Light, Time, and Gravity (IX)
Everyone sleeps through their own funeral.
In retrospect, it surprises me that Cutter waited as long as he did.
The other guys had been pressing Dylan about the leaf count for days, questions he deflected by playing stupid. He could tell that Cutter wasn’t buying his answers, but for whatever reason he never added his otherwise inevitable two cents to the interrogations. Two weeks had passed by this point, thirteen kilns, and they had yet to finish before 6PM. Eleven-plus hours a day in the fields was enough to make anyone bitter. They all came back from the fields holding or rubbing their backs, their dirty faces the portrait of blank-faced disgust.
“So how are the sticks?” Cutter finally asked one evening walking to their cars together. His tone dripped with you-owe-me-an-honest-answer earnestness. “Heavy?”
The sticks were heavy–there was no denying it. Jerry was using Dad’s curing technique, which consisted of packing the kilns. But Dylan, trapped between competing loyalties, could summon nothing more than a shrug.
“Mutherfucker!” Cutter cried, as though responding to a different script.
“I said ‘not–’”
“How can you stand it? He’s screwing you over as much as anyone!”
“He’s one of my Dad’s buddies. It’s complicated.”
“Complicated,” Cutter repeated, flicking his cigarette butt in an acrobat’s arc. This always stung, Cutter repeating things.
“Look,” Dylan said. “Everyone has their disagreements. That doesn’t mean that Jerry isn’t a nice guy.”
“Nice guy,” Cutter replied with a chimpanzee-lipped drawl. “Sure. At the bar. On the beach, maybe. Here? Here he’s a fucking asshole.”
When I was about 8 or 9, I had this recurring nightmare.  I would be walking along the edge of Hawk’s Cliff with a different family, usually one of my neighbours’. Everyone would be talking and laughing and then, inexplicably, my right foot would simply step over the brink and into the weightless arms of gravity. I would topple down the bluffs screaming, hurtling toward the neck-breaking sand. I would try to open my mouth.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“He’s fucking us… Fucking you, too.”
Never a good thing, weightlessness. It always means you’re falling.
“Give him time.”
 But it is no longer what it was; it only seems to be.
That was about when the surprise inspections began.
Kyle would pull up with a new load, and there one of the primers would be, either sopped with dew or black with tobacco gum or somewhere in between. He would get out of the truck and simply grab a stick from the bottom of the elevator without so much as a nod or a wave. He would toss it on the ground, cut the string with a pen knife (or switchblade, if it was Tom) then count the leaves one-by-one while kneeling. The girls would watch nervously, and Dylan would shake his head from the gloom of the kiln.
Gilles was the first. “What da fuck, man!” he cried, claiming that there were 15 leaves too many per side. “Tell Jerree. Dis is fucking boollshit.”
Two trips later it was Buke, who insisted that there were 30 leaves too many per side. He started shouting at Ghetto, but beat a hasty retreat once Missy began laying into him. When Dylan jumped down to count for himself, he found that the stick was actually a few leaves light–for thirds anyway. Two times they showed up while Jerry was present, and between sticks Dylan found himself peering to watch the confrontations–Jerry looming monstrous, face red and lips spitting–but couldn’t hear a word of it because of the radio and the machinery. After that, Jerry began counting the sticks, screaming at the girls to bulk them up.
Word arrived via Kyle that the primers had decided everyone would work through lunch to make up time, so Dylan never had a chance to ask Cutter just what the fuck was going on. Of course, since these fact-finding missions reduced the number of primers to four, they didn’t finish that evening until after 8PM.
Jerry waited in the farmhouse until everyone had cleared out.
Nietzsche’s romanticism is revealed in his abiding faith in redemption: the belief that you could, through insight, activity, and vigilance, render yourself an ideal vessel of God–or the will to power as the case might be.
The belief that there is a natural or proper or beautiful way to be this…
That’s the thing about being the yardstick that you take to reality.
The impulse to stroke those inches is irresistible.
“Canadian” is as far from the stone age as any identity can get. At some level we know this. At some level, everyone in the world who knows anything about Canada knows this. The proof of it lies in the fact that Canadians are so widely thought to be bland. In The Last King of Scotland, the young Dr. Garrigan, in a desperate attempt to escape his father’s long shadow, spins his globe telling himself he will go wherever his finger lands, no matter what. Where does his fingertip touch down? Canada. Of course he spins the globe again. And what’s more important, he does so without a curse or a moan–he just does it automatically. Why? Because Canada is nowhere, and he needs to go somewhere. Canada is simply Scotland drained of colour–why the hell would he ever want to come here? So where does the good doctor’s finger land? The other side of the planet, as far from Canada, not Scotland, as he can get: Idi Amin’s Uganda, which is just another way of saying the fucking stone-age.
