Light, Time, and Gravity (III)
That we’re all Mormons all the time, whether we want to be or not.
Linguistic communication requires that the brain translate its own processes into an auditory signal. It requires meta-circuits, superordinate processors capable of making portions of the brain’s nonlinear processing available for linear coding–for speech.
Sounds cool. Everything containing the word ‘meta’ sounds cool. But the problem is that not all ‘metas’ are equal. You’re living proof that the brain ain’t all that good at tracking and condensing its own processes. Neural self-tracking doesn’t possess much of an evolutionary pedigree, for one; it’s a jury-rigged solution to a whole kettle of environmental fish–and it shows. The brain is also hardwired to itself, which means that it cannot sample its internal environment in the variable way it can its external environment. It’s literally welded to a single, parochial perspective. But perhaps most importantly, the amount of processing invested in tracking and condensation paradoxically increases the amount of processing that goes untracked and uncondensed. If you grow a second brain to track your original brain (which is kind of what humans have done in a retail and distributed manner–grown little secondary mini-brains like mushrooms), you will need a third to track the second, a fourth to track the third, and so on and so on.
The brain is the one environmental feature that it cannot adequately integrate into its cognitive schema. Small wonder, then, it has so much difficulty placing itself in its environment, that it cooks up ‘minds’ and ‘souls,’ things that refuse to fit the various molds used by its far more ancient and powerful environmental processors.
Things that refuse to die.
Brains are constitutively blind to themselves. They never quite know what they’re doing because they never quite know what’s doing the doing.
The same as us.
Thus all the occulted and incompatible interpretations of this… The dreary parade of philosophical thats.
Thus Dylan’s criminal insensitivity.
He played a lot of poker while at the University of Toronto.
At one particular game, which took place before the hysterical popularity of Texas Hold’em, he met a philosophy PhD student (of Russian Hutterite extraction) from Calgary who was also an avowed nihilist. Given his own heathen past, Dylan took it upon himself to convert the poor fool. So he launched into an account of his own sorry history and how he had been saved by Heidegger and the ontological difference.
The nihilist listened to him carefully, interrupting only to clarify this or that point with astute questions. Then, after Dylan had more or less burned through his batteries, the nihilist asked, “You agree that science clearly implies nihilism, right?”
“Well… it’s kind of inconsistent, isn’t it?”
A thoughtful bulge of the bottom lip. “Well, that despite the fact that philosophy hasn’t resolved any matter with any reliability ever, and, despite the fact that science is the most powerful, reliable, theoretical claim-making institution in human history, you’re still willing to suspend your commitment to scientific implications on the basis of prior commitments to philosophical claims about science and this… ontological difference.”
Tortured syntax aside, Dylan understood exactly what the nihilist meant: Why believe Heidegger when you could argue anything in philosophy? He had read enough by Now to know this was the only sure thing in the humanities. It was an uncomfortable fact: outside the natural sciences there was no way short of exhaustion or conspiracy to end the regress of interpretation.
Nevertheless, he found himself resenting that bottom lip–almost as much as the predatory grin that replaced it.
“I don’t follow.”
“Well,” the nihilist said, making one of those pained correct-me-if-I’m-wrong faces, “isn’t that kind of like using Ted Bundy’s testimony to convict Mother Theresa?”
“Um,” Dylan replied, his voice pinched in please-no resignation… “I guess?”
The nihilist smiled and shrugged, the way philosophers are prone when they sense the diminishing marginal utility of an exchange. Besides, why should he care? It wasn’t like my disagreement meant anything…
“Give it time,” he said, nodding.
“The stuff you believe in, you know, your intellectual ecosystem? I suppose it seems indestructible now, but only because science has nothing concrete to say about your subject matter–you know, subjectivity and the soul and all that crap.”
“That crap, eh?”
“Sorry. But the only reason you guys can go on the way you do is simply because there’s nothing observational to call you to account. You can just speculate and speculate–human psychology does the rest! For centuries you’ve been doing it, living in your little intentional wildlife preserve, playing the old game in the old ways while poo-pooing the ways science was revolutionizing the world around you.” He paused to take an aristocratic drag on his smoke. “That’s all coming to an end.”
“The black box of the soul has been cracked open.”
“You mean neuroscience?” Dylan said in his best c’est ridicule tone. “That’s just more phrenology.” Dylan found himself struggling to remember Hegel’s infamous critique of the pseudoscience. The mental couldn’t be naturalized, could it? As a matter of principle…
I mean, if Hegel said so…
The guy rolled his eyes to the ceiling. Phrenology! What a card…
“Yeah. Sure. Phrenology that can make the deaf hear and the blind see!” His cigarette pinched between his teeth, he laughed as if Dylan had cracked a joke. “The autopsy has already begun, Dude. Sooner or later, you’ll see…”
He bent his neck as if limbering up for a squash game.
“You guys are all working in a morgue.”
Depending on the weather, topping and suckering can either start several weeks following irrigation, or blur into it. You “top” when the tobacco begins to flower. This involves walking through the fields row by row, snapping off the heads of the plants to either side of you, effectively neutering them. Once you’ve topped the entire crop, the plants respond by growing “suckers,” secondary stems that branch out from the crease where the broadening leaves meet the stem. Typically the farm owner or share-cropper or manager will whisk through the fields on high-seated sprayer, blowing a chemical that smells like cancer across the plants. It gathers in the aforementioned creases and burns the nascent sucker while they’re still little nubs. Since it’s never 100% effective, and since the chemical is useless once the suckers reach a certain size, you need “suckerers,” usually a pair of them, to walk through the fields, row by row, to snap off the suckers manually.
The whole point of topping and suckering is too keep the tobacco on task, to focus all its metabolic activity on growing giant puckered leaves saturated with nicotine. Like pretty much everything in tobacco cultivation, topping and suckering are shit work.
You did it during the dog days of July, for one. The plants were already armpit high, so it was like walking through a giant wind sponge–stultifying. Pop, pop, this plant on the left, then that one on the right, pop, pop, pop, over and over, on and on. Meanwhile the leaves pressed past you, a million rubbery turnstiles, each leaving a sticky residue on your skin and clothes. The same with your finger and palms. Since the stickiness was intolerable, most people purposefully rubbed dirt across it–within an hour or two you were covered with a second skin of black ‘tobacco gum.’ The mosquitos might get you slapping in the early morning, or in shaded sections of the field, but it was the deer-flies–correct that, the fucking deer-flies–that were the most maddening. You made a habit of periodically running your fingers through your hair to crunch the little bastards before they struck skin. Their bites swelled and bled–when Dylan was younger he sometimes came home with the back of his neck clotted with blood. They seemed to think insect repellant was candy.
But the sun was by far your most relentless foe. You never really understand the sun until you realize it’s trying to kill you. Only when you experience its murderous side can you appreciate just how precariousness your position is relative to it–like people that way. By mid-afternoon you could swear that the earth’s orbit had crossed that of Mercury. You always kept one of those old four-quart thermos’s stashed at the shaded end of the field. Cherry freshie never tasted so good.
Cutter summed it up in his own special way. “Fucking nigger work,” he called it, not simply because it was unskilled labour with shit for pay, but because he swore the sun was going to burn him, “as black as a black man.”
Dylan laughed as he always laughed. Cutter summing things up.
Nigger jokes were quite common in rural Southwestern Ontario in those days, though not quite the mainstay that fag jokes were. Dylan, in his slow migration between cultures, was always struck by the way his old, pre-university friends took more and more to censoring themselves in his presence. He would scarcely hear a peep of anything politically incorrect until the fifth or sixth beer. By time they were thoroughly hammered, it would be like a time warp, with all the old attitudes expressed in all the old ways. Well, perhaps not exactly the old ways. A certain habitual wariness coloured them, because ‘they’ were everywhere you know, immigrants and university fags. As well as a wobbly consciousness of arguments, condemning arguments, hanging out there in the semantic aether.
I mention this because I know that you’re pretty much hermetically sealed within ‘official culture,’ where the intangible norms that straitjacket The Globe & Mail and the CBC rule your dinner table as well. In the same way the uneducated only reach your attention as the objects of pity or policy or poetry, their attitudes remain submerged as well.
Take the Tsunami a few years back. I happen to know that as a matter of fact that, “There’s too many of them anyway,” was a prevalent attitude among many Canadians. I personally heard it spoken as a throwaway remark no less than three times. Did you encounter it? Maybe in the nethers of your family. Was it discussed in the media? Of course not.
Historians sifting through the archives in an attempt to gauge Canadian attitudes to the 2004 Tsunami would find only a booming humanitarian consensus. The thing to realize is that this is the point. We’re literally hardwired to publicize our most flattering face, especially to ourselves. Vanity is never so devious as when it disguises itself as truth–especially the journalistic variety–and never so pernicious as when it doubles as piety. It’s a masturbatory bait-and-switch game we play with ourselves all the time, confusing self-congratulation with morally clarity.
