Meaning is simply the shape of our abjection.
Things you see in the harvest bunkhouse:
Cutter. Always keeping tabs, cigarette lolling from the corner of his carnivorous Chiclet grin. Always reserving some hidden right that no one had acknowledged, but that everyone–including Long Tom–had conceded. If anyone said anything goofy, his was the voice that always shouldered clear the scrum of derision. “Your head would make a great toilet brush, you know that? It’s like a fucking shit magnet or something.”
Enough said. All you really need to know about Cutter was his facility for connecting, not in the sense of sharing (that was too mammalian), but in the sense of deferring, the recognition (quite unconscious) that nature itself had slotted you below him in this or that cruel respect. You just knew, and more importantly, so did he. No matter what the occasion, there was always something about his look, an observation that should be an accusation but wasn’t, always this clinical nuance, as if you were something cultured in a petri dish, even when he was emoting pure camaraderie. Pretty colours, but disgusting all the same.
And this made him… well, free. Cutter was the guy you could see doing pretty much anything. Only a pine box could render him tractable.
(The rest of them, you just knew, more or less. Thierry would become some chick’s project, disarm and dismay her by turns. Gilles would die a homeless addict. Long Tom would be murdered in self-defence. Kyle would raise a family of militant daughters. And Buke, by hook or crook, would find his way to God.)
You see the polished cement floor, grey and gum-mottled, polished by endless soles shuffling grime. Sometimes, when they all peaked together on acid, they would hear this accompanying ring as they roared with laughter, a whine as metallic as tinnitus.
That was the floor.
You see Thierry, the way his look darts, always careful to avoid making eye contact, not only because he never knew what the fuck was going on, but because his gaze was so adhesive. Where the looks of others would simply slide by, any chance encounter with Thierry’s eyes meant you were nodding and smiling, even laughing for no fucking reason. Most everyone tried to talk to him. He would laugh and they would laugh and he would nod clueless. Gilles, who had a genius for playing up his advantages, would only translate those comments he deemed worthy–not many, as it turned out.
Since he knew so little English (and seemed so unconcerned about the fact that his skills actually seemed to deteriorate over the weeks), Dylan found himself stranded at his surface. He read books, continuously, often in preference to partying with the rest of the crew. He would lay on his bunk, his skin-tight face utterly relaxed, his gaze fixed on the pages before and above him, reading for hours at a time. When something particularly uproarious or hilarious happened, he would shiver with laughter, then look down with those doe-wide eyes of his, so big you could swear you saw all the bunkroom’s lights glittering around his pupils, and laugh through his Crazee-dat! smile.
Everyone adored him, almost from the first day. He seemed to have that amoral, easy-going nature that people–male and female–adore, and that can be as easily coaxed into mission work as armed robbery.
Despite all his reading–French spy and crime novels for the most part–he was a highschool dropout. Thierry was one of those guys who were content to perpetually float, amiable enough to be welcomed by all strangers, and aimless enough to forever hew to the fork of least resistence. This happens to some people, those who find social circumstances effortless. Again and again they slip through the nets, latching onto this circle and that, exploring random paths through the degrees of separation that map us all. A different clan, a different reservoir of generosity.
Leave just as the love stales.
Thierry was a womanizer of circumstance, always bedding, always turning away, forgetting. Reading was simply the staple that held him together.
He was the kind of guy who could knowingly spread HIV without the least ill-will.
Gilles could as well, but for the sake of spite.
Buke couldn’t–as with so many crimes you could only see him as the victim.
Long Tom could.
Same with Cutter.
You see these banks of florescent lights, the long ones you typically find concealed in institutional dropped ceilings. They hung bare, pairs of them plugged into long aluminum boxes, which were screwed in turn to the chip-board ceiling, whose paint had been white at one time, but had since dulled to the complexion of ailing creme. Some tubes burned with the pure constancy of Luke’s light sabre, but most brightened in seizures, roiled and clicked with white luminescent smoke, contributing to the room’s dim, jittery air. Dust sagged from derelict webs.
You see Gilles, the way he stares off at angles, always angles, as if never daring gaze his distraction in the eye. He was one of those guys who taught everyone around him how to read his mind, and yet still insisted on playing poker. The sidelong reveries lent him a drunken, poetic air, as though his eyes were toddlers who needed to be continually corralled, continually redirected, continually kept ‘on task.’ “Fucked to the Gilles!” everyone would joke, referring to the disproportionate buzz you sometimes get from one or two afternoon beers.
