Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: May, 2012

Light, Time, and Gravity (II)

by rsbakker

Making people weak.



Here’s the thing about getting high: it has a lot of creepy parallels to religion.

For instance, if you haven’t experienced it, then you can’t know–not really. Take blow, for instance, coke. You can tell people that doing blow is like that first day of spring, you know, when the promise comes through the warmth, and you can breathe so deep your lungs feel bottomless. You can tell them the strange way you know everything you know when you’re on blow, rather than bits and pieces like normal. (You always remember who played Manny in Scarface when you’re riding the rails.) You can tell them the way you seem to lean forward in your chair more and more as the time between lines passes that magical 15 minute mark.

You can even cross reference between drugs, leverage the experiences people have had into explanations of experiences they haven’t. So you can say, for instance, that doing magic mushrooms is like smoking really good pot, only with all the sluggishness and stupidity scrubbed away. Or how dropping acid is like doing shrooms, only with the metronome ticking about five times faster for about twice as long.

It says a lot about the power of language, if you think about it, the way it can cobble together inner simulacra via references to the outer world. But ultimately, it counts for squat. No matter how many first-person descriptions you hear, no matter how much sympathize, you really don’t know what hell druggies are talking about. You might as well be listening to a bunch of fucking born again Christians.

I remember having a vision of Jesus when I was around 8. I just got this sparking feeling, like someone had flicked on a halo generator in my skin. I walked out of the house, my innards rattling like broken plates in a pillowcase. I stumbled to the giant stump next to our driveway, fell to my knees, pressed my elbows over about 40 years worth of old growth, and started bawling like I used to at the top of the stairs. Tasting salt and snot, I asked Jesus to forgive my sins–I asked Jesus and felt him waltz right on in… And when I say felt, I mean felt. I still get this image-feeling kinda thing–like sunlight, gold bullion, and High Elvish whipped into a puree–when I think about it. It was intense.

Thankfully it cleared like smoke in a basement, from clouds to wisps to haze to smell. I was openly questioning the existence of God by the age of 10.

My mom is a different story. “You asked him,” she still says to me. “You asked Jesus into your heart when you were eight, Dylan, so I know he’s still there.” I usually say something funny and inadvertently hurtful like, “Would angioplasty work for that?” or, “So I was too young to responsibly choose careers or politicians, but not the fate of my eternal soul?” the implication being, of course, that Jesus, like any other garden-variety pervert or advertizer, had taken advantage of me. “It doesn’t matterrrr,” she sings. “He’s still there-air.” This always bugs me for some reason.

At least you can wash out your ass.

So what happened? Why didn’t Jesus stick? I would like to say I was just one of those kids who never took his own experiences all that seriously, but that’s not the case. My first experience smoking dope, which was far less mind-bending, certainly stuck. It’s just that, for all its profound intensity, I never took that particular experience that seriously. Sure, I was “born again” and all that, but it just seemed, well, redundant.

Jesus just wasn’t my drug. Too much like blow, I think. Too quick-fix. Too feel-good. Too addictive. Too apt to pick your friends.

Me? I was built for Mary Jane.

All I can really do by way of explanation is describe the experience. If you were built for it, and you’ve experienced it, then you simply know, end of story. Nudge-nudge. Wink-wink. All that. If you’re not built for it, and you’ve experienced it, then odds are you’re mystified and yet sympathetic, kind of the way Jews are with Christians and vice versa–at least Nowadays. Otherwise, mere words will have to do.

For me, dope is mostly about perceptual intensity. For whatever reason dope lets the pleasure of certain things shine through more than they would otherwise. I get lit for good movies. I get lit for good meals. I get lit for good sex. I even get lit for a good video game. Everything takes on a kind of CGI glamour when you’re high, so that it seems you’re watching a movie within a movie, or playing a video game within a video game. Sometimes, when I get really fucked up, things will actually seem painted. A kind of aesthetic sublimity will texture surfaces usually polished by boredom or inattention. Otherwise, certain things will fly over my head, especially if they’re articulated through time, and some things I’ll be able to catch freeze frame, like unnoticed habitual ticks, or the way the branches of a tree never wave in synchrony. I’m more inclined to laugh, and less inclined to talk. I get really, really lazy when I’m stoned…

I mean, I’ll even watch Oprah if it means I don’t have to reach for the remote. Fucking Oprah.

The thing to remember about all this, even if the words don’t do the trick, is that lived experiences are the true centre of moral gravity. This is what slaps us silent when others confront us with avowals of true suffering. This is what pushes holocaust deniers beyond absurdity into the realm of outrage. How do you debate what someone else has survived? How do you usurp another’s first person with your prefabricated third?

It’s also why it’s pretty much useless arguing with born again Christians.

Or pot-smokers for that matter.

Some experiences simply are truths.



That sounds trite, I know. What I should have said was that some experiences are immovable.



At the dinner table that evening Dylan behaved the way all teenagers behave when they find themselves stoned in the company of family: sullen. Sullen is one of those low-altitude emotions, apt to evade paternal radar even in the absence of alcohol. He was quite content listening to his little brother, Johnny, ramble about the crazy Probarts, the two half-native brothers who lived across the road. When Dad finally got around to asking him how his first day went, he said, “Okay, I guess.” When the Old Man asked what he meant by “guess,” Dylan mentioned Cutter. “He’s kind of intense,” Dylan explained.


Dylan blinked against parched eyes. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, he would get this mealy-mouthed feeling of resentment, which would morph into a peculiar kind of shame-fed hatred whenever he became conscious of it. He could never precisely say exactly what it was he hated, only that it had something to do with always coming up short.

“I dunno. It’s like…” The word trailed into open-mouthed silence–what it was designed to do.

“Like? Dylan! Like what?”

He shot his father a slack look. “I dunno, Dad…” Years would pass before he appreciated how often he came up against the limits of words. Back then they always seemed to be running out, not for any incapacity on their part, but because he lacked the strength to properly wield them.

“It’s like… he’s always… like… testing you, or something.”

“Oh,” Dad replied with bloated sagacity. “He’s one of those.” Beer-wise, Dad was already well into his daily two-four by this time in the evening. His consumption curve, had anyone bothered to plot it, would have possessed an eerie resemblance to the “hockey stick” of global warming fame. The more drunk he became, the more he drank, the more drunk he became. And just like climate change, his hockey stick resulted in ever increasing quantities of hot air.

“Guys, like that… You know. Dylan!”

“Know what?”

“Guys like that. You just gotta–you know!–remind them. He’ll mellow out once you get to know him. Wait and see.” Dad was forever embarking on advice that felt profound–at least to him–only to lose the thread of his thought and resort to some stupid truism. Always walking in the direction of insight, usually stepping in this or that cliche, then pretending otherwise as he scraped his heel with a stick.

“Well, he puts everyone on edge,” Dylan said. “Even Jerry, and he’s known him for how long?”

“Oh, yah-yah. Cutter. Now I know who you’re talking about. Never caused me any problems. You just tell him you’re Frank Wiersma’s son.”

“I did.”


“I don’t think he knows you.”

Dad shook his head while crinkling his nose. “He’s just playing stupid, playing stupid to give you a hard time. Dylan! That’s the thing. I never let people get to me. Back in the day, they all came to my place. All of them. I remember this one time–Jeeezuss Christ!–Jerr was supposed to race this bullshit Husky he bought in the States…”

Dylan shared a quick, expressionless look with his brother Johnny–two brains buzzing to the same rueful tune.

God, how I miss those looks.



Dylan spent the next three weeks irrigating through the night. Of course, everything played out exactly as he had feared. Not enough fucking pipes, which meant they were forever tearing down and setting up, tearing down and setting up, trudging through muck and darkness and bitch-cold tobacco. The nights quickly turned into a  murky haze of slavery and substance abuse.

Jerry did his best to make like they were having fun. To be fair, the “party shack,” as Jerry so earnestly insisted on calling it, did see quite a bit of action, mostly in the form of cribbage games glazed in beer and lube. Even Now, whenever thoughts of Cutter strike me, I always see him as Dylan saw him then, cracking jokes around his cigarette, holding his cards like a scalper with the world’s last Rolling Stones ticket. Carnivorous and curiously human all the same.

As a fellow herbivore, I’m sure you understand.

But the work sucked major ass. And drinking and toking between excursions out to the field simply made it worse. Down time needs to rationed, otherwise it becomes the norm instead of the reward, and work becomes out and out punishment.

Dylan realized quite quickly that telling Cutter about the dire nature of their irrigating situation was a huge mistake–if not a disaster altogether. Had he kept his mouth shut, Cutter no doubt would have held back some, thinking that he had been duly warned before taking this job with his old highschool buddy. Yep. You gave me the head’s up. Working in tobacco is for shit. But since Dylan had told him how irrigating was supposed to work (for people like Cutter, ‘efficient’ and ‘supposed to’ were pretty much synonymous), he slipped into the blame game with the ease of a National League pro stepping into a carnival batting cage.

Dylan had met his share of “two-faced” people over the course of his life, something which only made his naivete that much more striking, if not inexplicable. For some reason, he always assumed the person he saw was the whole person, the real person, and that all the other versions were mere guises. He could never precisely put his finger on when Cutter had become two distinct people, but then Cutter had never quite seemed singular in the first place. He was more like a loose federation of the character traits, swapping through different combinations for different circumstances.

To Cutter’s credit he did start cautiously, griping in that feeling-others-out way so common to jobs with high rates of turnover. At first it was old man Finster, the owner of the farm, who bore the brunt of his scathing remarks.

“Ah, yes,” he said one night with his characteristic all-tooth grin, “this is the one all right.” He and Dylan were trudging through the muck with a sand-heavy pipe wobbling between them, drunk and stoned and trying to count rows. Lift and dip. Lift and dip.

“The one what?”

“The pipe.”

The pipe?”

“Oooh, yeah. The pipe I’m going to use to ass rape Finster. And no lube too. I’m going to dry hump that cheap fucker!” He began thrusting his pelvis with every slurping step. “Fucking right. Me and my tin dildo.”

Dylan laughed, swatted at a mosquito. “Why not use the water gun? Give him a high-pressure enema.”

Cutter nodded as though to acknowledge a fellow gifted intellect. “Now that’s what I’m talking about! There’s a douche for yah. His ass would be clean as a whistle. You could fucking use it for a grocery bag! Stuff it full of prickly pears at the A&P!”

Cutter was forever cracking himself up. He had this way of seizing your reaction, of showing you just how funny or insightful or devious you were supposed to find him, and in a strange way that made him easy on the nerves–when you were alone with him, that is.

He was continually laying tracks for Dylan to follow.

So it was “Finster this,” or “Finster that,” where ‘this’ and ‘that’ typically referred to some sadistic combination of genitalia and blunt force trauma. In fact, if anything cemented the friendship between Cutter and Dylan–or “Weirdsma” as Cutter liked to call him–it was a common appreciation, not only for all things vulgar (this was a tobacco farm after all), but for what you might call the ‘poetry of the crude.’

If you think about it, the crude is to content what the haiku is to form. On the one hand, you basically have what? bio-effluents, the pussy and all its permutations, the asshole, the cock, and the balls and that’s it. A pretty limited semantic repertoire if you think about it. On the other hand, you have the infinity of combinatorial possibilities offered by the world. Take a cheese-grater, for instance, combine it with shit–eew! Combine it with balls–owich! Combine it with pussy–double fucking owich! Combine it with pussy, shit, and pus–dude, you`ve gone too far!

Of course this is a pretty crude example of the crude, which can actually be quite pretty. Dylan didn’t accord Cutter poet status until they saw old man Finster watching them from his white Ford one afternoon. They turned to walk back to the lane, and there the fucker was, half-pulled into the verge, watching across ground cooked to wavering by the sun. “What?” Dylan asked, noticing that Cutter had started laughing, silent and wide-eyed–the way he always did when he came up with something he thought deliciously off-side. “I was just thinking,” he gloated, “what do you think he would do if I ran up and mashed my cock against his window? Eh? Eh? Show him the hairy octopus exhibit!” Before Dylan had even processed this, Cutter was gesturing to his groin, shouting at the hazy figure in his pick-up. “World famous!” he howled. “A sell out show in fucking Moscow!”

Old man Finster took off, his tires farting gravel, and the laughter knocked Dylan to his knees. For weeks following he would look at Cutter and shake his head, saying, “Hairy octopus exhibit,” in a what-the-fuck-were-you-on? tone.

But all this Finster stuff pretty clearly meant nothing to Cutter, or next to nothing. At some level Dylan understood that “Finster” was simply a dodge, that it was Jerry who was the real target of Cutter’s growing malice. He had of way of saying things that made you feel like you were watching a magician from an angle. He knew you were there. But he continued the show for the sake of the audience square in front of him, whether they had arrived or not.

“Yeah, we saw old Finster out there on concession,” Cutter later told Jerry.

Jerry turned to him with a look of genuine concern, took a pensive drag off his cigarette. If anything, Jerry was every bit as baffled by his relationship with Peter Finster as Dylan, Cutter, or even Harley for that matter. Nobody seemed to understand how it worked. As a share-cropper Jerry was nominally in charge, but the uncomfortable fact was that everything, even the furniture in the farmhouse, belonged to the old man. To rent something was to rent something, but to rent everything was different animal altogether. One that didn’t sleep.

Given the totality of the old man’s ownership, perhaps a certain amount of possessiveness was to be expected. Some people can’t even lend their lawnmower without continually peaking through the window.

“What was he doing?”

“Stroking his cock,” Cutter said. “Just enough pipes to work our asses off, eh? Fuck. We’re just sweaty balls in his slave porn.”

Dylan would have laughed, but it itched to hear his own observation etched in Cutter’s smokey voice. He found himself fending a curious sense of guilt–even though he didn’t think he had done nothing wrong. Dylan still believed that honesty was an antidote to crime, instead of what it really was: another weapon of convenience.

Jerry only frowned, and for the wrong reasons, Dylan knew. Finster was an obvious threat to his agricultural fantasy, whereas Cutter… well. Perhaps Jerry knew enough to be wary of his old friend–how could he not after three years of highschool?

But then some people simply seem to be born into the blind-spots of others.



Because Jerry had decided, as he put it, “to do this scientifically,” there was very little rhyme or reason to the hours Dylan found himself working. Sun was bad, because it evaporated so much water. And wind was even worse. This meant that, scientifically speaking, they should be irrigating during windless nights. But for some reason Jerry continually fretted about “other factors,” or “intangi-bulls” as he sometimes called them, which never seemed all that clear. Knolls for instance, elevated areas in various fields, apparently required extra attention because the weeping tile was forever drying them out. So sometimes they would actually find themselves irrigating on bright windy days. And then there was the ever enigmatic “wilt factor” to consider. They would be cruising down some field in Jerr’s Dodge Ram, and the big man would suddenly step on the brakes, murmuring “Jesus fuck!” as he dashed from the door. “What do you think?” he would shout from some point in the fields, while Dylan and Cutter tried to make their disgust obvious via the reluctance with which they joined him. “Look at that!” he would say, holding a leaf that for all the world looked no different than any other tobacco leaf on any other plant. Dylan would usually say something like, “Uhm…” or “Well…” while Jerr would already be running the calculations in his head: “South field, six hours tonight. Woodline tomorrow night… We have to get to this. Nothin’ doin.” Jerry had perhaps the most dozy look of concentration Dylan had ever seen on a healthy human face. For whatever reason, his features, no matter how he jumbled them together, just could not convey a look of calculated penetration.

“Nothin’ doin. Looks like you boys will have a sweet paycheck next week!”

Perhaps it was this, Jerry’s habit of describing the hurt to come as entrepreneurial opportunities, that most disgusted Cutter.

“Just think!” he would cry as they hauled all that opportunity. “Just think how sweet that paycheck is going to be. Oh, zooo Zweet! Just think! I’ll be able to buy some fresh bread, cut a hole in it, and fuck that for a change!”

As it turned out, “Zooo Zweet,” would become a catchphrases of his, one of several he would use to call Jerry an idiot to his face without the big man knowing. I can’t remember if Dylan ever worried whether Cutter had other phrases he used to do the same to him. I want to say no…

But then my memory likes to tell stories–like yours.



Whenever he had trouble sleeping during the days, Dylan would crash on the couch and watch his brother Johnny watch Conan the Barbarian. Johnny had a thing for Conan–the movie, not the barbarian. So too did Dylan for that matter–the movie was nothing short of a revelation for geeks around the world: a sword-and-sorcery flick that actually possessed redeeming aesthetic qualities–are you kidding me? Along with the earlier Alien and the subsequent Blade Runner it was a kind of cinematic crack. But Johnny, he just couldn’t get enough. For the summer of 1984 scarcely a day passed without him watching the movie at least once, sometimes three or four times. He would always sit cross-legged on the floor some four feet in front of the screen, leaning forward and gazing up in a kind of approximation of a Buddhist monk contemplating infinity–only honest–and repeating, not just the dialogue, not just the intonation, but the emotion of every line.

Whenever you pissed him off, he would say, his little boy voice uncanny for the way it mimicked James Earl Jones: “You broke into my house, stole my property, murdered my servants and my pets, and that is what grieves me the most! You killed my snake…”

Dylan would just shake his head and say, “You kill me.”



Johnny actually died the same year as Dad. It was one of those fucked up diseases that other people always seem to be getting on the news.

Still takes my breath away, how the wave just reared up and scooped them away.



Dad was proud of him during this time–proud of Dylan, that is. The kicker, you see, was that Dylan not only slaved heaving water guns and hauling pipes every night, he also had his part-time job at the grocery store in St. Thomas–the one he had hoped would fund his first slack summer since Dad had given up managing tobacco. If he wasn’t dragging his ass off to Jerry’s, he was slouching toward to the new Loblaws Superstore. Work. This was the pillar of Dad’s pride. You were nothing unless you worked, and the more you worked, the more you were. Work. Work. Fucking work.

The thing about having a drinker for a father is that you’re never at a loss for as to how your dad feels about you. Later in life, Dylan would always scratch his head at fucked-up buddies of his whose lives, when they described them, seemed like an endless succession of Kodak moments–to the point where he sometimes wondered whether buttoned-down, high-functioning dads were the worst dads of all. Scarcely a day passed without Dad telling him how proud he was of him. At every breakfast they managed to have together, Dad would find about twenty different ways to tell Johnny that Dylan was doing things right, the way things were meant to be done.

Poor Johnny. No matter how many times he heard Dad say the same thing he would sit there, munching on his Froot Loops or Honey Combs or whatever, smiling until milk spilled down his chin, nodding as though he were hearing it all for the first time.

All that Conan, perhaps. Johnny could appreciate the repetition of the same.

He understood that not all the sames were the same.



One night, after spiking his regular beer intake with a twenty-sixer of whiskey, Dad broke down crying while trying to explain how proud he was. Dylan and Johnny had to hold him, tell him over and over it was okay that he no longer had a farm, that somehow his boys would find their way, with or without the discipline of tilling the earth–the living earth.

That they loved him for who he was, not for what he had.

Dad had lost a lot in his life. Everything except his bearing…

And then that too.



Strange, isn’t it? the way words can suck up so much power when they’re written. We come to them defenceless. They just mean things, sparks in our interior monologue which, thanks to certain neural circuits, we attribute to other neural circuits.

Nobody really thinks while they read. Nobody. Either they pause and puzzle, or they just label on the fly. Judgmental daydreams. Almost all comprehension is a racial epithet, if you think about it. A prejudicial fusion in the worst sense: the sense of people writing off people. Nobody says, “Dude, my tradition just doesn’t get you.” No, they say, “I like this guy,” or “Who the fuck does this guy think he is?”

To read is to sit in judgment period.

If you think about it, reading is a thoroughly fascistic exercise. Jouissance, my ass. Our brains are primed to recognize and to evaluate all at once, to try individuals as kinds. What’s worse, your judgement comes before your comprehension. The words arrive with a verdict already attached. This is why you feel so ‘open-minded’: The vast bureaucracy of oppression is utterly invisible. You’re simply the warden, charged with executing the sentence of secret courts and unnamed judges. You have nothing against the prisoners that arrive, so how could you be bigoted? Meaning comes to you as a succession of mugshots.

My only chance is to toss in a few criminals you’ve never seen before. To trick you into honesty.

On the off chance that our brains might spark together.

But who am I kidding? Really?

Face it. We’re all lazy fucks. And life’s so much easier being right.



The biggest event during this time occurred the night that Cutter brought the pow-wow weed to the smoke-shack. Pow-wow weed, according to Cutter, was pot that had been laced with synthetic THC crystals. And though Dylan had been somewhat skeptical–for him “THC” had become natural sounding enough to sound a false note when paired with “synthetic”–the first joint turned him into a believer.

Cutter sparked the joint and they broke out the crib board. Crib was one of those mechanical card games, where–pegging aside–most everything depended on what you were dealt. Crib put you face to face with luck, close enough to glimpse your existential meaninglessness, but not so close as to preclude a good time. Few card games allowed you to feel quite so sorry for yourself.

Crib was proof.

It was playing with Cutter that Dylan picked up the habit of calling his crap zero hands “nineteen.” Cutter swore up and down that it was mathematically impossible to score nineteen in cribbage, so it was a joke way to psyche your opponents, to simultaneously dismay them with an outrageously high number while admitting abject defeat. At the time it had almost seemed oriental to Dylan, such was the goofy subtlety.

(Of course some twenty years later I scored an actual nineteen playing with an old friend. Neither of us had seen one before, and pretty much everyone we knew had come to use “nineteen” as a synonym for a “fuck-you-zero”–one of Cutter’s longer shadows. As far as I know, it was the first nineteen hand in human history. We were both dumbstruck. I literally threw up later that very night–because of the memories, I suppose.)

Playing that night became real hard real fast. By the second toke Dylan was simply laying his hands out, asking Jerry and Cutter (but really only Cutter) to count his totals for him.

“Too. Stoned,” he explained to the laughing men.

One of the extraordinary things about getting super fried was the way things always kind of make sense even after you lose all ability to make sense of things. Take booze, for instance. Booze is a full spectrum intoxicant. When it fucks you up, it fucks you up. The little voice, that corner of your soul that measures all things sane, is the very thing you can’t trust when you’re hammered. But with dope, no matter how powerful, no matter how fucked up you may be, you’re somehow still there, as sober as a CBC anchor, watching everything that happens and thinking, “How did I get so fucked up?”

Booze turns insanity into a revelation. Dope turns insanity into a series of colossal blunders. In both cases fucking up is pretty much inevitable, but in the latter case you’re never, paradoxically, quite responsible.

It’s the difference between, “I don’t know what I was thinking!” and “Man, dude, I was, like, there, and the shit just happened.”

By the third toke, Dylan had to say, “Fuck it. You guys play.”

Of course he got Cutter’s trademark, “Waingh!”–a baby’s wail barked out of a hoarse man-throat. “Waingh!” Followed by, “My pussy hurts!”

“You okay, Dylan?” Jerry asked, his lips pulled into a cherry-red grin. He fairly choked with laughter afterward.

Dylan started saying “Fuckers,” but somehow it never happened. All he could do was blink like an idiot in the cruel spotlight of their laughter.

Given Dylan’s inability to play cards, they bailed on the game and decided to get an early start on the pipe change. While they were in the pick-up truck Cutter turned to him, stared at his forehead, and asked in a voice too concerned to be anything but mocking: “Are you okay, Dylan?”

His face seemed to float, all jaw and squint.

“Fine, man. Fucking fine.”

A monstrous frown. “Look me in the eye and say that.” Of course he was staring directly at his forehead as he said this.

But Dylan was just stoned enough to ask, “What do you mean?”

“Look me! In the fucking eye!”

“Wha-what?” Now he was genuinely freaked. Not by the eye gag–he’d dropped acid enough to know better–but by the antagonism.

“What? You so stoned you don’t understand English? Look. Me. In the fucking eye!”

Somehow Dylan mustered the self-possession to say, “It was synthetic THC, not LSD, motherfucker.”

Cutter roared with maniacal laugher, his mouth open, his teeth revealed in all their predatory glory.

“Yeee fucking hardy-hah-hah!” he cried out.

The world had shrunk to their claustrophobic cockpit, a gliding interior limned in the jeweled lines of the Dodge’s dashboard lights. The dirt lane poured like brown sugar under the floating panels beneath their feet. The tobacco whirred to either side of their tunneling passage, at once fluffy and sharp.

Jerry laughed into his steering wheel, his smile even dopier than normal, his eyes redder than a baby’s mouth. Somehow Dylan realized that Jerry was every bit as fucked up as he was, that driving was as much as he could do–an understanding that boiled to nothing in Cutter’s smacking eyes.

The man could function in atmospheres that strangled others dead.



You’re not allowed to feel like a voyeur. Not here. Not ever.

What? Did you think I was giving you a slice of my life?

This is a loaner, my friend. Not only do I want the fucker back, I have more than a few conditions.

Why? Because I don’t trust you.

Why? Because you resemble me. And I know full well what I do when I read literary shite like this. I own it. I never let what I read get the best of me because I am fucking smarter than everything that I read. The obvious implication of this is that you, for perhaps the first time in your life, are confronted with something that is smarter than you. Perhaps you suspect this already. Perhaps this makes you laugh. But trust me, this is going to go places you cannot follow. And you will try, I guarantee you, to write my writing off. You will avail yourself of every trick at your disposal to feel superior to this text. After all, you’re pretty much the smartest person you meet on a daily basis, and if you encounter something you can’t follow or can’t understand it has to be because it’s fucked up somehow. If it doesn’t light up when your light shines on it, then it must be benighted…

Dark all the way down.