What does it mean to be bland? Maximal blandness is the point of maximal universality. If all humans were transparencies, and you laid them one across another over a brilliant light, so that all their differences cancel each other out, what you would have is the image of Nietzsche’s Ultimate Man, the most distinctly indistinct human imaginable. An amorphous silhouette. The Canadian. Okay, so that may be overstating the matter, but it does seem to catch something, doesn’t it? You might object by pointing out that Canada, thanks to the most liberal immigration policy on the planet, is the most diverse country on the planet. You might object, in other words, by saying there’s no such thing as a Canadian, though there are certainly many Canadians. But you would simply be making my point for me. Sure. People come here from all over the world, each bearing a distinct heritage on their back. Sure, they set down roots. But think about my clever little analogy: it’s the laying over of differences that creates the Ultimate Man. Sure, you can uproot and you can replant, but in Canada at least, the soil is typically one generation thin, two generations at most. The tissue of traditional culture is slowly boiled away, leaving only the economic skeleton behind–with all the agreeableness that tort law entails–which we then dress in costumes of the culture industry’s design. What? Did you think Dylan was born a head-banger? People don’t flee to Canada, they flee to modernity. They flee the stone-age. Here all this time we’ve been fretting about our peripheral status, bitching and moaning how our favourite newscasts leave us off the weather map, when in fact we’ve been the centre all along–the very centre! Why do you think all these tourists come here? To see us? Please. They come to see through us. They wait until we empty the frame before snapping shots of our “natural wonders,” all the things that would be here whether we were or not. Why do you think, no matter how long or how hard we stare in the mirror, we can never seem to see ourselves? Why we ask, over and over again, “What does it mean to be Canadian?” Of course we’re invisible! We are the occluded frame that the rest of the world, whether it admits it or not, aspires to. We are the future! and all humanity stumbles backward toward us. On the yardstick, no, the metre stick of civilization, we stand tallest.
No one has travelled as far from ancient Sumer as we.
I mean, look at Europe. When I see Europeans, I feel pity. Everywhere they turn they see the long funnel of their undoing. To be connected to so many things that have nothing to do with you, to drag a thousand years of ornament. No wonder they’re so fatigued. But here? here we are thrown, both individually and nationally. Even our languages are too universal to call our own. Who speaks ‘Canadian’? Not so in Europe, where everywhere you turn you’re bumping into the borders of your identity. Who am I? Just flick the channel. Oooh, that’s right, I’m fucking Dutch. Of course this just means you have to go to school to learn English.
The only nation that has a prayer of catching us is America. They’re close, there’s no denying it–why else would we be so proud of alternate spellings? They’re so close that the differences within their country are in some ways greater than the differences between us. But they’re still too militaristic not to mythologize–every powerful nation rationalizes their self-interest through fictitious retellings of their past. All aggression requires aliases, the illusion of stable identities. It’s the only way to pretend that victims deserve to bleed. Unlike us, they have not traveled so far from their origins they have ceased to be.
They have war to tell them who they are.
Things never get ugly all at once. Humans might seem to be an all or nothing species, but this is just a trick of hindsight. Fact is, we follow a rather predictable schedule of escalations in our conflicts, and readily identify those lacking a sense of confrontational proportion as ‘crazies.’ Ugliness is nothing if not organic.
We kill each other on a curve.
The morning after the surprise inspections, Dylan slammed the emergency off-switch to the sound of Ghetto screaming. This was about the third time he had heard her scream–a strange kind of caterwaul, like a cat bouncing on the end of a bungee, having its breath yanked mid-wail–so he immediately knew it was her, and he immediately assumed it was simply more of ‘her bullshit.’ The first time he had cut open his back on a jutting nail, certain that she had got her hand sucked beneath the sewing needle, her scream was so spacey and intense. It turned out one of the rollers (that flattened the leaves before they passed beneath the needle) had pinched the finger of her rubber gloves and ‘scared her.’ The second time it was simply a tobacco worm.
She was holding up her yellow dish gloves, her face a rictus of horror and disgust and self-pity–classic Christian Children’s Fund stuff., “What the fuck!” Missy was screeching. “What. The. Faaaawk!” Several stunned seconds passed before Dylan noticed the brown clots skidding down Ghetto’s traumatized hands–before he noticed the reek.