And you could see it, the blundering confidence in him, the mark of a mark who’s perpetually convinced he’s the grifter and not the mark. “I tell you…” he would continually say. “I. Tell. You.” Especially when he got genuinely fucked up. A disgusted leer would hook his face, pained disbelief shining through a diminishing capacity to focus. And a strange kind of old man malevolence would leak out, stain his corner of the table. If you paused and thought, you realized he could wish evil upon you and congratulate himself for it.
It was almost as if he knew this attitude was the sole bastion of his bravado. He more or less assumed he deserved the airs he assumed, but he had been burned and laughed at so many times that his body had independently adapted to the facts. Where his words were tough, his posture was craven. Calling the other natives, “Chief.” Saying, “How you get so fat?” to Jerry’s face. All of this was fearless, genuinely fearless, and none of it was backed up. Dylan once watched Long Tom standup and wham, cuff him in the side of the head. Gilles huddled and cringed, all the while grinning and grimacing and hurling French curses. Thirty minutes later he’s dropping the cards in front of Long Tom, saying, “You deal… Chief.”
Gilles out-and-out cherished his evil moods–always sneering, always laughing. His was a false empire. The world was grinding away his irresistible misconceptions, and this place of spite and hatred had become his most certain redoubt–his Constantinople. He was positively imperial when he got hammered. When he drank whisky, it was like watching someone slowly scrubbing visibility into painted plexiglass, colour smeared translucent, revealing some hideous angularity, something dull and demonic. He was a man who could beat children, Gilles.
Buke wasn’t. Though he would let them find him dead in the garage.
Kyle was too smart to tell.
Long Tom was.
Cutter would hit, but never beat. A woman, maybe. But not a kid.
You see the table, one of those labourious school things, laminated particle board, with those kick-out legs that could cut you if you reefed on them the wrong way. Harley had given them a table-cloth, an atrocious emerald green thing they quickly abandoned because of the sheer number of spills. Like a lone surviving aircraft carrier, it became progressively more crowded as the battle wore on–empty beers, munchie wrappers, dead cigarette packs–forcing those who liked to lean forward to draw their elbows tighter and tighter.
You see Long Tom, the way he never he grinned, even though he smiled all the time. A grin suggests complicity, or at the very least prior understanding–you know, the way parents are often prone to ‘grin’ at one another. Long Tom’s smile was devoid of either of these things. Looking at him, you had the sense that his smile was identical no matter who was in the room–if anyone at all. It was absolute, impervious to all circumstance. The others saw it even in the grit and the sun-threaded gloom of the rows. The Smile, they came to call it.
The possibility that he was simply stupid never occurred to Dylan.
Smiles are just one of those identifying features, like the tags that airlines stick to your luggage. There was always this thing with Thierry, for instance, the way his smile and his eyes seemed to broadcast on an entirely different stations. Not so, with Long Tom. His face possessed an eerie totality of expression. Everything flew in formation, especially his eyes. His face was the dancing ball of the bunkhouse, the one thing that never changed, not matter what the lyric or note.
And it seemed appropriate. Being a real convict from a real penitentiary possessed an undeniable glamour–almost Hollywood. In these parts, ‘Kingston’ has the same cache as Alcatraz. Even his appearance contributed to the larger-than-life mystique. Perfect skin. All but hairless, to the point where his forearms looked like those of a monstrous three year old, especially when glimpsed under various chemically attenuated circumstances. And his hair, like something woven on a mythological loom, a black so glossy that you only glimpsed the black between instances of reflected light. Whenever he moved, he performed this rightward flick of his head, so that his hair bowed out and around like a twirling dancer’s skirts. Every time.
Where others were a motley of conflicting traits and hungers, Long Tom’s soul was continuous with his hair–a bolt of black silk. Perhaps there was a reservoir of pain and outrage somewhere within him, a place were the hurts lay gathered, the dregs of abuses suffered on the Reserve. But if so, he never betrayed so much as a whisper. No unguarded looks. No faltering smiles. Nothing caught in the twitching, expressive in-between. He was all in all the time, Long Tom, and this made him even more difficult to know than Thierry.
Somehow he managed to frustrate every attempt, no matter how ingenious, made to engage him–Cutter’s included. He would smile the Smile, his look would narrow, and he would say, maybe, five words in reply. “Ask Kyle,” or “So you didn’t hear…” or “What are you, a fucking pig?” His favourite was, “It was like this, your Honour…” a boyish voice in the clipped accent of the Six Nations. Never had Dylan encountered anyone who so actively spoke to shut-down speaking.