My life is not inert. It argues all the time, incessantly. Wah, fucking wah-wah! Or Waingh! As Cutter would say. It broadcasts across the whole range of affective modalities. But you’re not me. I can’t expect you to blubber the idiotic way I do when I reread this shit. So if I loan it to you, its with the proviso that you rent my rants as well. Not only have you read it all, seen it all, you’ve been trained, as a categorizer, a semantic filing and organizing machine. You scan for influences, feel a little dick-or-clit-tug of satisfaction every time you recognize this or that allusion. You probe for ideological subtexts, track repetitions, call them things like ‘trope’ and ‘motif.’

When it comes to communication, you’re as artificial as a human can be.

Mere narrative doesn’t stand a chance against you. Even if I went Ellis or Blanchot on your ass, started writing against your ideological vein, or talked about eyeballs glaring out of rheumy pussies. Even if I chopped things up, played the po-mo cognitive baiting game, worked the rules of representation sideways, giving you fragments of plot, semblances of settings, and mangled montages instead of characters, the most I could conjure are buzzes of aporetic beauty, and you, my friend, are stoned enough already.

No. Not stoned. Drunk.

I refuse to be an article of consumption. More Canadiana. I am here to fuck you up the way you pretend to want to be.



Why write about when I can write to

There really is no such thing as ‘writing about.’ Words don’t refer. Christ, they don’t even shit or bleed. It’s people who do the referring, and its people who are referred.

Experience is linguistically decomposable. I write something, you find yourself referred to some amalgam of your own experiences. And since experiences are not things like pies, but spaces that we inhabit, you could say that words are stripped-down perspectives, and that what I’m doing is closer to hoisting you like a child, whipping you this way and that, showing you the combinatorial possibilities of you. And since you’re not a thing like a pie, but a relationship to the world, you could say that I showing you approximations of the truth.

I happen to be one of those possible relationships–one of those truths. And inevitably, I exceed the permutations of you just as you exceed the permutations of me. The question is whether you’ll judge the ways I transcend you as harshly as I judge the ways you repeat me.

We’re all mismatched possibilities of each other.

And that, dude, is a fucking head-trip. It’s so much easier reading about this and that than it is almost being someone else. When you read about, you can conveniently overlook the convenient fit between you and the writer. Rather than being a child whipped this way and that, you become a kind of numb and immovable god, a stationary observer of a world as mobile and fluid as cinema. A thoughtlessly thoughtful consumer of perspectives.

Oh, sure you opine about the dangers of the ‘theoretical stance,’ chuckle about Nietzsche’s cheek, get wood over the way the performative trumps the representational. Well, you can go fuck your fourth wall–theoretical twaddle, all of it…

This is between you and me.

At some level you feel it, the fire that makes fuel of your abstractions. I am a voice. Not a formal illusion, a solipsistic reflection. This is as real I get: meaning in your fucking head. This is as real as I get. Insistent. Immediate. And you are my material.

We’re lazy tourists at heart, all of us. We gravitate toward familiar words the way we are drawn to agreeable people. We read books written by people whom we invite to our back-deck barbecues–people who exceed the possibilities of ourselves in entertaining and largely irrelevant ways. The more intellectual the better. And we congratulate ourselves for reading about the people whose gazes we assiduously avoid on the street. The poor fools, we murmur, emphasizing the ‘poor’ and hushing the ‘fools.’

I was them, and Now I’m you, and I’m here to tell you.

No one hates literature more than the literary.

You’re a bunch of fucking clowns.



Things are more silvery when you’re catastrophically stoned. More of the world shines through.

More light.

Dylan lucked out. Usually Jerry manned the valve while he and Cutter trudged out into muck to decouple the gun and heave it five pipes down. He had been stoned into an autistic stupor, so this was pretty much the sum of what he could think as he stood obscuring the Dodge’s headlights: that he had lucked out.

The two men waded into the sodden rows, crying out complaints as the wet soaked them through. The night swallowed them like brackish water. The valve wheel only came up to his knees so Dylan had to stoop to begin turning off the flow. Righty-tighty, he kept saying to himself. Righty-tighty.

There. Off.

On black, cloudless nights you could almost imagine following the rows of plants to the nearest star, the fields seem to reach out so far. Dylan gazed at the dirt at his feet, at the overlapping footprints filled with ink. He read the text cast into the aluminum of the valve. PSI… What the fuck? He thought of tearing up the earth’s crust, hurling tectonic plates into outer space with the power of his mind alone. He saw people, millions of people, rising like haze from plummeting cities, like dust beaten from blankets. He concentrated on reaching out, psychically uprooting the very world. He heaved with his soul. Nothing moved. Even still, everything seemed psychic, perhaps even spiritual. He waved his arms, astounded by the complexities of the shadows they threw, the reticulated counterpoint of light and dark. They seemed to blot out being as much as vision. He followed the headlights into the rows, tracked the diminishing threads of illumination through the stacking shadows, and it seemed a game, finding which line reached the farthest.

So stoned.

He thought of whole nations slinking in shame of their porn collections… Then came the cringing static, the flurry of paranoid images. Cutter. Jerry. Harley. Joints. Abandoned crib hands. What did he say? How could he be such an idiot?

His head jerked up in a panic. He thought he heard shouting. Were they done already? He thought he saw someone swinging their flashlight in the black.

The valve.

He was cranking it before he even knew what he was doing. He stopped.

Lefty-loosey, he told himself. He began turning it again.

No. That was right. Wasn’t it?

The grey wheel absorbed his attention utterly. He turned and turned, but nothing seemed to be loosening or tightening. He reversed direction. He thought he could hear the roar of water, the flush of pressures fluting through metal caves. But wasn’t that the noise he had always heard?


The other way. Turn it the other way.

Which way?

He heard shouting. Looked up, saw flashlights jerking. They looked cool. Hollywood supernatural.

Wait. Something was wrong. What was wrong?

Jerry erupted from the rows, graphic with fury and sudden illumination. He slammed into Dylan, literally knocked him from his feet, sent him rolling across the packed lane into the tilled earth powdering the verge. The big man violently wheeled the valve, roaring, “Fucking useless idiot! Stupid cocksucker! Fuck! Fuck!

Somehow Dylan found his knees, gasped at his wind, spit blood that vanished in the yielding black.



Tobacco grows in soft ground, the kind that water blows through like piss in a snowbank. He had turned on the valve before they had a chance to couple the gun, releasing a horizontal geyser down the rows. According to Cutter, the nearest plants fell as though slew-footed. In a matter of a minute, Dylan had managed to dig a trench some four feet deep and eleven plus feet long, as well as wipe out some thirty or so plants.

As I said, soft ground.

Dylan drove home, his mustang floating down gravel roads, his shoulders hunched, his face and shoulder throbbing, a kind of electrified shame fizzing through his veins. There was no real comprehension.

Only flinches of understanding.



There had always been a terror inside of him going to school, an emotion like a fly in a bottle, periodically tap-tapping, then buzz grinding against something it could pace out but never quite see. There had always been this sense of spinning abduction, of losing his footing and swirling away, as though sheer numbers could turn children into crashing waters.

His mother had always told him he was special. So smart. So handsome. And his teachers had always seemed to agree. Whenever they asked questions he would bide his time, not only knowing the answer, but knowing their eyes would eventually sort through the downcast gazes, discharging some egalitarian impulse before turning to him…

And his light.

He would have been bullied, teased, but his father had told him to simply hit anyone who said anything mean, and despite feeling frightened, he had found it was quite easy, hitting people who were ‘mean.’ More importantly, he found that ‘meanies’ almost always wanted to be his friend after he hit them.

And so he became a shrill little tyrant. If someone crossed him, he inevitably decided they were being mean.

A powerful thing, hitting.

It was October, the time when the sun’s heat has faded into the grace of memory, when you squint but never perspire, and the trees wreath your periphery in colours both wild and earthen. His friends continued to be mulish and strange all morning, so at lunch he simply stalked the schoolyard, witless, his indignation growing ever more brittle, the fly in its bottle firmly wedged between his lungs.

He slipped into the bathroom after the bell to hang a quick leak–it was his daring thing. He loved the solitude, the momentary all alone. He loved the bright light, the sterile glare spangled across the chrome. He even loved the smell of the blue urinal pucks, mint and ammonia. If being alone had a colour, it would be blue. He liked to stare at the tiles while he peed, imagine that they were rectilinear islands floating on an ocean of groat. He even tapped them from time to time to see if they would bob or sink. It seemed a miracle that things could be welded together.

But this time someone followed him: Jay Martin, who lived just a concession up Sparta-Union road. Jay was one of those kids who exhibited all the particulars of his adult appearance in embryo, the guy you laugh and marvel at when you bump into him twenty years later. He even possessed an eerie grown-up manner, a weariness in his gaze, and a carefulness, a processing lag that suggested the premature activation of otherwise late-blooming cortical circuitry. He probably didn’t get enough sleep, which is the usual case when children resemble adults.

He stood at the urinal immediately adjacent, and they pissed together–or seemed to.

“So you’re pretty smart, eh?” Jay asked, looking at him somehow without looking away from his pissing. He talked slow, piping his voice through phlegm he could never be bothered to clear or cough. This too made him seem like a miniature adult.


“The smartest kid in school?”

He always wore button down shirts, too, like everyone’s father.

“Oooh, yah.”

“Huh…” Jay said, shaking his little plucked peepee. He turned and walked out, still hoisting his blue-jeans.

Had he even pissed for real? No foam hissed at the bottom of his urinal.

Later in life I imagined this was the way it happened in prisons or in palaces, wherever tyrants are overthrown. It was like walking through a cloud of biting midges, all the defections from the chatty routine, all the angular glances. Everyone was quiet, expectant…

Most people have to take a run at treason, build up speed.

In preschool outings, they sometimes tie us together with ropes about our waist, provide physically what we have yet to develop psychically–so we don’t stray. But some kids stray no matter what, and when the group is tied to them, everyone gets pulled and entangled. That is, until they start pulling back.

He knew something was wrong. He walked with that breathless, bubbly feeling, rag-doll limbs knotted about a fart. He looked wildly about, suffered the horror of having every face he trusted turn on him. Sneering, gleeful, teeth like fingernails, glares like balled fists. He continued walking out into the sunlight, onto the basketball court, stalked by them… all of them.

His friends.

Pretend-pretend, and it will all go away. Pretend. Pretend.

“So you’re the smartest?”

His voice felt like an ice cube. He had to cough to use it.


“The toughest?”

“Yep.” A terrified child’s attempt to sound all, like, whatever.

What was he supposed to say? He was. He. Was.

The first sob kicked through him.

“Look-look! He’s going to cry!”

Several things would astound him, looking back–and down–from the exhausted heights of adulthood. The deviousness for one–the premeditation of the whole thing. The extent for another–that so many would conspire, too numerous for a pack, too carnivorous for a herd. And the solidarity–some were frightened and hung back, and others fairly danced with vicious excitement, but everyone had come to the selfsame resolution…

He was the problem. He was the one hated. All these things had been settled beforehand. There had been talk. Conspiracy and coordination.

Cry! Cry! Cry!” they chanted.

Someone charged him from behind. His head snapped back, but he was lurching up as quickly as he went down, swinging his fists at lurid images. Ancient instinct seized him whole, his expression, his limbs and his lungs.

“Fuck you! Fuck you!”

Somehow the fracas spilled across the lane into the broad field of grass that was the playground proper. The children had become a horde of sun-spliced shadows, squealing and laughing and pushing and punching and scratching. Someone dropped to all fours behind him, while two others charged. He toppled to the sound of uproarious laughter, glimpsed Andy, his best friend, scampering to his feet, howling like a spider monkey.

Someone kicked him square in the face, bloodied his nose.

Another jumped square on his back, the way you would a trampoline. He scrambled, rolled…

Someone tried to stomp on his balls, but skinned his thigh instead.

And then he was up, screaming, shrieking, screeching outrage through the razors in his throat.

Fug you! Fug you! Fu-fug you all!

The mob shrank, like an amoeba disgorging a poison pellet. They laughed with a kind of wild ecstasy, the shrill yes-yes hilarity of those who triumph over the defenceless.

Rocks caught him. High on the left cheek. On the right buttock. The top of his spine.

Bease!” he cried through snot and cramp and fire. “Bease! Leave me alone!

No teacher came. No one.

Lih-lih-leave me!

So he ran, away from everyone and everything he knew, to the far corner of the schoolyard. He huddled against the thronging weeds, weeping, sobbing, somehow mindful of the electric fence. A few of his tormentors followed him to throw more rocks and catcalls, but he was quicker, and when they scattered he picked one, made an example of him–though quickly, so as not to be mobbed again. They left him alone after that. Milling became talking became amnesia, and soon everyone was playing as if nothing had happened. And that was the knife, the unforgivable thing: existing without him. The first bell rang, as long as an alarm on a torpedoed battleship, and he watched them cluster like honey bees about the entrances, watched them vanish.

All alone.

The bell pealed again, the brief coda. It’s phantom continued ringing, like the jammed horn of a car wailing across the miles. He felt sick for breaking the rules. Out after the bell–ooooooh. He wept some more, convinced that now the teachers would hate him too. He gazed at the blood and snot on his sleeves, uncomprehending. He felt more heat than pain. He stared at the cows grinding their cud in the adjacent pasture, their ears twitching, their eyes rheumy with bottomless resignation. He wondered whether the salt-licks were made of the same stuff as the urinal pucks: they were the same radioactive blue.

All alone, now. He caressed cuts and probed bruises. He sobbed and moped. Mucous like lettuce leafs in his throat, bruised and clinging. No victim is quite so pure as a child. Victimization is one of those things no one need learn. Natural. The only real question it poses is where and when.

It’s like shitting that way.

So quiet in the field. And it seemed he could feel it, his loneliness, liking a piling of vacant spheres, each more cavernous than the last, until even the sky seemed as meagre as a pup-tent. This… he decided. This was what he wanted, to huddle and grieve until he finally fumbled the hot potato of life, until he was nothing more than a pile of clothing and bones.

No one can hold their breath longer than the dead.

His teacher began crying when she found him. Mrs. Drieser had always been such a sap.

(And this is where the vice-grip truly clamps my throat, where it forgets how to breathe, the thought of finding him, bloodied, crying, all alone…)

She raced him to the office, shushing and fussing and calling out in panic. They all seemed so tall. He answered every question on a quarter breath, avoided every gaze. The whole world seemed to smell like wet carpet back then, flooded basements. He told them he had been in a fight. When they asked with who, he said, “Everyone.” Silence, the rigid air of pity. Even as a kid he knew what they knew, the gravity and the finality. They took him in, cleaned him up, escorted him to the bus.

No one called his parents.

He certainly never said anything. Not much, anyhow. A fight. Some boys. Seeing only the criminality, his mother hugged him while he wept yet again, showered him with reassurance and praise. “You know how special you are… How smart and handsome and loved… You know, don’t you honey?” Sensing the chill of justice, his father raged. He, at least, understood that shame is genetic, both in propensity and assignation.

“Hold your breath,” Dad finally said in exasperation. “That’s the best way to stop crying.”

Love or weeping–apparently everything has its cure.

But it didn’t care. I had learned all the lessons, you see: right, wrong, whatever.

He clung to the doorways after that. Shy. Bookish. Perpetually anxious.

All alone. Safe.

Special in that way only mothers and homeroom teachers can see.



All was forgiveness and ribbing the following afternoon. Jerry actually laid a heavy hand on his shoulder as they surveyed the damage. The thatch of fallen plants almost seemed animal, they were dying so quickly.

“The kid knows how to toss a load,” Cutter said.

Dylan just shook his head and grinned like an idiot. “Righty-tighty,” he said.

Rain–God’s irrigation–sent him home shortly after. He even had the next day off. Things shrank back to normal so quickly that when Jerry and Harley stopped by for a “quick drink” the following evening it took Dylan several minutes to realize it was anything more than a chance ‘drop in.’

It was a peace embassy. Obviously Harley had freaked when Jerry told her what happened. In his imagination Dylan could hear her voice climbing from a growl to the heights of shrill. “Let me get this straight. You get him completely fucked up, stoned on hard drugs, Jerry–don’t you dare tell me that it wasn’t!–and then when he screws up in the field you what? Beat… him… up? Fuck Jer–”

“I didn’t beat on him! I just knock–”

“A fucking loser. I married a fucking loser!”

“What? I know I fucked up! What?”

Whatever it was she said, it pretty much had Jerry stammering in the kitchen as he apologized. “Sorry, dude,” the giant man said, shaking his head in his bauble-headed way. “I overreacted. Totally overreacted.” Harley glared at him, while Dad glared at Dylan, while Johnny just looked around and blinked.

Johnny retreated to the basement–probably to watch Conan the Barbarian, while Dylan joined Harley and Jerry at the kitchen table with Dad. Harley fussed over him, alternately asking where he was hurt, and hurling expressions of disgust at her husband. “Now come on, Jerry, fuck!” She beamed approval when Dylan passed on the shots of Johnnie Walker that Dad had poured.

She weathered their drunkenness as long as she could handle, then she asked Dylan if he wanted to watch some TV. He shrugged around his racing heart and said, “Sure.” Next thing he knew he was on his feet following her out of the bright kitchen and into the carpet gloom of the livingroom.

“Bye,” she said in a high soft voice to Dad and Jerry. “Fuck you.”

Jerry roared with wet-mouth laughter. “Fuck you tooooo, honey!”

They turned on the TV. Even though the two drinkers continued thundering just around the wall, something about the way the light sluiced off at an angle at the corner made the shadowy couch almost excruciatingly intimate. Harley’s peasant-brown eyes, wide as they were with a kind of skeptical joy, fairly shouted as much. Dylan found himself swallowing at the lump of disbelief in his throat: there was something about the anxiousness of otherwise confident people that he found unbearable. He had never seen her so obviously nervous before.

“Dylan…” she began, then trailed in indecision.

“Harley,” he said like the daft idiot he was.

Suddenly she was blinking tears–tears!

“Did he hurt you?” she said in a rush. “I mean, I know… I mean, you look okay, but did he hurt you? When he told me… You gotta know he isn’t like that… Wasn’t…” She paused, not so much to muster words, it seemed, as some semblance of self-control. She seemed to shuffle something of her old assertiveness back into her expression with a long breath.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said, rolling her eyes in a manner that reminded him of Cutter. “My husband is a fucking idiot.”

“You don’t mean that.”

She stared at him for a moment that became more peculiar with every passing heartbeat. Dylan thought she looked beautiful in the brightest of lights–the summer sun–but in the strip-club gloom she seemed to soak up an exotic air, an aura of arabic tales.

He felt a clutching in his chest that he confused for love then–and that I confuse for love to this very day.

“So tell me,” she said, snorting away a stray lock of hair that had fallen across her nose. “What are you reading?”

Dad and Jerry boomed in the background. Something along the lines of fucking-bikes-I’ll-tell-you-about-fucking-bikes.

“The Bachman books,” Dylan replied.

“That’s really Stephen King, isn’t it?”

He found himself explaining how King worried that his success had been more a matter of luck than talent, and so had published his pre-Carrie manuscripts, all the stuff that had been turned down, under the name of Richard Bachman just to see what difference it would make. And of course, it had made all the difference in the world. It was all luck. All just fucking luck.

A strange kind of anxious momentum always seized him during moments of prolonged speaking, a winding up of communicative tension that he always made worse by becoming more manic, more avid and unreserved–as if he could manhandle attention spans with sheer passion. He had yet to realize that others instinctively penalized over-eagerness with disinterest, if not outright contempt. All he knew was that gazes wandered. He was painfully conscious of the way others always punished his speaking with their eyes.

But not Harley. Never Harley.

“A man who reads,” she said with wistful sarcasm. “You’re a dreamboat, you know that?”

Dylan laughed, gratified beyond measure.

“Even shit floats,” he said.



Eventually they did turn on the TV and Harley fell asleep against Dylan’s shoulder. Or maybe she only pretended to sleep the way that Dylan pretended to watch. Even though it could have been at most an hour or two, it seemed more like days, endless interminable days, alternately spent trying to will away his boner and giving in to the aching groove of it. At one point she even raised three fingertips of her left hand to his thigh, and he could swear that beneath her thrown hair she watched him slowing turning his left pocket inside out. Her breath seemed awfully quick and shallow, and she seemed roll and squish her hips an awful lot.

He almost came for the intensity of it.

Then suddenly Jerry was calling her name, and she bolted upright, blinking at his massive silhouette. The television airbrushed her disheveled beauty in white and blue and silver–Johnny Carson colours. Dylan just blinked heart-in-throat, pretended to be too sleepy to muster any coherent goodbye. The sounds of their leaving–the scrape of chairs and the jingle of keys through Dad’s growling drawl, saying “You guys, you guys,” over and over–seemed to emanate from his chest.

Then they were gone, and Dylan knew what was coming before it even happened. The abrupt silence, the prickling air of sudden purpose, then the heels booming through the frame of the house.

Dad flew out of the kitchen and cuffed him on the side of the head. It stung, burned, mussed-tangled-ripped his hair. Believe me when I tell you, the old man had meat-hooks, man–like, for real.

“Embarrassment!” he bellowed, screamed, whatever. There was this savagery to him in moments like this, too biological to be human. A kind of eye-pinching, teeth-baring, face-blooding madness. “You’re a fucking embarrassment!



At the wedding reception for my second marriage, Dad got up to the podium when it was his turn to speak, so nervous he could only be sober. He froze. He would look down to specific people, only for his eyes to bounce out and away to the edges of the abstract whole–then down again. There was more than a little terrified chimpanzee in his grin.

“I, ah…” he started, his voice quavering and thin. “I, ah…” He fumbled something out of the back pocket of his new jeans–new jeans were dress pants enough, as far as he was concerned. He jerked a crumpled white slip of something back and forth across his chest. That was when his voice broke. “I have th-this piece of paper,” he sobbed, his lips pursing about the ‘p’ as though it were sour candy.  Before I knew what I was doing I was up and at his side. He gripped my shoulder, tried to smile at me, but sobbed again instead. There was something rolling and scared and impossibly proud in his eyes. “Wh-when Dylan was six,” he doggedly continued, warring for command of face and voice. “When he was six he gave me this–” He coughed and sputtered and pulled me tight against him. “Dylan… m-my boy. When he was six he gave me this-this IOU…” Somehow he managed to look at everyone and smile. “It says,” he said, his voice creaking with emotion. He raised it for everyone to see. “It says”–he dropped his chin to his chest–”‘fr-free hug!’”

The crowd erupted.

“But I guess I already got one…” he cried. His face crumpled as he threw it away.

“So I guess I d-don’t n-n-need it any-anymore…”

The crowd thundered with cheers and laughter, and he cried and he hugged me.

Tighter than he had hugged me in my entire life.



Well, almost. When Johnny and I were little kids we would wrestle him on the living room floor, fly at him like little monkeys, giggling and squealing. If we’d had puppy teeth, I’m sure we would have yelped and gnawed on his hands. He would throw us tumbling across the rug-burn carpet, throw us feet-cycling onto the couch or into the chair, throw us ceiling-ward only to catch us in his giant meat-hooks.

Mom would sit on the couch, watching with wide, worried eyes, periodically saying, “Frank… Please.” The TV would glow–as it always seemed to do back then–with images of marching Soviets and mobile missiles.


Hollering war-cries, we would scramble back to our feet and charge, throw punches like tomahawk chops. We would gather our breath outside his reach, lean over our heaving bellies, smile and laugh and coordinate…

“C’mon Johnny! Charge!

He would laugh and chortle, pretend that our blows were super-powered, make dramatic pleas for help, shout at Mom to call the police, the fire department–no wait, make that the Marines!

“Frank… Enough.”

He would tickle us until we screamed. Swing us in the air by an ankle. Pin us like dolls to the floor.

I would smell beer and whiskey. I would struggle, roar against limbs like rubber about iron. I would glimpse Satan crawling from eye to eye.

He would grin the grin of mastery. He would bruise and suffocate.

Johnny would retreat to his silent corner. If I could breathe, I would shriek and bawl.


“What? I was just playing!”

He would show us.

He always had to show.



The cruelty that gets into people, making them hurt their own–almost always their own. No matter how many shelters we build–woman, child, animal. There’s never enough spaces.

How about you? Did your father ever smack you? Did he ever stare at you with a manic, my-fucking-DNA glare, his voice gearing down to a growl, telling you how useless, fucked-up and faggoty you were?

Did he ever weep in your arms, begging for forgiveness?

Nothing’s quite so lazy as passion. It moves us to kill ourselves, when, really, any old crying will do.



I carry a cynical distance with me wherever I go. I feel wary and superior.

A special kind of scared.

One easily confused with pride.



In his final undergraduate year, Dylan came across Sartre’s reformulation of the cogito in Being and Nothingness. Combining the two, the Sartrean and Nietzschean, he arrived at a reformulation that he like to think was distinctly his own,

It thinks, therefore I was.

Here, he would tell people, we see how well and truly fucked up things are. Not only do our origins congenitally outrun us, we continually outrun ourselves as well! We’re an echo that knows itself only as an echo of this echo. “Umberto squared,” he used to joke with his fellow ‘theoryheads.’ In his papers, he started using this final formulation to describe Derrida’s self-erasing notion of differance as applied to subjectivity, the way all reflection is in fact a species of deflection.

His professors lapped it up. On his papers he would find comments like, “Excellent!” or, “Great stuff!” or more exciting still, “What would FREUD make of this?” scrawled in red pen.

It thinks, therefore I was.