One of the primers had taken a dump in their baggie.
That lunch in the bunkhouse, the mood was positively celebratory.
“You like, eh?” Gilles cackled. “You like our little message?”
“Not cool. I hang that fucking shit.”
“Don’t look at me!” Cutter cried. “These guys are fucking animals.”
Not much more was said after that. The matter was passed over in the manner of uncomfortable victories. The power of gestures resides in the need to show, to force some kind of recognition–and believe you me, few things focus the attention quite like the prospect of touching human shit. The question of consequences only dawns on us later, so intimate is the confusion of doing and believing.
Afterward, Dylan simply assumed that Gilles had been the offending party because of the way he crowed about the affair: people are inclined to be tickled by their own acts of subversion. Several days would pass before Dylan learned–from Kyle–that the whole thing, from inspiration to execution, belonged to Cutter.
And that repelled him even more, for some reason: the thought of Cutter-shit greasing Ghetto’s rubber palms…
What had seemed merely tasteless took on the character of obscenity.
That weekend found an exhausted Dylan working midnights at Loblaws: he had to put at least one shift a month at the grocery store to keep his seniority, which meant he either got lucky and got rained out at the farm, or found himself working three full shifts back to back, farm-store-farm.
I sometimes marvel when I think about the things he did, the endless punishment he inflicted on his brain, body, and immune system. Since my wives have all left me, since my friends dread my company, all I really have is my cat, Philly, whom I obsessively observe, looking for clues to my own sham humanity. If there’s wisdom to be had from household pets, it lies in the fact that they age and die so quickly. Age, for her, has taken on the character of a slow motion implosion: her curiosity becoming more and more vestigial, her acts retreating more and more to the safe lines of routine, her eyes watching more and seeing less. And I see the ghosts of these things in me, Now that I have crossed the regenerative threshold, an aimless and viscous fear, an accumulating tendency to slink away from challenges.
(Only Now, it seems, do I realize the danger inherent in biographical reflection, the morbid impulse to catalogue life’s innumerable injustices–large or small, it does not matter. In the absence of linear memory, drawing up lists of things missing is really the only way we can track our passage. Capacities primed, cured, and stripped. The gap grows and grows until it’s the only thing remaining.)
That night, his limbs buzzing with the exhaustion of having hung an entire kiln, Dylan found himself saddled with the frozen food aisle, something which he didn’t mind because of the painful state of his hands. He found the cold soothing.
At around 1 in the morning, Sam Thorpe–‘Thorpy’ they called him–came to him smiling and waving one of the new Teddy Bears Loblaws had started selling in the merchandising section of the store. “Have you heard these things yet?” he called. “Fucking hilarious, man.”
This was funny in and of itself. Thorpy was an odd duck even by night-crew standards. Despite his portly stature and full-spectrum body hair, he was a former stripper who had worked–this is no lie–under the moniker, ‘Teddy Bear.’ At first no one believed him, that is until he brought in a calender featuring him and several other grotesque specimens. If you let him, he would regal you with stories of the ‘glory days’ of male stripping, when he would get blown “right there at the fucking bar, I -shit-you-not,” only to conclude with a rant about how all the ‘muscle fags’ moved in and ruined the whole fucking ‘industry.’
So Teddy Bear coming to you with a Teddy Bear was something worth paying attention to.
“The message, man,” he said, handing Dylan the fluffy-haired toy. “These things talk. Just poke the belly…”
Dylan jabbed the thing in the gut. “Hey, little girl,” it chimed in a sweet high-pitched voice. “WOULD YOU LIKE TO SUCK MY BIG FAT COCK!”
Apparently the things were recordable.
Minutes later, the whole crew was up at the Teddy bin, grabbing the fuzzy bears and dictating this or that vulgarity, from the entirely unoriginal: “Hey, little girl, WOULD YOU LIKE TO NUZZLE MY ASSHOLE!” to Dylan’s out-and-out evil, “Did you know your Daddy DIED ON THE WAY TO WORK TODAY?”
They literally laughed until they cried, each of them trying to outdo the others. A kind of mania buoyed the exercise, something that begged quick, over-the-shoulder glances. They were doing something bad, some to avoid the ridicule of their co-workers, others for the sheer fuck of it, the back-to-the-wall joy of impunity. And a couple of them, I’m sure, did it out of spite, exploiting the transitive logic of resentment. After a thousand nights restocking plundered shelves, someone has to suffer. Vandalism is the vengeance of the lazy.