Once you begin to see your attitudes for what they are–largely cosmetic–then you’ll begin to understand. Your not enlightened. You’re certainly not critical.
I hesitate to label Dylan a racist because he grew up watching Sesame Street. He told nigger and paki jokes like everyone else, but with the same emotional laziness with which he told Irish and Dutch jokes. He said hateful things, but for whatever reason he never hated.
But he was most definitely a homophobe: where he grew up the only way to not be a fag was to hate them.
“Fag,” literally became a term of endearment among him and his friends. “Hey, fag.” “Hi, fag.” “Whatchya doin, fag?” And “cocksucker” became the reflex expletive of choice–so reflexive that Dylan embarrassed himself and offended others dozens of times during his first ten years in university. Intellectually he knew you’re only allowed to call people who don’t suck cock cocksuckers, but linguistic habits die hard. The bigoted vulgarity which his upbringing had raised to an artform, the crude patois of the fields, had no place in the antiseptic halls of academia. It had to be blotted out. Like everything else working class, it had to be labeled, tagged, and concealed by official culture. A relic of a dirtier past. Bigotry as enlightenment.
Hatred is inextricable from tradition. Which might be why our past is better off as a gift shop.
But Cutter, though. He was a racist through and through, and not enough of a homophobe for Dylan to really trust that he wasn’t gay. And as they whiled away the hours, pop-pop-popping through the field, he talked about things that made Dylan rigid with confusion.
For instance, how much he loved having his wife eat out his asshole.
The popping stopped. “Are you fucking kidding me? You did not just say that!”
And Cutter would chortle. “Top it! You top it right Now!”
“You want me to top? If you want me to, I’ll top right Now!”
And the two of them, marooned in the middle of some field, would howl with laughter. You could never decide whether Cutter simply didn’t care what you thought, which pretty much guaranteed your respect, or whether he possessed a martyr’s absolute faith in the union of his hilarity and your amusement.
Where most people operated within the rules while remaining utterly insensible to them, Cutter was always hanging from them, like a boxer goading his audience, probing and testing the strength of his normative prison. He was what you would call transgressive, but not in the pretend way that you fetishize, the art-only ‘rule breaking’ that allows you to conceal status differentiation ploys behind the blind of ‘radical’ aesthetic scruples. He transgressed in the way of men who see rules as tools, who acknowledge only bars and batons as constraints.
Cutter never broke any skin, but he left scars enough, believe me.
How is it the air of inevitability in one of us can summon the same air in others? Some people look into the mirror, see the same ludicrous face day in and day out, and call it beauty. “My-my-my…” They then emanate this preposterous conviction so visibly, so palpably, that the incredulous relax and play along–and eventually even come to believe. Like Truman Capote. How is it that some people carry religions around with them?
Just what the fuck is charisma?
Whatever it was, Cutter possessed it. Shining from his Burt Lancaster grin. Hanging like a nimbus, scarcely detected, at the edge of his manner, sparking mirror neurons perhaps–those circuits in our brain that mimic the firing patterns that drive the actions of others–signaling them in indoctrinating ways.
Some people need only move for us to follow.
Topping and suckering are the quiet time of the season, the long-walking lull between the insomnia of irrigation and the mechanical uproar of harvest. Unless the field they happened to be working bordered the kilnyard behind the house, Jerry usually drove the two of them out himself. Dylan was hung with the “bitch seat” in the middle, while Cutter either rolled doobies or spread papers sitting against the door.
The truck would bounce and float with that driving-across-a-blanket feel unique to tobacco field lanes. Dylan would watch the topped fields slide by with a curious mixture of pride and relief. Without thinking, he would think progress, not so much in the sense of advancing toward as in the sense of not having to repeat–of escape. A bodily satisfaction would wax and peter within him.
They would sight the ranks of untopped rows and Jerry would always start “joking” about how far he expected them to go today. Cutter always replied with his let’s-talk-farm-with-Jerr routine.
“Well, yesterday there…”
“You know, if only…”
Dylan would sit swaying between the men, doing his best to avoid Cutter’s can-you-believe-this-idiot glances. And no matter how much it made his skin crawl he would always laugh with Cutter about it afterward, congratulate him in the slanted way he always demanded.
Jerr usually made a point of slamming the pickup to a stop. They would make desultory conversation while leaning against the truck, kicking the dirt, and of course smoking up. They would talk low out of respect for the morning chill.
After about fifteen minutes to a half an hour Jerr would leave them to their work. They would turn to the rows with the dread of the newly stoned.
Cutter sucked his last smoke to the nub, pondered it for a moment. “To think some poor fucker picked this.”
Dylan smirked. “Yeah. What an asssshole.”
A clutch of human laughter, slipping out of the world’s pocket.
Talk is all there is in the lonely field.
Like many people, Dylan felt immeasurably more confident with a captive audience of one than he did in the company of three or more people. The more ears that listened, the more his voice seemed to totter on a unicycle. The face-saving story he cooked up to explain this had to do with “connecting.” He could only “connect” with a single interlocutor, he told himself, because connected conversations demanded his undivided attention. He smoked too much dope to handle multi-tasking.
Only later–when he became me in fact–would he realize that it had more to do with perceived hierarchies. Whenever he was out of his element, which was pretty much all the time, he automatically saw himself as a low ranking male. His difficulty speaking in groups was simply mathematical: the more people in the room, the more of a loser he became. And who cares what the loser says?
But when it was just two, he was number two. His recognition, his approval mattered simply because there was no one else to eclipse or to relegate it.
If there was anything about topping and suckering that he celebrated, it was the gift of selfless talk–particularly with someone like Cutter, who seemed to personify the strengths he so envied. Cutter’s attention. His agreement. And especially his laughter. All of it carried the avid shine of vindication.
There was the relationship advice.
Dylan told Cutter about his first serious girlfriend, Nancy Degroot, how she was crazy orgasmic, to the point where she would come simply giving him a blow-job. He told her about Shelley and the peek-a-boo panty game.
“Oh. My. God,” Cutter said, shaking his eyes at heaven. “If I could be seventeen again. Lordy-lordy. I’d fuck your neighbour so hard she’d need a bungee to hold her ankles together.”
“She’d never let you.”
“No. She’d never let you. She’s a fucking whore, believe you me. The reason she won’t fuck you is because she made a decision. Chicks do that. They tag you like an endangered species or something. ‘Him I’ll fuck. Him I’ll tease until his balls turn blue. Oooooh, top it. Top it pleeeeeasssse.’ Trust me, it’s just a power thing.”
“But I think she–”
“It’s just a power thing. Seriously. Fucking chicks, man. You’ll learn. You’ll learn soon enough.”
For his part, Cutter always remained general when talking about his exploits. It was always “this fucking crazy chick,” or “this one bitch this one time.” Lots of ball-licking. A couple of loads in the face. And the famous “gusher,” who, or so he claimed, had ruined him for the rest of his sex life.
Sometimes, when the inevitable silences swallowed up their conversation, Dylan would try to imagine what it would be like, banging a gusher. Despite the sun buzzing in his ears, he would become wistful with second-hand carnal fantasies.
There was the gossip.
“Did he ever cheat on her?” Dylan asked. Jerry was a popular topic of conversation.
“Cheat?” A narrow and knowing look. “What do you think?”
Dylan shrugged. “No?”
“He was on the football team, man.”
Cutter wagged his face skyward. “I keep forgetting that you’re a geek. When you’re on the football team girls want to hang out with you–drink with you. They don’t call it liquid panty remover for nothing.”
“So that’s a yes?”
“So that’s a yes?” he parroted. “Top it! He’s examined enough pussy to be a fucking cat doctor!”
Dylan laughed, but with a disconnect between volume and breath that made it feel forced.
Cutter tested his wolfish grin. “What about you?” he asked.
“Me? No. Never cheated.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. Geeks go to fucking heaven.”
Dylan pressed him on the details of his personal life on a couple of occasions, but for whatever reason, this was the one topic which seemed to make Cutter anxious, as if part of him understood the contradiction between this caginess and his how-do-you-like-me-so-far? expressiveness otherwise. His “old lady,” as he called his wife, was a nagging bitch. And his kids–Chad, who was four, and Paul, who was six–were little hellions, just like their father. Other than these skeletal concessions, he refused to talk about his home life.
Dylan pressed him a couple of times, but he found the “weirdness” of Cutter’s attitude–he had no other way of comprehending it–unsettling. There was a darkness there that he could not name, a sense of straying into carcinogenic air.
