed that is their choice. Thankfully for them, and thanks to them, I would be able to take it further than I thought possible.

THE MOTHER OF ALL TEACHABLE MOMENTS

Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 11.20.25 PM

To Whom It May Concern,

Greetings and salutations!

Well, I bet you never thought you’d end up here. But, to be fair, I guess that makes two of us. Or all of us, depending on how many of you are hearing this. Are you hearing this? I wasn’t sure if there would be any kind of disabilities or sensory limitations for anyone who finds this, so for the hard of seeing I recorded this message, and for the hard of hearing I provided a written transcript. For those who are both, or who are illiterate of my or any English somehow, I apologize in advance and hope you have the time to read this eventually. If it is useful, that is; which I doubt it will be.

Anyway, it’s possible that you have been finding a few of these since you have arrived. So you’ve probably listened to many, many previous messages that aren’t broadly distinguishable from the one you are now playing back. That’s totally fair! But whether you are new to this or thoroughly jaded by the whole thing, I implore you to hear me out. It is worth your while, I swear.

So … some background. This is my entry in what is called the #StoryofYou challenge. When it was revealed that the #GreatCataclysm—well, some called it that; others called it #TheFinalCountdown, and a few more called it the #EverlovingEarthFuck—was confirmed as imminent, there was a shit ton of panic. The burnt wreckage you’re seeing around you may have been the result of the #GreatCataclysm but honestly it makes no difference when your neighbors just reflexively start fucking pillaging one another and burning their goods to prevent more pillaging. So some goodhearted, branding-savvy folks set up this time capsule project as a kind of—I’m not actually sure—diversionary measure? It was kind of weird, and everyone just kind of took it as this navelgazing all-about-me thing. Like any of that fucking matters now. No. When I heard “you,” I took it to mean you. Yes, you; whether you are deformed brethren scavenging for scraps, extraterrestrial spelunkers getting a feel for the place, or celestial squadrons tying up loose ends. This time capsule has been carefully assembled for your benefit. This comes with a set of themes with which I had to find a corresponding item. So I shall list all the items and explain their significance to you, not to me.

First item is … an empty gesture. We went through all our cans, so here are some white cheddar Cheez-Its, which no one ate because even in the old atmospheric conditions they were pretty subpar.

But seriously … the first theme called for three essential books. So … a guide to nautical code that my grandfather left us. Just in case you … make it to sea, I guess. A high school yearbook from 1998 that I got at a flea market. No signatures that I can find. Kind of sad. So in case the ‘90s revival survives Armageddon with you. Now I cheated here and am counting the Neapolitan novels as a single book. I haven’t read these, but I have it on good authority that they will fill the vast amount of time you now have to pass.

Okay. Second theme is one essential album. I got Cum on Feel the Noize: The Essentials by Quiet Riot. It has “essential” in the title as you can see. Moving on!

Two essential films. (I don’t know how they got at these amounts, but whatever.) My stepmom’s DVD copy of Zoomba for Beginners—unopened. And a link to a YouTube compilation of Vines by Riff Raff.

Next is supposed to be something indicative of your spiritual life. I don’t really know what that means, and since I’ve already bushed the book strictures to their limit, here is a Polaroid of The Turn of the Screw.

Next it calls for something to remember the world as it should have been. This is a wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ. It has no hands, though it is supposed to. Why it has no hands and why it was sculpted to begin with are at this point equally inconsequential. Also, this is a picture of the only man I ever loved. What his name was and whether I was worthy is something I’ll be keeping to myself. (I mean, I wasn’t.)

Something to remember the world as it was. My phone wiped of all data save 32 dick pics.

Something you can’t do without. My phone charger. Also some tampons. Couldn’t hurt.

Lighting round! Something old: expired Xanax.

Something blue: Blue Lives Matter decal.

Something borrowed: my former best friend’s haaaaaaaaaaaaaaair. (Also blue, as it happens.)

Something new: Fidget spinner. #obligatory.

And, finally, something that meant the world to you. This was one I had to think about, and in choosing it I kind of broke with my stated purpose. But only a bit, and with good reason! Obviously I’m not going to be around by the time you find this. So consider this my reaching out, through the bounds of time and existence, to you directly … sort of. I consider this a gesture of hope, of solidarity, and of comfort. So … just give me a sec here …

Mom, Dad; despite your best efforts, you were always somehow destined to end up together again. I’m just sorry that neither of you could be together in one piece. Ah well.