This would become his mantra, his signature way of representing the fragmentary, paradoxical subject that modernity was so intent on denying, hiding, and exploiting…

Modernity was so appalled, in fact, that he graduated top of his class, then went on to win multiple scholarships and a place in the University of Toronto’s ‘prestigious’ English Literature PhD program.



Gleaming pipes lay racked across the dust. The guns kicked white plumes across ranks of deep green. When the angle was right, the arcs glittered like a spray of diamonds. The sun burned.

The tobacco grew.

The great cities of ancient Sumer used to keep marshlands undrained so that they would have a ready supply of cane-reeds to reinforce their water channels. Irrigation was labourious, so labourious that economies of scale were literally forced upon the Sumerians, and with them, a historically unprecedented degree of social complexity. People had to be organized. Things had to be measured and labeled.

Irrigation, the routing of water for agricultural purposes, stands at the hairy root of Western culture. Think Abraham coming out of Ur. Think Gilgamesh, baby.

These letters before you are the direct descendants of those ancient and muddy channels–as are these meanings. Think the Tigris and the Euphrates, the proverbial Waters of Babylon, twining across otherwise parched alluvial plains, bearing life from the mountains, cold and invisible. We all live in the Land Between the Rivers.

The tobacco grew beneath circling arms of sun-hot rain. Whir-chu-chuck. Whir-chu-chuck. Lime-green stems thickened. Radial leaves unfolded in puckered precision, growing as long as oven-mitts, longer. And Cutter and Dylan slaved as men have slaved since the dawn of writing. They cursed as they cursed. Wondered as they wondered.

Their hands stung and their backs burned. They coveted the cool night, and they hated their fat master.



Two things happened during this time: the puppies were born and Shelley got pubic hair.

I’ll start with the puppies because they’re easier. Animals always are.

Dad always had dogs. Normally people say we always had dogs when referring to childhood pets, but this was never the case at the Weirdsma household. At our place, the dogs were always Dad’s, never “ours.” This was probably because they were always fucking crazy.

The way Dad made them.

His technique was simple enough: keep a German Shepherd chained long enough and soon you had no choice but to keep it chained–forever, or a canine facsimile thereof. Dad was always big on species essentialism. As far as he was concerned, few things were as stupid or as faggoty as breeds. He got Shepherds and Shepherds only because he had deduced–presumably on the basis of ad hoc morphological comparisons–that they were the closest to pure dogs as you could get, the purest of the pure being, of course, the Arctic wolf. He even reasoned that viciousness was a kind of marker of purity, since nothing could be more vicious than the wild.

He was one of those “red in tooth and claw” guys–you know the type. The kind who draw political morals from nature documentaries.

His philosophy did have its advantages. There were more than a few times as a kid when I loved that dog-viciousness more than anything in the world. Mum and Dad regularly left me and Johnny to our own devices when they went partying–this was back in the seventies, after all, when it was still cool to hear the rattle of empty beer bottles in the backseat of your car, and when the birth rates were still high enough to treat children as expendable, if not actually consider them such.

Trust me, there’s nothing quite so exposed as a farm-house on a dark and windy night, especially when your dog starts that rabid, snarling bark that says something in the sheeted black means you ill. Johnny and I would shut off all the lights and creep to the back screen door, watch Dad’s carnivorous security system throw itself against the chain again and again, snarling kill-kill-kill in a way that said more than the landlord had come to pay a visit. Johnny would snuffle and clutch my waist, while I tried to manhandle the big flashlight, banging it against the plexiglass while sweeping the light in the direction of the dog’s fury and aggression. We would stand there, as dapper as little gymnasts in our pyjamas or underwear, and debate the perils.

“Don’t, Dylan. Don’t-don’t, please.”

“I gotta, Johnny.”

I would dash out the screech-whine-slam of the door–funny, how fast the scissoring of little boy legs can carry you–racing across the dark, beneath the tall-roaring willows, racing for the home-free of the bald circle that marked the length of the chain. And I would hug that crazy hairy fucker harder than anything I had hugged in my life. I would sob into his ears, and with trembling monkey fingers, pull back the clip on his chain. He would be a flicker beneath my fingertips. Static-electric, like glass on fur.

Kill him!” I would holler as he galloped into the dark. “Kill him! Kill him!

Only Now do I wonder what that must have sounded like… The roar of black-sky winds combing the knotted hair of the world, on and on–in the dark and endless way of a child’s earth.

A pinhole cry in the night.



As a rule, Dad preferred his animals have dicks.

After Soho died there was no period of mourning. As far as Dad was concerned, Soho was yet one more employee who had let him down. Here he had been faithfully paying his wages in water and kibble, and Soho had just up and decided to quit. The fucker. So without of whiff of sentimentality, Dad buried him in the woods, then did what any other employer does when an employee bails–he went and hired himself another.

A female, as it turned out.

Some among you, I imagine, are inclined to read this symptomatically, as indicative of character flaws or what have you. That you possess such interpretative reflexes says more about you than you might think, but I’ll come back to this later. It would be a mistake to assume that Dad’s relationships with his dogs were devoid of affection–I literally can’t count the times I saw Dad plump down in the grass along the dog-chain’s verge and play with or stroke his animal. Like everyone else, he savoured the flush of self-pity that a dog’s devotion almost magically affords us. And yet, every dog that Dad ever owned always remained his animal. You grow up on a farm and you really have no choice but to see your animals for what they are: different kinds of property with different kinds of use value. Whatever ‘kingdom of ends’ bullshit you project onto this simply has to evaporate when the time comes, otherwise you evaporate.

My dad treated his animals as slaves because that’s what they in fact are. And you? You treat your animals like little people because? Certainly not because that’s what they are. In fact, tomorrow or the day after we could very well discover that conscious experience is unique to humans, which means that your animals could very well have all the feelings of corn, fish, or Toyotas–which is to say, none. You treat them as little people because that’s the kind of slavery that works best for you. The cuddly kind that’s hard to see past all the indulgences.

The kind that makes you feel big and benign.

If Dad was cold it was because that’s what animals do on a farm: die. But he really wasn’t cold. He only seems that way because of the fantasy moral economy you’ve erected around your animals.



So Dad found himself the proud owner of a dickless German Shepherd. “Xaviera,” he called her, after some famous prostitute who wrote a regular column for Penthouse. Dylan and Johnny just called her “Zave,” and so too did Dad after several half-hearted attempts to pronounce her name drunk.

As it turned out, Dad was literally rolling in males. Zave, it seemed, preferred dicks as much as her namesake. Within a few months she gave birth no less than eight squirming puppies, six of them male. And so began what was perhaps the happiest period in the post-divorce Wiersma household.

It really is amazing what a bunch of puppies can do.

There was the time when fleas infested the den of blankets Dad had made for them in the garage, and Dylan and Johnny carried them all yelping and squirming to the bathtub to be washed. Afterward, they wrapped them in blankets like little tacos, then sat in the basement watching 60 Minutes with the little buggers on their chests: three for Dad, three for Dylan, and two for Johnny. Rather than struggle, the eight of them dozed, warm and wet and encapsulated. They filled the rec-room with little noises: snuffling sighs, miniature yawns, and small puppy grunts and groans, as though each of them had their own personal masseuse. Laughing under their breath, Johnny, Dylan, and Dad took turns telling one another to look or listen to this or that cuteness. One of Johnny’s puppies made little mumbled barking sounds in his sleep. Or course Dad got stuck with the one that kept farting.

“Sounds like you got some cheese with your taco,” Dylan said.

The three of them howled as quietly as they could. Meanwhile, the hard-hitting investigative journalism flickered inert across the television, the volume turned low. Even Andy Rooney found himself upstaged.

It’s hard to describe it, looking back. There was something totemic, not only about the dozing puppies, but that entire evening. A calm had settled across the world, it seemed, something like a pause in traffic on a buzz-saw street. A stillness that tingled in the memory of violence and motion.

Dylan stared at them. Small puppy faces, baby blunt, washed in an aura of innocence and fragility. Tiny eyes squeezed shut. Fur pulled into scales where still wet. Noses no bigger than the pad of his pinky, twitching.

He stared at them, basked in the warm buzz of standing watch over another’s simple pleasure.

Could they hear his heartbeat? he wondered. Did it remind them of the womb? Had the slow rise and fall of his chest lulled them into sleep?

When he looked to Dad and Johnny he saw a similar wonder shining in their eyes. And when they spoke he heard love and recognition in their voices, not because they had put it there, but because these things had become the medium of all human sound. It was as if the puppies were a kind of antenna, pitched to the perfect angle in a windless sky, making sensible a transmission that originated from within–a common broadcast.

Isolation fell from him. For a rare moment, Dylan found himself at one with his brother and his father.

A deeper chorus that I can only sing alone.

That’s the perversity of things, isn’t it?

That we die orphans. If we’re lucky enough to live, that is.



We are a collection of finite yet unbounded fields. A bouquet of horizons.

Think of the universe, the way space curls back in on itself. This is what we are: edgeless. No matter what direction you strike out in, it all comes back to this

Think about it. Here you are, reading these words at this very moment. And you, in the strict sense of “you,” are actually incidental, the product of some specialized module in your brain. Only this is fundamental.

Only this



You can call it what you like: Dasein, the specious present, the Clearing of Being, the pour-soi, the transcendental ego, the duree… A lot of ink has been spilled and more than a few undergraduate panties removed trying to come up with the interpretation of interpretations.

But “you” strikes me as apt enough. Just one abstraction away from this

What better way to bridge the gulf between the first and third person than the second?

What better tertium quid?



Because this… ultimately, comes down to this… Or at least it did.

This… cannot be referred to simply because this… is the performative frame of our referring. Every time we try to disclose this-very-moment-here-and-Now… we find ourselves in another this very moment here and Now. So instead of disclosing this… we end up with that.

Call this performance-reference asymmetry.

Post-structuralists like Derrida were able to parlay entire philosophical movements out of this little conundrum. You see, it’s one thing to say with the old pragmatists that all meaning is contextually determined, but it’s quite another to say that all meaning is contextually deferred.

Since this… is always outrunning our attempts to disclose it, we can never really get a fix on it. And since we can never get a fix on it, we find it impossible to suss out where it’s coming from. Here and Now, in other words, have a spooky tendency to lapse into Nowhere and eternity. We forget that our perspectives are just that, perspectives.

It’s hard to place something that has no edges.

So as a result, we tend to think we have things nailed, that we are absolutely right.

The truly bizarre thing, however, is that language seems to agree, at least in terms of its logical structure. As a rule, it preserves truth-value across claims only so long as you refrain from conditioning them with operators like “believes that” and so on. As soon as you introduce these–‘propositional attitudes,’ they call them–language becomes something quite unruly from a logical point of view. It really does seem that linguistic reference, to function logically, must always be aimed outward, away from the performances that makes it possible.

The act of referring, in other words, has to vanish in the course of the reference.

We must speak as gods to communicate as men.

Thus the binary gimmick at the root of post-structuralism: what representation presents it presents as true, a truth instantly contradicted by the performance of said representation, once again thanks to language. Once you commit to this, then you have a sequence of theoretical moves that makes being wrong utterly impossible. Suddenly the contradictions and inconsistencies in your po-mo discourse simply exemplify your point. When someone says you’re mistaken, then you enthusiastically nod your head and say, “Yes! You’re finally beginning to see!” You bring a covert interpretation of what it means to be wrong, which you then equivocate with whatever interpretation your theoretical opponents raise against you. “Exactly!” you say. “Exactement!”

Performative first philosophy.

You can even begin to make out and out mystical claims. Since the performer of representations is simply another representation, which is to say, something performed, you can start claiming that your readings of Hamlet are not your readings at all. After all, just who are you anyway?

You can start invoking the occulted concept of the ‘text.’

Which just goes to show, no matter how much lip service we give to this… it all comes down to intimidating our peers with the cleverness of our ‘that.’



A pain comes across me sometimes, when I think about what I’ve become. I’m not Harry Angstrom, at once pathetic and monstrous thanks to tangled knots of ignorance and modernity. Even less am I David Lurie, heroic with nostalgia, an accidental fascist simply by virtue of social and generational change.

I am someone who reads them, someone who has refined judgement until it has become overpowering–and so have become utterly disconnected from the world that makes me possible. I am pious in the most insidious way possible: the kind that has made a virtue out of admitting fault.

If the wheel spins fast enough, it’s easy to confuse immobility for travel.

Books. These are the things I breathe into… which means I don’t breathe at all.

A vampire among zombies.



A pain fills me because I cannot go back. I mean, the puppies are there, vivid in my imagination, but they have become absurd, hairy little worms shedding light on hairy little lives.

To master your past is to murder yourself.

I don’t mean killing in the pedestrian sense of reflection–you know, the old saw of the broken hammer. To reflect on something is to rip it out of the flux, to cup water in your hands and say, “This is river.” No. I have stamped my life dead in this manner from one corner to the other. Nothing is untrammeled, insofar as I am obsessively reflective. Scarcely a this… passes without me pinning some that to it.

I mean murder in the sense of understanding, Verstehen.

To understand things is to repatriate them, to return them to their contexts. To understand is to illuminate, not just the thing, but the background–to make the edges visible. To create the illusion of this… by plugging it into a entire world of thats.

Once, I was small, stupid, and beautiful.

Now I am just as small, not quite so stupid, and ugly through and through.



Shelley was the proverbial girl next door. She even showed Dylan her tits one night to prove it. They were milk-white and beautiful. Two scoops of vanilla at room temperature.

The summer of 1984 was the summer that she ran away. The reasons were obvious enough.

Once Dylan saw her step-mother, Sophie, bawling and running across the soybean field behind his house to the wood-line. Shelly told him afterward that she always did this whenever her father started “whaling on her.” No matter how drunk, Peter O’Donnel never went into the woods, ever since coming back from the Korean War. He would just stand there, somehow sturdy and swaying, yelling, “You fucking cunt!” over and over, as if his rage could soak into the vectors between trees and deliver a much deserved spiritual beating.

Shelley was what his friends called a “butter face,” because when you saw her, you wanted to fuck “everything but her face.” Dylan laughed and crowed with the rest of them, of course, but a certain shame afflicted him, a pang that sometimes bowed his head when the thought of her occurred to him when he was alone. Shelley, he was pretty sure, was in love with him.

He punished her for this. Why?

Because he could, and she always seemed to have it coming. For whatever reason, whether it was the abuse, growing up with five older brothers, or because she was simply born that way, Shelley was forever posturing. Everyone in her presence was an idiot of some description, not in a bad way, as she was sometimes at pains to explain, but an idiot nonetheless. Everyone not in her presence was a fucking idiot–she was a bad one when it came to indiscriminate backstabbing. She was this kind of clownish queen, lording over others as though clocking points. It all seems relatively clear to me Now–the narcissistic need to monopolize attention, the negative scripting, the acute rejection sensitivity, the inability to maintain lasting friendships–Shelley was suffering from some form of clinical depression. But for Dylan she was simply worrisome, irritating, hilarious, and downright horn-dog alluring.

During the summer she wore as little as she could, and made a point of knocking her knees back and forth no matter what she was wearing, cut-offs whittled to the crotch seam, minis, bikini bottoms. “Oh…my fucking god”–see my pussy–”you simply would not beeelieve”–see my pussy–”what Theo said to me the other day”–take a long look while I tap and suck my cigarette–”when he was over by the orchard, there, you know”–yep, you guessed it, pink-polka-dot panties–”working on that fucking whatchyamacallit”–see my pussy-pussy-pussy. “Ohmigod, Dylan, he’s such a fucking idiot!”

Dylan would stare at her eyes with the bereaved intensity of a shitting dog, willing himself not to glance down. The paradox is that he probably would have never noticed how beautiful her eyes were, had it not been for her always flashing her pussy.

The power of pussy is nothing short of astounding, if you think about it. It was one of those things that’s so commonplace that you rarely, if ever, paused to think about–kind of like entropy or gravity. One of Shelley’s older brothers had taken a pair of scissors to what must have been hundreds of Penthouse magazines, clipping out only the pussies, with just enough ass, thigh, and abdomen to provide context. He then made this massive circular collage which he covered with glass and turned into a coffee table, which his girlfriend made him leave behind when he moved out of the house. Shelley would make a point of doing things on the table: playing euchre, monopoly, or even eating hotdogs. She prided herself on being one of those rare women who were entirely at their ease, not only with pussy per se, but with the nebulous obsessions encompassing it. You could say that her pussy was her most prized possession–the one dependable constant in her mad, mad life.

And like Gollum with the One Ring, she would tragically underestimate its power.

Dylan never experienced the full measure of that power until university. He was sitting in the atrium of the community centre reading Mead’s Philosophy of the Present, when an attractive brunette wearing a khaki-style mini-skirt hunkered down on the couch opposite him. They were in a low-traffic corner so it was pretty much just the two of them walled in on two sides by painted cinder-block, and on the other two sides by plastic palms and the blurry hub-bub of other people doing other things. I can’t remember what she was reading, but it seemed significant enough at the time. She slumped against the armrest opposite Dylan, stretched one lovely naked leg in his direction, and then with a shamelessness that would have made Shelley proud, kicked her opposite leg on the cushions. She then pretended to lose herself in her studies.

Now scoping out chicks is embedded in the male DNA. As soon as a boy’s balls get twiggy, he sets out refining this innate skill. By time he hits twenty, he’s as shrewd as an insurance adjuster, and infinitely more efficient. He can categorize and appraise twenty different chasses in as many seconds, all the while maintaining the appearance of aloof indifference.

Dylan feigned a vague discomfort, readjusted his book so that it concealed his eyes from her eyes, but left the shadowy hollow between her legs plainly visible below the bottom left corner. At first all he could see was the rim of her white cotton panties across cleft of her buttocks where they flattened against the cushion. This was enough to start his heart racing. Then she started wagging her left foot, the one on the couch, back and forth, generating not only a peekaboo effect, but the delicious impression of genital friction. Then she began, by small and entirely artificial degrees, drawing her foot up and raising her knee.

Soon he was sitting there, gawking past his book at the powder-white isosceles of her panties stretched across her pussy, tight enough to pinch, thin enough to reveal the melancholy shadow of her cleft.

Never had he experienced anything so visually intense. He was riveted. His heart literally kicked against his breastbone–hammered so hard that mortal fears literally crowded the back of his attention. Was he dying? Was this the Pussy of Death? He couldn’t breathe. He struggled against the pressure of sound building in his chest. A gasp. A groan. Something humiliating…

He knew that she could see his cock lurching to life, boxing out the crotch of his shorts. He made no attempt to hide his arousal. In fact, he remained utterly motionless, pursuing the lines of some ancient predatory instinct.

Don’t move! it commanded. Let it wander closer

Minutes passed while he sat strangling, asphyxiated by the weight of natural lighting and 58 inches of empty space. Disclosure and the promise of crossings. Groaning permutations.

Then suddenly, the haze of insignificant others solidified. Someone looked her way, maybe, caught her eye, maybe, or simply wandered too close or too resembled a brother or an uncle or a boyfriend. The visual gate was slammed shut, and she was up, her face pink with embarrassment, shuffling past him, and away.

He never said a word.

It wasn’t that he was too chicken–or I should say it wasn’t just that–but that he literally couldn’t breathe. He sat gasping in its fading glamour, willing his hard-on to retreat beneath its button-fly blind.

He marveled at the experience for days afterward. How could a glimpse of female anatomy, he wondered, so thoroughly reach past him, past his cortex, and seize his limbic system? He began calling pussy the “bearded muse” to his friends, but he should have called it the “fuzzy taser,” because he had been out and out immobilized.

Dylan had nothing against women. Ever since seeing Alien he had developed a deep respect for feminine determination and common sense. Ripley kicked some major ass in that flick.

The only thing he ever held against women was his cock.

Later in life he would become a complete sexist. He would come to think of men as completely useless. He would be convinced that gender-specific neurological differences fixed during the Pleistocene put men at a distinct disadvantage in the vast majority of modern mass-social contexts. Men were weak, plain and simple.

He then used this to rationalize his frequent visits to strip-clubs. He would investigate this mysterious power. He would come to master his weaknesses by understanding them. And he would come to understand them by indulging them.



Shelley used her pussy to fuck with boys the way some people use laser pointers to fuck with their cats. It was power, plain and simple, extraordinary given that her life was so fucked up otherwise. What she never understood–and how could she at the age of seventeen?–was that no power exists in a vacuum.

She failed to appreciate the resentment so often inspired by the arbitrary exercise of power.

One night in the lull after irrigating, Shelley and a girlfriend of hers, Mandy, came to the window of Dylan’s basement bedroom and began hissing and giggling through the screen. They were camping in a pup tent on her lawn, she explained to a bleary-eyed Dylan, and they needed help finishing the whiskey they had nicked from her father. Dylan snuck out the window to join them, not because he was afraid his father would find out–he pretty much came and went as he pleased–but because that was what the girls wanted. Something covert they could wheeze and giggle about.

It was one of those perfect summer nights … A few minutes later he found himself crammed in a tiny tent with two long-legged, drunk girls wearing halters and cut-offs–fantasy images of a menage a trois and all the stories he would tell steaming the clear glass of his better judgement. At some point the inevitable tickle-fight broke out, and within minutes he was making out with the two of them. He kissed Shelley, the hot, open-mouthed way she always kissed, her tongue rolling like a fish between them, then Mandy pulled him away and he kissed her, something equally open, but much softer, a kiss you could sink into. Then Shelley pulled him back and he was battling her tongue once again, squeezing the nipple of her left breast, only to have her slap his hand away. Then Mandy tugged him back to her mouth, and he began fondling her breasts beneath her halter-top while she moaned softly into his throat. Then Shelley pulled him back, intent on kissing the shit out him, all the while smacking his roaming hands. Then he was back with Mandy, and before he really understood what was happening, she was rubbing his cock through his jeans and he had his left hand thrust down the slot between her stomach and shorts. He finger fell effortlessly into her pussy, and she began moaning aloud.

Shelley called her a cunt and Dylan something he would never remember. She crawled out of the tent in an awkward fury, while Dylan and Mandy continued grinding against each other. The two of them smiled and stared in the dazed and astonished way of teenagers allowing strangers press through their innermost membranes–Dylan had never met Mandy before in his life. Shelley, meanwhile, sat on the picnic table no more than six feet from the unzipped entrance, chain-smoking and calling out in disgust. She may have left the tent, but she wasn’t finished with the revival.

“Dylan. You’re not my friend anymore, Dylan.”

“Fuck you, Mandy. Janice told me you were a fucking slut.”

“I guess she was right, then.”


“Fuck you, guys. I know you’re fucking. I can see your ass slapping the tent, Dylan! I can fucking see it, you fucking losers. Idiots! Gawd! Fucking loser idiots! I know you’re fucking!”

“Un-fucking-believable. His ass is slapping the tent…”


Afterward, they crawled out of the tent and joined her on the picnic table, one on either side. They both held her while she cried.



Shelley ran away from home later that summer. Dylan heard a rumour from Theo that she and Mandy had let five old guys (which meant they were in their thirties) gang bang them one night at Springwater, the small provincial campsite just up the road.

She showed up at his house a year later and finally fucked him–it was a nasty, shameful event, one that it would sooner forget. Then with eyes fluttering away tears she explained how she hadn’t run away. It started as a bender, she said. Apparently she had gone to a party in London, where she met two Lebanese guys whom she had simply adored. The next weekend they took her to Detroit “on a holiday” and sold her to a gang. The story got pretty sketchy at this point: even after all this time Shelley was strangely incapable of casting herself as a victim. Her eyes fluttering against tears she mentioned strings of African-American names, this one a fucking asshole, that one pretty cool, this one afraid of her, that one protecting her, all of it culminating in a fight where she jumped on someone’s back and tried to scratch out his eyes because she had no fear whatsoever of guns. But the upshot was pretty clear: she had spent several months in forced prostitution, and was only cut loose because she had gone bonkers.

This was all beyond Dylan’s narrow frame of comprehension. It left him with a feeling of shame and failure unlike any he had ever experienced. Prostitutes had always been fantasy characters, something cool that he and his buddies would opine about. And African-Americans were either TV drama bad guys, or famous warriors for racial peace and justice. Listening to her talk was like listening to a philosophy professor shake a bunch of concepts in a verbal box then put them back together in ways that just did not seem to fit. She literally left him speechless.

Afterward he couldn’t stop thinking of the way she had let him fuck her, just giving him her pussy like one more thing that was more trouble than what it was worth. Like she was saying, “Fuck it. It’s all yours.”

Knock yourself out.



The last time he saw her was during his first year of university. He was taking the bus back to St. Thomas where he still had his plum grocery store job, and she came staggering aboard hoisting a baby. She sat in the seat across the aisle from him, nursing her kid. She was too hammered for them to have any kind of sensible conversation. Vodka, she explained, hoisting her McDonald’s cup in blurry good cheer.

Her infant boy stared out through all creation.



When male literary authors write about sex and women they always have to be careful to include some kind of feminist epiphany. I’m not sure I have one, which is a bad thing.

Disgust has a way of boiling the virtue out of ambiguity and leaving only the crime.

Our neighbours down the road, the Parsons, were originally Mormons. They didn’t smoke. They didn’t drink. They barely even cursed. But they fucked like bunnies, so their house was always bursting with juvenile drama.

Then suddenly the father, Duncan, made the mistake of voicing doubts he had apparently harboured for years, and the Parsons found themselves excommunicated. The transition was a giddy one, and the Parsons went from being the most buttoned-down family on the concession to the wildest overnight. They started swearing and drinking. They started smoking–even toking. They reveled in apparent anomie. They would come over with their youngest kids and together we would all drive down to Hawk’s Cliff. Everyone clambered down to what we called ‘Our Private Beach’ beneath the high-hanging shelves of clay.