He decided not to pursue the issue. He understood that humans, unlike any other animal, were just as prone to conceal their environment as themselves.
Then there was the 100 000 dollar game, where greed was tossed on the scale with this or that outrageous hypothetical.
“Okay,” Dylan would say. “Okay… How about eating out a… fat-ass seventy-nine year old… who hasn’t showered in a fucking month?”
“Depends,” Cutter said. He was always big on qualifications. “Does she wipe her ass regularly.”
“Nope. She’s too fat.”
“Okay-okay… Here’s my answer. Yes, I would eat her pussy, but only if I could put a clothespin on my nose, and suck on a whole pack of Certs as a chaser.”
Cutter always said some version of, “Yes, so long as…” and with an earnestness that would have convinced outsiders that he really meant it. In fact, he was so convincing, that three or four times he actually had Dylan saying, “Are you serious? You’re serious aren’t you?”
The giant chicklet grin. For Cutter, this was a kind of triumph, getting others to think he was capable of unthinkable things.
So, he would suck a donkey’s dick, but only so long as he could wrap it in cherry-flavoured cellophane. He would eat maggot porridge, so long as he could add five tablespoons of brown-sugar. And he would shave a truck-drivers asshole, but only if a cherry was tucked into the guy’s sphincter.
And on and on, enough to cover forty-plus acres of tobacco.
Dylan would do none of these things, not even in jest, and somehow they both understood that this made him weaker. It would have been the other way around, had he played the game with anyone but Cutter–and somehow they both understood this as well. It was like they were ambassadors of different tribes, the one an ancient tributary of the other.
And of course, there were the obligatory philosophical conversations.
Otherwise known as ‘blasphemy.’
“I don’t get it,” Cutter said. “I saw this sign at this church the other day–you ever notice how they all have signs? Like fucking Zellars, only with pretend money! ‘Come worship with us,’ it said. Worship? What the fuck is up with that? I wanted to sneak back at night and steal the fucking letters. ‘Come with us…’ How’s that for a religious message, eh? ‘Come with us!’ Amen to that!”
Dylan grinned. “Pass the plate, brother–and some tissue please.”
Cutter found this enormously funny. “The way I figure it,” he cried through his chuckles, “if they’re on their knees anyway, they might as well do something useful. I got a secret for ya, Reverend, your wife falls to her knees every afternoon at two–and the body of Christ is long, hard, and hairy!”
“Worship is worship.”
Laughter across the fields, the roar pulled thin by the absence of reflective surfaces, soaked silent by the long accumulating rows. A man and a boy.
The hot ring of your cap, like a tin strap cinched about your head. Your feet swelling in your sneakers, shuffling through dust and dirt. The cat-tongue licks of innumerable tobacco leaves. The glass of your watch-face steamed with perspiration. The black gum across your skin burning like a second hide in the sun–you had to use the inside of your wrists and forearm to squeeze the sweat from your scalp.
An ancient gesture that, pulling off your cap, squinting against the unshielded glare, the ever widening circle of plants, motionless, tense with photosynthesis, a grid to measure the endless to and fro of the bugs, white-dots crisscrossing the surface of the lonely field.
Talking, they were released. Talking, they were cooler than everything.
Walking endless rows, tobacco and human.
Nostalgia is what happens when the present outruns your presence. When all the old habitats are levelled, and you wake up in the zoo. You begin yearning for what you used to hate, not because things would be any different, but because you would be different.
To go back is to unlearn–to attempt something more profound than mere forgetting or vicarious escape.
Here’s a way to think of it. Nostalgia is a being toward birth, the vanishing point of all backward gazes.
There is no Archimedean point, but there is a haze. We were born. We arise out of nothing. This is the one thing that contexts cannot encircle, the one absolute in the skidding plummet of our life.
The contexts that swaddle me not only began, they pile up with the passage of moments. If the fact of prior contexts is exhausted by this very context Now, then contexts are conceptually incoherent. You can never say that prior contexts determine anything, because it is always this very context Now that is doing the determining. Geography, history, psychology, pretty much any contextual register you can imagine, collapses into a solipsism of the present.
There is always more. I know more than I did when I was an infant–not differently.
I know better.
Which is to say I no longer know much of anything at all.
And this is the paradox, isn’t it? That knowing more in fact murders the experience of knowing.
And this is what we pine for. Time riddles us with unwanted revelations, until we become bloated, sponge-soaked with indecision and uncertainty. Nostalgia is the unasking of questions, a wilful purge of doubt and its accumulations. Innocence is code for drowsy illusion.
Too many questions. Too many ignorances made visible. Too many concessions to weakness, to context in its innumerable occult forms. Everything embroiled in medias res. Everything always already.
Living becomes angling.
We lose sight of the most astounding fact of all–our beginning. But instead of celebrating the fact, we eulogize the experience, the what-it-was-like.
And this is why nostalgia so easily lapses into fascism. Because it isn’t contexts all the way down, because we are so much more, the present must be cut and beaten. Only force can police clarity.
Ignorance stands at the heart of our longing. Ignorance of our ignorance. Ignorance of ourselves.
Numbness is our foundation. Our soft and sandy soil.
All conversations trail into silence sooner or later. The work never runs out of breath. Sometimes Dylan would think about something Cutter had said, a pondering that was more a parroting. Thinking senseless of itself
Pop. Pop. Pop. An insect whining through the susurrus of sky and field. Remembered phrases rising in smokey plumes, associations drifting this way and that. Glances up the row, across the field. Another bug.
So far to go. Fuck me.
Other times Dylan would think about those things he would never dream of telling Cutter–things he pursued against the grain of shame. Like Conan warring against Picts on the bourne of civilization and barbarity. Like Guild Navigators folding space and time. Like Feanor crafting the Silmarils in obsessive gloom, daring to grasp the madness at the pith of art, and finding himself seized.
Sometimes, when Cutter interrupted him during one of these reveries, he would have dragon in one eye and a spaceship in the other. Blink…
And they were gone.
People are funnels.
We all possess a reflexive censoriousness that we’re largely blind to, one that we anchor in this or that basic evaluative concept. For most men in rural Southwestern Ontario, that concept was FAG. If Dylan was exceedingly careful about whom he mentioned his reading to, it was because reading science fiction and fantasy flirted with FAG’s definitional parameters.
When he first went to university he was naive enough to think that this would change, that the conceptual funnel would be broad enough to include his interests–but he realized within the first two weeks that the situation was even worse. If reading fantasy flirted with FAG in the fields, it was out and out married to STUPID in the classroom.
This led him to make the tragic mistake that led to me. It seems remarkable, Now that I think about it. All those years weathering the judgement of hard men, some of whom would cut throats they were so see-it-through, only to crumble before the condemnation of soft-handed fools.
The hypocrites got him, hammered him into a version of themselves. Me.
Of course you can’t be human, and you can’t have a culture, without having a FAG of some description, and I guess STUPID is as good a FAG as any. But I’m starting to think that HYPOCRITE is even better. The problem with STUPID is that what people really mean is CLOWN. Where FAG is meant to punish deviations from behavioural orthodoxy, STUPID is meant to punish deviations from aesthetic orthodoxy. Dylan was identified as STUPID not because he was in fact stupid, but because he did not share his instructors’ tastes.
For them, anything POPULAR simply had to be STUPID. Though they loved things about the fields, they could not abide anything from the fields. And so they walked down rows of humans…
Pop. Pop. Pop.
It’s all monkey stuff actually, paleolithic status imperatives dressed up in complicated, post-industrial skin. All your extended meditations on quotidian minutae, all your fucking around with representational norms–what has it achieved? Really?
Aside from turning you into a FAG and making the rest of the world STUPID.
Can’t you see how much we needed you?
Not as you are (just more precious versions of ourselves…)
But as you pretend to be.
Maybe you’re bouncing on a bus, enduring yet another wintry commute to school. Maybe you’re squinting against the glare of some beach, or hunched over a kitchen table, or sprawled across a recliner. Maybe you’re glib with satisfied ambitions, or bitter with the frustrated expectations…
And Now you find yourself Here wrestling with this…
Strange, isn’t it? reading someone who doesn’t pretend his audience is Father Time, reading a voice from somewhere calling out to someone in particular. The voice from nowhere to no one is perhaps the greatest literary conceit of all. Sure, the canon abounds with ‘unreliable narrators,’ and the smug assumption that short of this narrative self-reflexivity the authorial voice is bound to be naive.
But two brains are required to close the communicative circuit. If we reify meaning and pin it to the ink, then it seems we can hook our voices in the sky, that we need only write. We confuse the possibility that anyone anywhere at anytime might read us with speaking to no one in particular at all. But all communication is communication to someone in particular, simply because all communication is bound by socialized protocols. You are always writing for somebody, even if you hide that somebody behind your pompous bulk.