So, thus concludes my contribution to the #StoryofYou challenge. I end this with more than a few regrets under my belt, more perhaps than I had really planned on amassing in one lifetime. Though I can’t say I’m going to regret not being around to see this capsule opened. Not, let me be clear, because of the condition, whatever that may be, of the beings opening it … well, maybe that’s part of it, I assume you understand … but mostly because this is not about me. If there’s one lesson I can take from the mother of all teachable moments and give back to her children, it’s that.

And on that note … holy shit, guys, even in fractions you’re heavy … on that note, peace! #StoryofYou #GreatCataclysm #EverlovingEarthFuck #blessed [praying hands emoji] [grimace emoji]

THE BLACK VELVET BUTCHER’S APRON

assassination-attempt-on-president-everett

In David Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood, a woman is placed under the care of an experimental psychologist whose confrontational therapeutic methods cause the traumas of his patients to manifest physically, often in the form of boils or tumors. But the woman’s trauma is so advanced that her growths are not only very large, but sentient. Though they possess no navel or genitalia, they bare easy enough resemblance to children that they may safely sneak into a classroom to her daughter’s teacher or enter through the windows of her neglectful mother’s house. Their existential cognizance leads them to murder these people, and to attempt to do the same to her former husband, with whom she is engaged in a bitter custody battle.

The Brood is a very personal film for Cronenberg, and my fondness for it is derived in part for similarly personal reasons. But I couldn’t help recalling it again today after reading Laura Miller, who in Slate used her review of Frederick Crews’s demystifying book Freud: The Making of an Illusion to pay homage generally to the critical hatchet job. “Every critic knows that readers love a spirited hatchet job,” she begins,

whether or not the author being chopped is one whose work they’ve hated—or even read. Much of the public seems to possess an ambient belief that the literary world is filled with frauds and self-styled geniuses whose reputations have been propped up by venal publishers and the reviewers who toady up to them. In this light, anyone who dares to challenge the allegedly phony consensus by ripping apart one of the unjustly elect gets hailed as a hero.

Surely the next most common subgenre of the review after the hatchet job is the review that praises the virtues of hatchet jobs. As a practitioner of that form, Miller does not deviate one iota from the platonic model. She points out that “much of the public” “loves” reading certain kinds of reviews. She distinguishes between good attempts at hatchet jobs, such as when David Foster Wallace DEMOLISHED John Updike for his elegant male solipsism, and bad attempts, such as when William Giraldi, an author so comically insufferable as to not always seem entirely real, punched down on Alix Ohlin.

Invective is one of the most astounding and dazzling of the human inventions, and when done well in the confines of criticism, or other shortform works, it allows us to consider a less limited idea of what constitutes a classic. The literary hit piece has an imposing Valhalla: James Russell Lowell on Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper, H.L. Mencken on Thorstein Veblen, Renata Adler on Pauline Kael, and Robert Hughes on just about anyone. To want to enter that pantheon as a permanent resident is a temptation that understandably does not fade easily among reviewers, not least of all on the young ones, but certainly age knows no limit here.

That I, as someone reviewing books for a few years now, was never enthusiastic about hatchet jobs was always a source of anxiety. No writer wants to come away from their work with a stigma of “good nature,” for all the reasons on which Hazlitt, who would know, has written. No writer similarly wants to submit to Prince Posterity in the chainmail of aloofness. To convey either is to mix a more potent outwardly appearing cocktail of frivolity, arrogance, cowardice, stupidity, and dishonesty. No writer, ultimately, wants to appear disconnected from the Spirit of the Age.

It may be that I possess any of these corruptions. Even so, I would like to table an alternate proposal that hatchet jobs have a design flaw.

Essaying is nothing if not a verbal distillation of a thought process, and at times even a full personality. It is a declaration that something needs to be said and that a certain person would be most effective in saying it. Reviewing is at once an intensification and a restriction of the essayistic function. Knowledge and taste clash with authority in order to persuade readers of the relative value of a consumer product within X-amount of words. It risks devolving into formula. Hatchet jobs are seen as a way to break out of formula, to speak wholly and unabashedly for one’s own self; to be as Antonin Scalia, leaving readers dizzy after explaining that a wolf is, after all, actually just a wolf. And yet just as one has read every defense of hatchet jobs, one, too, has read every hatchet job. Acidic elegance stitches well into other acidic elegances creating the same black velvet butcher’s apron. It is more mood piece than persuasion. The Theory of the Leisure Class is one of the most delightfully odd books in American literature. Henry David Thoreau’s iconography is less unjust than James Russell Lowell’s obscurity. People will still find Freud useful for something. The hatchet job reviewer is always the cloaked assassin, but for whom precise aim is secondary to the glimmer of the blade.