All this became the topic of an uproarious debate at coffee time. They always did their best to butcher moral reason at coffee time.
“Yeah, but what about all the kiddies?”
“Yeah. It’s not like they’re not go to hear it soon enough anyway. Might as well be from Teddy.”
“Better him than Dad!”
“Owich!” they laughed. “Fucking owich!”
The following morning, apparently within 15 minutes of the night shift leaving, a little girl made the mistake of poking Teddy’s belly, then went squealing to her mommy–the little weasel. When it was discovered that the majority of Teddies had some variant of the ‘suck my big fat cock’ message, the manager called head office and the incident became the object of a formal investigation. It was just outrageous enough to insure that otherwise easygoing souls would play along with the moralists’ indignation. Apparently suits came in and questioned everyone, from the crew chief to the floor cleaners, who had been in the store that night. I say ‘apparently’ because nobody bothered to contact Dylan, who wouldn’t be in for another month.
Of course no one saw or heard a thing. Implicate enough witnesses, and nobody dares to come forward.
Which isn’t really such a bad thing, when you think about it.
We all take a dump in the baggie sooner or later.
It strikes me that I worked a lot in ‘my youth.’ But then that’s what you do when you grow up poor.
That’s what poor people are for.
My life has been an extended recruitment drive. Otherwise I’m simply one more party member writing for other party members. The only thing distinguishing me from you is a single realization: I know why we’re here.
To sort people. To hang who they once were and call it a cure.
I landed my first tenure track job in the English Department at the University of Western Ontario. It was the first of my peers to do so, not because of my ideas or my erudition, but because of all those years debating with Dad. I implicitly knew that the contest was primarily one of stone-age fitness indicators, not teaching or scholarship. This isn’t to say that teaching and scholarship were irrelevant. Once the hiring committee decided they liked me, these provided the raw material for their ad hoc rationalizations. They couldn’t just say they liked the ‘cut of my jib,’ now, could they?
I made them laugh, feel good about themselves for the mere fact of knowing me. I made them feel like they were inside. After that, it was simply a matter of appearing to be insightful enough, learned enough, published enough, and so fucking on.
You get used to deferred rewards when you embark on an academic career, so much so, that you often don’t know how to feel when you actually achieve any of the crazed abstractions that have structured so much of your young life. At first, I simply couldn’t believe it. But the more the reality of it sunk in, the more my whole life began to seem a seminary, something bent on preparing me for this, the penultimate metamorphosis. At long last I could party like a priest.
So of course this was when it set about losing my religion.
The first thing I read on the brain was a little book called Matter and Consciousness. I pretty much sneered throughout, for the same reason I laughed whenever I encountered so-called ‘Analytic Philosophy’: it just all seemed so fucking naive, so scientistic. Couldn’t they see that science was just another family of human practices? What business did they have waving their yardsticks around something so ineffable as the soul? It was like a welder passing judgement on the work of potters…
This ‘separate but equal’ strategy never sat well with me, but I so rarely encountered anyone possessing a contrary view that it was able to discharge it’s function (preemptive dismissal) without even coming close to exhausting my credulity. In my circles, science and capital were the Gog and Magog of modernity, the disease that so desperately needed to be cured.
So how did I lose my faith?
I became powerful.
Even though you know the difficulties that await, a part of you still thinks you’re going to be relieved when you finally land that tenure track job, that you’ve at last boot-strapped yourself above the manic scramble to appear and to appear and to appear. But if anything, the scramble only intensifies the theatrical demands placed upon you. You find yourself kissing more ass than an agent at the London Book Fair–only every single fucking day for a fucking span of fucking years.
Graduate students form an important constituency in this new institutional rat race–a welcome one, by and large. As a newly minted faculty member, you still carry their minty-fresh odour, hope and cynicism suspended in a pose of mutual asphyxiation. You still find yourself at that point where wanting to be could trump worries about what you’ve become.
And so your tribal loyalties are divided: despite your new institutional role as sender, you find yourself identifying with your old role as receiver. So what happens? You put in appearances at all the faculty functions, sit through colloquia about the semiotic instability of this or political complicity of that, always careful to ask questions that appear to be penetrating, and then you join the grad students for a drink in the pub.
Like I mentioned earlier, graduate students in the arts are best thought of as sexually mature toddlers, tender things who continually mimic the moves they witness around them without really understanding what those moves mean, let alone what motivates them. So you sit with them at flat tables and talk to them from high authority gradients, politely rewarding and rebuking their various efforts to play the Theory Game. And sometimes, when you get lucky, one of them gets drunk enough to let you bang them.