Then everyone got naked.

Our parents would get drunk while we romped through the brown waves, our pee-pees bouncing like tassels. We dove and rolled, sneezed at the spike of the sun. We hung like astronauts, weightless in the water. We built moats and castles, wrestled across the beach until we were skinned in sand, until we resembled little australopithecines chasing one another with hoops and grins.

Our parents watched our hijinks with loving and authoritarian eyes. They bitched and they joked. Our fathers struck poses appropriate to their cocks, and our mothers waddled, by turns shy and brazen.

I remember watching the white light spill quick and molten across the water, winking in two-dimensional monochrome. I remember staring up at the hanging scarps, skyscrapers of earth, and feeling the tingle of catastrophic possibility. Lake Erie is forever gnawing at our edges, forever growing fat and shallow on tracts of arable land. Not a summer passes without the ground coming up short, whole chunks of the earth dissolved into solution.

The sun always occupied some corner of my eye in those days. No one gave a flying fuck about SPF back then: they were still fool enough to think the outside was healthy. They did not share our mania for all things in. Sometimes I was burned to the scrotum, so bad that I would find it painful sitting in my seat at school the following Monday.

But no one–absolutely no one–was to know about our naked weekends. “If they ask why you can’t sit still,” my mother said, “you tell them you have worms.”

Worms. There’s a word to make your ass itch.

“But why, Mom?”

She smiled and cupped my cheek in a calloused palm.

“Because people are stupid.”

That was what she said, but what she meant was that you are easily disgusted.

That we’re all Mormons all the time, whether we want to be or not.

Light, Time, and Gravity

by rsbakker

Editor’s Forward

I wish I could say that Dylan Wiersma was my friend, but sadly, he was not, even though I worked with him for some eleven years. He was something of a pariah in our department, an ‘ideologue’ in the infamous, early twentieth century sense of the term. If he spoke to anyone, it was to typically upbraid them for some throwaway comment regarding the stupidity of students or (what amounted to the same) popular culture. He once overheard me lampooning something–an episode of American Idol, I think–and he fairly pounced. “So what are you doing about it, eh, Fennel? Convincing yet another generation to turn their back on their community?” On another occasion he literally grabbed my elbow to wheel me around: “So this is what you do to feel special? Eh, Fennel? Curse the buckets that you emptied?”

We all have our ‘Weirdsma Stories.’

I imagine you find these admissions tasteless, even shocking given the circumstances: but as little as I genuinely knew Dylan, I am quite certain he would out and out despise any attempt to misrepresent my impressions of him. Despite all the ways he resisted (and in some instances, sabotaged) the norms of bureaucratic and collegial communication, he did so out of an obvious commitment to honesty. There was quite simply no guessing where Dylan Wiersma was concerned. He told you what he thought no matter what interpersonal mayhem might result.

So yes, he was not well liked. And he was more feared, I would say, than respected. But he was what he was, and our small community will not be the same without him.

For reasons unknown, Dylan Wiersma failed to return for the 2008 fall term. University administrators made several attempts to contact his family, all to no avail. The police were contacted. After several weeks, the decision was made to clear out his office, where the manuscript form of the present work was found tucked behind a shelf of science fiction, wrapped with string and wax paper the way butchers once wrapped meat. To this day I have no idea why my name had been scrawled in the top right corner (and in a hand distinct from Dylan’s own, no less). But there is was.

And so the task of bringing his work to public light fell to me, the colleague whose office happened to lie across the hall.

As a novel, Light, Time, and Gravity is every bit as flawed and perplexing as its author. The philosophical portions, I am relieved to report, can be safely ignored. I circulated this manuscript to several scholars of note, two of them specializing in cognitive science. They were all but unanimous in their dismissal: apparently the theoretical gestalt that Dylan was pursuing, whatever it was, eludes even those with expert knowledge of his subject matter.

The same might be said regarding the science mentioned in the text. At several junctures, Dylan cites various human cognitive incapacities: he apparently believed that the intellectual pursuits characteristic of the humanities were little more than self-aggrandizing shams, ‘faux solutions’ to Medieval misapprehensions. But once again, the expert consensus speaks otherwise. As Dr. Daniel Mellamphy assured me: “The findings are nowhere near so conclusive. The implications remain entirely indeterminate. The overall situation is not nearly so dramatic.” I admit, I very nearly excised these passages altogether, given their obvious scientism and reductionism.

The true interest of what follows lies primarily in the narrative portions of the text. Dylan did indeed work on a tobacco farm in the summer of 1984, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, his descriptions are accurate in all save a handful of details. Despite his emotional and intellectual turmoil, Dylan Wiersma was nothing if not a keen observer of social surroundings. Between his diatribes he manages to capture the lives and aspirations of an often overlooked strata of Canadian society at a symbolically important juncture in our history.

For this reason alone, I believe, Light, Time, and Gravity should be considered a work of genuine literature. The author, who was by all accounts a troubled man, is simply too present in his work otherwise.

One final point of interest: The question of the character named Cutter, whom I had initially thought fictional, apparently remains part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

Susan Fennel, The University of Western Ontario, February 19th, 2011




Book One: Irrigation




What is the meaning of a deluded life?

I ask this question the first day of all my undergraduate classes, as a segue to discussing the ‘Purpose of Literature.’

Someone in the class always laughs–or at the very least smiles. Perhaps they’ve confused ‘delusion’ for the passing of gas. But most of them simply stare witless with youth. Typically, I let them twist in their inability to answer. You become numb to silence, when you profess for a living. You learn how to wield it as a tool. The more condemning the better.

“Why does it have to be deluded?” one young woman once asked me. She was what you might call a “believer,” one of those relentlessly earnest types, gifted with an almost inexhaustible capacity to be alarmed by cynical proclamations.

“What?” I replied. “You think the life you’re living is true?”

A look of scowling horror.

This was when the smart ass ‘dude’ in the back cracked, “Don’t you?”

Smart-asses. Every class has them–only their boldness varies.

“Not at all,” I quipped, smirking as if this were another predictable response. You have to be quick on your expressive feet, as nimble and resourceful as Elmer Gantry, standing before the rows.

“Just more true than ours,” he concluded.



January 26th.

The Colorado Avalanche host the Chicago Blackhawks. Midway through the second period, Steve Sullivan of the Blackhawks catches a high stick behind the Colorado net. The play is blown. Blood pinks the ice. A Colorado fan, cozy with his beer, grabs Sullivan’s attention as he skates past the glass with a towel held to his face. The man gestures to the bridge of his nose, says something inaudible, but easily understood because of the sneer that animates his nondescript features. “See?” he says, “that’s what you get,” only mild and bleary, like a father too detached to be truly vicious to his children.

Sullivan mops his face, skates on, perhaps accustomed to the bravery of fools drinking beer behind plexiglass, perhaps understanding that even this is simply one more part of the show. His number glides across the ice…


But this is mere coincidence. The miracle doesn’t happen until later.

The game continues. Flushed cheeks and tingling lips. Whisk and impact. The spastic clatter of sticks.

Patrick Roy, the goal-tending legend, clears the puck high and it sails over the glass. Like all things thrown, the eyes track it more in memory than in fact. It follows a woolen arc, vanishes against the tiered confusion. But it comes close. Seems close.

Sullivan skates up to the glass, perhaps not believing, but hoping all the same. The spectator is indistinct behind the acrylic sheen, hazed by the glare and warring planes of reflection. Then he sees…

The heckler is bloodied. A woman in lime green, his wife perhaps, holds a towel to his head. He looks out incredulously, outraged that his impunity has been stolen, frightened by the effortless collapse of mockery into humiliation. Sullivan cruises past, gazing, skating close enough to intimidate. The man sees him, becomes agitated, frantic even. He tries to gesture past the woman’s ministrations, shouts something in the other direction. And the commentators laugh.

Laugh at the miracle of justice.

Because there can be no doubt that it is a miracle. “One of the most bizarre incidents this season,” a sportscaster later calls it, as though it were some kind of aberration, a perversion of natural law. And though all of us understand this description, we rarely if ever ponder its significance. And for good reason.

Justice, you see, is something we make happen.

It’s only as real as we are.



I grew up outside.

This probably explains my childhood interest in the weather. It started sometime around the age of 8, I think. The question, What was it going to be like tomorrow? became so important I would wait out the entire news, impatient with hope and fear. The hitch, of course, was that we were poor and lived on the north shore of Lake Erie. All we had was an aerial perched on a rusty iron pole that had to be turned manually using a wooden handle. I spent quite some time staring up at the thing–a fish-hook for the vast transmissions swimming through the sky–and gauging the aim against the gutters and across dizzy blue. Since Erie, PA had four television stations and London, ON only had one, we almost always pointed the aerial south. As a result, the news we watched, and the weather I always waited for, was invariably American. Though I was the designated aerial turner, I was also a shrill little whiner, and so in the interests of domestic harmony my father was forced–he would insist on this–to ignore the broadcasts of his Canadian countrymen. (During the Olympics we used to cluck and shout, “See-see! There!” whenever we caught a glimpse of a Canadian. Sometimes we even rooted for them.)

This meant I grew up on American weather.

But of course, America was the only country on the weather map. This isn’t because Americans–then or Now–are that much more self-absorbed than other people in other countries, but because they have so much more Self to be absorbed by. People who reproach Americans for their parochialism generally forget the boggling size of the country–what makes them a superpower. Americans can barely keep up with America, let alone the rest of the world.

I know this because like most Canadians I was raised as one.

Whatever the case, I had to use my wits to figure what tomorrow would hold. Southwestern Ontario, where I lived, was either a little blank thumb pushing the tack of Toledo on the national weather map, or a gigantic one on the local. I was somewhere in that gap. I quickly learned that the high and low pressure lines that ended on the western shores of Lake Huron could be connected to those that began on the southern shores of Lake Erie. I also realized that weather, like words, had to be read from left to right. This meant the fridge-magnet cloud in Michigan carried much more weight than the fridge-magnet sun in Ohio or Pennsylvania. The one was the future, the other the past.

Thinking back, it seems I did all this automatically. My mother and father would periodically complain (“I hate that. Why do they do that?”) but in a tone that said they didn’t really care–like complaining about the distance to church. As the only thing I knew it seemed entirely natural to me. But then, this is what children are: blank spaces on the edge of superpowers. They spend a lifetime reading the symbols from left to right, confusing themselves for their hopes and their fears.

I’m not sure exactly when the Erie stations started with the weather satellites. I think we had moved to a place with cable by then.



Sometimes, when Mom and Dad began screaming late at night, my younger brother and I would crawl to the top of the stairs, lay on our stomachs, gaze down and cry. The upstairs was always dark, and the floor would seem an endless black plate suspended above an illuminated world–a tunnel-world. Below the shadows would lean and pace. The cracks would shiver through the work of unknown framers. We would huddle side-by-side, our fingers clutching the penultimate step, sobbing between soft, soft wails.

“No, Daddy, no…”

Sometimes my brother would crawl down and confront them. I would always whisper after him, try to call him back… He was younger and didn’t know any better.

My dad liked to drink.



I got the job when I was 17, during the summer of 1984.

Yes, 1984.

Since that 17 year old seems so strange to me, stranger by far than the child staring up at the aerial or crying at the top of the stairs, I’m going to refer to him as he. I’m not sure why I feel closer to the child than the adolescent: it stands to reason that the unfamiliarity would compound the further back you go in years–that the child, and not the teenager, would be far more ‘he’ than ‘me.’

But this presumes aging is chronological, which although undeniable is almost certainly not the case. Memory is anything but linear. Lives derive their meaning from the stories we tell, where before and after are little more than an illusion, an artiface drawn across the simultaneity of what has already happened. When you really think about it, the past is about as deep as the Queen’s profile on a penny.

So, it was Dylan who got the job when he was 17, during the summer of 1984. And even though he is in fact me, I really have no idea who he is.

I often wonder whether other people find their teenage selves unrecognizable. But I never bother to ask. My curiosity for small things was killed long, long ago.

By people like you.



The job was working in tobacco, which at the time was about as pure Southwestern Ontario as you could get. Thanks to his alarm, Dylan woke up early, so early that he actually laid in bed gasping, wondering in the nethers of thought if it were possible to be killed by waking. Certainly someone somewhere had been killed, hadn’t they? By waking?

He dressed with the deliberation of an invalid: Levis, Black Sabbath T-shirt, and socks. For some reason I remember the socks most of all. His feet were large and cold and tacky, and it always seemed a total pain in the ass to pull on his socks. Years later he would learn it was because he suffered a rare form of arthritis. At the time, there was just this place in his routine that called for a wince that would become a grimace as the tobacco harvest wore on. Fucking socks, he would think. Ever since reading The Lord of the Rings he had sort of envied Hobbits and their hairy feet. Sort of.

Otherwise he thought Hobbits were gay.

He pissed, admired the techno-skull on his shirt, fretted over his narrow chest, all in the bleary, shambling manner of the half-conscious. Then he went downstairs to the kitchen, took his place at the table, sat and blinked and blinked.

Consciousness seemed an illness.

All the world was slate and water-colour beyond the window. His father was already up–his father was always already up in the morning. He leaned against the counter holding a mug, watching 100 Huntley Street on TV.

“Morning! Dylan!”

His father called out this greeting in two separate words because he so often called Dylan “Johnny” and vice versa. This is the fate of many brothers, to be interchangeably named. At least there was no question of their being loved equally. Favouritism requires the ability to discriminate.

“Morning, Dad. Tea?”

“Listen to this idiot,” Dad said, nodding to the televangelist on the screen. “He’s saying that the Soviets are about to invade the Middle-east…”

“Armageddon?” This perked Dylan up. Armageddon always perked him up in the morning. He was a big fan of all things apocalyptic. “That would be a drag.”

Dad laughed. “Watch,” he said, taking a quick drink of his tea. “This is what they always do, scare the hell out of you, tell you the clock is ticking, then say, ‘Send me your money! Ah, Jesus-Jesus!’ Do you believe this? Eh, Dylan? How can people be such fucking idiots?”

Dylan got up, shuffled next to Dad to pour himself some tea. Sure enough, the television face slipped into its effortless television pitch. “And if we receive your gift within…”

“Agh!” his Dad cried. “See? See?

This was an almost a religious routine of theirs, spoofing 100 Huntley Street in the morning. Dylan never really thought about it much, except to think that it was cool and fun and maybe even a little dangerous. It was one of the things he used to punish his mother when he and his brother drove over to visit her on the weekends, telling her how they would all sit and slag religion–her three men. (It should have been two, given the divorce, but she never stopped loving his father.)

Sometimes she even cried.



Dylan stopped believing in God when he was 14.

His mother had made the mistake of buying him an old manual typewriter (a Smith-Corona) at a local yard sale. He then made the mistake of using it, not just to type out adventures for his weekly Dungeons and Dragons session, but to think things through. He had always scribbled errant thoughts on paper using an indigo-blue Bic pen. But this was different somehow. Handwriting was disposable–he was simply too present in the cursive tangle for him to take what he wrote that seriously. The Smith-Corona, on the other hand: there was a kind of publication in the mechanical precision of the type, a sense of permanence and autonomy. His writing had taken on the appearance of his reading, and there was so much magic in that… a potentiality almost indistinguishable for power.

These were words he could take seriously. And they were his own.

He began to theorize. Sometimes it would be a song that would set him off–Black Sabbath tunes, primarily–and he would write about the mysteries of death and God and the tyrannies of the modern life, and it all seemed so awesome and so wicked. Sometimes it would be something he was reading–Edgar Rice Burroughs or some shoddy Robert E. Howard wannabe in those days–and he would write about power and love and the bottomless hunger for justice.

Once alerted, his eye began picking out theory everywhere he turned. Assumptions, he realized. Everyone made assumptions all the time, and no one really knew. He dwelt in a kind of comic book ‘theorium,’ a space of cartoonish abstractions clustered according to hazy associations and accidents of conception–more a lazy man’s curiosity shop than an amatuer’s museum. He hammered thought after thought, stacked the points and paragraphs in a tidy pile next the typewriter and began gloating as it thickened.

I’m no longer sure what it was he loved: the process, that heady feeling of tracking noumenal crumbs, the endorphin flare accompanying this or than adolescent epiphany; or the accumulation of product, the sense of title that comes with ownership of any estate, temporal, spiritual, or semantic. Or maybe it was nothing more than the crass sense of becoming something special, the subtle power he seemed to wield over peers who had yet to learn how to dismiss and ridicule people like him. No matter what they thought, he could always think one thought further

Theory became his narcotic of choice, the one drug he dared indulge in solitude. He would hammer away, rewinding the ink ribbon again and again until his words became ethereal and gray, then he would flip the thing over and begin typing in red, and it would seem so very proper theorizing in the colour of blood. He would pretend he was writing his own Demonicron, that his claims possessed gravity of incantations.

He was writing spells, he told himself, a magic that left the world at once untouched and enslaved.

He was the centre. He was the origin. Sometimes he would spin counter-clockwise in his room, his head thrown back, his eyes closed, and he would feel the world slow its eastward rotation. It was a strange, megalomaniacal pirouette, a circumnavigation of the world from the inside, a head turning in a world that was all in his head. His fingers tingled for the friction. If only he could spin fast enough, like the Flash or Superman, he could drag the earth to a halt. Freeze all confusion and time.

Undress women at his leisure.

Then, at one point, he typed the following:

Everything has a cause.

A –> B –> C

A= outer event

B= inner event

C= this very thought Now!!!!!!

I like to think I can still taste something of the madness of this moment… our fingers often move faster that our brains when it comes to reckoning debts and implications. The clatter of juvenile inspiration, followed by the slow breathing of appraisal… A, B, C…

1, 2, 3…


But nothing. There was no arguing… at least not with the childish conceptual resources at his disposal.

The insight had the character of a religious revelation to him, quite literally. Compared to finding Jesus and losing God it seemed little more than a logical technicality, one of those realizations that you simply trip into. But the consequences… They kept reaching and reproducing and killing…

Murdering until the world was utterly transformed. A semantic holocaust.

He even wept, realizing not only that everything he had hitherto thought (and had been taught) was a lie, but that he himself was a lie. At the tender age of 14, he had discovered that he was an illusion weeping at his illusoriness.

How fucked up was that?

He began smoking dope alone. He would throw on Rush or Pink Floyd and just sit steeping in the music, staring at his experience, trying to will his way through it, or daring it to show its paltry hand.

He became a kind of naive nihilist, blowing away his buddies and alienating all the babes at parties with his arguments against the freedom of will. He would always finish the same way, swinging his arms wide and saying, “It’s all bullshit. All of it. It can’t be and yet it is. Bullshit, through and through!”

Of course, he never stopped believing in the “Bullshit,” as he called it. Dylan was, if anything, quite strident in his moral declarations, and extremely possessive of his choices. Nevertheless, a ribbon of despair continually floated in and out of the obscurities that hedged his daily life–particularly after jerking off. For the first time his thought had been set against his living. He would sigh and look away from all the looked-at things, out a window, or through the fingers of a tree, and just exist in momentary impossibility.

A vacancy absorbing space, as Helen Keller would say.



When people ask me about God I sometimes say that I pray for him, not to him. Sometimes I say I’m having a hard enough time believing in Good, let alone God. Otherwise, I simply shrug.

That, or make like I’m laughing behind my hand.



The early morning drive to work. You know what I mean.

Sunlight gilding the power lines, bellied between poles, on and on, diminishing, sharp and white against the misting greens. Fields like fresh-made beds beneath sunny windows.

His stereo was for shit, so Dylan often drove to the roaring silence of gravel roads, thinking how the weight of his car lay distributed across four rubber-rolling points. All that weight, floating across electromagnetic planes.

Poor stupid bastard. Always mindful of senseless things.



He was ten minutes late arriving at the farm that morning, by the clock. His Dad was shouting, “Jeeezus! Dylan!” before he finally made it out the door. Even still, he had to wait ten more minutes before his boss came stomping out the kitchen door chewing a toasted bacon sandwich.

His boss, Jerry, was a friend of his Dad’s back in the days when his Dad was still into Harley’s, which meant Dylan had literally known Jerry since he was a kid meteorologist projecting fridge-magnet suns and clouds across the gap to the east of Michigan. His Dad had been something of a hero to all the teenage boys on the concession, the go-to man for all things motorcycle, and Jerry had been one of the more hardcore hangers-on. There had been many, many parties, lots of vroom! vroom!–even a couple of gigantic pot plants behind the barn.

Jerry and Dad only rarely got together anymore. This was inevitable, given that they were both heavy drinkers. All drinkers fall in love with their kitchen tables sooner or later. Not only is it hard to make a fool of yourself seated before a flat surface, kitchen tables tend to be pretty forgiving of drunken rages and what not. And since a kitchen table’s whole existence was essentially a black-out, it rarely begrudged boozers their more momentary ones.

The downside was that kitchen tables were confined to the kitchen.

Nevertheless, Jerry had dropped by several months back with a forty-pounder of whiskey, both to tell Dad how he would be share-cropping tobacco on the Finster farm the concession over, and to ask for his advice. Even though Dad had gone back to driving truck, he had spent almost twenty years in tobacco. So the two of them got hammered at the kitchen table, shouting about dirt-bikes and pussy. Things like, “I tell ya, that old Yamie IT 400, when the powerband kicked in? Zoooom! Rip your fucking head off!” Or even better, “You should’ve seen this pig! She picked. A beer bottle. Up“–a long punch-line breath–”With her fucking asshole!

Dylan had landed the job trying to sneak a glass of milk out of the refrigerator.

So here he was. The screen door swung to a negligent crash, and Jerry walked up, nodding and laughing at the gobs of dough that made it impossible to say anything. He would make as though to say something, point to his mouth, then make a ho-hum, waiting-to-finish-chewing expression. He was an enormous man, built like an East German power-lifter, everyone said, but with the face and mannerisms of a knobby-kneed 12 year-old. After a gargantuan swallow he said, “Hey, Dylan… Where’s fucking Cutter?”

Jerry liked to talk to people as though they were his constant companions, apprized of his every thought and move. He wasn’t so keen on context.


“Yeah,” Jerry replied, throwing a piece of crust at a bird hopping through the driveway dust. “Good buddy of mine. He’ll be working with us.”

Dylan wasn’t sure how much he liked the sound of this. Aside from being shy, he was afflicted with a painful awareness of his own peculiarities. Of course adolescents are prone to feel this way, either because of the whole tedious “identity versus role confusion” thing or by sheer dint of masturbation. But in Dylan’s case the peculiarities were quite real. He was always thinking one thought too many. What was worse, he had the bad habit of pinching the suspicions of those around him by verbalizing this surplus cogitation. People generally liked him, but they never really knew what to make of him. He was a kind of blind spot in their field of social vision.

“Jerr!” a female voice cried. “Jeeesus Christ! What? You gotta kick all the doors open?”

It was Jerry’s wife, Arlene, hanging from the interior frame to pull shut the screen door. Everyone called her “Harley,” a name that was entirely at odds with her petite, peasant beauty. Dylan always felt afraid for her whenever she stood close to her husband, she was so small. On two different occasions during the previous years, he found himself spending entire evenings with her on the couch while Dad and Jerry whooped it up at the kitchen table. She frightened him for many reasons, her university education and take-no-prisoners cynicism among them. “Look at them,” she would say of his Dad and her husband, “Just look at them!” before beginning to lampoon their drunken theatrics. Whenever Jerry called out to her, “Honey? What did so-and-so tell you again?”–that kind of stuff–her reply would be pure country ham, “Say to me? Nothing important, I’m sure,” then she would look back at Dylan and screw her face into a can you believe these clowns? look.

That was the thing that freaked him out the most; the way she automatically treated him as though he stood with her were on the inside, automatically, while Jerry and his Dad stood on the stupid, stupid outside–at least while they were drinking. Well, the second most. The thing that freaked him out the most was the way her eyes simply found him, like he was a set of keys lying exactly where she’d left them. When others looked at him, their eyes would either roll around the shape of him, refusing to fasten, or they would out-and-out fix him, peer, as if he were a road sign in the fog. It was never a simple click, oh there you are–not even with his mother and father.

Only with Harley… and his brother.

Jerry turned his profile to her, spit crumbs saying, “Sorry, honey.”

Her scowl turned into a sunny smile the instant she locked eyes with Dylan.

“Hello, handsome. You don’t let him push you around, okay?”

“Hi, Harley.”

“If he gives you a hard time,” she said, receding into the kitchen gloom, fading, “you just let me know.”

Jerry smiled, crammed the rest of his breakfast into his mouth. “I luf tat bitch,” he said, throwing a thumb back over his shoulder. Then he bent over and picked up a stone, threw it at the bird pecking at his discarded crust. He snapped his fingers and grinned when he missed. “Shit.”



I should pause here to reflect on the character of early summer mornings in Southwestern Ontario.

For me those mornings are what shine the brightest in my memory. Had I been a painter instead of a professor, that’s what this book would be, a sunshine sketch of a July morning on a tobacco farm. Dry. Calm. The air chill. The dust cold as tap-water. The long-shadowed sun, rising bright, yet painting the skin with only the merest warmth. The kilns leaning away from the dawn, their angles drawn oblong and acute by the low brilliance. The ink of night dripping into the hollows. And the fields reaching… stark beneath blue-scooped skies.

The tobacco.

I know that Dylan loved them as well; he is me, after all (or should I say, was: he has long ago receded into the it that thinks me). But they were quite different for him, both phenomenologically and existentially speaking.