When Jim Goad published the first issue of his zine ANSWER Me!, the critical pushback that irked him the most was that of its supposed edginess. “I expected people to dislike ANSWER Me!,” he later wrote, “but it never occurred to me that anyone would think I’m only kidding.” It was a frustrating quibble, which he took in stride … sort of:

I draw a stick figure of one critic. In childish handwriting I scrawl, “Little Mikey McP. was a jealous boy—jealous boys get MURDERED.” I slice my leg open with a razor blade and wipe my blood … all over the page. I send him the letter via Certified Mail. He calls me up, voice quavering, saying he’s sorry.

Out back behind the Hatchet Job Hall of Fame would probably be the compost ditch of rage. There, the collective prose of a rancorous, infernal vanguard—Swift, De Maistre, Bierce, Goad, Valerie Solanas, Westbrook Pegler, John Osbourne, Karl Kraus, probably Auberon Waugh, maybe also James Baldwin, and others—is left to rot. In a mass heap it will probably not be all that attractive. But it might be more compelling to visit. Anger as a tone in literature is underrated—and perhaps for good reason. It requires a level of commitment that happy warriors and soft assassins cannot readily take on. It is at once more brutal and more precise. Imagine not the assassin, or even the hatchet man, but the torturer:

I entreat you, my dear countrymen, not to be under the least concern upon these, and the like rumours, which are no more than the last howls of a dog dissected alive, as I hope he has sufficiently been.

It is a tone I can appreciate, and even enjoy reading. But it is not one I can endorse as deliberate practice. Sure enough, I’m not without my hates, particularly when it comes to other writers. The contemporary scene is cluttered with dream weavers of glorified cocktail party monologues, content farmers bringing mutant produce to market, rationalist sorcerers with all the charm of an urgent care clinic, and whatever Michael Robbins is. But these are not burning furies so much as abjections growing from within and wreaking (figurative) havoc where they can, guided by the distemper I bequeathed unto them. (I didn’t feel like changing the introduction so bear with me.) This is an urge that bristles, at best, under the dignified constraints of criticism. It promises to say nothing constructive that can’t be said by others with more cognizance and principle, assuming criticisms of such kinds are called for at some point. And that feeling produces a kind of pop-up crossroads for a writer. Is a gripe, even a learned and substantial one, really all that central in my thinking? Or is it an ogre lumbering mindlessly in front of some priceless, jagged and/or poisonous relic?

But this is to read too much into what I can and cannot do with the few tools I’ve been given. I lack the graceful joy necessary to wield a hatchet; I lack the volatile righteousness to dissect a dog alive. Culture is not an embattled golden pavilion that I am bound to defend, or burn as the case may be. Culture is the leaking ship, the breaches of which I try to patch and the ornaments of which I try to polish, all the while getting constantly sick all over myself because I don’t like even metaphorically being in the ocean.

And no matter what the effort, time and ignorance are the final and wholly unfeeling arbiters of execution. So at least the hatcheters know how to pass the time well before being called to judgment.

IN PRAISE OF NORMALCY

giphy

Hilary Mitchell over at Buzzfeed has published an article that is peculiar in two notable ways. First in that it is an expectedly .GIF-strewn piece that I unexpectedly found myself not only compelled to read but to readily agree with. And second that it was written far past its point of relevancy. Of course relevancy as a hook is usually a death knell to anything of potential interest, but in this case, a rightly timed posting would have granted the piece and its message a higher register above the usual noise. But as they say: nice things, this is why we can’t have them.

The Office ended its nine-season run on NBC four years ago. But this sad fact did not stop Mitchell from putting all of her professional energies into taking down, .GIF by .GIF, one of television history’s most beloved characters. “Pretty much everyone considers Jim and Pam Halpert to be the most perfectly suited TV couple of all time,” Mitchell writes. “But guess what: you’re all wrong. Because Jim is a dick.” After the windup comes the beating, in which every fault of John Krasinski’s character, at least relating to his interactions with women, is exposed with a cruelty that would be enviable in its precision if it were not directed against someone who does not exist.

But this piece retains value for two reasons. First, it offers further proof that binge-watching is changing how we see weekly television. It is quite clear that Mitchell had been using her spare time to fire up Netflix and marathon The Office for as long as she could tolerate it—and given her examples, that tolerance was high. And in so doing discovered a pretty damning truth that is only found through such a televisual keg stand. In the traditional viewing schedule, it is easy to see Jim’s flimsy work ethic and diverting antics as charming, and his targeting of Dwight as deserved. One can also see the at best chilly interactions between the office and warehouse staffs as innocent misunderstandings rather than ingrained condescension to the latter by the former. But watched in centipede-like succession, The Office assumes a harshness exceeding that of Seinfeld. Perhaps Office writers could retroactively defend the show as a bleak social satire à la its UK ancestor, but that would require overlooking the earnest appeal upon which the show’s endurance was dependent.