It made him seem a soul constructed entirely out of secrets–and all the more dangerous for the rumours of barroom violence and penal institutionalization. When Cutter asked him point blank about his time in Kingston Penitentiary, Long Tom smiled, leaned back his head (with the hair-throwing twitch), and said, “Fun enough to go back.”
Cutter had understood the implicit threat in Long Tom’s reply. Everyone had, which was why only Cutter dared ask the question again. The fact that he did do so, that he alone out of everyone, including Gilles at his most reckless, dared poke that particular bear (the one that made Long Tom so Hollywood), said everything about the social power dynamic of that group, including Dylan’s low ranking. He was a man who could murder, Long Tom.
Gilles was too, but in a poison-your-drink kind of way.
Buke wasn’t, not really, but could given the right combination of stressors.
Kyle wasn’t, but only because he was too smart to murder anyone himself.
Cutter was–in the absence of witnesses.
You see the fifth primer locked, as usual, in the bathroom.
You see Dylan’s hands, which never seemed to stop fidgeting, sometimes absently, but usually in a way that suggested he wanted to wring them instead. One of the reasons he made the jump from the fields to the kiln was the way priming dummied his hands. He had some kind of obscure allergy, one that hardened the calloused pads of his fingers and palms into articulated lobster shells. Like plastic. Every crease would crack open, exposing lines of bare meat, and a whitish almost fungal dehydration would creep around and across his knuckles, chalking the normally invisible epidermal cross-hatching in white. Looking at them, it seemed Dylan could tell exactly what his hands would look like when he reached Nancy’s age. The becoming scab of all our surfaces. The translucence. The mottling of tissues going sour beneath.
His hands still suffered this kilnhanging, just nowhere near so bad.
You see Kyle, his gaze clicky and evasive, oriental and anything but inscrutable for it, always yanking his jaw sideways to exhale smoke, his mouth open (apparently against its will), smoke rising lazy, as if from a shot-gun barrel.
He had this voice that wasn’t so much high pitched as pinched, like he was perpetually sitting on one of those edge-of-coughing tokes, the angry ones that spend the whole time hammering at the door. Rather than turn to you he would lean your way as if trying to glimpse the same bird, and say shit like, “That, eh? That’s the way someone looks when wearing suits with the money.” Or, “He calls us that all the time, eh? Chief. Not good. He’s a fucker, that one.” Almost always something intense, something about power. It either exposed an obliviousness on Dylan’s part, or demonstrated just where his political scruples fit into his on-the-spot interpersonal priorities. The fact is, something about Kyle made him feel too embarrassed to see past his own agitation and truly engage. The natives had been well and truly fucked over–any idiot could see that. After gutting their languages for place names, our fathers tried to stamp them out. Dylan felt this almost overpowering need to apologize in his presence, one that simply wasn’t feasible given the social dynamics of the bunkroom. He would just sit there and nod like the stoned idiot he was when he found himself sitting next to Kyle.
“Yeah. That’s not right.”
Kyle had this strange, frightened calm about him, as if he had simply worried himself into a comfortable groove. He had one of those slovenly bodies where the torso sags from the shoulders at thirty the way it does other (somewhat overweight) men at seventy. He looked so fucking comfortable on his ass that him sitting became a relief for everyone around him. (This seemed to be a trait peculiar to boat drivers, looking like boat-drivers, that is, a person who should be sitting on their ass). He had a one song sensibility to him, ‘Fuck the White Man one more time, doo wah, doo wah.’
Cutter, especially, would ride him. “You should introduce me to your wife,” he once said, looking to the side with the unfocused eyes and yah-yah grin he always had before delivering a punchline. “Might as well. You’ve let the white man fuck everything else!”
Make no mistake, it was harsh stuff: genocide bandied with the same you-fucking-loser sarcasm as an argument over goaltending prospects, if only because he spoke it with such utter carelessness. “So my grandpa fucked your grandpa, and now we fork out billions. Fucking. Move. On. Already.” A sarcastic fanfare of fingers accompanied each word.
“Move on, he says,” Kyle replied with real disgust, a projecting-pain gaze, as if he had been injured to outrage. “We’re shut in reservations!”
“Hey, maaaaan. At least you can get reservations!”
And everyone screamed with laughter, not because it was funny, but because Cutter told us to… A certain chainsaw grind to the voice. A weirdly effeminate wobble of the head, eyes bright beneath laughing/beseeching eyebrows.