For me, those mornings have taken on an emblematic beauty, you know, the kind with the adhesive strip on the back, attachable to any clean, dry surface. Memory has unstitched them, tugged them from the whole cloth of experience and turned them into moments of art-gallery indecision. I live no more than thirty-miles from that farm, less than a half-an-hour away, and I literally can’t remember the last tobacco morning I’ve seen.

They all belong to him.

For Dylan, on the other hand, the beauty was embedded, continually harried by a consciousness of the toil to come. They were a sanctuary, to be sure, but more in the sense of a tether than a place. For him, those mornings were always backed against the hard corners that laid pregnant within them: the heat, the sweat, the spinning grimaces against an oh-so-punishing sun. They were the day’s final moment of grace.

And somehow, that made them so much more beautiful.

That’s the thing about running away. Whether you escape or not, the place you ultimately come to always finds itself defined by the place you have fled from.

Nothing falls over the horizon when you flee.



The two of them had a smoke in the driveway while waiting for this Cutter guy to arrive. As I mentioned, Jerry was one of Dad’s old friends in the sense of ‘from before,’ rather than ‘long time.’ This meant lots of uncomfortable courtesies, lots of pretending to give a damn. Jerry asked him how their old dog, a generally ferocious German Shepherd named Soho, was making out.

“Dead,” Dylan replied. “Just found him in the grass one morning a couple years back, both his eyes gone blue.”

Jerry laughed. His lips had this way of pulling away from his teeth when he smiled, as if the muscles to the sides of his mouth were dedicated to mocking seriousness, while those above and below just wanted to howl–they kind of opened like a shiny red horn. In anybody else, this would have been out-and-out weird, but with Jerry it just seemed to work–and to wondrous effect. The man had the most contagious smile Dylan had ever seen–enough to make him chuckle at the death of his own dog.

“I remember that fucking dog, alright,” Jerry said, looking down and shaking his head to some beat only he could hear. “Bit me in the sack that one time, you remember that?”

“Ooo yeah. Owich. But he was good with the family.” Dylan took a drag of his own smoke. “Scared me a couple times when I was a kid…”

“What was his name again. Pike? Pickerel?”

“Soho. And she was a she.”

“Too bad about him dying, though.”

Jerry was always a couple of moments absorbing bad news.

“Well, your sack can rest easy.”

Jerry threw his thumb back over his shoulder to the screen door and its phantom of Harley moving in the kitchen beyond. “I don’t know about that!”

They both laughed, not so much because it was funny, but because it was moment for laughter. Everything had its rhythms, even waiting in driveways.

“I actually picked out a dog–” Jerry began, but was interrupted by the swooshing arrival of a poppy-red Buick Regal. “Here’s the fucker!” he said, as the dust rolled over them.

Cutter skidded to a halt behind Dylan’s baby blue Mustang Gia, sat for a moment, a shadow behind the flash of the early morning sun across his windshield. The wailing crash of guitars–Motley Crüe by the sounds of it–whined through the air over the engine’s low-throttle rumble.

“He’s a character,” Jerry informed Dylan. “Great fucking guy.”

The car coughed into silence, and the door made the airy creak that only big-boned North American models can manage. The first thing Dylan thought when Cutter climbed out was that he looked like a scrapper, like someone who could kick some major ass if he wanted. Running shoes, faded blue-jeans, a ratty-white T-shirt with a washed out Pioneer logo across the front (“Like my farm wear?” the guy would ask later that day, pinching his pecs like titties.). He walked around the front of his car, dragging his feet over the gravel, staring meditatively at the cigarette he was trying to light behind a shielding palm. “You must be Dylan,” he said, puffing and looking up. “That your Mustang, there?”

He looked like Burt Lancaster. He had one of those hard handsome-mean faces, the kind designed by God to enter pleas in family court. Everything about him, his saunter, his grey eyes, even the way he grinned, like the Joker out of Batman only with a magazine model’s teeth, seemed to be ‘asking for it.’

Dylan swallowed. “Yup.”

“You gotta watch out for those Ford four-bangers. They’re programmed to self-destruct at seventy-five grand.”

Dylan still smiled, though he had started scowling within. His car had always been a touchy subject: he had bought it from Dad for 2,500 bucks, not so much because he wanted to–it was fucking baby-blue, after-all–but because Dad needed the cash and swore up and down that it was a “great car.” When Dylan brought the thing to Canadian Tire for the safety, the mechanic asked him how much he paid. The asshole laughed in his face when Dylan told him. Shaking his head at the wonders of human stupidity, he said, “Buddy, you go screwed.” When Dylan told him he’d bought it from his father, the guy had to lean against the chapped vinyl roof, he was howling so hard.

“Programmed?” Dylan asked.

“Seventy-five thousand. I shit you not.”

“How do you know?”

Cutter simply shrugged.

“They tell me tobacco is hard work,” he said to the empty space between the three of them. Then, as if to pick a fight, he blew smoke at its vacant face.

“I was just telling Dylan that I picked out my dog,” Jerry said. “A black Lab.”

“Yeah? What are you going to call this one? Trout?” Without missing a beat he turned to Dylan. “He called his last dog Goldfish”–a bobble-headed roll of his eyes–”fucking Goldfish!” He turned to Jerry, laughing, smacked him lightly on the shoulder. It was a gesture Dylan would see countless times: a cackle, a mischievous look, a sideways lean (so that one Adidas left the ground), and a reach that culminated in a push or tap. He even did this little move afterward, a vestigal mime of a boxer’s bob and weave. Taken together, it was the physical version of, Just joking with you, you fucker


Jerry laughed and pushed his buddy back, but in a manner too stiff to be habitual. Somehow, Dylan knew without knowing the big man had done it for his benefit–Dylan’s–to remind him who was boss.

Eyes to God, Cutter shook his head at Dylan as if to say, Here we fucking go



Dylan first read Being and Time as an undergraduate at York University. He began auditing philosophy classes in an effort to understand deconstruction and Derrida, whom he initially thought just had to be wrong, whatever it was the crazy bastard was saying.

Heidegger would be his second theoretically motivated religious revelation, one that would ultimately lead to his disastrous tenure as a Branch Derridean. The facticity of his throwness made a deep impression on him. As did the ontological difference. He realized his earlier revelation was simply that of a naive 14 year-old, one who had been brainwashed by the Encyclopedia of Technology and Innovation that he’d received for Christmas when he was 8. He had made a fetish out of science, failing to see that science had its own historical and conceptual conditions, that it was a skewed artifact, part of the dread “metaphysics of presence.”

Aristotle, man. Had to go fuck things up for everybody.

It was a joyous, heady time for Dylan. Suddenly the world, which had been little more than a skin of mammalian lies when he looked with his theoretical eyes, became positively soupy with meaning. Sure, thanks to differance, he could never nail that meaning down with representation, but it was the oh-so-Western urge to nail that was the problem. He had been the proverbial man with a hammer–of course he had seen all questions as ontic nails! At long last he could set aside the conceptual toolbox he had inherited from his well-intentioned, but ultimately deluded Euro-fathers.

He still waved his arms at parties, but this time the babes seemed to listen. He stared in the mirror saying, “Je ne sais quoi…” He cursed himself for hating French when he was in public school. He began practicing his Gallic shrug. He openly envied the children of diplomats.

Since he had read Derrida and Heidegger, he had no choice but to read Descartes. How could he carry on the critique of metaphysics unless he immersed himself the Western Tradition? Know thy enemy, no? This lead him to ponder the famous Frenchman’s infamous cogito, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes attempt, given the collapse in confidence wrought by the new science of the 17th century, to place knowledge on a new, secure, subjective foundation.

But who did the guy think he was fooling? Really?

To show just how hopeless Descartes was, Dylan began returning to Nietzsche time and again in most all of his undergraduate papers. He loved Nietzsche, but only as a kind of accessory to Derrida. At parties, when everyone started arguing over what was what in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Dylan would always say he was the dead tightrope walker stuffed in the hollow of a dead tree. Damn that Zarathustra! Then, if people were stoned enough, he would put his hand over his mouth and call, “Let me out. Help. Please. I’m a dead tightrope walker stuffed in a tree…” in his best deadpan.

But in his papers, he was all Beyond Good and Evil. He continually paraphrased Nietzsche’s famous reformulation of the Cartesian cogito. He would always write, using a double hanging indent for dramatic purposes,

It thinks, therefore I am.

Of course, the “it” simply had to be italicized, if only to underscore the abject impersonality at the root of subjectivity. Even though we like to think our thoughts come from our prior thoughts, which is to say, from ourselves, the merest reflection shows this cannot be the case, that each thought is dropped into consciousness from the outside, and that hence the ‘I’ is born after the fact.

Love him or hate him, his undergrad peers genuinely feared him. Few English Literature students bothered to read the works assigned, let alone pursue the history of Western Metaphysics in their spare time. First one professor, then another, asked him to save his questions for after class. “You have to understand how unnatural all this is,” the second told him. “Your classmates live in a state of almost constant anxiety as it is. When you start posing questions they can’t even understand…” A long, pained look. “Do you see what I’m saying, Dylan?”

You have to shut the fuck up, kid… For the greater good.

Theory kills.



Sometimes, when I think about it, it seems that the bulk of what Dylan knew he knew without knowing.

Most of it hailed from the stone age. He knew without knowing, for instance, that Cutter was obsessed with what psychologists call dominance hierarchies. You couldn’t be a teenager without encountering dozens of these guys–you know, the kind that made a pissing contest out of every occasion. Some required a certain amount of drink to show their hand, others were 24/7. Some were all talk, bluster you played along with because what else was there to do? Others barely said anything at all, they would just grab you and off to the races you go. Most were idiots, and the smart ones tended to be filled with bluster, unless that is, they became very drunk and decided to prove their own bullshit to themselves–usually on easy targets.

Without knowing, Dylan knew that Cutter was something of a mutant when it came to this type. He was 24/7, that was for sure. He was also smart. But there was no bluster to him whatsoever, at least none that Dylan could detect. Bullshitters always hedged, as if rationing the degree of skin bared to the amount of suntan lotion remaining. They always had a keen sense of the lines crossed, which is why they needed to blur things with booze before they could ‘follow their heart.’ Somehow Dylan just knew that Cutter would be Cutter, no matter how much he drank. And he was right.

Everything was a pissing contest for Cutter, the looks, the grins, even the apologetic smacks on the shoulder. Everything.

And–this was the thing–the guy knew it.

Later, when he found the courage to ponder Cutter at all, Dylan would wonder if the guy was a sociopath. There was a kind of relief to those wonderings, a sense of putting things into their proper perspective.

One of the peculiarities about Dylan was that he had no idea what obnoxious was. He knew what an asshole was–an asshole was anybody who fucked him over. To say someone was an asshole was to say something personal. To say someone was obnoxious, on the other hand, was to say something social. A guy could be an asshole to you and a sweetheart to others, no problem. But a guy who was obnoxious was obnoxious, end of story.

A 30 year-old version of himself would have instantly realized that Cutter was obnoxious. But the 17 year-old version? Looking back, it seems Dylan had started making excuses for Cutter right from the very beginning, chuckling in the driveway, thinking him cool, and secretly hoping he would pass uncut through the guy’s dance of witty razors. Even Harley would ask him (later), “Can’t you see how obnoxious he is?” And Dylan would shrug and say, “You just gotta know him…”

He would think she was calling him an asshole.

I’m not saying anything new here, only blowing explicit smoke out of implicit asses. As I said, Dylan knew all this without knowing.

Even that he was dead wrong.



He wandered into the equipment barn listening to the two buddies shoot the shit to the wood-and-cement ring of their own echoes–something about a mutual fuck-up friend they professed to love, but obviously enjoyed pitying and carving more. Moments later, Dylan and Cutter were sitting on the back of a splintered flatbed trailer, while Jerry bounced on the spring seat of the John Deere 2755 that pulled them out, through the kiln-yard, into the early morning glare, and on to the deep green fields of tobacco.

At first Cutter said nothing, apparently content to soak in his new surroundings. Though no one had told him as much, Dylan could tell he was a city boy–or “cidiot,” as Dad called them. If Cutter’s out-on-a-lark attitude hadn’t given it away from the outset, his present, almost pensive attentiveness to his surroundings certainly would have. Sitting on a trailer behind a tractor, watching grass and earthen tracks blur into streamers beneath beaten tennis shoes was something Dylan was all too familiar with. Not so for Cutter. Dylan found the fact that the guy didn’t try to pretend otherwise, that he seemed keen on absorbing the novelty rather than denying it, well, disarming. He didn’t think it might be simply because Cutter had decided he wasn’t worth the trouble, that he was too much a boy or too obviously a goof to warrant the work of manly posturing.

Either way, something unspoken happened in that first leg of their journey to the irrigation pond. Something that for each instantly cemented the other as friend.

High up on the tractor, Jerry kept turning his profile so they could see his laugh, which neither of them could hear for the roar of the John Deere.

“Look at him,” Cutter called, rocking to the screech and rattle of the trailer. They both sat to the side, feet hanging, shoulders hunched forward for balance, their hands pressed tight to the flat-bed edge.

“He’s a happy man,” Dylan confirmed.

“Ever since I knew him in high school, he’s been talking about this, a crack at his own farm.” Another what-the-fuck glance at heaven. Cutter was one of those guys who could talk effortlessly around their cigarette. Dylan never could. Christ, every once and a while he caught himself holding his butts like a fag–which is to say, between the top knuckles of his index and fuck-you fingers.

“Not too bright,” Dylan replied, at once wincing and congratulating himself for this first small treachery.

Cutter took a faux-thoughtful drag off his cigarette, blew smoke out the side of his mouth, as if through a feeding tube.

“He hired me, didn’t he?”

And that was that. They were the workers, and Jerry was the Boss.



“My babeeez!” Jerry shouted after shutting down the tractor. His jump to the dust jarred him into a jog. “My babeeez iz cryin’ fer wotter!” He had this kind of shambling, butt-heavy walk, where his feet scraped whatever–grass, dirt, gravel–as he threw them like weights from ropes attached at the knee.

July is a hot month in Southwestern Ontario, and despite the humidity, quite parched as well–at least back then, when CO2 concentrations were a pathetic 340 or so parts per million. Because of the warm nights, you have nothing in the way of dew in the morning. And for whatever climatic reason, it seems to lack the mile-high thunderheads that pile in from the west through June and August. This, combined with the water requirements of tobacco, not to mention the sandy soils it thrives in, means that July was typically irrigation season.

Every farm had an irrigation pond of some description. Most were spring fed, typically clawed out of the corner of some field, a rink-sized-and-shaped pool of brackish water ringed by grass and sumac covered mounds. Others would be dammed creeks, drowned gullies found in the perennial wood-lots that fence the far side of every Ontario field. Jerry’s irrigation pond was of the former variety, only especially brackish and almost comically overgrown.

Tobacco in Ontario is a ‘managed’ agricultural industry. As a result, almost all the farms were about the same size: fifty acres or so of tobacco, with at least as much land in cash crops, beans or cereals, so that you could rotate the fields every season. When it came to irrigation, nothing was more important than the layout of the fields. Some fields you could plumb as easy as a summer cottage. Others required multiple ponds and a stupendous number of pipes which you had to move entirely as you cycled through the various fields. Having worked on the latter, Dylan was more than a little relieved that Jerry’s farm was one of the former. Jerry himself kept singing, “A, B, C, wait and see!

Two kinds of pipes are used, fat pipe, 18 foot long 6 inch aluminum monsters, and skinny pipe, just as long, but only 4 inches in diameter. Usually the pipes are stored outdoors in the vicinity of the irrigation pond, which was the case here. It was in the course of kicking down all the weeds that had grown around the stack that Dylan felt the first tickle of foreboding. The feeling only deepened as they began loading the pipes on the flatbed. Finally, he asked whether there were more pipes hidden away somewhere.

“We have more than enough here,” Jerry laughed. “Believe you me.”

“So they’re no others? Anywhere?”

A, B, C. 1, 2, 3…”

Cutter simply shot him a quizzical look.

This is how it works. You set up your pump–which in this case was a positively ancient, home-built affair, an old truck engine hooked to a rust-skinned intake and outlet mechanism, all welded onto a trailer with two flat tires–at the pond’s edge. Then you run your fat pipe to carry the water out to the fields, usually along the nearest dirt roads, but sometimes through ditches, woods, what have you. Each pipe is joined to the other using a separate coupler, half of which usually have rotted rubber seals on the inside. Once you arrive at the field, you begin counting rows, usually 16 or so, where you put your junction valves, literally silver aluminum fire hydrants with upright wheels to control the flow to the skinny pipes, which actually carry the water into the fields. These are connected to the irrigation guns, which stand about 10 feet high, perched on a storkish frame with wheels that run down the rows to either side of the one with the pipes down it. This allows you to manhandle the gun down the rows in staged increments from one end of the field to the other. Like a lawn sprinkler it could only throw the water so far.

Dylan always had a soft spot for the guns because they looked, despite their rather simple design, like something out of Star Wars.

Ideally, you have enough pipe, both fat and skinny, to lay out for all the fields. This way, you spend a hard day piping, and then all you have to move are the guns as you run through your cycle. Irrigation is sweet when this is the case. Since the sun and the wind cause so much evaporation during the day, you spend most of your time irrigating at night, getting catnaps here and there, depending on the intervals between moving the guns down the rows and across the fields. When you don’t have enough pipe to lay out the entire cycle, you’re continually recycling pipe you’ve already used. This is a royal pain in the ass. Rather than napping or throwing around cards, you spend all the time between the gun changes taking the pipe from the last row the gun went down, and carrying them one at a time across 16 rows, through muck, falling water, witch-fingered tobacco, in pitch black, with nary an hour of uninterrupted sleep, to the next row the gun needs to go down. Back and forth, over and over.

Fucking miserable.

A, B, C,” Jerry kept singing, “wait and see. A, B, C. 1, 2, 3…”

By time they had loaded the fat pipe on the flat bed, there was no denying the woeful numbers of skinny pipe remaining: Old Man Finster, the guy who owned Jerry’s farm, only had the barest minimum. Cheap prick. It was so bad that Dylan even contemplated quitting, right then and there. But Jerry was just so… oblivious. For someone like Dylan, who was too confused by social consequences to not be terrified of them, taking a stand like that would have been a rank impossibility. Besides, Dad would have kicked his ass–quite literally.

“That’s not so bad!” Cutter shouted afterward, slapping the dust from his thighs.

“Yeah?” Dylan replied. “Just wait.”

Jerry bobbed his head and cackled at this. “I told you, Cutter. Tobacco ain’t no walk in the park.”

The big man had misunderstood him, Dylan realized. He had thought he was referring to Cutter’s virginal inexperience, not to the logistical cluster-fuck just over the horizon. And Dylan understood, though this knowledge was little more than a spasm of anxiety, that at some level Jerry resented his good buddy, Cutter, that he would leap at any opportunity to avenge a foggy mountain of suspected slights.

Dylan turned to Cutter as Jerry climbed back into the John Deere. The sharp-eyed man winked as if to say, Welcome to the back of the bus. This slippery triangle of who’s in and who’s out, would characterize their relationship right up to the very end. No matter where you found yourself, if Cutter was there, you could bet there would be marbles on the floor.

He liked things wobbly.

Because the fields were pretty much adjacent and rectilinear, rather than shaped like gobs and spread between wooded gullies, laying the fat pipe was a simple matter of pulling one after another off the flat bed as Jerry putted along the dirt roads on the tractor. The big man had the radio cranked to FM 96, the only local station (in what was then a rock and roll desert between Detroit and Toronto) to play the odd cool tune. He bounced his head while staring across his fields or watching Dylan and Cutter walk, lift, drop, kneel to connect, again and again. Every once and awhile he pulled off his beaten AC/DC cap to squeeze the sweat out of his thinning blond hair. The sun glared up from the east, seemed to be gathering heat out of proportion to its position in the sky. Waist tall, the tobacco stretched out in stately rows, the deep-sea green of old Disney movies, as motionless as marble pillars.

“If my old lady had her way,” Cutter said at one point, “I’d be laying pipe like this at home all day.”

Dylan cracked up, even though he found the notion of Cutter married… unconvincing. Even when Cutter showed him pictures of his two kids later that day–pale, anemic looking boys, with dark, asthmatic rings beneath their eyes–Dylan found himself less than credulous.

His skepticism always seemed random and inappropriate in those days.

Cutter raised the pipe they were hoisting to his mouth and shouted “Halloo! Halloo!” into its reverberating length. “Hear that?” he said, as they let it clunk to the earth. “That’s what it sounds like when I go down on her…”

A few minutes later he added, “She’s got a pussy like a culvert.”

Then, several minutes after that, “Like dipping your dick in a bucket of warm water.”

He book-ended each of these remarks with a growling cackle and predatory grin, of course. But something about his tone told Dylan he was dead serious. With Cutter, he was quickly learning, half the riddle was figuring out when he was joking and when he wasn’t. Although Dylan was far too much in awe of the guy to consider the possibility, I sometimes wonder whether even Cutter knew. He certainly didn’t care, which is–or was–the important thing.

After finishing with the fat pipe they bombed back to the pond to gather the skinny stuff. Bouncing across the rattling back of the flat bed, Cutter turned to him and said, entirely without warning, “You shooor got purty lips…”

Dylan had no clue what the guy was talking about, and when he told Cutter as much, the guy simply shrugged and looked away to the dizzy sweep of passing rows. Dylan let it go, scowling at his homophobic scruples, hackles, what have you…

Yes, Cutter would play even with this.

Years later, when Dylan finally got around to seeing Deliverance, that moment came back to him with the clarity of a colour still: the bone-coloured boards across the bed of the trailer, the clods of dirt and stray hairs of weed shimming across the vibrating surface, and Cutter, leaning back, his thick-chested torso framed by the whirring black of the tractor tires, staring down a world that already bored him. Dylan actually cringed at the image, shrank in his clothes, feeling as soft and as ineffectual as Ned Beatty. And he realized yet another thing about Cutter–perhaps the most troubling thing of all. Not only was the guy quite happy to live alone with his jokes, he was perfectly willing to leave them altogether, let them gestate for years in their host, until some inevitable event at last brought their punch-line to light.

It made him seem almost, well, evil.

You might think working with the skinny pipes would be easier because they tended to be so much lighter, but this wasn’t the case. Since you need to bring them into the field, you have to carry them progressively farther from the trailer, which is parked at the end of the row. Since you have to walk so far, you end up carrying each pipe solo, rather than having someone on either end. And the tobacco laps at you, tongue after tacky tongue, its stickiness caramelizing your arm hairs, your shirt and jeans. Because every mote of dust that touches you latches, you soon find yourself painted in an inescapable black gum–which is why almost every tobacco farm has an outdoor tap with a bar of sand-soap or a tub of some kind of industrial detergent sitting next to it.

At first you think it’s a great workout, laying skinny pipe, like getting paid to go to the gym–on a beach no less. Some of the pipes even have sand in them, residue sucked up from the bottom of the pond, making them every bit as heavy as fat pipe. Cutter and Dylan actually curled these bitches as they carried them down the rows–at first. But the gym illusion evaporates as quickly as your body fluids. It’s grunt work, plain and simple. All tobacco is grunt work, which is why those farms still remaining have to import their workers from the Caribbean. Kids who used to wipe sunburned cheeks in those fields Now press pale, apprehensive faces against passenger windows as they whiz past black-skinned crews of planters, toppers, suckerers, primers, what have you.

People gotta smoke.

After they finished with the last of the four inch, Jerry took them to what he called the “smoke shack,” a small out-building tucked in the back corner of the kilnyard, announcing with an affable laugh that it was time for a “sesh,” as he and most everyone else called dope-smoking sessions. It was cute, the way he had the interior of the shed decked out: a scuff-silver ghetto-blaster for tunes, a ratty case of cassettes, three lawn chairs (each belonging to different sets), a cooler (filled with beer, it so happened), a Playboy calender on the wall, and a small table with a crib-board and a couple decks of cards. Without so much as a word the big man plopped himself down in one of the chairs. Cutter followed suit, acting as if the shack were the first sane thing he’d encountered all day. Only Dylan was taken aback–all he could think was that he’d left his lunch in the car. He awkwardly took the remaining seat, feeling as though his limbs were twice as long as they were.

Cutter leaned to the cooler, popped the lid with two fingers. “Awwwww,” he said like a dyke blushing over roses. “You shouldn’t have!” Grinning around his smoke, he pulled a shining Labatt’s Blue from the water and ice.

“I aim to pleeeeze!” Jerry laughed, fishing a vial of oil from the foils of his cigarette pack–a one-grammer. He reached behind the ghetto to produce a bottle-toker, paused to press play as he leaned back. AC/DC squawked from somewhere in the middle of “For Those About to Rock,” more sudden than loud.

“Who wants to drive?” he called, holding the bottle and vial up, but in such a way that Dylan realized he had been drafted. He took them in hand with an appeasing frown as the two older men laughed.

On the outside again.

For whatever reason, oil was the primary form of marijuana that summer (and for several summers following) in Southwestern Ontario. It was made by soaking crushed marijuana leaves, or “shake,” in alcohol, which you then boiled down to the consistency of tar, which was precisely what oil looked like: the tar you find on the inside of pipes. The price varied with quality and supply (the demand was constant), but usually you could score a gram vial for 15 bucks, a 2.5 gram vial (called a “pud”) for about 30 bucks, and a “fiver,” or a five gram vial for around 50 bucks. In the circles that Dylan moved in, you could count on pretty much every third guy (and quite a few chicks as well) having either a gram, pud, or fiver on their person.