Second, then, is that The Office is given a new lease on life with its ever evolving depiction of normalcy. In innocent times we could see easily the demarcations between normal (Jim, Pam, Kelly, Oscar, the Temp) and abnormal (everyone else). We guided our sympathies accordingly, Jim and Pam embodied our highest ideals of happiness and homeownership—however ill-gotten theirs was gained—and everyone else embodied traits and personalities that to some degree unsettled us. With time, we’ve added some nuance. Venkatesh Rao at Ribbonfarm analyzed the characters on a three-tiered, economics-based MacLeod hierarchy of sociopaths, clueless, and losers:

The Sociopath (capitalized) layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself. The Clueless layer is what Whyte called the “Organization Man,” but the archetype inhabiting the middle has evolved a good deal since Whyte wrote his book (in the fifties).  The Losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of “cool”), but people who have struck bad bargains economically – giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks.

Rao deems Jim a “will-he-won’t-he Sociopath-in-the-making,” and I could similarly never place him in the way Mitchell more stridently does. He was this unremarkable white male who was somehow unique. Though he did not boast the rich family history of Dwight, the cultural interests of Pam and Oscar, the purity of Kevin, the contradictions of Angela, or the ceaseless if often misguided positivity of Michael, he was deserving of our attention. His thoughts, whether verbal or not, were monumental. Yet he was most animated by his sense of misfitness. Jim was defined by his impulse to elevate his place in his world, which tended to be through petty acts of rebellion at the expense of team players. My only tried and true “fan theories” were based on making Jim more interesting. He was the fantasy version of a more pathetic, awkward reality in which Pam and Roy are still together and Dwight is competent; or that The Office was an adaptation of Paradise Lost in which Jim was Lucifer before the fall.

Jim’s status is much more apparent when Rao talks about the office loser, who “pays his dues, does not ask for much, and finds meaning in his life elsewhere.”

For Stanley it is crossword puzzles. For Angela it is a colorless Martha-Stewartish religious life. For Kevin, it is his rock band. For Kelly, it is mindless airhead pop-culture distractions. Pam has her painting ambitions. Meredith is an alcoholic slut. Oscar, the ironic-token gay character, has his intellectual posturing. Creed, a walking freak-show, marches to the beat of his own obscure different drum (he is the most rationally checked-out of all the losers).

It used to be that establishing the norm was based on what didn’t fit with it. The one neat trick here was that, generally, the “weird” people were not always privy to their being weird. Much of Jim’s appeal was rooted in this practice, which he weaponized with a sadistic glee. This continues in less cruel fashion but to no more helpful ends outside the show. Christian commentator Rachel Held Evans, for instance, advocated for “keeping the church weird.” Though I’m not sure that Evans would know weird if it burned her church to the ground, this tack, much like the current vacillating vogue of normalcy being at once oppressively overbearing and perilously endangered, is not normal.

If normalcy is a vague concept determined by negation, it helps that normal people are not prone to sticking their necks out to be affirmative. This is not out of some ironic posture or subcultural ritual, to do so simply does not register in their circuitry. As much as I find it subversive on my part to expose them, there’s something to be said—and might even need saying—about those who practice normalcy not as imposition of stability or stasis but as an acceptance of, if not a pride in, limitation. Normalcy is about proportion rather than practice. Normal people have a ken that is not very large but not wanting in basic comfort. More than that they possess a sensitive awareness of when they have ventured beyond that ken, which instills a reflex for immediate reverse.

Certainly to someone prone to distemper this type of thing is justly accursed. But it is not so to the normal who don’t even have enough interest to see that they have a profound gift. It is the gift of the simplistic. Those enlivened by obfuscation are not attracted to the normal mind. Those thirsting for honesty, however, are more apt to find its appeal. The normal person has no need of lying. What stakes could possibly be in play for such a person whose needs are few and whose wants are obtained easily enough? For the normal, circumstances are good or they are not and are dealt with no less forthrightly, but often with as upbeat a resolution as possible. In this light even the most resolute cynic might consider, however fleetingly, adopting a normal person and giving him or her a new name. And I would not hasten to say that the normal person would object out of hand.