What can I say? Kyle just wasn’t the kind of guy who could resist. Like so many of us, his eyes were always checking, always gauging the reactions of others, searching for cues. He was easily swamped by his social environment–which is probably how he came by his militant views in the first place. And that was the thing: for all the fanaticism of his claims, Kyle’s attitude was always a creature of its environment. Cutter (who knew this at some level) could always get him laughing at his own obsessions–his own people–simply because he was sole proprietor of that environment.
Kyle may have been from a different planet from Dylan, but he still belonged to the same general species.
You see the bunks, rickety affairs bolted together out of two-by-fours, all of them damp, fabric melding bereft of dimples or starchy corners. The possessions: socks across a rucksack. Three yellow suitcases (belonging to Gilles) beneath ‘special’ orthopaedic pillows. A backpack (belonging to Buke), covered with cheesy Canadian flag patches. Long Tom’s garbage bags, lumpy with unfolded clothes.
You see a screen door that looked imported from Alabama. Yellowing plexiglass. Pellet-gun dents in the bottom plate. Skewed frame.
You see Buke, his eyes muppet big thanks to the magnification of his glasses, his gaze fluttering about, displaying degrees of passion that would see middleclass counterparts institutionalized.
Buke was a shoplifter, body and soul, one of those guys who used anonymous transgression to expunge a resentment as violent as it was amorphous. He was literally split along the lines of spite and cowardice: the person he was around others, and the person he was alone. Split to the pith. He had this native eagerness to please–every time he talked to you, you could feel his investment dwarf your own–a need like static electricity. He was one of those bastards who’s mere existence rendered God that much more inexplicable. To want so bad (so obsessive-compulsively)  to be included, or just to be counted, and to be cursed with a such a diaper for a personality. What a fucking gyp.
His voice became progressively choked as he spoke to you, to the point of squeaking as he sucked on the helium of your attention. He became more and more expressive, until his eyes looked like they might climb out of the terrarium of his glasses, until his hands were fairly exploding off his knees–a looney mannerism that caused him endless grief. Cutter, especially, had a genius for spoofing him: He did this creepy thing sometimes where he made Buke laugh like a donkey by impersonating him laughing like a donkey.
Dylan found it heartbreaking. But his face ached for laughing all the same.
They began calling him ‘Faggy’ the first week. “Eh, Faggy? Faggy… Could you grab me a beer, there, Faggy-buddy?” But the moniker was gradually abandoned as the public safety issues involved became more apparent. Not all stressors were equal. They had to sleep in the same room with the fucking nutbar, after all. This was the other bizarre… dimension about Buke: the wildness about the edges, like an interpolating aura. Wild eyes. Wild hair. Wild mustache and burns. Wild looks down into his palms. Wild knee, connected to a heel that pounded out endless distress calls in wild strings of Morse Code.
And when Buke was alone, Dylan knew, wild anger. You could see it in his look, the hours of raging, the cyclic descent from a sad-sack optimist into a perpetual recrimination machine. It was almost as if he suffered a kind of social bipolarity, manic in public, ingratiating unto humiliation, but paranoid and suicidal while alone.
He smoked with out-patient vigour. He had an energy to him, a vitality that, combined with his obvious physical strength, made him seem Doberman dangerous. And if he bit, you knew he would not let go. You could just see this red-crazy-hairy-bobble-head… Antagonizing Buke past a certain point was tantamount to a suicide pact.
Jesus was probably the best place for him, or AA–any community where others are forced to be kind. Dylan tried–to be kind. But God had simply committed too many building-code violations in the construction of Buke’s soul. To know him was to condemn him, whether you wanted to or not.
He was a man who could kill himself, given the proper pique.
Gilles wasn’t, though he wasn’t above faking an attempt.
Thierry was. Suicide was just another greased groove.
Long Tom wasn’t. His smile was too sincere.
Cutter both was and wasn’t. He could orchestrate the circumstances of his demise.
He was a suicide-by-cop kind of guy.
 It is legion.
Dylan had a good relationship with the tying machine girls–well, girl, strictly speaking. Brigetta and Alice–or Ghetto and Frankenhead–seemed almost pathologically shy where he was concerned. Ghetto especially: on the rare occasions when she had no choice but to address Dylan, she would blush and make this pained face that made her, for a whispering moment, look as ugly as Rex Murphy. Then she would begin, “Dill’anne…” Alice, Dylan was convinced, would sooner bleed to death than ask him for a tourniquet.
To be honest, the abyss between him and the two Mennonites was so natural, so to-be-expected, that Dylan really never pondered it. If he had, I suppose he would have chalked it up to some firebrand minister in some shack-slash-church promising eternal torment if they ‘succumbed’ to the all too human need for ‘worldly congress.’ There was nothing quite like God when it came to raising barricades between people.