No. It is in the interest of the literary author to let you hide in apparent anonymity, to write to the occlusion of your frame. We call attention to the compositional performance because this lends our voice the tenor of a certain fashionable profundity. My, don’t things get tricky when words appear to refer to themselves! But we rarely, if ever, call attention to the whole show. To do so would be to risk revealing the parochial penury of the entire exercise.
“I will write only what will confirm your precious assumptions and reaffirm your sense of privileged self-identity, while critiquing the beliefs and the identities of those you consider your moral and intellectual inferiors under the hypocritical guise of writing for them.”
What author wants to say this? What reader wants this said?
So you enter into the mean little conspiracy that you call Literature. And despite being peevish and small–human–you feel so wide and open you might as well be the sky. And you close the covers happy, especially when the book affords you the opportunity to hate. Why? Because this is what you paid you for: to dance around the sublimated fire with all the like-minded savages, howling out your glory and heaping abuse upon your competitors.
Certainly not to be ‘challenged.’ No one wants to be challenged. How can I say this? Because no one wants to be wrong. Conversion is something that happens when the other guy sees the light of your truth.
The next time you pass a Christian bookstore, catch that twinge of derision by the throat and marvel at your dishonesty. To celebrate chauvinism is to admit it. And you? Do you think saying things like, “Well, yes, of course I’m bound to my time and place, but at least I’m able to acknowledge as much…” is anything more than a cunning form of denial? To think that criticality is a nonperishable good is bad enough, but to think that it’s something most likely found in your hothouse cupboards is nothing short of… what? Preposterous?
Or how about, pathetic?
Criticality is a form of self-hatred, and there’s so much about you that you love. Once criticality becomes ‘one more thing to love’ about yourself, you’ve embraced a piety that’s well-nigh invulnerable simply because it can never be seen. Your aristocracy becomes implicit, tucked away so that you can pretend ‘be in touch’ and ‘feel for’ the very people you continually use (as you must, given your hardwiring) to leverage your sense of social superiority.
This is why we only call attention to the authorial fraction of the literary show. It allows us to go through the motions of being critical without being critical of all. Unreliable narrators are the most ingenious place for unreliable readers to hide. To say “This text is bent,” is to imply that your eye is straight.
Nothing like counting lies to make yourself feel true.
A week into suckering Cutter began pulling no-shows, stranding him alone in the fields. So Dylan stole a bulk pack of Duracell AAs from Loblaws and began wearing his chincy walkman out to the field. He listened to Black Sabbath mostly, especially the self-titled album, Sabotage, and Volume 4. He rocked down the rows, doing little jigs with each plant as he stripped the suckers from the stem. He banged his head, thinking of holes in the sky taking him to heaven, or of asking the final question, if the answer could be sold. Sometimes the guitar crescendos crashed through him, transformed his heart into the missing instrument. Other times they slipped into the background, became as emotionally inert as a PA announcement at K-Mart.
He made a game of whipping the dead batteries as far as he could out into the woods.
A kind of child-laziness stole back upon him. One day in particular he loafed, spent at least three hours tooling around in the dirt, even though he knew Jerr would be all over him. Counting rows is easy.
It was one of those hot overcast days, where exhalations fell seamlessly into the warm dank. A day when falling leaves could be mistaken for butterflies. He sat in the lane, leaning back on his elbows with his legs kicked out, staring past the verge into the woods, studying the great upright limbs from which everything sagged. Only against woolen skies, it seemed, could he see the cunning in the way the leaves leaned against the sun.
He gazed with a kind of passive-aggressive wonder, drawn but not quite fooled. Here he was, the son of a farmer, farming, and he lacked any living engagement with these… things. With the earth.
Trees, weeds–what the fuck did he know?
He remembered reading that humans hadn’t changed at all during their long climb into the crazed maze of civilization, that they had possessed all the capacities they possessed Now in the stone age as well. Same memory. Same basic reasoning skills. Same experiential template. (The idea had shocked him at the time–he had always assumed that cavemen were mentally retarded or something). It stood to reason, he supposed; he believed everything he read back then. But for whatever reason the consequences of this cognitive parity escaped him until Now, peering through the barked hollows, between mangy sheets of dark and green. Every fact in his brain, he realized, had some paleolithic counterpart. But where he knew things like the Warsaw Pact’s numerical superiority in tanks, or how Tonny Iommi had rubber fingertips, or how the Pepsi Challenge was simply a matter of sugar content, they knew things like birdcalls, seasonal cycles, herbs and gossip, the names and personalities of trees…
He felt it then, like the murmur of preschool conditioning beneath acts neither automatic nor intentional. Not alienated–the aura of belonging was palpable–but rather contrived and thin, so very thin, as though he were little more than a patch on the world, something fastened with a vague and general adhesive. A paleolithic Dylan, he realized, would be there in a way he could scarcely imagine, intimate with immediate things, so bound with place and community as to be indistinguishable from them. A paleolithic Dylan, would be here, to the follicle, to the pore, rather than strung across a rubber globe.
This indistinguishable from that.
But here he was, the modern Dylan, little more than a tourist, snapping mental pictures instead of seeing, more concerned with bragging rights than with the nature of things. Thoroughly “geworfed” as he and the other Heideggereans would joke in University.
Only when confronted with the blank intricacies of nature does it become obvious that we have a nature, an answering nature.
Only in the breach.
Reminiscences fill me differently depending on their emotional tenor.
When Dad still managed the tobacco farm, Dylan was forced to top the whole crop on his own–”Why should we give anyone else the money!” Dad would always cry, because that was what in fact the work ethic was as far as he was concerned, the money ethic.
This often meant working from sun up to sun down. Long hours for a teenager.
Dylan would make sundials in the dirt, trying to correlate the fall of shadows with hands on his watch. He would lay down in the middle of the fields, beneath and among the turgid leaves, staring at insects that skittered across the granular grey, wondering at the scale of things, and the way they stacked together. He would pause in the middle of empty fields, gaze at the fluff tracing movie-star autographs across the field.
He collected dead bugs with wings as big as maple keys. He peered into the forest verge.
He listened to an earth without cars or aircraft or language. He understood that everything living was a kind of worm.
He trained himself to see the sun as a fixed point–to feel the world wheel beneath his feet.
The principles of sun-dials eluded him. To this very day, I still don’t understand them.
Topping and suckering were one of the few tobacco jobs with a rational work schedule: 8 to 5 with weekends off. Dad urged him to take more shifts at the grocery store, which he did do, but only because it gave him an excuse to stay in St. Thomas for the weekend. To party.
In highschool, Dylan was one of the ‘druggie geeks,’ the group who would congregate in the smoking area discussing swords and sorcery with fuck-you-world expressions. They would flick their butts at the pant-legs of whoever happened to be the loser-of-the-moment, and always swear loud enough to be overheard.
They would say things like, “Oh man, I was soooo fucked up!”
I find it hard to recall, all that floundering in the soup of peer group socialization. All those anxieties. All those defensive points of pride. All those instances of attention seeking. All those petty bids for status.
All those drugs.
Retrospection has a way of welding your actions to your circumstances. The further back you reach in your past, I find, the more mechanical you seem–the more foolish. Agency evaporates. This… becomes “that.”
Memory is an exercise in puppetry.
Freedom is an artifact of our inability to recall the future.
Some several months after the poker game with the nihilist, the second year of his PhD program, Dylan failed the oral defence of his dissertation outline.
By this time he had realized that something was wrong with theory. The problem, he eventually decided, was that various theoretical positions all employed exclusive vocabularies, concepts that worked well and fine in their own theoretical economies, but necessarily fell short when plugged into others. What he needed was a kind of mathesis universalis, a way of translating different theoretical positions into a common language, a kind of pragmatic conceptual patois that would allow theorists to get around the problem of continually begging the question when answering the criticisms of their theoretical foes.
So he began innovating his ‘third way,’ a conceptual vocabulary possessing the resources to translate conceptual staples belonging to other theoretical positions into its own idiom with minimal loss.
At some point, he got it into his head that he needed as much critique as possible, if he was going to craft his theoretical ambitions into something that would survive the theory jungle. So he literally used a Darwinian sensibility when approaching various professors to serve on his dissertation committee. If his little theoretical organism could survive a Derridean Tiger, a Marxist Lion, a Historicist Shark, a Freudian Python, and a Feminist Spider, then it would have to be a remarkable little organism indeed, perhaps one that could claw its way to the very pinnacle of the theoretical food chain–maybe even be translated into French.
It ended in fucking disaster.