But of course we did more than that, we gave them run of the place. Because the normal are at once trusting and instill trust in others, and they are far more numerous in any case. Even if what they are given to control is somehow dysfunctional, the impression of impending functionality that they proffer perpetuates our reliance. People who are not normal will react to this arrangement in different ways. Some will go along with it in bland resignation. Some will see opportunities to enrich themselves by it. Others, however, will bristle at its demands, mostly out of incomprehension than of antagonism. And with that in mind, I’d like to wed Mitchell’s and Rao’s assessments of our favorite mop-haired white male.

Whether Jim Halpert is a dick or a sociopath proper I don’t know, but Jim is certainly weird. His behavior implies a broad understanding of an order imposed but he fails to see its logic. No one else really sees the logic either, but it bothers Jim to an extent that he can’t overlook the flaws. Pam’s preference for Roy over him and the power granted Michael Scott in the office are errors that need correcting. But Jim is also not evil. So rather than confront the errors head on and risk needless chaos, Jim prefers common method of coping for the weird: adapt or die. Jim’s presentation is go along-get along, accepting the pervasive order while masking a deep discomfort with its workings. But it can only bury his true feelings so far down. Like undrilled oil it slowly seeps out from his surface as bizarre behavior, such as blankly confessing love, confessing again after the first rebuff then being standoffish to degrees so extreme and time so extended as to constitute psychological torture. The distinction in his poor treatment is plain, however. When he mistreats Pam he is as Michael Vick; when he mistreats Dwight, an unrepentant and blissfully unaware eccentric, he is as Jeffrey Dahmer.

Jim is a sad example of a dilemma most of the self-consciously weird understand and fear becoming. The weird have a duel obligation to cope with the unshakable norm and defend against their inevitable disgust. The disgust, for everyone’s sake, is often turned inward conveyed through self-deprecation and irony. But can these defenses somehow be turned into preemptive weapons? With Jim, who acted out in sheer rage, this seems unlikely. But Jim’s creative capacity was also limited and mostly reactive. Perhaps, then, the better example of how to cope is found in Michael Scott, who embraced normalcy with gusto while giving his flights of fancy, for good an ill, some breathing room. His film, Threat Level Midnight, which Jim bitterly mocked, was awful in nearly every respect, yet he marshaled the entire office to see its realization, and to everyone’s mutual enjoyment.

Upending the norm is always fleeting. Normalcy, for all its simplicity, is a heavy force that one can never lift. It can only be nudged in small pushes. But the normal are sensitive to those pushes, so one’s subversive ends must be leavened with a certain level of delight.

I am so sorry.

TAYLOR SWIFT AND THE LOST ART OF REVENGE

giphy

I think, at long last, that we might dispense with the notion that Taylor Swift is in any degree a good person. Certainly she may earn credit in putting up a good, or at least passable, showing to the contrary for as long as she did. But her stamina could only be spread so thin, and the mask inevitably had to slip off.

For shrewder observers, this came as no surprise. Swift-watching is among the most exacting and intense of the critical subgenres, the one which comes closest to a spectator sport. Practitioners are ruthless in cataloguing every instance of bitterness, pettiness, ignorance, antipathy, greed, opportunism, false modesty, and meanness ever carried out by this person. Which is to say, all of the characteristics that make humanity distinct among the living organisms of the world. I mean, I think many of us go through life encountering one person out every 30 or so who we would just as soon not see instantly transferred to the nearest warzone/galactic outpost/existential dimension with or without protective gear.

And yet, I am disappointed in Taylor, and with her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Not because, as others are pointing out, that it is a bad song. Many of Swift’s songs are rather lackluster, or at least lack the staying power of those by Aaliyah, Dolly Parton, Elliott Smith, or even Michael Bolton. But one thing Swift is not is stupid. Everything she does is predicated on careful judgment and deliberative execution. For once, though, I wish she would set aside using it to enable her raw id and assume the mantle of intelligent villainy as per her obvious destiny.

“Look What You Made Me Do” is being touted—or rather, harangued—as a song about revenge. Alas, this is not the case at all. Yes, it makes references to revenge, of lists with names underlined in red ink, of karma, and so on, but that is a byproduct of the larger obsession at the song’s center. Taylor is very unhappy, presumably, with Kanye West for any number of transgressions committed against her over the past eight years. Even though the song is not well written it surely ranks as one of the most relatable in pop history. But that is to aim low, and to prevent Swift’s ascension to exemplar and tastemaker in the joys of revenge.