But God, as it turned out, was no match for Missy.
The very first day she started with: “These guys, Dylan? What am I going to do with these guys?” She was a talker, definitely, but the kind who simply insists that others carry their share of the conversational load rather than monologuing. And she possessed the enviable feminine ability to shrug aside differences and verbally seize the shared human core that, for whatever reason, Dylan could never quite come to grips with.
“Look at Alice. Look at how beautiful she is!” A little girl smile.
“Oh, I believe in God and all that. I don’t go to church–I should go to church. I just don’t think God hates having fun. I mean, why should he? That makes him sound too much like people. It’s people who hate people having fun! Fuck, yah.”
Slow shaking heads, disagreeing but…
Missy was one of those right-back-atchya! girls, the ones who took pride in their ability to mix it up with what she called ‘oinkers’–men. In this respect she reminded Dylan of Shelley, only without the neurotic, compensatory aura–she seemed genuinely happy. This, combined with her loose tanks and high-cut shorts, made her fairly impossible to dislike–cheese or no cheese. I sometimes think the only thing keeping Alice in her kerchief, dress, and apron was Brigetta, that if she found herself working alone with Missy she would be wearing cut-offs and smoking weed within a week. Missy teased the two Mennonite women incessantly, but in a good-natured, I’m-the-biggest-idiot-of-all way that made them love the attention. She continually accused Brigetta of being a cock-tease. “What? A smile? Did you get laid last night?” The Mennonite girls would look at each other as if Missy were speaking a language they could only pretend not to understand. And she had this habit of taking some meek remark made by either woman and distilling it into something outrageous. Once Alice said something like, “I think Kyle likes you,” and during morning coffee Missy declared, “Eh, Dylan? Apparently, Kyle wants to do a white woman! Dirty Indian, eh, Alice?”
Alice looked to her buttoned-to-the-neck cleavage, blushed and smiled. “That’s not what I–”
“Of course he wants to do me! They all want to do me! How about you Dylan? You want to do me, don’t you?”
“I want to do you right.”
“Ah”–a quick, knowing glance at her co-workers–”Eh? And Alice? You would do Alice too if you could. C’mon, admit it.”
“Only if you were there to show her the ropes!”
“See! Fucking oinkers. Even the sweet ones!”
When Dylan reported these conversations to the guys in the bunkhouse during lunch, they would cry out, bury their faces in their hands.
“No fucking way, man. She say dat? Really?” Gilles.
“The question is what are you going to do about it?” Kyle.
“He ain’t going to do anything.” Cutter, of course.
“How do you know?” Dylan asked.
“Because she knows, man. She knows you run here every lunch blabbing.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Because it means she’s not talking to you.” His giant chicklet grin. “She’s talking to me.”
At some point that first week, as everyone trudged back to their cars or the bunkhouse, Jerry swept up the lane in his pickup truck, calling for Dylan through curling sheets of dust. Something about helping him with the irrigation pump. This was bullshit of course–as Dylan quickly realized. Once at the pond, Jerry parked the pickup behind an obscuring fence of sumac and produced a one-grammer. They shared tokes directly from the cigarette, while Jerry explained, in a thin holding-the-smoke-in voice, how he needed Dylan to “keep on top of the girls.”
“Sure,” Dylan said. “But I’m not sure what difference it would make. We’re finishing boats minutes before Kyle arrives as it is.”
The big man shrugged, looked at him with eyes containing bigger concerns, and far more important questions. “More downtime for you then.”
So Dylan began his bitching at the girls, first from the darkness deep in the kiln, and then more personally later, when they were finishing the first half and he could stick his head out the kiln. Whenever the girls stopped the tying machine, no matter what the reason. “Pokey-pokey!” was pretty much all the nerve he could muster, but it was enough for Missy to notice.
Somehow, she managed to get Ghetto and Frankenhead on board, so just as he began complaining they would shout, “Shut the fuck up!” in unison–or partial unison, since only Missy would cry “the fuck.”
So Dylan began shouting, “Suck me off!”
After about the third or fourth time, there was a giggling pause, and he could hear Missy at her exhortatory best going, “C’mon, guys! C’monnnn! Ready? One. Two. Three…”
Then suddenly, all three of them shouted, “Eat! Me! Owwwwwwt!”
That would be the one and only time Dylan would hear anything remotely risque from Ghetto and Frankenhead. Missy was a different story. After that she would screech “Eat me out!” no matter what Dylan called down.
“All talk!” he began crying in reply. Then he got creative.