You always used a pin of some kind to fish the oil out, but otherwise you smoked it in one of three ways. Either you spread it across a rolling paper which you then filled by twisting tobacco out of the end of a cigarette (every once in awhile those in the know would get a laugh when someone accidently pulled out a smoke with the end twined tight at a straight occasion), rolled, and then smoked. These were typically called ‘splifs’ to distinguish them from joints proper. Or you pulled a glob from the vial and simply dropped it on the heater of a cigarette; within a second a thick thread of smoke would spiral upward, which you could breathe in over the course several dozen seconds. Or you pulled a glob from the vial and dropped it on the heater of a cigarette which you then stuffed into a small hole knocked into the side near the bottom of a bottle–into a ‘bottle-toker.’ This way you could let the whole glob burn off without any waste, then wait for the smoke cool in the bottle, which would quickly become opaque. After you had driven a BT (or “steered a bot” as they referred to the process around Toronto way), you would simply hand it to whoever was next in line. They would literally scoop it into their lungs with a single, quick inhalation.

If you had time and privacy, BTs were far and away the most popular method of doing oil. Only people whose lungs had been pooched by years of smoking seemed to prefer splifs.

The key to driving good bottle-tokes, or ‘BTs’ as they were called, was to insert the cigarette on an angle so that you could always see the glob on the cigarette’s heater no matter how fogged with smoke the interior became. That way you could watch it sizzle into a stream, then yank it from the bottle before it was “cooked.” If you held it past that point (when the black glob suddenly glowed orange and petrified into ash), you would get plain old secondhand smoke in the bottle, and the toke would be what was called “kife,” probably because inhaling it cut at the lungs like a fucking knife. Giving someone a kife toke was not cool, and required an apology akin to cooking someone a bad meal: you’re sorry, but not too sorry, because hell, you’re the one doing the lifting.

Even still, Dylan had seen the kife toke used as a weapon on more than one occasion. If you received several kife tokes in a row, someone was telling you to go fuck yourself, as simple as that. It was one reason why Dylan actually preferred driving–he never punished people with tokes, so harmony was preserved. The other reason was that he could squeeze more stone out of a gram of oil than any human living. No matter what the party, if the oil was running low, the expectation was that Dylan would drive the BTs. As pathetic as it sounds, he took real pride in that. It was no small thing to be turned to when you were 17.

Dylan didn’t become self-conscious about handing Cutter the first toke until the moment after he had done so. In certain circumstances, the question of who got the first toke was extraordinarily political, even though no dope-smoker, ever, acknowledged as much. You might think this would be another reason for Dylan to prefer driving (you have to remember, the cool thing was pretend it was a pain in the ass). But in fact, it was probably the single biggest thing he hated about it. He actually went so far as keeping track of who got the first BT between seshes, so that he could alternate, and so deter the suspicion he was playing favourites. After handing Cutter the BT, he told himself something about it being his way to welcome the “new guy,” even though he knew for a fact that he himself, and not Cutter, was the third wheel in this particular party.

But he also knew that things were already changing.

Cutter made chimpanzee lips to blow the smoke out and up. He thanked Dylan with a quick glance, which like all his glances seemed too canny.

Despite his efforts, the BT he steered for Jerry was kife. The big man coughed mightily, to the point where something unseen snapped in his chair. He then spent several moments blinking tears and smacking his tongue across his own palette. It’s almost impossible to describe the taste of a kife toke, really. Kind of like coughing up engine oil, but worse. Kife is… well, fucking kife.

“Sorry, man,” Dylan said, genuinely mortified.

Faaaawk that,” Cutter replied. “He’s the bawwss man. He’s supposed to work harder than the rest of us.”

That…” Jerry rasped with a pained smile, “wasn’t so ba-ba-ba–” His body seized in a silent cough.

“The next will be better,” Dylan said. “I swear…”

No-no,” Jerry wheezed, waving a hand. “That. Was. Great.” His upraised hand lingered, then began playing air-drums in time with the music, and he did what so many did when trying to pretend that a toke or a shot was anything but the kick in the balls it in fact was: he began banging his head to the tunes.

“You don’t cough, you don’t get off!” Cutter cried, smiling at Jerry, then rolling his eyes for Dylan.

On the inside, again.

There’s something liquid about getting baked, something at once loosey-goosey and chill. Dylan could feel it rise through him as he steered toke after toke, nodding to the tunes and listening to Jerry and Cutter bullshit back and forth. Cutter was pretending to ask questions about the farm, and Jerry was answering with boyish pride–this was his farm. Dylan had no idea how he knew that Cutter was pretending, he was scarcely aware of knowing at all, he just did somehow, the same as he ‘just knew’ Jerry had no clue whatsoever. The loosey-goosey came from the sloppiness of things, the sense of events doing a slow tumble beneath the crisp glare of light–as though he were part of an ethereal mudslide or something. The chill came from his heightened awareness of all things social, the padded bandwidth that allowed him to see that Cutter had no interest whatsoever in what Jerry had to say.

Stoned and weirded out, Dylan studied the interior of their shack, stared at the bare studs, at the blooms of bygone oil stains across the plywood floor, at the proverbial lightbulb hanging from a wire. He found his eyes lingering on the Playboy calendar, roaming from tits to pussy and back again. That was the thing about staring at pussy when you were stoned: it tingled.

He reminded himself to breathe.

He caught a glimpse of Jerry setting this room up, grinning at all the fun he was going to have, at how appreciative Cutter and Dylan would be. But instead of smiling along with the image, Dylan found himself agitated by it, as though they were sitting in the bedroom of a recently deceased child. There was something sad in the idea of Jerry going to all this trouble, something that filled Dylan with a faint anxiousness for the big man.

Not that he wasn’t appreciative. This was too cool for school, without a doubt. Part of him already rehearsed what he would say to his buddies when he saw them this weekend. The anxiousness had nothing to do with being drunk or high at work–Christ, that was status quo. No, it had to do with collapsing what seemed an essential opposition: hard work and hard partying. It just seemed so obvious that someone in Jerry’s position had to police the boundary somehow, someway–even if only for show. Copping a pose is always a good way to keep your options open.

The fact that Jerry had decided to have it both ways, and apparently thought himself cool and daring for doing so, simply made him seem weak.

Only afterward–years afterward–would I realize what Dylan never could: that Jerry had made this shack for Cutter and for Cutter alone.

Because that, you see, was the essence of Cutter’s genius…

Making people weak.

Inchoroi Love Song

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: compliments of Thomas Metzinger


There’s this pernicious myth out there, one that bears too many similarities to the kinds of bootstrapping myths you find in popular culture more generally. The claim is that individuals and/or communities are makers of meaning.

Just think of all the narratives you’ve encountered where the hero has to own up to some difficult ‘choice,’ an easy, cowardly one that will lead to a dissolute, meaningless existence, and a difficult, courageous one that will lead to status, love, and the restoration of some traditional order. We are weaned on versions of what might be called the ‘HUMAN Potential Narrative,’ stories that teach us to strive, strive, strive (which is to say, work-work-work—largely for the benefit of others) to become ‘more than we are.’ This is, without any real doubt, the dominant ideology of the liberal democratic West. This is largely why we tend to buy into our system as enthusiastically as we do, and this is largely why so many of us think we only have ourselves to blame when we almost inevitably fail to achieve our ‘dreams.’ The more our meritocracies seem to drip away, the more our aggrandizing myths seem to seize our imagination.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the bootstrapping impulse seems to so intimately inform so much transhumanist and posthumanist thought.

The value of science lies in the way it renders the natural world compliant to HUMAN desire. Science, whatever it is, means power over the natural. Since extracting what we need from our natural environments is what we are all about, biologically speaking, science has proven to be an almost miraculous boon. The twentieth century, however, provided us with the first real indications that our power over nature could possess catastrophic consequences, intended or otherwise. Nuclear Armageddon. Biological Apocalypse. Environmental Ragnarok. Pick your poison.

And the pharmakon is growing. Now, we are entering an era which will see HUMAN nature become thoroughly compliant to HUMAN desire, and so dwell in the shadow of yet another catastrophic consequence: the Semantic Apocalypse.

The potential problem with rendering HUMAN nature compliant to HUMAN desire is quite obvious: given that HUMAN desire is rooted in HUMAN nature, the power to transform HUMAN nature according to HUMAN desire becomes the power to transform HUMAN desire according to HUMAN desire. This is a cornerstone of what troubles so-called ‘bioconservatives’ like Francis Fukuyama, for instance: the possibility of ‘desire run amok’—or put differently, the breakdown of the consensual values required for liberal democratic society.

For the first time in HUMAN history, in other words, the biological basis of HUMAN desire will be put into play. Given that this is historically unprecedented, and given the degree to which social cohesion depends upon overlapping networks of consistent—or at the very least, compatible—desires, the threat seems quite clear. ‘Designer desires’ should have the same sinister ring as ‘neurocosmetic surgery.’ Imagine waking up and deciding what to wear as well as what to feel for the day.

Now it should be noted that pretty much everyone in the field understands the social necessity of regulating desire (value). What distinguishes bioconservatives like Fukuyama is the desire to prevent the problem of designer desires from even arising, to regulate, in effect, the technologies of HUMAN nature. Call this the Easy Answer. Even though it would likely be impossible in practice to regulate these technologies (because the market, not to mention, strategic, advantages would be too decisive), it certainly is easy to suggest in theory. Pass a law, perish the thought.

Fukuyama’s myriad critics, on the other hand, have a harder row to hoe. What they need to provide is some kind of theoretical assurance that things won’t go awry in the manner that Fukuyama fears. The strategy, at least from what little I’ve read, seems to be twofold: to argue, first, that HUMAN desire as it stands is biologically, historically, or conceptually insufficient and so only stands to gain from technological augmentation and the resulting cultural transformations, and second, that desire is self-regulating in some way.

So with regards to the first strategy, you find Nick Bostrom, for instance, continually characterizing HUMAN desire as it exists as a kind of biological cage. If only we could set aside our fears, we could let desire fly into the vast possibility space of transhuman potential. Or Donna Haraway, continually characterizing HUMAN desire as it exists as a kind of socio-biological cage. The fear should be embraced as belonging to the liberating potential of transcending the oppressive conceptual and political orthodoxy of our existing values.

With reference to the second strategy, you find, to put it crudely, the wanker’s predictable and perhaps obligatory faith in wank. For transhumanists like Bostrom, this faith seems to be grounded in the Enlightenment link between autonomy and reason. As Kenan Malik writes in his review of Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future, HUMANs “possess the capacity to rise above their natural inclinations and, through the use of reason, to shape their values. But if this is so, then no amount of biotechnological intervention will transform our fundamental  values.” For other posthumanists, particularly those with poststructuralist commitments, you generally find varying degrees of residual commitment to these selfsame values, only refracted through the funhouse lens of some specific diagnostic cultural critique. So for posthumanists like Cary Wolfe, for instance, who place animal suffering on a par with HUMAN suffering, the present situation is simply so horrific that any exit has to be a good exit. Anything that forces society to abandon the conceptual cage of the ‘HUMAN’ and the horrifying crimes that it licences is a good thing.

Needless to say, we tend to be pretty cynical about the ‘power of reason’ to ‘bootstrap HUMAN desire’ here at Three Pound Brain. Like Hume guessed, and cognitive psychology is discovering, reason seems primarily invested in rationalizing desire. To use Haidt’s metaphor, these guys are putting the elephant on the back of the rider.

But I literally think that all of this, from Fukuyama to Bostrom to Haraway and Wolfe, is beside the point. Why? Because no one—including them—knows what the fuck they are talking about.

Strong words, I know, but I mean them quite literally.

Should we count contemporary philosophical theories of the HUMAN as knowledge? Of course not. But the sad fact is that this is all we got. Opinions abound, the way they always abound, and the wild diversity of claims is enough to beggar belief. Until recently almost all theoretical claims regarding the HUMAN were prescientific in a very profound sense. All things being equal, the overarching reason why we can’t definitively decide between varying philosophical conceptions of the ‘HUMAN’ is the same reason any other prescientific speculation regarding another domain couldn’t arbitrate between its competing claims. No one knew what they were talking about. Of course, people in the grip of this or that interpretation are prone to forget as much, to treat abject guesswork as knowledge, but this is just what we do: buy our own bullshit.

The HUMAN, as yet, eludes anything resembling thorough scientific understanding. The speculative discourses devoted to it, such as philosophy, literature, and so on, contradict one another in innumerable ways. Perhaps no concept is so wildly overdetermined. When we talk about the ‘posthuman,’ there’s a very real sense in which we are talking about the ‘post-whatchamacallit.’ As yet, we really have no idea just what it is that science is set to transform. Aside from low resolution facts, all we really know about the ‘HUMAN’ as we intuit it is that we cannot trust our intuition. As Eric Schwitzgebel puts it, “There are major lacunae in our self-knowledge that are not easily filled in, and we make gross, enduring mistakes about even the most basic features of our currently ongoing conscious experience, even in favorable circumstances of careful reflection, with distressing regularity.”

It really is the case that science might have more humbling, epochal revelations to make, perhaps the most dreadful of all revelations, a final ‘wound’ (to use Freud’s famous image) which kills far more than our narcissism. Think about it. Creeping medicalization. Corporations retooling themselves in ways to manage you as a mechanism. The factory farm is becoming the assembly plant as we speak.

Should we worry that this is the very trend we might expect given the truth of nihilism (the trend given narrative bones in Neuropath). Should we write it off as mere coincidence? Or should we prepare? This very experience you are having now really could be a kind of informatic dream, systematically connected to actual, effective processes of the brain, but hopelessly distorted—and certainly not an ‘agent’ in any obvious intentional sense. And the more we learn, the more plausible this seems to become.

When it comes to this debate as opposed to the posthuman, I find myself stranded, quite against my wishes, on the side that thinks science will show how the ‘HUMAN’ as we intuit it is largely hallucinatory, an artifact of any number of neuromechanical kluges. I could be wrong. Christ, I pray that I’m wrong. But no amount of neoenlightenment or poststructuralist speculation can decide the issue one way or another. The fact is, for better or worse, the question of HUMAN meaning has now become an empirical one. The question of the posthuman is largely a question of the consequences of neuromechanical intervention, of how we will change ourselves once we know ourselves. And this means the question of meaning is prior to the question of the posthuman, both practically and theoretically. To talk about transhuman or posthuman ‘value’ is to assume there will be such a thing. If meaning and value are parochial to the way HUMANs are, then being posthuman could be tantamount to being post value as well.

In this respect, with the glaring exception of David Roden, almost everything I’ve encountered in the posthuman literature so far, even the stuff that touts its radicality on its theoretical sleeves, suffers from what might be called the ‘Star Trek fallacy.’ They all assume that intentionality will survive the break with evolved biology, that the future will be familiar enough for the intentional kernel of our dramas to live on. But the discontinuities awaiting us are existential in every sense, including the conceptual. Why should science serve up anything other than a knowledge utterly indifferent to our hopes and desires? Isn’t that what we pay it for?

Experience and knowledge stand at a crossroads. This is the explosive time, the bewilderment that comes before the reckoning. We cannot assume that meaning transcends biological humanity as it stands, or that the hopes invested in some set of contemporary scruples can be pinned on a future indifferent to all scruple. We cannot presume that ‘right desire,’ let alone reason, is sure to survive what comes.

The future of value must be decided before it can be divined.

Because Three Pounds Doesn’t Cut It

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Without madness, sanity would be a whole lot more interesting.

So this is how it is. I have this perverse, self-destructive bent that prevents me from pimping my books the way that I should, or at least the way that other authors seem to do so effectively. Add to this a penchant for monomania and a general inability to organize my life, and what you have is an author who just ain’t any good at selling himself, let alone his books. Just look at this bloody blog: all the papers I never send out to publish, all the crackpot concepts I cook up only to throw away or sock in the fridge. Three Pound Brain literally shouts agenda, wank and pessimism – things that are almost certain to make most prospective readers run for cover. And to make matters worse, I pick fights with crazies who then devote their energies to smearing my already tarnished name…

And I fucking love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way because I can’t have it any other way.

But it is, I think, something I need to apologize for. The sad fact is, I would likely be quite a bit more successful if it weren’t for my suite of character flaws. I would be further along in the series – that’s for sure. Who knows, I might even be able to hire someone to compensate for all my weaknesses, a sock-puppet pimp or something like that. But as it stands, I don’t have a pot to piss in…

Just a small legion of too-forgiving fans.

Many of whom, I suspect, will be glad to learn that Madness has opened a real, honest-to-goodness forum to discuss the books, as well as other things secondarily apocalyptic. I’m trying to think of a way to give it some real publicity… Maybe a sample from the first chapter of The Unholy Consult? A naked photo or two? Or a love poem?



Tell Me Another One

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The taller the tale, the shorter the teller.


A couple of weeks ago The Boston Globe published a piece by Jonathan Gottschall, whose recent book, The Story-telling Animal: How Stories Make us Human had already made my woefully long list of books-I-must-pretend-to-read. “Until recently,” Gottschall writes, “we’ve only been able to guess about the actual psychological effects of fiction on individuals and society. But new research in psychology and broad-based literary analysis is finally taking questions about morality out of the realm of speculation.”

The New York Times also has a short piece on the research of Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar detailing the ways narrative not only accesses those parts of the brain—social and experiential—that light up when we actually experience what is described, but also seems to make us better at navigating the social complexities of everyday life.

Despite mountains of residual institutional animus, empirical research into things literary continues to grow in profile. Over the course of twenty years, Joseph Carroll has managed to bootstrap what was a heretical cult of science nerds into a full blown intellectual movement. For me, all of this smacks of inevitability. Once the human brain became genuinely permeable to science, the obsolescence of the traditional discourses of the soul—the ‘Humanities’—was pretty much assured. Why? Simply because prescientific theoretical discourses always yield when science gains some purchase on their subject matter.

E. O. Wilson only sounds radical the degree to which you are Medieval.

Make no mistake, I was mightily impressed by post-structuralism and post-modernism back in the day. I had no fucking clue what that bespectacled, scarf-wearing twit at the front of the class was talking about, but I knew a powerful ingroup social status display when I saw one. I made it my mission to conquer all that French wankery, to master the ‘po-mo’ language game, and I did. Soon I was that obnoxious prick in the back who actually argued degrees of semantic promiscuity with the twit at the chalkboard.

But it didn’t take me long to burn through my enthusiasm. And now, when I find myself reading new stuff written in that old mould I always suffer a stab of pity—not so different, perhaps, than the one I feel upon hearing that another species of amphibian has gone extinct. The naive social constructivism. The preposterous faith in bald theoretical assertion. The woeful ignorance of some of the crazy and counterintuitive things that science, the Great Satan, has to say.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the integration of the sciences and the humanities is a good thing. Science is far too prone to level nuances and to provide psychologically indigestible facts for me to believe this. Only that it is inevitable, and that any discourse that fails to engage or incorporate the sciences of the soul are doomed to irrelevance and amphibian extinction.

Besides, the naturalization of a field of discourse only entails the death of a certain kind of theory and speculation. As certain questions are removed from “the realm of speculation” new ones arise, proliferate. The very foundation of interrogation moves. This is likely the most exciting time, intellectually speaking, for any wanker to be alive, the dawn of an Enlightenment that will make the previous one look as profound as a trip to Home Depot.

Gottschall, for instance, has an answer for one of the things that has consistently puzzled me about the fracas over my books. Why does fiction motivate so much moral defensiveness, the blithe willingness to pass summary judgment on the worth of an entire life in defence of a mere reading? According to Gottschall:

“Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.”

As I suggested not so long ago, we seem to understand this at some instinctive level. As Alan Dershowitz likes to say, everyone is censorious somehow. Who is saying what to whom is something that we are exquisitely sensitive to: We are literally hardwired to wage and win communicative warfare, and morality, it seems, is our principle battleground.

Again, Gottschall writes:

“Since fiction’s earliest beginnings, morally repulsive behavior has been a great staple of the stories we tell. From the sickening sexual violence of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” to the deranged sadism of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, to Oedipus stabbing his eyes out in disgust, to the horrors portrayed on TV shows like “Breaking Bad” and “CSI” — throughout time, the most popular stories have often featured the most unpleasant subject matter. Fiction’s obsession with filth and vice has led critics of different stripes to condemn plays, novels, comic books, and TV for corroding values and corrupting youth.”

Narratives make us nervous simply because they can be dangerous: Gottschall references, for instance, the way Birth of a Nation revived the KKK. But they also, he is quick to point out, tend to increase our overall capacity to empathize with others, and so reinforce what he calls “an ethic of decency that is deeper than politics.” The research he cites to support this case may seem impressive, but it’s important to realize that this is a nascent field, and that some warts are likely bound to come into focus sooner or later. One might ask, for instance, the degree to which that ability to empathize is group specific. Could it be that reading makes us more likely to demonize perceived outgroup competitors as well? (If anyone comes across any research along these lines be sure to pile in with links).

But what I find most interesting about the article is the pervasive role accorded to fantasy, not in the literary, but the cognitive sense. According to Gottschall, the vast majority of narratives not only depict morally structured worlds—ones where events mete out punishments and rewards according to the moral rectitude of the characters involved—they also tend to strengthen what some psychologists call the ‘just-world bias,’ the projection of one’s own moral scruples (particularly those involving victimization) onto the world…

Moral anthropomorphism.

And this, Gottschall argues, is a good thing. “[F]iction’s happy endings,” he writes, “seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.”

I have this running ‘You-know-the-Semantic-Apocalypse-is-beginning-when…’ list, and at the top are instances like these, discoveries of deceptions we depend on, not only for personal, mental-health reasons, but for our social cohesion as well. Narratives may delude us, Gottschall is saying, but they delude us in the best way possible.

The evopsych explanation of the survival value of narrative probably predates the field of evolutionary psychology: narratives affirm ingroup identity and reinforce prevailing social norms, thus providing what Gottschall calls the ‘social glue’ that enabled our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive. Perhaps, given the benefits of self-sacrifice and cooperation in times of scarcity, the promised ‘happy ending’ wasn’t nearly so far-fetched for our ancestors. Gottschall concludes his article with a study of his own, one suggesting that the traits most commonly associated with protagonists and antagonists line up rather neatly with the moral expectations of actual hunter-gathering peoples. Narratives, on this account, provide a collective counterweight to the cognitive conceits and vanities that serve to communicate our genes at the individual level.

But whatever the evolutionary fable, the connection between narrative and the fantastic, not to mention the antithesis posed by the scientific worldview, is out-and-out striking. Narrative, according to Gottschall’s ‘social simulator account,’ is an organ of our moral instincts, a powerful and pervasive way to organize the world into judgments of right and wrong, punishment and reward. Their very nature imposes a psychological structure onto the utterly indifferent world of science. The Whirlwind doesn’t give a damn, but we do. And, when it comes to the cosmos, it seems we would much rather be hated than go unnoticed.

This happens to be something I’ve pondered quite a bit over the years: the idea of using the assumptive truth of nihilism as an informal metric for distinguishing different varieties of fiction. (I self-consciously explore this in Light, Time, and Gravity, where the idea is to stretch story so tight over recalcitrant facts that the fabric rips and death shines through). On this ‘sliding semantic scale,’ fantasy would represent the ‘maxing out’ of meaning, where the world (setting) is intentional, events (plot) are intentional, and people (characters) are intentional. Drain intentionality out of the world, and you have the story-telling form we moderns are perhaps most familiar with, narratives with meaningful people doing meaningful things. Drain intentionality out of events, and you have something that most of us would recognize as ‘literary,’ those ‘slice of life’ stories that typically leave us feeling pompous, mortal, and bummed by the ending. Drain intentionality out of the characters—abandon morality and value altogether—and you have something no one has attempted (yet): Even the most radical post-modern narratives cowtow to meaning in the end, an incipient (and insipid) humanism that falls out of their commitment to transcendental speculation (post-structuralism, social constructivism, etc.).

A few weeks back I finished reading Luciano Floridi’s wonderfully written Philosophy of Information, and I’ve been surprised how the first two introductory chapters, which I blew through, have remained stuck in the craw of my imagination. (For those of you into the wank, I heartily recommend you give it a read, if only because of the inevitability of the ‘Informatic Turn.’ Just think: If you start now, you will never need to race to keep up! Even though it fairly bristles with brilliance, I personally found the book sad, largely because of the extreme lengths Floridi is forced to go in his attempt to defend a semantic account of information. At every turn, it seemed to me, the easiest thing to do would be to simply abandon the semantics and to just look at information in terms of systematic differences making systematic differences. The only reason I can say as much is simply because I think I might have found a means, not only of explaining semantics away, but of explaining why it seems impossible to circumvent—why, in other words, philosophers like Floridi have to heap rationalization upon ambiguity upon outright obscurity in order to accommodate it. I was hoping PI would show me a way out of the Void, and all I found was another indirect argument for it.)

For some reason, reading Gottschall reminded me of this particular passage from the opening chapter:

“From Descartes to Kant, epistemology can be seen as a branch of information theory. Ultimately, its task is decrypting and deciphering the world, god’s message. From Galileo to Newton, the task was made easier by a theological background against which the message is guaranteed to make sense, at least in principle. So, whatever made Descartes’s god increasingly frail and ultimately killed it … Nietzsche was right to mourn its disappearance. Contemporary philosophy is founded on that loss, and on the irreplaceable absence of the great programmer of the game of Being.” (20)

As crazy as it sounds, fantasy is also founded on that loss. With Descartes, remember, it is God that assures the integrity of nature’s message. The world is a kind of communication. Of course, everything will ‘make sense,’ or ‘turn out for the best,’ because we are living a kind of story, one where punishment and reward will be dispensed according to the villainy or heroism or our role. The death of God, Nietzsche points out, forces us to abandon all such assurances, to acknowledge that the world makes no narrative, or moral, sense whatsoever.