It might be, though, that the nature of her job as a celebrity, dependent as it is on quick-rotating news cycles, prevents this from happening. Swift may forever be a romanticist of revenge, exalting an insular, almost masturbatory form. She will hence propagate several misconceptions about revenge: that it is theatrical, that it is impulsive, that it is morbid, and that it is served with one decisive stroke. Perhaps these are, somewhere, attitudes applied to undertaking revenge, but hardly could they ever be successful in any meaningful sense. To wit, revenge is about the result, not the intent. And so it is methodical, it requires patience, cunning, and commitment. If Swift possesses any of these latter traits they are grossly misplaced or disproportioned.

Let me illustrate with a better example, which I know through secondhand experience.

A friend of a friend, who for the sake of his privacy I will call “Jeb Bush,” had a falling out with another friend, leaving him in a state of inconsolable abjection. What the precise nature of the rupture was remains unclear, perhaps even to “Jeb Bush,” who had to clear out considerable mental space in order to plan for his retaliation. It very quickly became an all-consuming activity for him, requiring all other life obligations to be coordinated around reaching that end. Indeed, so involved was it that I don’t think “Jeb Bush” ever properly called it revenge, but rather counteroffensive psychic interior redecoration (COPIRD, for short). To better understand what that means, here is what he did.

First “Jeb Bush” needed to study. Not so much the movements of his friend every day, but his profile, let’s say. He made peace with his target so that he might be able to spend time with him, to get a more substantial grasp on his interests and aspirations. The more intently he listened the more comfortable the target was able to confide in him about the truly important material: fears, anxieties, failures, stressers, and so on. In his off time, “Jeb Bush” would read all of the male fictionists: Richard Yates, John Updike, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Rick Moody, and Tom Perrotta, with Nicholson Baker, Nathanael West, and Philip Larkin for good measure. This went on for about a year.

With the intelligence gathered, he put his plan into execution. First he got a better job. Though “Jeb Bush” was reasonably satisfied as an advertising designer, he knew some advancement would do wonders for his plan. It took some time, but he used a competing job offer to parlay his way into a departmental leadership position and, within about six months, as creative director, overseeing not just print visuals, but internet and television. Now it was the target’s turn to listen, about “Jeb Bush’s” improved life, about his job perks, extra vacation time, and monumentally improved healthcare benefits. The target, as I recall, is a sectional executive at an accounting firm, but the message would still be clear he could be doing better. When the target asked what he did to accomplish all this in so short a time, “Jeb Bush” credited Emotional Intelligence, and recited the book’s back matter verbatim.

With the extra income, “Jeb Bush” acquired a membership at Equinox. This leaned his physique somewhat and boosted his confidence. At weekly spin class, he met a woman, a paralegal, and started seeing her casually. Once they became official, however, he took her on sojourns to see both the target and his wife for dinner and brunch. The girlfriend and wife, a freelance marketing consultant, became fast friends. “Jeb Bush” and the target routinely played a game to see which one could insist more strongly to paying the entire check before “Jeb Bush” inevitably persuades to split it. Fun, generally speaking, was had.

The target’s wife enjoyed the girlfriend’s company to such an extent that she sought Equinox membership as well. It was not quite within the confines of their budget but they agreed to make it work. Pretty soon, the target’s wife gained a new set of city-based friends. While the target attended wealth and wellness seminars in hotels off of route whatever, his wife quit the book club in town and attended readings, opening parties, and park events.

Over at the coffee table, the target met a woman. Stilted small talk revealed she “worked in sales” and “went to a state school before dropping out.” They ditched the affirmation chants and trust falls to watch Hot Rod in her hotel room before falling asleep. The target woke up at three in the morning and cried in the bathroom.

The target’s wife missed the last train and stayed over at some loft in Greenpoint. There, she met a six-year New School PhD candidate who looked vaguely like Drake. They talked into the early hours about Dick Hebdige and meditation sessions at the Swedenborgian church he attended. While watching a documentary on Ana Mendieta, the PhD candidate went in for a kiss, which the target’s wife rebuffed before thanking him for the perspective. He nodded and left, more Drakishly than ever.

A few weeks later, the target met “Jeb Bush” in a bar, beleaguered and bewildered to no end. He was beside himself; his life plans seemingly in disarray and his job situation as inert as ever. He’d developed an addiction to wellness seminars, in which watching Pay-per-view with saleswomen became a regular occurrence. The breaking point came midway into You Drive Me Crazy when his wife called to say she’d resolved to get her MFA and kept talking about being a “proud grey wolf.” “Is that a white supremacist thing? Is it a drug thing?” he asked before asking for lawyer recommendations. But “Jeb Bush” just calmed him down, gave him the business card of a marriage counselor, and told them that it was just a rough patch they need to work through.