“You should see me in action! Like Kentucky Fried Chicken, baby! I know how to make the bucket moan, believe you me.”
Even Ghetto and Frankenhead were laughing by this time, though with the fear of eternal damnation in their eyes. They always seemed to have the fear of damnation in their eyes. Either that or the memory of husbands and fathers.
“You won’t need to do dishes afterward, honey, ‘cause I always lick the plate clean!”
Missy tried to do the same with cocksucking, but she knew how it worked. Guys always won these games, not simply because the patriarchal dice were loaded, but because guys always were game. He would go down on her.
Still, you could tell she enjoyed losing these kinds of matches. She was young and attractive. Everyone opens up the throttle on a deserted road now and again.
Then finally, as the afternoon waxed, she cried out: “Okay, mouthy motherfucker. You want to eat me out, you can eat me out!”
“Bring it on, baby!”
Suddenly, she was standing at the base of the elevator shouting at him to shut it down. He glared at her in a yeah-right way, but did as he was told. Sure enough, she climbed on the base of the elevator, then laid out backwards, crying, “Turn it on, Sweetheart! Here I come!” Again Dylan did as he was told, marvelled as she began her ascent upside-down knees out. Everyone roared, even Ghetto and Frankenhead. Missy was crying she was laughing so hard. Dylan crouched at the belt’s terminus, waiting with his tongue out. “Heeeeer I come!” Missy cried, laughing at him from between her knees.
But as petite as she was, she was still too heavy for the ancient contraption. The belt began slipping once she made it half way up. That was when she realized how high up she was–when she got scared. Her eyes popping, she tried sitting up, only to precariously wobble. “Distribute your weight!” Dylan cried. “Lay back down!”
What began as a gag turned into a rescue operation. Heaving on the belt with his palms, Dylan was able to slowly paw her up to the kiln, where he pulled her to the relative safety of his boards. There was an awkward intimacy to their contact–as though they had scored an inadvertent hit with their flirtatious test rounds. She blushed crimson, gasped a toothy “Holy fuck, man!” and he lowered her to the bottom of the kiln. The rest of the afternoon was coloured by the rueful humour of antics gone wrong.
Missy was different around Dylan after that. More shy, and certainly more intent. No one talked about sucking off or eating out–at least outside the bunkhouse. A air of bashful wariness kept them polite. Like cousins trying to forget a night of passion.
This was 1984, remember. We were the proletariat, not party members like you.
Humans are hardwired to be easily and nearly irrevocably programmed. All humans.
This is a fact.
We start off as little sponges, unconsciously soaking up the claims and attitudes of those in our environment, and then, at a certain point, we harden.
You think most the world lives in a dream.
Dylan thought he was a critical thinker. He knew very little about informal reasoning, a fallacy or two, and absolutely nothing about the myriad cognitive shortcomings that afflict us all. And yet he was certain he was a critical thinker. No different than you.
Why? Well, primarily because he didn’t believe what ‘uncritical thinkers’ believed (aside, that is, from believing he was a critical thinker).
When he began teaching his first courses, he regularly congratulated himself for teaching critical thinking, even though he hadn’t the foggiest idea of what ‘critical thinking’ was. He taught students how to formulate a thesis, then how to come up with arguments to justify that conclusion. Not simply how to write the ‘College Paper,’ but how to confuse it with all things good and rational.
He knew nothing about rationalization, of course, the way humans are prone to game interpretative underdetermination to justify their conclusions post hoc. If he had, he would have realized that was what he was teaching: how to more effectively gerrymander ‘evidence’ to support preexisting assumptions. Under the auspices of critical thought, he was literally closing down its possibility.
He believed he was a critical thinker simply because he thought most of the world lived in a dream.
But there’s no such thing as ‘critical thinkers.’
And everyone lives in a fucking dream.
When it comes to all the questions that matter, neither of us know fuck all.
Being pigheaded and delusional actually paid real dividends back in the ancient communities that fixed our cognitive abilities. All sorts of social advantages fall out of cognitive selfishness in small groups, advantages that have real reproductive consequences, which make winning the argument far more important than getting things right. And this is what you’re hardwired for: winning the argument. This is why these very words annoy you or amuse you or whatever, why odds are you will ultimately refuse to concede, or start pinning on qualification after qualification, until you “realize” this is what you believed all along.
How many people do you think are capable of saying, “Fuck. I have been duping myself all along…”?
You in your first years of university, where the authority gradient is as steep as a cliff.
Born again Christians before their rebirth.
Certainly not you Now. Only traitors and cult-members possess that strength of character. Too many tools are worse than too few when it comes to assembling rationalizations.