And that those who insist that it does are probably living in a fantasy world…

Telling the tallest of tales.

Snowballing Ignorance

by reichorn

Aphorism of the Day:

“Sceptics are philanthropic and wish to cure by argument, as far as they can, the conceit and rashness of the Dogmatists.”

— Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism


Roger here again.  This is going to be my final post as a guest-blogger for a while.  I’ll still check in when I can, but I simply have too many demands on my time to keep up with the go-go blogging lifestyle.

In parting, I’ve written a pretty thorough — and no doubt thoroughly exhausting — response to Vox Day’s multi-part ‘dissection‘ of my two posts on ancient skepticism.  I apologize in advance.

“Why bother?” is an entirely understandable question.  I could dress it up any number of ways, but given that I have zero expectation of actually making any dialogic progress with Vox or his partisans, it comes down to vanity.

So here it is: my vanity post.

I’ll do my best to keep up with any comments, and I hope to return as a guest-blogger soon.

P.S.:  My wife and I went to see The Avengers tonight.  How awesome is that movie?!  It was especially sweet for old Buffy/Angel fans like us.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics I”

It seems to me that textual criticism can be charted along two axes: the axis of charitability (of the reading) and the axis of depth (of the criticism).  It is easy to know what to do with criticisms that place high on the charitable-reading axis: if they are shallow, you answer the criticism while filling in what the critic has overlooked or misunderstood; if they are deep, you ponder the criticisms for as long as it takes to come to grips with them.  But when criticisms, whether deep or shallow, score low on the charitable-reading axis, it’s difficult to know what to do with them.  In the case of deep-but-uncharitable criticisms, it’s often the case, it seems to me, that you’re not really dealing with ‘criticism’ at all, properly speaking, but rather with an articulation of views held by the critic that are only tangentially related—if they’re related at all—to the text ostensibly being criticized.

In the case of shallow-and-uncharitable criticisms, it’s generally best simply to ignore them, for the following two related reasons: (1) if the critic read your initial text uncharitably, then (ceteris paribus) you have no reason to expect him to read your responses charitably; (2) given that they are based on an uncharitable reading of the text, the criticisms are likely to betray such deep misunderstandings of the text as to require a great deal of work to reach the point at which you and the shallow-and-uncharitable critic are on the same page (and are thus able to avoid talking past each other)—and given (1), you have no reason to expect that your work will be rewarded.

I have done my best to give Vox’s ‘dissection’ of my two posts on ancient skepticism a charitable reading.  He doesn’t make it easy, given how frequently his ‘logical dissection’ is interrupted by personal insults—all directed at me, of course.  But again, I have done my best.  My conclusion is that, if we put aside all the posturing and name-calling, Vox’s response to my posts are (through no fault of his own) shallow and (very much through a fault of his own) uncharitable.

Let me say a few words on what I mean by ‘charitable.’  The so-called ‘principle of charity’ is a basic hermeneutic principle according to which it is incumbent upon (honest, bipartisan, truth-seeking) critics of texts both (a) to give that text the fairest reading possible and (b) to develop the most sympathetic interpretation of the texts they can.  It should be evident why the principle of charity is a hermeneutic virtue.  Most obviously, it conduces to fruitful debate by avoiding straw-man arguments.  Less obviously, perhaps, it contributes to the development of deep criticisms as opposed to shallow ones.

It seems to me that Vox is pretty upfront about his uncharitable approach to my texts.  He starts out “Dissecting the Skeptics I” by writing, “I’ve been asked in the past to explain how go [sic] about breaking down and critically analyzing an argument and how I am able to so readily spot the flaws it contains… [Delavagus’s] two posts on ancient scepticism will serve as an ideal specimen for this example.”  Now, of course you could argue that, having already read the posts charitably, Vox is able to identify them as “ideal specimen[s].”  But (a) it is clear from the context in which Vox was directed to the posts that he approached them with an uncharitable attitude (I cannot possibly dredge up the evidence here—I’m simply airing my opinion of the matter; you are free to see for yourself, if you care to); and (b) the ‘dissections’ themselves offer ample evidence of uncharitable readings and scant to no evidence of charitable readings.  (For example, he starts out with this: “And since he’s an academic of sorts, we know to look for the word games, in particular the definitional bait-and-switch of which they are so very fond. At this point, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I smell a rat, only that I believe there is a high probability that a rat or two will soon present itself.”  The thing about these sorts of interpretive preconceptions is that they tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies.)

Most obviously, Vox immediately slaps the label ‘Error!’ on what a charitable critic would formulate as a question or as a remark on a passage’s lack of clarity.  In other words, where a charitable critic would say something like, “It isn’t clear to me why the author has chosen this particular definition of knowledge,” Vox instead declares, “Error!”

The uncharitability of the reading goes so deep and is so pervasive that I’m left at a loss to pick out particular examples, since essentially every sentence of every post is an example.  But I’ll make one more general remark: Vox says, in post 1, that he always asks himself four questions when faced with a text.  It’s striking that the most obvious candidates are nowhere to be found in his list.  Among the things any reader should ask themselves when faced with a text (at least if they intend to criticize the text) are: (1) For what purpose was this written?  (Note that this is a charitable question as opposed to Vox’s fourth, uncharitable variant: “What is the author trying to prove?”)  (2) Who is the intended audience for this text?  (3) What are the author’s goals?  And so on.

I like to think that, had Vox asked himself these questions, he would not have been led to write some of the things he wrote in his first post.  For example, take question (1): the purpose of my two posts on ancient skepticism were to give a brief, thumbnail sketch of a much larger topic.  Question (2): these posts are clearly intended for a general audience; thus, they’re intended to be generally accessible (i.e., not weighed down with too much detail or too many technicalities).  In several places throughout his ‘dissections,’ Vox levels complaints along the lines of: “Delavagus failed fully to address problem x or y, which he himself admits are clearly relevant to the points he wants to make.”  I grant the charge, but dispute its relevancy.  (And, contra Vox, the fact that I point out issues that I fail to address seems to me to suggest intellectual honesty rather than dishonesty on my part!)  A charitable reader—or simply a good reader of texts—would have known from the start that I was not attempting to deal comprehensively with any of the numerous topics I bring up.  It seems that nothing short of an entire scholarly, footnoted tome on the subject would satisfy Vox (though of course it wouldn’t satisfy him, since he’d read the book uncharitably!).  To label as ‘Errors’ what are nothing more than unavoidable internal constraints of the texts themselves (i.e., constraints arising from the posts’ purpose, scope, goals, etc.) indicates nothing but Vox’s inability to recognize or accept the texts for what they are.

Here’s an example.  One of the errors Vox charges me with under the heading First Error (he lumps two separate charges together) is the following: I make “irrelevant musings on what would fascinate Sextus and an unjustified belief claim concerning how Sextus would have made use of modern scientific evidence.”  From this, he concludes that I am “not a rigorous thinker and… [am] liable to going off on irrelevant tangents and making groundless assertions concerning things [I] can’t possibly know.”

But any competent reader should see what I was attempting to do with my introductory remarks.  Noting that I somehow failed in my intention would be fine; but the intention itself is surely plain as day (so to speak).  I start out by saying, “In this post, I’d like to discuss one of Scott’s favorite themes—human stupidity—in relation to Pyrrhonism.  Scott focuses, and for good reason, on the growing scientific (that is, empirical) evidence to the effect that humans are stupid, stupid creatures…  However, Sextus did not think that we require empirical evidence in order to arrive at the conclusion that we’re all idiots.  That conclusion, he thought, can be arrived at purely a priori, that is, while lounging in our armchairs and merely thinking through our knowing.”

It’s obvious what I’m trying to do, yes?  I’m trying to segue, in my first post as a guest-blogger on the Three Pound Brain, from topics typical of the Three Pound Brain (cognitive psych, neuroscience) to the more abstract philosophical musings of my post by suggesting a connection between the two.  That connection takes the form of my claim that Sextus Empiricus, the ancient Pyrrhonian, utilized both empirical and a priori arguments as part of his skeptical dialectic.  Scott talks a lot about the empirical side, whereas I want to discuss the a priori, philosophical side.  Again, this all seems like something any reader should pick up on.  But apparently Vox missed it.

Now, as we’ve seen, Vox charges me with making an “unjustified belief claim concerning how Sextus would have made use of modern scientific evidence.”  But this is what I actually wrote: “Sextus Empiricus himself based many of his arguments on empirical evidence.  Though, of course, his ‘evidence’ was not the sort of thing that would pass muster in a modern scientific context, I believe there’s every reason to think that, were he alive today, Sextus would be at least as fascinated by the growing body of evidence concerning human cognitive shortcomings as Scott is—and moreover, there’s every reason to think that he would have made potent use of this evidence in his skeptical dialectic.”

It’s telling, and indicative of Vox’s uncharitable reading, that he reads right past the two instances of “there’s every reason to think” in my passage.  It honestly boggles my mind to think that a competent reader would call foul—let alone ‘Error!’ (what kind of error, anyway? logical? factual?)—on speculative claims like, “If x were alive today, he’d probably y.”  This is a common enough, and perfectly harmless, thought-experiment.  Any half-intelligent (or halfway-charitable) reader ought to know what I’m saying, namely, “Since Sextus made use of the empirical evidence that was available to him, were ‘he’ alive today (‘he’ meaning: a contemporary analogue to Sextus, i.e., a person alive today writing with the same goals, philosophical outlook, and methodology as Sextus) would no doubt also make use of what empirical evidence is now available.”  Is this really so hard to understand?  Is this really an ‘error’?  Not in any meaningful sense.

The second half of the First Error is this: “a questionable word game being played with ‘evidence.’”  What does this refer to?  The following passage: “Sextus Empiricus himself based many of his arguments on empirical evidence. Though, of course, his ‘evidence’ was not the sort of thing that would pass muster in a modern scientific context.”  What is ‘questionable’ about this?  By putting the second instance of ‘evidence’ in scare-quotes, I’m signaling that it would not pass muster in a modern scientific context.  This is true.  Science has advanced considerably since the second-century; for this reason, modern readers are not likely to consider Sextus’s ‘evidence’ to be genuine evidence.  This is not hard to understand.

The Second Error Vox identifies concerns my use of ‘justified true belief’ as an analysis of knowledge.  The oddity of labeling this an ‘error’ is so startling I’m not even sure what to say about it.  I’ve already explained elsewhere to Vox the wrong-headedness of appealing to the dictionary as a final word on the matter even in ordinary contexts, let alone in philosophical contexts.  As far as I’ve seen, Vox has not responded to these remarks.  I will not repeat them here.  Suffice it to say that ‘justified true belief’ is the standard philosophical analysis of knowledge.  It is not intended to capture everyday usage of variants of ‘to know,’ and thus pointing out that it fails to do so is not a criticism.  This is such an elementary point that, again, I’m not sure what to say about it.  I can only marvel at Vox’s shallowness.

Now, Vox seems to think that the proffered philosophical analysis is just one more definition, on a par with the nine he pulls from whatever dictionary he consults.  But that is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature and purpose of a philosophical analysis of a concept.  In short, the idea behind the ‘justified true belief’ formulation (as I say in my first post) is that there are, on the one hand, beliefs, while on the other hand there is the truth.  A certain kind of person—most of us, I would hope—ideally want our beliefs to be true, that is, we want to believe true things.  We have this word, knowledge, that is generally (my God, I said ‘generally’! ‘error’! ‘error’!) taken as a contrast to belief, in the sense that ‘knowledge’ differs from (mere) belief in also being true.  This is backed up by most of the definitions Vox trots out: knowledge has to do with ‘facts’ and ‘truths.’  The question, then, is how we can bridge the prima facie gap between ‘belief’ and ‘truth.’  We do so, philosophy has long maintained, by way of justification.  Hence, ‘justified true belief’ is an analysis of the concept of knowledge, not a definition of the use of the word.

A brief comment on ‘generally.’  I wrote: “Knowledge is generally taken to be justified true belief.”  Vox claims: “Weasel words such as ‘generally’, ‘basically’, and ‘pretty much’ are always red flags, particularly when they precede something as important as the definition of an argument’s foundation or central subject.”  This is such a bizarre criticism that it boggles the mind.  ‘Generally’ is not (or needn’t be) a ‘weasel’ word; it is simply a qualifier.  It appears all the time in scholarly literature, or anything written by people who are actually conversant with the welter of views on a complex subject.  When it comes to something like the proper analysis of ‘knowledge,’ it is to be expected that not all philosophers agree.  In other words, it is to be expected that any analysis is, at best, only ‘generally’ accepted.

Vox concludes: “As should be clear, Delavagus’s definition of knowledge isn’t a valid one in common usage, but instead represents a different concept altogether. His statement is provably incorrect, as knowledge is quite clearly NOT ‘generally taken to be justified true belief’.”

To sum up: Vox mistakes a philosophical analysis of a concept for a definition of the everyday usage of a word.  Now, of course, I could have been clearer.  I could have said, “Knowledge is generally taken by philosophers to be ‘justified true belief.’”  But this admission merely underscores the shallowness of the criticism.  Vox’s remark here also demonstrates clearly his arrogant uncharitability.

Earlier today I was reading Luciano Floridi’s brilliant article “The Problem of the Justification of a Theory of Knowledge, Part I: Some Historical Metamorphoses.”  I came across the following passage: “… it is generally recognized that neither Plato… nor Aristotle were very concerned with sceptical problems.  Even when Plato and Aristotle can be seen to be interested in proto-sceptical questions, the latter are generally to be characterized as objections on the nature of knowledge rather than objections on the nature of epistemology…” (209).  Floridi attached a footnote to the second instance of ‘generally.’  That footnote reads: “I say ‘generally’ because it has seemed possible to recognize in Meno’s paradox a methodological interested by Plato…  But I shall disregard such as an issue in this context.”

Vox, apparently, would call ‘Error!’ on Luciano Floridi.  Again, the shallowness of Vox’s criticism is incredible.  I won’t even bother to comment on his ‘criticism’ of my footnote regarding Gettier.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics II”

Vox’s inept interpretive skills (or intentionally tendentious interpretations) are put on display again.  He claims: “Delavagus even goes so far as admitting he has ‘no way to establish the truth/justification of a putative criterion of truth/justification’.”  What I actually wrote, however, was: “… without an already-established criterion of truth/justification, we have no way to establish the truth/justification of a putative criterion of truth/justification.”

In other words, Vox turns what is an articulation of the problem into a claim in my own voice.  This is just sloppy reading.

The Fourth Error.  I wrote, “But even if we bracket out the problem of the criterion, our difficulties are hardly over.  For the sake of argument, let’s all agree to construe justification in purely rationalistic terms. Let us, in other words, agree to seek justification solely on the basis of the autonomous exercise of our capacity to reason. (Let us, that is, become philosophers.)”  Vox labels this an error because “[i]nstead of giving up the philosophical definition of knowledge as intrinsically worthless due to what he has admitted is the impossibility of providing any established justifications for true beliefs, Delavagus simply waves his hand again and attempts to leap over the bottomless pit of the epistemic abyss by asking the reader to agree to pretend the problem of the criterion does not exist.”

Again, this interpretation of what I said is so bizarre as to beggar the understanding.  Notice how Vox has leveraged the misreading I pointed out at the start of this section: I did not “[admit] the impossibility of providing any established justifications of true beliefs.”  Rather, the passage cited was an articulation of the skeptical challenge.  This illustrates the more general fact that Vox’s misinterpretations have now begun to snowball, making it more and more difficult to push them aside.  We saw above that Vox fails to understand the difference between a philosophical analysis of a concept and a definition of the usage of a word.  I suggested that he saw the philosophical analysis as just one more definition to be added to the list.  Therefore, he thinks that we can just abandon the analysis in favor of one of the other definitions.  But this is a simple category mistake.  Above, I said a little about the motivation behind the analysis of knowledge as justified true belief.  It should be clear that none of the dictionary definitions of knowledge address what is at issue in the analysis.  They are not the right sort of thing; it is not their purpose.  (Vox also overlooks, in this connection, the fact that I do consider a number of other ways of analyzing knowledge.)

As for the charge of ‘hand-waving,’ it seems as though Vox is fond of leveling this criticism against people, but there’s no grounds for it here.  It is a common procedure—notably so in Sextus himself!—to grant something in order to show that even if we do so, the problem persists.  The expression ‘for the sake of argument’ is so common, and so understandable, that it’s frankly bizarre for Vox to label my use of it an ‘Error.’  Moreover, I would think any intelligent, alert reader would see what I’m doing by granting that rationality is the path to knowledge: I’m explicitly locating the rest of the discussion at a philosophical level.  The fact is, most philosophers simply fail to recognize that the initial problem I point out—that is, the problem of establishing that rationality is the path to knowledge—is even a problem.  They simply take it for granted.  So what I’m doing in this passage is (a) pinpointing a problem so fundamental, so ‘under the radar,’ that it is usually overlooked, and (b) reorienting the argument in such a way that even if we give philosophers what they want, they’re still not out of the woods.

Where is the ‘error’ here?  Again, I could have been clearer on all of this.  But I doubt that many intelligent readers would get tripped up the way Vox repeatedly does.  The key is to try to understand the text.  As far as I can see, all Vox is doing is trying to pick the text apart, not in order to understand it, but to leave it in tatters.  Unfortunately for him—and fortunately for the rest of us—you have to understand a text before you can successfully pick it apart.

Fifth Error.  Vox claims that there are three errors in the claim “wherein [I state] that ‘If a claim to knowledge cannot be justified, then the claimant is rationally constrained to withdraw it’.”  The ‘three problems’ are as follows:

1.  “As it stands, (3) is nothing more than an appeal to authority of the sort that Delavagus has already ruled out of bounds.”

This criticism is, once again, utterly bizarre.  Let’s look at what I actually wrote: “Ancient skeptics suggested the following as non-tendentious rational constraints…  (3) If a claim to knowledge cannot be justified, then the claimant is rationally constrained to withdraw it (at least qua knowledge-claim).”

So Vox’s mistakes include (a) attributing this statement to me personally, when instead I present it as a view of the ancient skeptics, and (b) it is not an ‘appeal to authority’ either way, since, as I wrote, the ancient skeptics viewed all three of these constraints as “non-tendentious,” that is, noncontroversial constraints that dogmatists themselves are bound to endorse.  So it would be one thing had Vox challenged the constraint, i.e., if he had argued that it is tendentious.  But he doesn’t do that.  Even if he had, that would only be a mark against the ancient skeptics, not an ‘error’ committed by me.  At most, it would be a misreading of the ancient skeptics on my part, but he has hardly shown that.  In fact, he has not provided any reason whatsoever for rejecting (3), as we’ll see.

2.  “Second, it is a circular statement, as how can a constraint intended to mark the limits between the rational and the irrational be itself dependent upon a rational constrainment?”

Vox has not shown that the statement is circular.  The constraints come down to this: “If you say you know something, then you open yourself up to being asking how you know.  If you can’t say how you know, then you don’t know, you only believe.  Therefore, you should give up your claim to knowledge.”  What is circular about this?  Furthermore, the idea of using rationality to “mark the limits between the rational and irrational” is common in philosophy.  Now, of course Vox could argue that it’s incoherent in some way, but he hasn’t done that.  On the face of it, it’s perfectly possible.  Vox himself seems to think that he’s an ultimately authority on what is and is not rational!  He draws the limit himself, constantly!

3.  “Third, since Delavagus has permitted himself to simply ‘bracket out the problem of the criterion’, he has no ability to assert that anyone with a claim to knowledge that cannot be justified cannot do exactly the same in refusing to withdraw that claim. The statement isn’t necessarily untrue, but it is both questionable and unjustified.”

This overlooks the point that these constraints are rational.  They are supposed to embody non-tendentious views on what separates rational (epistemically responsible) from irrational (epistemically irresponsible) knowledge-claims.  Of course someone can refuse to withdraw their claim despite their inability to justify it (it happens all the time!).  And of course they can even go on thinking themselves perfectly rational (Vox is a great example of this!).  But given these constraints, that person would nonetheless be failing to be epistemically responsible, i.e., failing to live up to the standards of rationality.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics III”

Sixth Error.  My sixth error, according to Vox, is in failing to acknowledge that externalist theories of knowledge answer the skeptical trilemma.  I readily admit that I could have been much clearer on this point.  Indeed, I could have written an entire post (to say nothing of an entire scholarly article) on just this one point.  So Vox is right to have questions about my position.  He is right to be unsure about what I’m saying, whether I’m right, and so on.  But notice that he does not have questions; he is not unsure.  No, he hits me with another ‘Error!’

Quoth Vox: “Remember, the original question which Delavagus intended to answer was this: ‘What, if anything, do we know?’ So, if an individual possesses knowledge, defined as justified true belief, then reason dictates he possesses it regardless of whether he happens to be aware of the validity of the justification for his true belief or not. What do we know? Those true beliefs that are justified, whether we know they are justified or not.”

Vox is right that this is the externalist position.  And it’s right to say that I could have been clearer on this point.  But an intelligent reader should have had little trouble understanding the view.  Vox, clearly, does not understand.

Recall the three constraints on rational justification discussed above.  They are:

(1) If a person claims to know something, then that person opens herself up to the standing possibility of being asked how she knows, i.e., to being asked for the justification of her belief.

(2)  Successful justification cannot fall prey to the Agrippan trilemma.

(3)  If a claim to knowledge cannot be justified, then the claimant is rationally constrained to withdraw it (at least qua knowledge-claim).

It is clear that, within this framework, the externalist position simply fails to answer the challenge.  An obvious consequence of the elaboration of these rational constraints on justification is that the question “What, if anything, do we know?” comes down to the question “What, if anything, do we know that we know?”  On this view—one I endorse, and one which Vox has not addressed at all—philosophical knowledge is staunchly internalist.  Per (1), if a person claims to know something, then she must be prepared to explain how she knows.  Per (3), if she can’t, then she must withdraw her knowledge-claim.  Per (2), she’s going to have a helluva time justifying her knowledge-claim.

Within this framework, what the externalist position comes down to is: “Subject S can be said to know p on the basis of q even if S is not aware that she knows p or that q justifies p.”  Fine!  That’s great.  As I say in the original post: I accept that, Sextus accepts that, no problem!  But it doesn’t answer the challenge, for if S cannot produce a justification for p, then she must withdraw her claim to know p.  It might well be that she had never before thought about p in epistemic terms; but once the challenge is put to her, the idea here is that rationality requires that she produce a justification… or withdraw the claim qua knowledge-claim.

The Seventh Objection simply reiterates the sixth, as far as I can see.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics IV”

It seems to me that this post consists of (a) reiterations of misunderstandings of Vox’s that I’ve already addressed above, and (b) name-calling and baseless accusations.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics V”

In this post, Vox trots out his reading of the Pyrrhonian way of life: “The philosophy cannot be impractical because the skeptic maintains a firewall of sorts between his reason and his daily life.”

This is an understandable first impression of the passage he cites, but this interpretation is almost certainly false.  It’s actually closer to my view than most.  The standard reading rejects this sort of interpretation outright.  Vox, read some Myles Burnyeat or Gisela Striker if you actually want to understand what you’re talking about.

Now, Vox claims that Sextus’s argument against self-refutation fails for three reasons:

1.  “First, Sextus erroneously conflates the subset of his particular philosophy with the set of all philosophico-rational thought; because we can observe there is philosophico-rational thought that is not Pyrrhonian skepticism, all refutation of the latter cannot automatically be taken as any refutation of the former.”

2.  “Second, even if Sextus were correct and charging the skeptic with self-refutation actually did amount to charging philosophico-rational thought as such with self-refutation, that doesn’t change the fact that if the charge is substantiated and all philosophico-rational thought is, in fact, self-refuting, then the charge of peritrope against Scepticism must also be correct! If the set is refuted, then the subset is refuted as well. So, it’s not a valid defense against the charge.”

3.  “Third, Delavagus doesn’t realize that the intended target of Pyrrhonian skepticism is irrelevant with regards to its self-refuting nature; it doesn’t matter what Sextus is intending to target when it can be shown that the same arguments can be used just as effectively against his own clearly stated aims.”

All of these points are wrong—though Vox’s arguments are understandable, given a superficial reading and a limited understanding of the text.  I want to emphasize again that if Vox wasn’t such an arrogant ass, I would welcome these sorts of questions.  I like teaching this stuff.  But Vox isn’t interested in learning anything.  Oh no.  He’s only interested in being right.

I’ve already responded to these arguments here.  Thus, I’m going to respond to Vox’s response to my response.

Regarding (1), I argue that Pyrrhonism is best seen as a metaphilosophy—a philosophy about philosophizing—rather than as a philosophy.  Vox responds: “even if we accept his contention that Pyrrhonism is not a philosophy, it still specifically purports to be rational thought.”  Yes.  But apparently Vox doesn’t understand the conception of ‘meta,’ nor the concept of ‘ad hominem’ argumentation (in the ancient style).  The Pyrrhonian takes up the second-order rational principles of the dogmatists and shows that, given those principles, we’re led to suspension of judgment.  It is immanent critique, but it operates at a metaepistemological level.  I see no evidence that Vox comprehends what this means.