This puzzled me when I heard it. But “Jeb Bush” clarified: “If I can make this go another generation or two I think I’ll be set.” And to better monitor the plan’s progress, “Jeb Bush” came up on the right side of a firm merger, gained accounts for Pantene and Magic Hat, and moved into a converted warehouse loft in Jersey City with his girlfriend. He then pointed his index fingers to his mouth and blew at them as if they were guns, and walked away.

In that moment, the line between entertainer and artist had never been bolder.

SKULKING IN THE DARK: AN APPENDIX

the-torment-of-saint-anthony-by-michelangelo-detail-featured-w480x300

Last week, Jacobite magazine published an essay of mine centered on fra Girolamo Savonarola. The essay served a couple of functions. First to make the case that Savonarola, who was burned at the stake in 1498, has an undervalued contemporary appeal, specifically in his zeal for Godly moral reform of a society steeped in corrupt secular worldliness. I did this by showing the similarities between the friar and certain strains of the punk movement—not only in his unvarnished righteousness but also his use of youth to implement his agenda. Second, then, was to demonstrate how a predictable pattern social rebellion emanates from unpredictable sources. This made for confusing reading, no doubt, not least of all because many readers were forced to wrap their heads around Krishnacore. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. An essay can balance multiple priorities and still be coherent. Though I still feel that there is room for expansion on the broader point.

One of the few responses I got pointed out that, for all the moving parts involved, the scope of the essay was still very narrow. I had, according to this tweeter, overemphasized the strident earnestness of Fugazi at the expense of the more ironic critiques of Dead Kennedys. I may yet write on Dead Kennedys, whose Swiftian brand of punk appeals to me and is vital, but that entails a different essay entirely as they—like their even more idiosyncratic Bay Area peers Flipper—were more literary than movementarian. But something did go unwritten, so I’m going to write it here.

***

I wonder if there is an alternate timeline where Thomas Merton had not died suddenly by freak electrocution in 1968. That cynical adage—maybe originated in Johnny Rotten, maybe not—that death is a “good career move” for once does not apply here. Maybe that’s not the case for Merton himself, but in exiting the earth as he did, the work he left behind has, like the Vatican II reforms then being undertaken, become prisoner to a generation. He exists now as an icon of a limited triumph rather than as a guide one might seek through endless troubles. How Merton would have weaved through the mutating turmoil of the 1970s and beyond is a seductive speculation. He would doubtless have been more challenged, but I think not fruitlessly.

Much of what we know of the classic stereotype of punks—their filth, their rudeness, their sloganeering mode of speech and thought, their radicalism, also their filth—is derived primarily from Crass, a band which existed from 1977 to around 1984. Yet Crass was very unusual among its contemporaries. The band’s founder, Penny Rimbaud (nee Jeremy John Ratter), then age 34, had spent the previous decade in a cottage commune in the Essex countryside so isolated that it took days for news of the moon landing to reach them. In that time, Rimbaud and his fellow artists had several bands, happenings, festivals, and poems behind them. Crass was less a musical act than it was a multimedia articulation of a political program. Indeed, compared to the more tonal politics of other bands—Sex Pistols were contrarian, The Clash romantic, Killing Joke existential—Crass was a concise, if brute, argument for anarchism, pacifism, direct action, feminism, and rabid anticlericalism. Their albums were manifestos that included screeds, careful visual language, and pranks that nearly destroyed the planet. More broadly, however, was their ideal of living outside society, subsisting on their own means to reach their own ends. “There is no authority but yourself.”

“[T]hey were in a certain sense anarchists,” Thomas Merton wrote in 1960, “and it will do no harm to think of them in that light. They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively ruled and guided by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.” Merton was assessing the character of what is generally referred to as the Desert Fathers, men (and women) who, following the birth pangs of Christianity, dropped whatever they were doing as citizens of the Roman Empire or thereabouts to pursue a reduced state of seclusion, manual labor, prayer, fasting, and meditation. “Driven by furies out from men and lands,” wrote fifth century Roman poet Rutilius Namantianus, “A credulous exile skulking in the dark/Thinking, poor fool, that heaven feeds on filth.”

The Desert Fathers, like Savonarola, are an easy mark for projection and allusion, perhaps easier because even the most illustrious of their number—St. Anthony the Great—rises only so high above the cluster. But they’ve been making it easy for centuries. St. Augustine was moved to tears by their example and then to Christianity. St. Benedict formulated his Rule after them, organizing and perpetuating monasticism by leaps and bounds. Ditto Sts. Jerome and Francis. It is either too easy to overstate or to overlook how meager their backgrounds and ambitions were in comparison. Some came down from nobility, others up from slavery. Some had spouses and others were prostitutes. Many could not read, but somehow managed to internalize the Scriptures. They did not seek ordination or ministry, and if so then with the greatest reluctance. They were not interested in institutionalization, but in living out the Gospel.