At least back in the stone age we had the in-your-face interdependence of our communities to keep us in check. But Now, with the lines of interdependence multiplied and stretched to the point of utter economic anonymity, with the freedom to live in disposable, transient groups, we can just believe whatever–which is to say, all the bullshit you’re clinging to this very moment.
See, this is the thing. You don’t know who you are. You never have.
And yet you judge and judge and judge…
You should have heard her!.
Why does he do that?
Can you believe it?
You are the problem, my friend. You need to understand how profoundly you cannot be trusted. It’s a psychological fact that you can’t be certain of what you feel, what you perceive, what you remember, what you tell yourself as you cringe above the nethers of sleep.
You, my friend, are an illusion.
An unreliable reader if there ever was one.
Tobacco is antithetical to human life. You don’t need a lifetime of smoking or decades of cancer research. You don’t need to know the concentrations of polonium 210 that leach out of the phosphates used to fertilize them. Just walk up to a tobacco plant: your evolutionary heritage will instantly tell you the rest.
We are born with knowledge of tobacco.
The look of it, the touch of it, and certainly the smell of it, are written into our DNA. A knee-jerk aversion. Even children raised by wolves would turn up their noses.
Tobacco worms are a case in point. About as long as your F finger, and easily as muscular. Green, with secondary colouring as bright as an airbrushed van. Compound eyes from another planet. As turgid as the plants they eat, and filled with a kind of day-glo green jelly. Cheesy creatures really, far too absurd to be found above sea level. Barbarella cheesy…
Tobacco, man, I’m telling you. Only aliens could consume the stuff.
And yet buried in these layers of antithesis lies this deep and improbable affinity, a chemical key that keeps when combusted, keeps the monkey coming back.
But of course.
When you work in tobacco, when you find yourself immersed in it, there’s this part of you trapped between shudders, a revulsion, not just because of the miserable form of your labour, but for the content as well. Then the field boss calls ‘coffee’ and you know that he really means ‘smoke.’ You stand, stretch and rub your back, then gingerly–because there’s nothing worse than the taste of tobacco–pluck a cigarette from your battered pack. Tobacco from some other field, harvested by other cramped and gum-stained hands.
Spark it up. Breathe deep.
Yes. Exactly what you needed. Tobacco.
This is why I never quit smoking. Two packs a day, making me a pariah among my more righteous colleagues and a hero  to the graduate students.
I figure I owe it to Dylan to finish at least one of the things he started.
 It is an opening to the ignorance it has always been, but has confused, since its very beginning, with fictive cultural prostheses.
You have to understand: Canada Now is what Russia was in the 19th Century.
I imagine Nietzsche coming across the German translation of Notes from Underground, reading it and seeing not simply a stylistic model, but Europe at the close of the 19th Century. How? he must have asked. How could Dostoevsky, this literary yokel from a backward nation, have seen so clearly from so far?
What did he see?
In his second year in university, Dylan misread the Notes as a kind of character study, a stinging illustration of his own reflective insecurities carried to the extreme. Adolescents, particularly those who suffer the “disease of excessive consciousness,” are forever second guessing themselves, forever hesitating when they should be acting, forever regretting the inevitable byproducts of trying too hard. Think of your own adolescence, the booming imperative to be that amorphous thing called ‘cool.’ In a sense, you’re always betraying yourself when you’re 17, always strung across the chasm between who you want to be and what you happen to be–as a matter of unfortunate fact. Instead of maturing in the tight knit communities of our evolutionary past, we find ourselves shuffled between anonymous institutions. Instead of our peer groups growing like the successive tree rings about those of our parents, they form like wind-flung weeds. Instead of inheriting our identities, we find ourselves scrambling to cobble one together through various patterns of consumption, cultural or otherwise. Add to this the barrage of concepts and possibilities, all the ways for our thoughts to grow as hairy and unruly as our crotches and armpits… So of course the Underground Man rings true for undergraduates, or for anyone still smarting from their pubescent bruises. Only punks possess an authentic sense of self-identity. Only their ineptitude in treacherous social environments allows them to see how thoroughly they come after themselves. How many nights did Dylan spend rehearsing this or that event, cursing himself for saying or being this when he should have said or been that? How many anxious tirades? How many embittered resolutions? How many betrayals of self? And all of it hidden, concealed behind the awkward pantomime that was (to him) his phoney life. All of it buried beneath his anxious eyes–in the Underground. You see, Dylan quite naturally thought that the “Underground” was a kind of self, a genuine self, one too wretched, too insecure to ever be revealed in the light of others.