Oh sure, none of the conversations feel anywhere near so sordid. Many, if not most, probably think them enlightened, living examples of living meaningful, examined lives. But this is just because authority gradients and seductions are so natural as to be almost invisible: things that our brain pays us to overlook so that it can get down to the real nitty-gritty.
My dick still twitches when I think of those days. I ‘fed it’ (as Cutter would say) to more than few beauties. And I feel a grimace gathering beneath the knuckles of my face when I recall the conversations…
“You need to see Hegel’s project as a continuation of Kant via Fichte. What he’s doing is de-psychologizing Kant, historicizing him…”
I would look around the table at their faces, some squinting, others nodding, and the honest ones just looking plain terrified. How the fuck had an English PhD program turned into an extended, informal philosophy seminar?
“But that’s the easy way of looking at it. Things get more complicated when…”
“I see what you’re saying. It’s just not what Nietzsche says…”
I played favourites while convinced I was open and evenhanded. I faked my way through gaps in my knowledge while congratulating myself for my erudition. I made flags of those instances where I did own up to my ignorance, using them to camouflage all the ways I continually shoved and bullied topics until they found themselves on ground of my choosing.
I grinned like the devil, especially when the wit was my own.
But most importantly, I made a habit of telling the story about playing poker with a nihilist. I had never forgotten (nor, it occurs to me now, forgiven) the ease with which he had backed me up against my assumptions. You see, this was thing: the ease of his argument. Here I was talking philosophical ‘paradigms’ that even PhD students found difficult to assimilate, and this guy had all but unmanned me with a curt handful of cutting observations. This easy power, combined with my sublimated hatred for what I had become–a hatred borne of the fields–made his position my favourite ‘for the sake of argument’ weapon, especially when I happened to be teaching Blood Meridian. As those who play the devil’s advocate with any frequency know, once you start the talking, the walking ain’t far behind.
“But isn’t that like using Ted Bundy’s testimony to convict Mother Theresa?”
“Well, just what are ‘social constructs’?”
“Just tell me what other claim-making institution has a comparable record… The Church of Rome?”
And blah-blah-blah, on through the early years of my career. I would shake them up, then I would offer my own face-saving rationales, how meaning and practices had to come first, simply because lived life was the frame of everything, and as much as the scientist was loathe to admit it, science was simply part of everything. I would cite the logical priority of my subject matter to innoculate myself against epistemological concerns…
What can I say?
With each passing year this and other theoretical rescue operations began to feel less and less sincere–especially those few nights where I told the poker story and managed to seduce some beauty in my audience. Why shouldn’t we suspend judgement on the multifarious roles of meaning and practices pending what the sciences of the brain had to tell us? How had we earned our high opinion of our ability to pluck totalizing interpretations out of abject ambiguity, especially when those interpretations transform the entire world into–cue the happy coincidence–more literature, the very object of our expertise.
I mean, really. Who the fuck did we think we were kidding?
I remember saying as much after making love to this second year PhD student, Sassy (yes, that was really her name), who would go on to file a (toothless, as it turned out) complaint against me when I stopped returning her calls.
“The man with the hammer,” she said with a husky chuckle, “thinks every problem is a nail.”
We kissed. I pulled back to regard her face, said, “Well I nailed you, didn’t I?”
Something Dylan would say.
I had always been fond of Heidegger’s hammer from Being and Time. I often used it to talk about the relationship between the implicit and the explicit, how our assumptions vanish in the course of using them–and only become explicit when they break down.
And so, in a pique of post-coital remorse, the preposterous dimension of my conceit hit me. I saw it in predictably Wittgensteinian terms at that time: the Theory Game was a game of broken hammers, using concepts extracted from living practices to satisfy the demands of my dead institution, and to gratify my obligatory sense of moral and intellectual superiority…
And now the Game itself was broken.
I found myself in the University Bookstore the following day, mooning around the philosophy shelves, peering at Matter and Consciousness. It was a small book, but somehow the cashier managed to fumble and drop it. I remember thinking it sounded squishy when it landed, like a pickled brain (so much so that I actually flipped through the leaves outside afterward, convinced that they had to be wet). I also remember stealing a glance down the girl’s blouse when she bent to retrieve it.
She blushed in embarrassment.
I think that was when the truth first grinned at me, warm and toothless.