According to the Derridean (his supervisor, no less), his project was too overtly metaphysical, a crypto-transcendental attempt to resurrect the Kantian project (which he conceded, was better than trying to resuscitate the Cartesian program). The Feminist accused him–him, not the outlined dissertation project–of being sexist. “I find it interesting,” he said, “how you only make eye contact with Seymour.” The Historicist, to her credit, simply acknowledged that she couldn’t understand half of what he had written. “You go on and on about these ‘conditions of possibility,’ she said, “but you never talk about what actually happened.” The Marxist was inclined to agree: he thought the project engaged, “Far, far, far too many empty formalisms.”
The Freudian pulled a no show: a stunt that would possess far-ranging consequences, all of them invisible.
They all said many complimentary things about his ‘originality’–they had certain ersatz rhetorical commitments to discharge, after all. But it was as plain as the sunlight streaming through the windows that they had no fucking clue what he was on about.
Neither did he, for that matter.
It struck him at the time that none of what was happening–the questioning, the answering, the professorial posturing and the collegial asides–was really real, that it was actually a bizarre kind of art installation, one inviting the viewer to take his ‘subject position,’ and so subject themselves to a canny recontextualization of the ‘academic experience,’ one that inculcated even as it defamiliarized…
The Derridean with the flake of turquoise snot on his moustache, the Marxist losing more and more body fat with every passing minute, until his forehead seemed to map the Amazonian River Basin, the Feminist peering at him as if astounded he hadn’t seen ‘as much’ earlier, the Historicist trying hard to cultivate a look of dishevelled boredom, but simply looking frightened instead, and the empty seat creaking beneath the weight of the missing Freudian.
The folly of his Darwinian approach came crashing home. (The folly of his project would take several more years to discover). He had been thinking that theoretical positions were like predators dwelling in a shared ecosystem, when in point of fact they were ecosystems dwelling in isolated predators.
Obsessing over the ordeal afterward, he finally realized that the point of writing a dissertation was not to ‘add’ anything ‘genuinely new’ to the field, it was to pretend to. The ‘new,’ whatever it was, had to run the gauntlet of the old, which always liked to think of itself as the ‘new.’ To be considered radical, he realized, he had to be strategically reactionary, plain and simple.
Up to this point, he had made the mistake almost every graduate student makes: he had taken his professors at their word.
Hanging out with Cutter had given him uncharacteristic confidence, something which his friends acknowledged in the way that all non-ritual transformations of social fact are acknowledged: implicitly. Eye contact was more firm and prolonged. Other voices were less likely to pop into self-regarding existence when he was talking. People were more inclined to turn toward him rather than listen over their shoulder.
Having crazy-ass tobacco stories with characters as obviously cool as Cutter figuring in them helped. As did the gram or so of magic mushrooms he dropped with all the others.
They had learned from hard experience to keep their shroom parties small–close friends only, and absolutely no assholes. So it was just the seven of them slung across couches and chairs about the coffee table, ribbons of tobacco smoke dissolving into solution above.
Mike and Mark Gilbert belonged to Dylan’s original Dungeons and Dragons campaign, back when he had lived in Port Stanley with his mother. Because they were identical twins, people liked calling them “Mirk”–especially as the night wore on. Sean Hopper was one of Dylan’s best friends growing up on Lakeshore Road: they had spent whole summers exploring the wooded bluffs of Lake Erie’s north shore. Janet Nistleroy was Hopper’s long time girlfriend, as cool a chick as any, sarcastic and compassionate by turns. Stuey was her older brother, though he behaved like her younger brother in every way. Lisa Paul was Jan’s childhood friend, the person she first sniffed glue with back in grade four.
For his part, Dylan loved and trusted them all. For my part, I’m not sure I would recognize them if I bumped into them in the grocery store, and I’m not sure I would speak to them even if I did. Thanks to capital and the technological concentration of production, we live off the labour of strangers. We Now bond with one another in the utter absence of the economic interdependencies that once underwrote all our relationships. We love against the grain of our social structure, which means the path of least resistance usually leads to solitude. Friendship has become work.
And like you, I’m so very tired.
Emboldened by the shrooms, Dylan told them about Nancy, a 96 year-old woman he had befriended at Loblaws the previous spring. He was shocked to find himself telling this story, and not just because he never told stories to more than two people at a time. Nancy had been a burr in his brain for several weeks. Even when you’re 17 you somehow sense those people who outrun you in some fundamental respect. In Dylan’s case, almost all of them had been elderly.
Once he’d been stacking dozens of overstock trays of tuna, building a wall of them on a skid set high atop the store shelves. Since the back of the skid extended some 18 inches beyond the shelf rack’s central rung, he was loading what was essentially a giant wooden teeter-totter. He set down one tray too many, and watched with–what was it? numb disbelief? skin-slicking shock? nothing at all?–as the wall of tin cans tipped to the horizontal, floated out beyond recovery, gently extended across space, then dropped in loose formation into the far aisle…
Where it broke across the crumpling form of an old man. Wipe out.
His heart in his throat, Dylan jumped to the floor and ran thinking a thousand things: that the old guy had been killed, that he was about to lose his job, that he would have to reduce five hundred cans of tuna for quick sale. He almost cried out for joy when he saw the geezer pressing himself up on his cane.
“Are you okay?” Dylan cried. “Are you hurt?”
The old man simply looked at him frowning. “Jeeezus Christ,” he said. “I used to work the fucking mines, kid. You think tuna could take me out?” Then he kicked his way past the heaped cans and continued shopping.
Tough as fucking nails.
Then there was this other old guy who simply came up to him one evening and said, “Did you know I used to work as a janitor at the O. H.?”
The “O. H.” was St. Thomas speak for the Ontario Hospital, a gigantic psychiatric facility located on the south edge of town, and one of the region’s biggest employers after the Ford plant. The locals liked to point out the DO NOT PICK UP HITCH-HIKERS signs whenever they drove past on Highway 4. They would shake their heads in amused disbelief, and start swapping legends about this or that criminally insane psycho. Everyone in town, it seemed, knew someone who was married to a nurse in this or that ward.
Dylan smiled as the old janitor. “You did, did you?” he said, imitating the patronizing tone his coworkers used to deflect the overtures of the old. During lunch break, they referred to these as “fuck you very much” moments.
“Yep. And you know what?”
There was something in the geezer’s manner–like a spring screwed down–that commanded Dylan’s attention.”And what’s that?” he asked. Despite his oh-oh-another-old-weirdo tone, he found himself genuinely curious.
The old guy squinted up at him, grinning. “I was supposed to be retired but they called me retarded–so Now I live there!” He sort of did this little tap-dancer move, ta-fucking-da, and then he just ambed away.
Crazy as a shit-house rat.
By and large, the tables have been turned on the old. The ‘wisdom’ that rendered them so valuable in days of yore has come back to bite them in their saggy asses. Thanks to the pace of technologically mediated change, experience has become baggage. Now everywhere the old look, they find themselves outrun, huffing and puffing under all that “weight of experience,” lapped time and again, until finally they get shoo-shooed from the track.
But sometimes, quite inadvertently, they embody the wisdom they once knew. Sometimes, by simple virtue of who they are, they smack the pride from the young, a pride that is absolute for being so thoughtless, so stupid. Sometimes their baggage snaps open, and the young stand exposed in their penury.
An old miner who brushes off cans tuna like dandruff. An old janitor who goes mad cleaning up after the insane. How could a 17 year-old grocery clerk even pretend to have “one up” on such men?
How sad was that?
But Nancy… Ah, Nancy. She would more than just outrun him.
Because Loblaws was a union shop, and because Dylan had got in just as the store opened, he had seniority, so he was able to take all the plum evening shifts at the beginning of the week. Nancy used to come in every Monday night. Her granddaughter would bring her to the store, set her up with a grocery cart, and the old woman would be off to the races. Even at 96 she insisted on shopping for her own groceries.
She was one of those old people who continually seem to broadcast the image of their youth. Even Now, when I think back to her, I reflexively see her as a statuesque and clear-eyed, filled to the brim with charm and bustle. I have to think to remember her as she really was: withered, milk-eyed, her nylons sagging at her ankles, holding her grocery cart like minibike handlebars.
You meet lots of regulars when you work at a grocery store, and most of them remain just that, regulars, part of an amorphous mass of partially recognized faces that probably best sums up humanity as a whole. Everyone’s gotta eat–everyone but everyone. That’s the thing about a grocery store: the insulting combination of intimacy and anonymity. So you see housewives with the Tampax they slip into their pussies, assembly line stiffs with the Preparation-H they dab onto their buds, and the whole town with the toilet paper they read like tea leaves after every wipe. If you think about it, ringing through your groceries is one step away from home invasion. Why else would you hide the stuff in cupboards the instant you drag it through the front door? Even homes have their public faces.