As such, the Desert Fathers were not a doctrinal group. Much of their teaching, such as it is, survives in the form of homiletic bites, nearly all recorded secondhand, passed down and spread around for centuries. Merton has translated a selection of them. A truncated edition of Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin is somewhat more comprehensive, dividing sayings by subject: quiet, compunction, self-control, lust, humility, non-judgment, fortitude, discretion, unceasing prayer, hospitality, visions, etc. Some are quite straightforward:

Some brothers ask Marcarius, “How should we pray?” He said, “There is no need to talk much in prayer. Reach out your hands often and say, ‘Lord have mercy on me, as you will and as you know.’ But if conflict troubles you say, ‘Lord, help me.’ He knows what is best for us, and has mercy.”

Others are a bit more involved:

A brother was tested by temptation in Scetis. The enemy brought into his mind the memory of a beautiful woman which troubled him deeply. By God’s providence a visitor came from Egypt. When they met to talk, he told the brother that his wife was dead (she was the woman about whom the monk was tempted). When he heard the news, he put on his cloak at night and went to the place where he had heard she was buried. He dug in the place, and wiped blood from her corpse on his cloak and when he returned he kept it in his cell. When it smelt too bad, he put it in front of him and said to his temptation, “Look, this is what you desire. You have it now, be content.” So he punished himself with the smell until his passions died down.

It’s very easy to give a certain pathological reading to such passages, as the Amazon reviewer who inspired my purchase of the book clearly did: “The Desert Fathers are concerned with their own souls, but they are okay if the rest of the world goes to Hell. In fact, they seem more concerned with avoiding Hell than going to Heaven.” Fair to an extent. Not everything included is a source of wisdom, but some may read the second passage and still take something from it. Finding, perhaps, that it articulates the pressure and struggle to maintain chastity in a culture that has discarded it. One of the challenges of religious life today, and also of reading this book, is picturing the folly, fervor, and difficulty of early Christianity. Not simply the state of persecution—though that is often conjured—but of living by the Good News itself. The Desert Fathers lay bare the wild vicissitudes of holiness in practice.

“They did not reject society with a proud contempt, as if they were superior to other men,” Merton continues. “The Desert Fathers declined to be ruled by men, but had no desire to rule over themselves. … The society they sought was one where all men were truly equal, where the only authority under God was the charismatic authority of wisdom, experience and love.” In the end, a thesis’s true strength isn’t that it can be confirmed or reconfirmed, but that, once confirmed, it can be pushed. To declare something as the “new punk,” even if that punk is centuries old, is to do a disservice to the spirit that compels it and the other destinations that it could reach.

In the early 1990s, Justin Marler of the stoner metal band Sleep quit his music career and spent seven years as an Eastern Orthodox monk. During that time he published a zine called Death to the World to evangelize to other punks. “The last true rebellion is death to the world. To be crucified to the world and the world to us,” Marler wrote in the first issue.

This counter culture of Punx is something that a handful of truth seekers can easily identify with, for it is very clear that the world is coming to a close. To be a true punk is to have nothing to do with that element which kills, hurts and causes pain, but to cauterize wounds. To be in the world but not of the world.

If anything ties these strings together, it’s in leading to a way out; or if not a way out, then to a way up. People are attracted to punk by a sense of disquiet. Certain other people are attracted to the idea of punk through yearning for disquiet. But one cannot go from disquiet to disquiet and expect growth, let alone autonomy, just as one cannot go on inventing norms just for the purpose of shattering them. Disquiet and yearning, moreover, are not hostages to one mentality; they require their own nurturing, because they are not useless. In fact they are essential, equal to if not greater than certainty and righteousness. Humanity would atrophy without them.

In the previous essay I had already taxed myself pretty desperately beyond my ken in making religious prescriptions. But the point I made then remains unchanged here. Young people are seeking religious renewal. Churches may rejoice that the time of being “spiritual but …” or imbibing in ritual with no strings attached is going into its death throes. But churches with their own forms of stasis, whether in struggles with modernity or petty fractiousness, might not be the immediate sources of correction. Renewal does not automatically entail a return or a “reform of the reform,” sometimes it is an assemblage or an exploration, a kind of rewinding in order to fast forward. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen because it’s the kind of thing that always happens.