He missed the whole point of the Notes. The “Underground” isn’t a self, it’s the self’s antithesis.
What Dylan missed–and what Nietzsche saw–was this… The occluded frame of this very moment Now.
The it that thinks.
The word translated as “underground” in English is actually podpol’ye, which (my Russian uncle tells me) means the “space beneath the floor,” or in other words, the space you never see, or even better, the space outside of living space. And because you never see it, you typically don’t think it exists, even though it joists the floor of your possibility. (I mean, for most of us, adolescence is simply a “phase.” Sooner or later the planks of our thoughts come together to create the illusion of a seamless whole. The gaps that so plagued us in highschool recede into mists of rueful dinner party recollections. Perhaps we’ve become what we wanted. Perhaps we’ve ceased wanting to be what we weren’t. Most likely, we’ve simply pretended for so long we’ve forgotten we were pretending.) The voice of the Underground Man is the voice from the floorboards, which is to say, the voice from nowhere. Thus the consistency of his inconsistency: the Cretan illogic of his declarations make the assignation of unitary identity impossible–something other is always leaking through, not contaminating his voice, for this assumes some prior purity, but rather, constituting it, because you gotta ask yourself with each inevitable contradiction, who is disagreeing with whom? Our every thought arises out of a nowhere that we promptly confuse with here. We draw the connections sideways because we can’t see past the floor. This is what Nietzsche understood: the it thinking us in such a way that it denies itself. His mistake was to think we could come to some kind of ‘healthy accord,’ that we could compose authentic selves once we cleared away the debris of our denial,  which is to say, Christianity and Enlightenment Rationality. Notes from Underground is actually a kind of formal exercise. Each line of text a plank pried from the floor, each thought swinging to take the previous thought as its object, this… spinning in circles, gawking and craning, trying to glimpse the back of its head, and always only finding ‘that’–all the while jimmying itself ever further from ‘living life.’ For the space of an afternoon, it performs you, allows you to be what you in fact are via the prophylactic of another voice, first in the connective tissue of theory, then through the skin of narrative.
In Russia modernity came late. People like you are often surprised by just how unnatural theoretical questions are. An anthropologist specializing in religion could give you an endless list of the out-and-out preposterous things we’re capable of believing unto death, things that turtle at the slightest critical touch. There’s people out there sharing the same basic cognitive architecture as you who believe that Hitler is not only alive, but presently rules a Fourth Reich inside our hollow earth. We’re literally capable of swallowing anything, impossibilities, contradictions, and just plain retarded stupid stuff. This is what made the ancient Greeks and their annoying habit of systematic interrogation so earth-shattering: we’re hardwired to think we have things pretty much sewn up. So in traditional cultural contexts, we repeat, over and over, and transformation occurs through the meandering accumulation of largely arbitrary mutations within the template of our shared circumstances and common biological imperatives. But once we begin asking questions, oh boy. And once we begin institutionalizing the asking of questions… look out! The tides of repetition begin evaporating beneath the rays of reflection. Implicit norms become explicit norms become obsolete norms. The solidarity and the organic unity of the past begins breaking down. Everything becomes rationalized: we revamp our codes, make them slaves of those repetitions that lie beyond the power of reflection, the things we can’t stop doing, fighting, fucking, and feeding. Capitalism and consumerism take root. Traditional cultures become compost heaps, yet one more way to maximize yields. In Europe, this breakdown occurred gradually enough for creeping normalcy to do its work. But in Russia, where modernization was imposed from the top down, the frog tried to jump out. Dostoevsky was one of those soft-skinned amphibians. He could feel the pot boiling, and he could remember when the water was cool. He believed his Bible  enough to be afraid of numbers. “Give me the old norms back!” he cried. But he was wise enough to leave the Crawlspace Man where the Czar’s censors had left him: hanging without ersatz redemption (sometimes oppression gets things right). Nietzsche, who saw through this nostalgic nonsense, replaced it with his own affirmative nonsense. “Be your own rule!” he cried, so giving birth to lord knows how many groundless po-mo affirmations.
But in Canada modernity is all there ever was. We’re rationalized down to the final plank, and we always have been. Like they say, we’re a country that is a question (looking for your navel is not the same as gazing at it). A place of quiet lives, quiet joys, and quiet sorrows–a land of bewildered contentment.
Canada is where humanity at long last wakes up to discover that it’s dead.
Which is why I cry, “Who gives a fuck?”
Everyone sleeps through their own funeral.
 It cannot countenance what it is.
 A word is a hundred million neurons starved to a point.