So with the regulars there’s always this mutual you-ignore-me-and-I-ignore-you kind of thing. They say, “Hey,” and you say, “Hey,” and they ask you where the cold-sore medication is, and you tell them, and everyone resumes waddling behind their carts, floating through an enumerated world of Fisher-Price colours and canned everything.
But some customers, for whatever reason–be it stupidity or courage–refuse to abide by the rules. Some rise above the tide of ‘regulars’ and become part of the cast that, along with coworkers, makes for the daily melodrama that is the fact behind the economic abstraction called the “service industry.”
Nancy began as a friend, but ended up becoming something much more. I would like to say “lover,” but I know Dylan would have none of fucking that.
At first they just talked. Dylan was blown away: here was a woman who had lived the bulk of her life before radio, who had lost a husband in the Great War, and who had buried most of her children. Now I imagine this sounds touching and all that, but we need to remember that Dylan was a head-banging, dope-smoking 17 year-old, pretty much distinguished only by his kickass Dungeon-mastering and the dim glimmerings of a philosophical conscience. What so fascinated Dylan, at least at the outset, was that Nancy was cool.
She quite literally seemed like a character in a book. It would be hard to decide whether he liked her more for who she was, or for the stories he could tell his work buddies afterward. He rather liked the idea of befriending someone so old and so cool. I mean, what could a mere 50 year-old offer in comparison? An American cousin who had been in Vietnam, maybe? Squat. The uncomfortable truth of the matter was that there was something decidedly uncomfortable about Nancy, especially in those first grocery-store interludes. He dreaded her appearance at the end of the aisle at least as much as he anticipated it.
As I said, she outran him.
At some point, they began holding hands while they talked. Now you might think this is significant, the initiation of physical contact, but then we’ve been conditioned by media to read all incidences of touching as sexual-romantic cues. Back then, it was actually quite common for old people to grab you while they talked: as encumbered with experience as they were, it was pretty much only way they could prevent you from lapping them. Back then they hadn’t all been benched like they are Now. No. What was significant about the hand-holding was the change in conversation that accompanied it.
Nancy began speaking about death.
Now, as we know, Dylan had been a huge Black Sabbath fan from the age of 12. For whatever reason, one line from one song in particular haunted him: “Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope, do you think he’s a fool? When you think about death do you lose your breath, or do you think that you’re cool?” He rarely pondered the line, simply repeated it ad nauseum while doing this or that mindless tuna display. And when he did think about it, he would primarily reflect on the “Pope on a rope” line–he liked the ring of that for some reason. On the few occasions he considered the second line, he had to admit that, yes, he felt pretty damn cool when he thought about death. After all, he had skulls on every other T-shirt, he bought albums with skulls on them, he even used to doodle skulls whenever he was bored in class–this wicked, wide-jawed, long-fanged, flaming thing that everyone complimented him on. Skulls were cool. So death was cool, QED.
But whenever Nancy mentioned it, he lost his breath–literally.
Nancy, it turned out, was as bitter and as she was terrified.
She literally spent her days mourning her funeral. It wasn’t fair she told him, to live for so long, so deeply, and to turn around and find it all flattened into nothing. That was what she kept coming back to, over and over again. “It’s not fair,” she would rasp over the piped melodies of Abba, Elton John, and Barry Manilow. And Dylan would want to console her, but he would look into her ancient eyes, at the tears that could never form, that could never slip down her cheeks because they were always rut-broken and wrinkle-squeezed into threads, and he would be aghast.
Strange word, ‘aghast.’ It needs to be left alone to be truly appreciated.
She became important to him then, and in ways he could never articulate, and I would only end up inadvertently lampooning. The most I can say is that he understood, in the vague, thin-blooded way of 17 year-olds, that she had not only outrun him, she had split him into two… That if he were to write about himself before Nancy, he would feel compelled to refer to himself as ‘he.’
Once, several weeks following, while he was building a special display aisle for the store’s quarterly Insider’s Report, Nancy surprised him coming around the head of the aisle. With an uncharacteristic air of nervousness she blurted, “I have a favour to ask you, Dylan.” Her voice was always paradoxical, at once papery with age and stone-hard with long speaking. But this time it was almost… childlike.
“Whatever you want!” he replied. I want to say that he beamed with pride, but I’m pretty certain that’s just me trying to own the decisive generosity of his answer.
“It’s just that…” she said, hesitating. “It’s been so long.”
“I don’t understand. What’s been so long?”
Her eyes wet, their irises bruised and spackled with pale and grey, she stared up at him and said, “Dylan… Would you kiss an old woman?”
Now this moment is lost to me. In my mind, Dylan is a kind of hole at this instant, an absence where there should be shining significance. What would a 17 year-old feel at such a moment? All I know is that he leaned down, not so very far because she was so tall, even at 96, and softly kissed her lips.
And the tears welled, for once strong enough to fall unbroken along the length of her cheeks, where they hung like moles before dropping like diamonds.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “It’s been so long since a young man… a lovely… young…”
She was Scottish and exceedingly proud, and her weeping embarrassed her. She waved and smiled, pressed past him, left him watching her as she receded down the aisle using her cart as a walker.
Monday after Monday passed, a series of bright consumer pulses, and she never showed. The thoughts of a 17 year-old, as you well know, waft about randomly, like that empty grocery bag in American Beauty, only socked in winds of want and anxiety. Yearnings for the upcoming weekend. Schemes to wrangle a pud out his dealer’s personal stash. Worries about what so-and-so meant when they said such-and-such last weekend. Scenarios, about what he would say to his prick manager if he brought up the time sheets, and about what he should have said to that prick in the meatroom, the district manager’s son.
Images of finger penetration in the most recent issue of Penthouse.
These banalities, too low even for official literature, continued to compose the soundtrack of his daily existence. But Nancy had become a continuous solemn note, drawing unforeseen harmonies from the otherwise slovenly and negligent symphony of his Lebenswelt. He worried about her, not enough to actually inquire–he was a chronic dope-smoker after all–but enough to agonize over whether he should. The kiss was too large a thing for such a young man to frame within the scope of his responsibilities…
Besides, she was just another customer, wasn’t she? Even if she had lapped him.
In his mind’s eye he saw sick rooms, frail forms breathing against the press of stone-cold sheets. And he would ask without asking, How could Nancy be benched when he was the breathless one?
Then one Wednesday night, while slugging milk in the dairy section, he saw her slowly making her way around the yogurt case. “Nancy!” he cried, with that false cheer we so often resort to in times of interpersonal indecision–like a kind of contract we wave, saying, Here, sign this, and we can both pretend.
But Nancy was signing nothing. Without a word she parked her cart against the Danone stand the sample girl used during day shift.
“I’ve been worried about you,” he added lamely.
She leaned toward him and clutched him by the forearm.
He looked down, at her hand, her forearm, and saw the bruised mottling of her flesh through the chapped wax that was her skin. And for some reason, he recoiled–he actually tried to pull away. Afterward, he would chalk it up to some kind of mortal premonition, as though the two of them were clamps on a booster cable and death was the battery.
But she was not about to let go. In fact, she pulled back, like a school-marm who had at long last caught him in some dastardly act.
Dumbfounded, shamed, he gazed into her eyes, into a face that could scarcely sheath her eager skull.
“Remember!” she cried and rasped and murmured. I still flinch from the memory of her rheumy glare.
“As you are Now, I once was. And as I am Now, you will one day be.”
And that was it.
Those were the only words she said.
She ignored his every attempt to engage her, left him watching her waddle her way down the meat aisle, then disappear around a Hostess potato chip display.
Dylan resumed filling the milk. A few weeks later he would hear from one of the cashiers that she had died. He never knew what to feel, and I still don’t.
When he told the story afterward, as he did that night with all his friends on shrooms, he always made a point of grabbing the forearm of the person nearest to him the way she had grabbed his, then speaking the penultimate words to them–”Remember…” I feel ashamed of him for doing that, though I’m not quite sure why. I’m pretty certain that if I ever had the opportunity to tell that story again, I would do it in the exact same way. That if I could clutch your forearm…
It’s funny how writing about true things seems to make them holy.
He would always conclude by saying, “And you know what, I was seventeen when that happened, Now I’m x, and”–he would always pause to snap his fingers–”it happened just yesterday…”
As you might imagine, the story sparked quite a bit of discussion that night, given the audience and their tweaked neurochemistry. Though Nancy’s final words run the risk of sounding trite and cliche to the likes of you and me, reminiscent of something from one of Kundera’s later novels, perhaps, for Dylan and his mushroom enhanced friends it was as profound as profound could be.
The big question was, What did she mean?