He then says: “Delavagus’s view that Pyrrhonism is not a philosophy is provably wrong.”  This is understandable, given a superficial familiarity with the ancient texts.  Yes, Sextus introduces Pyrrhonism as a ‘philosophy,’ but (a) he clearly distinguishes it from other philosophies (in a significant early passage of the Outlines, he refers to “what they call philosophy,” ‘they’ being the dogmatists, suggesting that Pyrrhonism is not a philosophy in the way that dogmatic philosophies are), and (b) in claiming that Pyrrhonism is best understood as a metaphilosophy, I’m using modern conceptions.  ‘Philosophy’ had a much broader meaning in the Hellenistic world than it does now.  Given what we understand by ‘philosophy,’ Pyrrhonism doesn’t really qualify, since it always adopts a second-order, ‘meta’ position vis-à-vis whatever dogmatism it is engaging.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics VI”

Vox calls me on my description of the Pyrrhonian method as ad hominem, in the sense of utilizing the beliefs, convictions, etc., of one’s interlocutors.  It’s entirely right to pinpoint this as a topic deserving of elaboration.  But again, instead Vox hits me with an ‘Error.’  (I’m assuming this is Error Eight; I don’t see an eighth error singled out anywhere.)

It can seem that the ad hominem approach flies in the face of the equipollence method, according to which skeptics oppose dogma to dogma.  After all, surely then we’re dealing with two different dogmatists with two different sets of beliefs, convictions, etc.  So how can we be said to make arguments on the basis of premises, etc., which both parties agree to?  This is a good question.  But it has an obvious answer, one that is explicitly brought up in the paragraph under discussion.

I write: “At their most abstract… Pyrrhonian arguments depend only on our most abstract rational commitments. The Five Agrippan Modes… are merely a handy formulation by skeptics of the rational commitments of non-skeptics (‘dogmatists,’ in Sextus’s sense). For those who accept their constraints, the Five Modes constitute part of the framework of any search for the truth.”

The claim, then, is that equipollence arguments are set up on the basis of abstract rational commitments shared by both parties to the dispute.  Notice that the competing dogmas Sextus considers are all philosophical.  The idea is that, at their most abstract, Pyrrhonian arguments trade only on those rational commitments that structure any search for truth, that is, that structure all philosophical inquiries.

Then we have some more examples of really terrible textual interpretation.  Vox writes: “Delavagus then goes on to assert because the skeptic adopts the rational commitments of the philosophical dogmatist, ‘the self-refutatory character of skepticism demonstrates the self-refutatory character of all philosophizing done under the aegis of the rational commitments that give rise to the skeptical conclusion.’ First, note that this is an admission that the skeptic has no commitment to rational thought.”

The conclusion Vox draws from the passage he quotes from me simply does not follow, for nowhere is it claimed that “the rational commitments that give rise to the skeptical conclusion” are the only rational commitments available to us, that they are the locus of ‘rational thought’ as such.  Vox seems, dimly, to be picking up on the dialectic working in the background (and later the foreground) of my posts: the undermining of philosophy from within and the reconception of our shared human epistemic situation.  Yes, the mature Pyrrhonian, as Vox says, “has no commitment to rational thought,” but only when “rational thought” is construed in purely philosophical terms.  He seems to have missed the moral of the story, namely, that the failure of philosophy reveals to the mature Pyrrhonian the pragmatic-transcendental character of common life.  (As far as I can see, Vox has no idea what this means.  Nor does he care to know.)

The rest of the problems he cites here are just artifacts of previous misunderstandings, snowballing ignorance.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics VII”

I found nothing of substance worth discussing in this post.  Vox’s remarks display a complete lack of understanding of the view he is so quick to dismiss.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics VIII”

Ninth Error.  I’ve misrepresented Pyrrhonism by claiming that Pyrrhonians will believe all sorts of things in an everyday way, and that they will claim to know all sorts of things in an everyday way.  He writes: “Either Delavagus truly does not understand Pyrrhonian skepticism on a fundamental level or he is blatantly misrepresenting it in order to provide a false foundation for his own dogmatic opinions.”

Simply put, there is no question whatsoever that throughout his texts Sextus claims to ‘champion common life.’  Vox himself, above, claimed that: “The philosophy cannot be impractical because the skeptic maintains a firewall of sorts between his reason and his daily life.”  I think this is wrong—what would it mean to have a ‘firewall’ between ‘reason’ and ‘daily life,’ given that ‘daily life’ involves the use of ‘reason’?—but it gestures precisely in the direction that Vox is now saying is clearly false of Pyrrhonians.  Vox himself quotes the chapter of the Outlines entitled “Do Skeptics hold beliefs?”  It is clear that Sextus’s answer to this question is yes.  The only dispute is over what this ‘yes’ amounts to.  Interpreters from Hegel down to Myles Burnyeat have argued that the ‘belief’ in question is not genuine belief, whereas others, from Montaigne to Kant down to Michael Frede, have argued otherwise.

Consider the following quotes from Sextus:

(1)  “We accept, from an everyday point of view, that piety is good and impiety bad” (PH 1.24).  By ‘everyday point of view,’ Sextus is clear that he means “without holding opinions [adoxastōs]” (PH 1.23).  Adoxastōs is a very difficult term to interpret, but I maintain that it ought to understood as meaning ‘without holding dogmata.’

(2)  “Following ordinary life without opinions [adoxastōs], we say that there are gods and we are pious towards the gods and say that they are provident” (PH §3.2).

It is only “against the rashness of the Dogmatists” that Sextus brings his skeptical dialectic to bear against belief in the gods (PH §3.2).  What does the skeptical dialectic demonstrate?  It demonstrates that belief in the gods is not, by the dogmatist’s own lights, philosophically justified.  “The existence of the gods… is neither clear in itself [i.e., self-evident] nor proved by something else” (PH §§3.8–9).  Then how can Pyrrhonians claim to believe in the gods?  They can do so undogmatically, that is, without the added belief that their belief in the gods enjoys objective, philosophical justification.

Tenth Error.  According to Vox, I’ve misrepresented Pyrrhonism by claiming that the Pyrrhonian agōgē (the life adoxastōs) involves adopting a new sort of attitude toward ourselves, one purified of dogmatism.  Why is this an ‘error’?  Because, Vox claims: “The entire purpose of Pyrrhonian scepticism is to rob us of our judgment, to suspend it, in the interest of our tranquility.”  Note, first, that I made no mention of tranquility (ataraxia) in my posts.  I never claimed, nor would any good reader suppose that I had intended, to provide a complete interpretation of Pyrrhonism.  I left out ataraxia even though it is obviously central to any complete account of Pyrrhonism.  But given that I did not mention it, Vox is bound by the principle of charity to interpret my claims about Pyrrhonism as claims that are separable from claims about ataraxia.  He has failed in that.  Moreover, all he’s done is present his own, flat-footed reading of the texts in opposition to my more nuanced account.

In other words, Vox wants to trade on appeals to his reading of the ancient texts as clearly correct.  But notice that my posts were not intended as textual exegesis.  Simply put, Vox has no idea how I correlate my reading with the ancient texts.  Moreover, it is clear, given the decidedly ‘modern’ cast of the discussion, that I was stating a Pyrrhonian view in largely contemporary terms.

If Vox was actually interested in understanding the view he is so quick to dismiss, then he would have had questions, not condemnations.

He would have expressed doubts, not dogmatism.

The ‘Me-me!’ Meme

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: If we don’t move, it’s because we remain motionless relative to ourselves.

So I’ve been as busy as all hell, the past couple of weeks, what with my pop in the hospital, family visiting, and staying on top of my writing schedule—not to mention trying to keep up with all the activity on the blogosphere.

Vox, it appears, has decided to wage a war of attrition, to keep throwing his cherries until people turn their bowls upside down. I’ve decided to oblige him. But since it stings my vanity knowing the self-aggrandizing way he’ll inevitably spin this, I figured I had better lay out some reasons, as well as discharge an old promise I made regarding the uses of abuses of arguing ad hominem.

Vox literally believes, if you recall, that he really is the winner of the Magical Belief Lottery. You might be inclined, on a occasion, to think that he is simply having one on, but I assure you, when he says things like, “Of course, I am a superintelligence, so the fact that [delevagus] been studying it for years whereas I read Sextus once on an airplane meant that it really wasn’t a fair contest,” he genuinely means it.

At this point, I’m inclined to simply take him as ‘Exhibit A’ of human irrationality. Some, in the jungle that has overrun the comment thread on the previous post, have suggested that I’m ‘running scared’ and the fact is, I am. But from what he represents, not what he ‘argues.’ Vox is what you might call an ‘epistemic bombast’–self-described. He literally believes he has the most powerful three pound brain in the universe. That, in my books, counts as delusional.

One thing I was always big on in my teaching days was what I called the ‘minimum condition of rationality.’ Once you realize that reason is primarily argumentative, as opposed to epistemic, you realize that reason is just as liable to deceive as to reveal. So the question you always need to ask yourself in any debate is whether you are the victim of your own ingenuity. You are more apt to use you intelligence to justify your stupidity post hoc—to rationalize—than otherwise. And that’s a fact Jack.

Thus the crucial importance of epistemic humility. Rational debate is impossible with epistemic bombasts simply because, as more and more research shows, reason is primarily a public relations device, a way to snag other three pound brains, and only secondarily epistemic, a way to snag the world. It is quite literally impossible to convince an epistemic bombast of anything on theoretical subject matters lacking any clear, consensually defined truth conditions.

This is why some cognitive psychologists are now arguing that rationality is quite independent of intelligence.

So what then is the measure of epistemic humility? How can you tell whether you should trust yourself, let alone your interlocutor?

Well some interlocutors, like Vox, make things easy for you. Vox is a self-declared epistemic bombast. As such, given that you accept that science is the best tool we have ever devised for sorting—even if only contingently—fact from fiction, you can write him off as a serious interlocutor.

In other words, you can safely dismiss him on ad hominem grounds.

Other interlocutors are nowhere so easy. One of the things I was hoping to spark with this post is a discussion of the kinds of criteria that could be used to make this determination.

Or how about yourself—or in my case, myself? How can we know whether we’ve lapsed into the epistemic bombast mould, especially knowing that we have a hardwired predilection to do so?

In my case, the fact that I genuinely struggle with this question gives me some hope. As deflationary (minimal) as my position is (at least in terms of exclusive epistemic commitments), I have never in my life consistently believed anything for such a long time. I know the way the brain works, how repeated functions get stamped into its very architecture—and how this architecture is the very frame of reference for what does and does not make sense.

I try to restrict myself to platitudes, like the fact that not all claims are equal, or the fact that science is easily the most transformative claim-making institution in human history. Like the social constructivists, Vox seems to think that commitment to a philosophical theory of ‘What Science Is’ warrants suspending commitment to What Science Does (provide us with facts about nature). For my part, I have no definitive idea What Science Is, but I am deeply impressed by what it makes possible—like for instance, the semiconductor technology that allows you to read this at all.

Now the retreat to platitudes is not without its perils, simply because these could be wrong as well. I’ve probably been accused of being ‘dogmatic about science’ as much as anything else over the years. But for the life of me, I can’t think of any theoretical claim-making institution with a track record even remotely resembling that of science. It really seems to be the case that nothing compares.

Given science, you actually have a very powerful standard for sorting interlocutors according to rationality. As soon as your interlocutor starts telling you What Science Is, you should smell a cognitive rat. Why? Because odds are they have some set of philosophical or religious claims that are incompatible with scientific fact. In other words, they find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to discredit the most powerful claim-making institution in human history to make their own claims stick.

The argument tends to take a similar form:

Armchair claim (1): Science is A.

Armchair claim (2): A is a social construct, philosophically derivative, or epistemically overblown, etc.

Therefore, armchair conclusion (3): Scientific claims (or a particular set of them) should not be believed.

In other words, even though scientific claims have transformed the world, even though they seem to possess every theoretical virtue we know of (short of flattering our parochial preconceptions), we should suspend our commitment to them on the basis of a prior commitment to one out of hundreds of armchair claims regarding What Science Is—which, by some happy coincidence, happens to flatter this or that parochial preconception.

Pardon me for suggesting this is just more self-serving bullshit. Rationalization. Like I’ve said many times before, it seems awfully like convicting Mother Theresa on Ted Bundy’s testimony.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be critical of science. My own worry is that it is too powerful of an institutional tool for a species as vain and blinkered as ourselves. And there’s no shortage of bad science, simply because scientists belong to the same vain and blinkered species. Nevertheless, when it comes to the provision of reliable, comprehensive, actionable information regarding nature, it is literally the only game in town. When an interlocutor thinks their wank trumps scientific fact, there’s a good chance you’re locking horns with an epistemic bombast.

In other words, epistemic humility entails demuring to scientific fact, especially when you find it inconvenient.

Where science doesn’t have anything to say, I try to avoid exclusive epistemic commitments as much as I can, and always try to remind myself to entertain theoretical positions, not believe them. I’m skeptical of governments to the degree I’m skeptical of centralized answers to supercomplicated social problems. I’m skeptical of markets to the degree I am skeptical of power. I see political and economic matters as an interminable high-wire act, an attempt to sum the interests of disparate and often antagonistic constituencies. Some guesses have to be made, of course. Policy is unavoidable: but it has to be experimental. We need the humility to 1) recognize our inevitable mistakes; and 2) let people, as much as possible, chart their own social and moral course.

Likewise, I take it to be a platitude that Christianity is one out of thousands of religions claiming supernatural authority. I also think it’s a platitude that each of those religions has adherents, like Vox, claiming ‘indisputable evidence’ that always turns out to be quite disputable indeed.

And on a number of issues, like consciousness, I find myself mired in what Roger would call, ‘epistemic akrasia,’ the state of having been ‘rationally forced’ to reach conclusions that I simply cannot bring myself to believe. Meaning skepticism is the big one.

Of course, for people who reject my platitudes, I have to be the bombastic one. Each of us is cursed with being our own frame of reference, with having only the yardsticks and information we happen to have. Perhaps you think science is no great shakes, or that your armchair theories, unlike those entertained by billions of others, actually happen to be right. Perhaps you really have won the Magical Belief Lottery–ruly truly.

Or perhaps not. I’m sure that you’ll forgive me for thinking you’re at least as full of shit as I fear that I am.

A Dirge for the Troubling and the New

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day I: Apology is the most common way to weaponize humility—short of flattery and prayer.

Aphorism of the Day II: I hate patterns. Almost as much as I love habits.


A storm is coming.

Sometimes storms are good things. The world gets cluttered, contaminants build up, and a good scrub and rinse seems to be the very thing. The storm passes. The air has that chill edge, makes you feel like the first human to exhale. The streets are glazed black. The leaves click for being so turgid green.

Sometimes storms are bad, like the spinning finger of God, enough to turn history around.

But this one is different. This one, you see, has no end.

‘Storm’ is merely a ‘metaphor,’ of course, a way to connote turbulence, upheaval, chaotic transformation. A storm, you could say, is just more weather crowded into less time—concentrated change. And this is the storm that I’m talking about: the concentration of technological and social change.

As John von Neumann predicted over half a century ago, we are “approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” As the past decade has demonstrated more profoundly than any other, technological change means social change. Accelerating technological change, then, means accelerating social change. And this, I think, means big trouble.

Why? Simply because our capacity for social change is a product of the Pleistocene. As much as we love novelty, we humans tend to fear genuine social change—and when we fear, we hate.

If you check out websites like the Singularity Institute, you will find endless papers on the prospects and consequences of AI, the post-human, and so on. If you read someone like Ray Kurzweil, you will find a kind of Hegelian optimism, arguments that say good riddance to ‘human affairs as we know them.’ If you follow Three Pound Brain or read my novels you will find one, overriding question repeated in hundreds of different guises: Do humans have what it takes? Biologically? Culturally? Individually or collectively?

Because make no mistake, the storm is coming…

Last weekend National Geographic channel had a marathon day of Apocalypse: The Rise of Adolf Hitler, and I ended up getting sucked right in. The first question of the Holocaust really is a question of how? How could the most scientifically, culturally, and industrially advanced nation on the planet slip so effortlessly into the barbarity of Nazism? The second question is a question of that. What does it mean that the pinnacle of Western civilization could so quickly and so tragically become the gutter?

There really is something wrong with us. We’ve pretty much known all along, but we were always quick to project our flaws onto our precious ‘Others,’ perceived outgroup competitors, lest it interfere with the serious business of tribal/gender/racial/national self-glorification—a business that every totalitarian regime knows all too well. Now, after millennia of witless brilliance and folly, we have detailed scientific knowledge of our cognitive and affective flaws, or a good number of them anyway. Enough. We have a good sense of the kinds of mechanisms that predispose us to chauvinistic barbarism, to scapegoat the Other. And the picture is… well, ugly.

I’m the bad news guy. All my novels are bent on exploring the tangle of thematics that arise from this. Why, because fucking empty identity affirmation and belief confirmation has become the oxygen of our culture. Everywhere you turn, you are urged to celebrate who you are and to believe in yourself—or worse yet, simply ‘believe.’ Everywhere!

The problem is that you don’t know who you are, and you really are the last person you should be believing in! As the evolutionary product of ancestral social ecosystems, the brain is literally designed to defend and enhance your social standing: to self-promote. And it plays dirty. It edits, cherry-picks, fabricates, denigrates, insinuates, exculpates and more, even as it convinces you that you’re the most open and fair-minded monkey in the room.

So for instance, not one of you reading this thinks you could be verbally browbeaten into confessing to a murder you didn’t commit, or convinced by a unknown phone caller into sexually abusing one or your employees, or bullied by a lab technician into applying lethal electrical doses to another human being, or gulled by power and camaraderie into torturing those you have power over. Not one of you.

And yet, plant you in these social circumstances and there’s a very good chance you would. We are situational, anything but the strong-willed monads we take ourselves to be. And this is a fact, even though I would bet my royalty check that you think the notion preposterous. As David Dunning so wonderfully illustrates, one of our most pernicious cognitive shortcomings is our inability to acknowledge our cognitive shortcomings.

The Second Apocalypse began as an experimental exploration of fantasy as ‘scripture otherwise,’ as a form of ‘anti-modernism.’ Part of the idea was to exaggerate the very things that epic fantasies generally idealized, to show readers the ‘wages of their wonder.’ One of the things that makes epic fantasy so bizarre as a genre is its status as the most fictional of all fictions. It’s not just fictional, it’s fantastically so. The crazy thing is that the very thing that identifies it as super fictional, its prescientific, anthropomorphic ‘secondary world,’ is the very thing that it shares with traditional scripture. Structurally speaking, fantasy worlds are scriptural worlds.

And I don’t know how many of you still peruse your Illiads or your Bibles, but, man, those are some pretty scary worlds.

Daniel Abraham has recently argued against the Realism Defence of representations of sexism and racism in fantasy novels. He begins by taking a ‘It wasn’t as bad as all that,’ line, providing a brief list of historical facts that contradict the notion that the Middle Ages were characterized by chauvinistic brutality. The Middle Ages were a boisterous and exceedingly complicated period of human history. Given this, he claims, the Realism Defence amounts to cherry-picking. If ‘realism’ is what you’re after, then you had better make sure your representations are proportional.

But this doesn’t matter that much, simply because Abraham thinks it mistakes What Fantasy Is. Realism is irrelevant, because fantasy literature isn’t about the past at all; it’s about previous works of fantasy literature.

In other words, he shifts from a Middle Ages were more complicated than you know argument to a Fantasy Literature is more simple than you know argument.

The first argument has merit, and should certainly sting those who think women universally lived in conditions of abject misery and oppression. I just don’t know anyone who thinks that.

The second argument simply runs afoul of the first. It turns out that fantasy is more complicated than Abraham seems to know. Like all fiction, it is about many things. And like authors of other types of fiction, fantasy authors actually get to choose what their books are ‘about.’ That’s what makes each fantasy series so unique.

If I want to write a fantasy that replaces nostalgia, sentimentalism, and idealization with historical realism, I will.

Abraham presents the Realism Defence as an attempt to trump one form of ‘representational propriety’ with another. It boils down to pitting honesty against harm reduction. Cut the cord between fantasy and history (by arguing first, What History Is, and then second, What Fantasy Is), then honesty no longer seems proof against harm reduction. Politically correct representation seems to sweep the table.

Unconsciously we all understand the power of representations: we’re hardwired for censoriousness for damn good reason! Loose lips, as they say. This, paradoxically, is why we place such a premium both on honesty and on harm reduction—and why we find ourselves at such loggerheads when these two seem to conflict.

This conundrum is most frequently debated in television, where the sheer size of the audiences involved makes the issue of reinforcing negative stereotypes a pressing one. Here, the tendency is usually to see the Realism Defense as a little more than rhetorical fig-leaf when the show is deemed to be more commercially oriented than otherwise. Art actually has a claim to make in this debate, and few would dispute that saddling creators with representational obligations compromises their artistic integrity.

As Abraham acknowledges, “there are legitimate reasons for racism, sexism, and sexual violence to be part of a fantasy project,” he just doesn’t think that historical realism is one of them. But he’s wrong. The Realism Defence you might say, only rings true when it doesn’t stand alone, when the author actually has something to say about premodern history and our relation to it. Otherwise, it’s probably just a post hoc rationale.

How can you tell whether an author has a genuine artistic vision? Nowadays, you just check out their bloody blog. The more wank and contemplation you find, the more evidence you have of a genuine artistic vision. You may not like that vision, but nevertheless, you have wandered onto the intractable ground of trying to sort the ‘moral’ art from the ‘immoral.’ The further argument, that different rules should apply to each, is even more treacherous.

Despite what Abraham says, the Middle Ages were chauvinistic through and through. Research shows that our contemporary conception of morality in the West is very peculiar—and quite unnatural, in fact. The ‘live and let live’ logic that informs so much of our moral reasoning simply did not exist before the Enlightenment. Where most of us acknowledge a certain degree of moral uncertainty, our prescientific ancestors did not. Your ‘place’ was your place no matter how brutally unfair or oppressive it might seem to some disinterested observer. You played the role allotted, and if you refused out of some sense of outrage, well then, your goose was pretty much cooked.

As Abraham says, some of those roles were relatively commodious, but most of them quite simply were not.

The notion of ethics we inherited from the Greeks, the notion that moral problems could resolved by recourse to reason as opposed to tradition, was not something Medieval Europeans cared about, although there were exceptions, to be sure. Chauvinism was the foundation, plain and simple, the arbitrary valuation of certain groups and identities over others. Sometimes that chauvinism was benign, as Abraham points out, but it was chauvinism all the same.

And chauvinism has a peculiar relationship to meaning. The modernist paradigm typically depicts a protagonist struggling to hold onto meaning in an apparently meaningless world (and all too often, that meaning is found in some saccharine or occult notion of romantic love). What makes a fantasy world fantastic, however, is that the world is given as meaningful. Fantasy worlds are psychological worlds, where nothing is ‘dead’ and everything is animate, filled with agency and intent.

My big idea, way back when, was to simply turn the modernist paradigm upside down, to follow a protagonist struggling to find meaninglessness in a meaningful world. Anasurimbor Kellhus. The paradox I wanted to explore was and is nothing other than the paradox you and I are living this very moment, what might be called the Big Swap: emancipation from disease, poverty, and oppression for the ‘Death of God’—or the nihilism incipient in contemporary consumer culture.

I chose patriarchy to explore and critique premodern chauvinism because I knew it would continually cut against the reader’s own baseline moral appraisals. On the one hand, it would give them a taste of the very moral certainty under the narrative microscope. On the other hand, it would make the reader’s moral intuitions a component of Kellhus’s ‘revelations,’ and so put them into a curious double-bind. Since Kellhus invariably manipulates, emancipation, in his hands, simply becomes another tool. What does it mean, when the truth itself deceives? When justice becomes subreptive? (I had Marx on the mind back then: The women’s liberation movement, it so happens, also ‘liberated’ tremendous pools of labour for capital to rationalize. Is emancipation even possible in a society designed to systematically exploit its every human resource? Was the women’s liberation movement the product of mass moral enlightenment or the economic obsolescence of traditional female roles?)

What I wanted to show was the way the escape from traditional chauvinism that Serwe and Esmenet find via Kellhus was a form of false escape, that the nihilistic system that Kellhus erects over the ruins of traditional Three Seas society was every bit as exploitative as the system it replaced—a world where the waif could no longer survive, and the harlot had to follow the forking ways of an even more devious labyrinth. A world, I would argue, not so very unlike our own.

And in each case, I wanted to be true to situational psychology, the fact that we rarely see beyond the facts of our immediate circumstances. The only way to be honest to the insidious difficulty faced by anyone who finds themselves within exploitative social environments was to represent overcoming as something long-drawn and fraught with reversals.

I knew this would be controversial. But play time is almost over. Think of the madness in Washington: mass institutional dysfunction driven by the way cultural and institutional transformation have incentivized our cognitive flaws. By the fact that people now, just like people a thousand years ago, buy their own bullshit–unto catastrophe.

A storm is coming and we need to get our shit squared.

The notion that I should have provided another female character to discharge some extrinsic representational obligation, either to better reflect the reality of premodern societies or to provide ‘positive role models,’ strikes me as preposterous. This is the difficult story I elected to tell. And, it happens to be a kind of story no one has ever told before. This in itself, I think, makes the project worthwhile, even if in the end the critical consensus is that The Second Apocalypse is a disastrous failure. “The distance between the old and new,” Dewey writes, “is the measure of the range and depth of thought required.” The problem is that this distance is always invisible. We look at the new, the different, and we see only the old, the same. So many read my books and see the same old representations of exploited and disempowered women, and so assume that I must be ‘just another’ misogynistic fantasy writer.

The degree to which you should trust those voices is the degree to which they actually engage, as opposed to simply dismiss, what I’ve discussed here.