The most obvious answer, and far and away the one he most commonly received when his audience considered his story genuinely, rather than the exercise in narcissistic myth-making it would later become (people as self-conscious as Dylan simply cannot be trusted with their own pasts), was that she was telling him to live life to the fullest, to not take a single instant for granted, because after eine Augenblick, it would be gone.
But if that was the case, Dylan would always protest, then Nancy had sadly overestimated him. When he became a huge Seinfeld fan in his twenties, he would say she had mistaken him for someone who didn’t have the emotional constitution of George Costanza. He would tell a kind a half-lie, which was that the event had been a source of continual anxiety for him, rather than an essential landmark on his journey to a joyful life.
I say half-lie, because, indeed, the event would become a source of nagging, low-level anxiety, but only because he continually told stories about it, and soon lost the ability to distinguish what was raw and what had been cooked with self-serving spice. The way Dylan told the story, it seemed, very little of Nancy leaked through.
Perhaps that was the way it should have been.
The interpretation Dylan himself offered would be based on his prior conversations with Nancy, on her sense of injustice. According to this interpretation, she wasn’t urging him to live his life to the fullest, as she herself had, but to brace himself for the shock that had undone her final days. “One morning, you’re going to wake up, kid, and you’re going to find yourself on the bench, just waiting to be cut from the team.”
And it’s going to happen just like that…
Dylan took a strange satisfaction in leaving people with gloomy, perspective skewing thoughts. A “regular good-time wrecking ball” one of his girlfriends would tell him. But that night, they were all zinging on shrooms, listening to the zip-zip-zip of tunes, and this story was just what the doctor ordered. People were shouting back and forth, buddies who couldn’t think their way to the bottom of a beer bottle were climbing the big rocks, baby, asking the hard questions.
Somehow they found themselves talking about the most perplexing thing of all: the Now.
“Like,” Dylan shouted out over the crunching finale to some Judas Priest tune, “doesn’t the Now just freak you out? I mean it’s Now, but it’s not, you know? It’s always Now, this Now, and yet… I mean, the moment I say it, say ‘this Now,’ it’s already that Now Now!” The music vanished into cassette-tape hiss. “Like, how fucked up is that?”
Jan whipped a palm to her chin to catch spit beer. Laughing and staring at him with bunny-rabbit pupils, she cried, “Dyllllan… Like, how fucked up are you?”
The next song crashed like a big brown wave. He looked around at everyone, smiling and nodding, squinting his oops-I-forgot squint as they howled. I Now know that they loved him, that they thought he was weird, yes, but that they also thought he was extraordinary. I know that. I just wish I could find some way to tell him.
“Pretty fucked up,” he admitted.
Newton thought gravity was a force simply because he assumed that space was Euclidean. If an object deviates from a straight line, something has to be acting on it. Einstein showed that gravity wasn’t a thing at all, but rather a consequence of the way matter curves space. He transformed what had seemed a foreground feature into an expression of the greater background.
Likewise, the Now has nothing to do with some special mechanism in the brain. Neuroscientists will never find any ‘neural correlate of the Now’ because the Now, like gravity, is not a foreground feature, though the ontological chicanery intrinsic to conceptualization is sure to make it appear such.
Consciousness has its own topology, it’s own curves and observational distortions. The Now, if anything, is the result of what our brains don’t have.
We generally have difficulty wrapping our heads around the fact that our heads are wrapped around us. Our experience is always ‘out there,’ as Heidegger so obscurely shows. We look out our eyes, sure, and our eyes are little holes in our head, okay, and our head is like a little house in which ‘we’ live, and everything else is out there, beyond our head, in the world–as far as experience goes. But all this experience–and we know this for a fact–arises inside the head. ‘Out there’ is ultimately in here.
It’s all in the head, baby.
Experience is a product of the brain. Of course, paradoxes abound here, conundrums so profound you might as well say we have no fucking clue what’s going on. Just for instance: if the world is all in our heads, and our heads only make sense as things in the world, doesn’t that mean our head is also in our head? And if we can never get outside of our heads, how do we know we have a ‘head’ at all?
Immanuel Kant (the old pissant) not only made a career, but an entire philosophical religion out of that little riddle. He used it to split existence down the middle: the world in the head, which was the only world we could sense, and the world beyond the head, the transcendental world, which we could only ‘know’ through reason. Of course, since he was naive enough to think reason in the absence of scientifically regimented observation could actually do more than rationalize our desires, he thought he stumbled on a way to deliver God, morality, art and immortality from the fires of evil Hume.
That fucking Hume, man–watch out.
But that was then and this is Now. In terms of brain function, the experience you’re having at this very moment (looking at phrases like “looking at” stamped on this very page), is actually, cognitive scientists think, the product something called the thalamocortical system. The crazy thing about this system (or family of systems) is that it accesses only a fraction of the information buzzing through your brain. Some would even say less than a millionth. This means your experience, which is nothing other than the whole of your life condensed into a moment, Now, is nothing but the thinnest of slivers, a pin really, in a process that is way, way more vast. It means that you, reading this very book, are little more than a mote in a mountain of machinery.
But then, you say, why can’t I see any of this machinery? If I’m nothing more than a pin trapped inside a mountainous head, then why does it feel like, well, the exact opposite?
Because it has to. Since nothing of that mountain exists for experience, the mote literally becomes everything (which is why nonsense like idealism and solipsism and pan-psychism keep recurring like kinds of intellectual herpes). It becomes its own occluded frame of reference.
Or in other words, it becomes this… The moment you’re experiencing this very instant reading the words “this very instant”–back a couple of seconds ago.
Conscious experience ends at the information horizon of the thalamocortical system. But this ending isn’t like the ending of a movie; it isn’t an ending within experience, it’s an ending of experience. You can no more experience the limits of experience than you can see the edge of you visual field…
Or can you?
Although it’s true that you can never explicitly ‘see the limits of seeing’–no matter how fast you move your head–those limits are nonetheless a central structural feature of seeing. The way your visual field simply “runs out” without edge or demarcation is implicit in all seeing–and without the benefit of any “visual run off” circuits. Your field of vision simply hangs in a kind of hyper-blindness, a blindness you cannot see.
This is all the Now is: an implicit structural artifact of the way our ‘temporal field,’ what James called the ‘specious present,’ hangs in a kind temporal hyper-blindness. Time passes in experience, sure, but thanks to the information horizon of the thalamo-cortical system, experience itself stands still, and with nary a neural circuit to send a Christmas card to.
This is why, no matter where we find ourselves on the line of history, we always stand at the beginning. Thus the paradoxical structure of sayings like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’re not simply running on hamster wheels, we are hamster wheels, traveling lifetimes without moving at all.
Time passes for us, and simultaneously passes us over.
So let’s go back to Dylan, high as a kite, freaking out about the Now. Just as his thalamocortical system lacks the recursive resources to “see its seeing,” it also lacks the ability to time its timing, which means an entire dimension of temporality goes undifferentiated. Just as the inability to see seeing implicitly structures his visual experience, so too does this inability to time timing implicitly structure his temporal experience: the absence of differentiation becomes a kind of background default identity. Each Now is the same Now. Just as he knows that what he sees, the world, encompasses his visual field, so too he knows that what he times, the world, encompasses his Now. But just as his visual field remains the ground of any seeing whatsoever, so too does the Now remain the ground of all timing.
History encloses him, and he encloses history.
How fucked up is that?
Attend to the nonexistent limits of your visual field, the way nothing frames everything you see. Now imagine the same nothing reaching out from those limits, reaching around and behind you, englobing you, encapsulating you in time as well as space–generating the illusion of abiding motionlessness (for nothing is more immovable than nothing).
The Now is a kind of structurally mandated hallucination.
This is what Nancy was really trying to tell him. You run and you run, and you get nowhere. You’ll always be a day older than 17, 14, 8, every age you’ve ever been, and one day history will grab you by the scruff of the neck, and smear your face in 96, just like dog shit, and you’ll shout, “Fuck that! Fuck that! I’m seventeen! There’s been some kind mistake! Can’t you see I’m only eight?”
Life is going to bench you, kid.
Then death is going to kick you off the team.
The Now is a kind of profound gravitational mirage. Physicists have been insisting as much for years. There’s only earlier and later. “Before” and “after” are for losers who can’t follow the math. And not just any math, mind you–thermonuclear math.
So trust us when we tell you, the Now just makes no fucking sense.
And yet… the Now is everything.
Think about it. Set aside your prophylactic cynicism, your hmpf conviction that voices like mine are necessarily glib and gimmick prone (and that you, by default, are the measure of the profound).
Pause, Now. Breathe deep, and really think.
That’s what Nancy was trying to tell him. Dylan–honey, sweetheart–the world is ending…
The Now will be no more–very soon.
Life is a kind of hallucination.
So here you are–Now. Thanks to your thalamocortical system, you’re a living indexical, motionless, hanging outside of time, self-identical, even as the world bats you about, scars you, disfigures you beyond self-recognition. Your body rots around you, like an unharvested grape, and you are the same.
Small wonder our ancestors were duped into thinking they had souls…
Reread this in twenty years if you don’t believe me.
The words will still be here, waiting…
Life is a paradox because we are impossible. We are impossible because we hold ourselves up by our own hair. We hold ourselves up by our own hair because what makes us possible does not exist for us. What makes us possible does not exist for us because of the information horizon of the thalamocortical system.
Someday some clever little prick is going to figure it all out, the kinds of structural compromises forced on sentient integrated information subsystems.
Someday our impossibility will become a genuine science…
Then we’ll really be fucked.
Paradox does not mark the limits of reason. Aporia does not point to some Messianic moment, the possibility of salvation in some transcendent rationality–some yet to be discovered miracle of thought.
It is simply a side-effect of this… A symptom of the delusion called “meaning.”
Imagine a magical brain, one that could track itself the way it tracks its environment. Imagine a brain that did not see trees, but rather “saw” trees causing it to see trees. There would be no experiential “aboutness” in this brain, and certainly no experiential “purpose.” In the former, the gap between the perceiver and the perceived would vanish, and the illusion of content along with it. Our models “of” trees would be models from trees. In the latter, since all the bottom-up processing that drives the formation of goals would be available, goals would not seem to drive behaviour the way they do for us. History would.
The flat phenomenology of mathematics would explode into a globalized consciousness of connectionist computation. Words would be processing biographies rather than boluses of association. Choice would be unimaginable. And there would be no Now, no existential hamster-wheel. No internal relations. No sliding simultaneity. No occluded field to hold contradictory claims together.
Consciousness is flat.
Paradoxes are something we encounter because they are something we are. Because this… is always occluded, because it has no time and no place, we are able to outrun our references, aim them at themselves, or affirm A and not-A in glorious simultaneity. What we cannot discriminate remains the same.
Absence is our immovable foundation.
If you find this largely incomprehensible, then you have some accounting to do. Somebody–you or me–has to take the wrap… Who’s lapping who?
The only real question is one of how obvious you’ll be.
In the early days Jerry had always made a point of handing out the cheques first thing Thursday morning, usually saying something like, “My boyzzz needz deir payzzzz!” in his beaming rosy-lipped way. But as the season waxed, he became less and less dependable. He had apologized earlier that morning, swore up and down that he would have the cheques for them later that night. Of course, this infuriated Cutter, who lived both hand to mouth and 35 minutes away.
Dylan had adopted a strategy of shrugs and bewildered silence whenever in the company of the two men. Cutter, he knew, had been nursing his grudge since the first day of irrigating. As it turned out, Jerry had been honing resentments of his own for a much longer time. At this point, Cutter had missed four days without warning and explanation. On the first one, Jerry had joked and complained with sham indifference–things along the lines of “That Cutter, he-he…” On the second no-show, he was visibly pissed off, but aside from a couple of “What the fucks?” he kept his tongue. By the third no-show, he warily began unwinding his anger in words, his tone low and conspiratorial even when it was just the two of them out in the field. By the fourth, he was openly trying to recruit Dylan, as well as threatening to fire his old friend.
Jerr would grin his red-lipped grin, shake his head in his no-yes way, then suddenly clench in concentrated fury. On and off, as if some inner sprite was flicking his hate switch. Dylan verbally obliged him up to a point, but otherwise played the age-old game of securing verbal escape routes. When Jerry said something along the lines of, “Fucking stranded you with all the work,” Dylan would shrug as say something like, “More money for me.” When Jerry said something like, “Ask Harl, she’ll tell you. Cutter looks after Cutter.” Dylan would say something like, “Case in point.”
We always hedge, always leave room for future bullshit rationalizations. The less we think we do this, the more prone we are to do this.
Then one morning Cutter simply returned, joined them heels-scraping-the-driveway like always. Nothing was said. Everyone resumed their prior roles, but with the reserve of actors struggling to remember lines. “How the baby-blue ‘stang doing?” Cutter asked Dylan, grinning as though he had farted on his pillow. “Hit seventy-five thousand yet?”
“Those Ford four-bangers. Programmed to self-destruct, I tell you.”
This was their cue to talk vehicles, one of several masculine subject matters designed to soak away animosities. Dylan watched the two men negotiate the terms of their mutual amnesia, contributing only the odd lanky nod. When they finally piled into the truck, Jerr cried, “For those about to rock! Owwooo!” and cranked the tunes loud enough for the three of them to bounce and sway in voiceless safety.
The whole affair struck Dylan as a kind of psychic atrocity, both because he had idealized the friendship between the two men, and because he realized he was trapped in the middle. He dreaded facing Cutter alone.
But in the field, their fingers still clean enough to sting, Cutter seemed downright penitent. When Dylan asked him what happened he just showed the scabbed knuckles on his right hand and said, “Don’t ask,” with a carnivorous grin. Of course, this “Cutter subdued” routine was little more than a ploy, a way to get Dylan to roll over on Jerry–to betray him. Cutter knew him the way wolves know sheep–which is to say, better than Dylan knew himself. He knew that expressions of remorse would engage his sympathies, would lure him into revealing what Jerry had said regarding his absence. He knew how confidences generated loyalties. And how sins produced face-saving rationalizations.
By midafternoon Cutter was back to his vicious best, and Dylan was chortling as loud as ever. They literally spent hours laughing at the “fat fucking cocksucker.”
Whenever Dylan laughed too hard, Cutter would pull him up short with some kind of quasi-apologetic reminder. “You know what I mean, though, eh? Jerr’s a good guy… he really is. This tobacco farm thing has just got him all fucked up.”
“It would fuck anybody up,” Dylan replied, nodding solemnly.
“Imagine what Harley’s going through.”
It no longer believes in the world that I live in.
Calm mornings on campus. It seems impossible, those rare moments you wake up and realize. The manicured lawns. The eclectic architectures. The youth and beauty and hope striding from point to point, or lolling in small groups on the grass. The wizened biology professor beaming good cheer. The lanky kid reading and smoking on the bench. Everyone proud, distracted and forlorn. Everyone intent.
You catch a whiff of tobacco at the front door, glimpse a crushed butt in the shadow of the flanking shrubbery, an orange spark still burning, unreeling smoke like tangled fishing-line. You glimpse a forgotten or discarded magazine that says, WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS? 8 VISIONS OF WHO WE ARE, and you smirk at that word, ‘who.’ The halls are never as full as they should be, or at least how you remember. Some stroll. Others march. Your classroom smells the same as every other classroom: like something athletic had happened not so long ago.
You joke with your students as they arrive, teasing this one who needs to be teased, flattering that one who needs to be flattered. A girl who is at once sturdy and gracile asks for too much help. A skinny dude drops a late paper on your desk and flees. And for a short time you are important, yours is the only voice that matters, and it fills you in this curious way, sates you…
A girl yawns in the back. You glimpse shaved armpits.
You bump into colleagues checking mailboxes in the office. Smiles and witticisms, awkward attempts to utter cliches without speaking them. It all seems so urbane, so civil, that a small corner of you never ceases to marvel–to rejoice. Like an ancient Chinese warlord, you never need fear your emperor. You fiefdom is wholly your own, so long as you observe certain minimal, bureaucratic niceties.
Say you worship the emperor.
There’s a weightlessness to authority when you’re happy, one comparable to that of wealth or beauty. Like the future, you have no mass. And so you sort them according to the way it is, all the while urging them to distrust you, to challenge you–and they even believe it, this horizontal pantomime, so much so they never dare distrust or challenge. Your displeasure cracks like a whip. Some even fall in love with you, as they should, given that this was the point all along, falling in love with the Law.
There’s a weightlessness to power, one that only the unhappy can truly comprehend. You suffer the death of curiosity that is confidence. You become increasingly immune to the judgments of others–and all the more admirable for it. Your smile becomes genuine. Your ledgers bulge with your ‘accomplishments,’ your ‘contributions’–to your wards, your discipline, your culture. And slowly, the horror is leached from your moments of lucidity–even your epiphanies become tidy. Yes. No one looks at trees quite the way you do.
Perhaps, your spouse hates you, but only if you are lucky. Otherwise, no one that matters.
You feel so fucking meaningful… digging your fingers into the fundamental, raising it up so that the blind might see. The very ground!
You give the gift of sight. You are a light in the dark, a gantry across the void. You are even-handed, fair-minded, in a hard-hearted, stone-faced world.
You only scrub viruses from your skin.