Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

They all fall

Last night, I attended a Palestine solidarity protest outside Downing Street. I think I’ve been attending Palestine solidarity protests for the better part of my life. Something terrible happens, children are incinerated alive, old men are attacked while they’re on their knees praying, and we all assemble somewhere in central London to chant slogans and oppose it. These protests are always strangely fun: welcoming, comradely, every fringe groupuscule coming together with everything for a huge party. Lots of cheering. We don’t wail for the dead; we wave the flag of a country that might never exist and bellow our optimism: from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. I’ve never been an organiser at these things, never sat on any committees, never marched at the front, but when the missiles start blowing away entire apartment buildings like they were made of candyfloss and styrofoam, I add my body to the crowd. Secular Jews go to Palestine solidarity solidarity protests for the same reason we go to shul on Yom Kippur. I can’t really stop my averot, and I can’t stop the bombing either, but for one day you pretend with the utmost sincerity that you can. Someone has to keep going, and that someone has to be me. You do what’s done. You do what we’ve always done.

I ran into some comrades at the edge of the demonstration. We talked about the kids who’d climbed up lampposts with their banners, or up onto the roof of a red London bus marooned in the middle of the crowd. We don’t do that kind of thing any more: too old. Once you hit your thirties, you have to start worrying about your knees. We compared the scenes to the George Floyd protests last summer: back then, the streets were full of people who’d never been on a march before; they didn’t know how these things work. Someone would shout one, two, three, four, and nobody had any idea how to complete the rhyme. What do we want? Well, you tell me. But Palestine activists are old hands; they know exactly what to do. Before the rubble’s cooled in Gaza they’re already picking a location, liaising with the police, thumbing through their rolodex for speakers. Thousands of people will arrive to say no, not this, and then afterwards we peacefully disperse into the tunnels underground and disappear.

I’m told that things are starting to change in America. There’s a whole generation of young Jews there who are sick of it, sick of being told what is and isn’t acceptable for people like them to think. After decades of polite scotomisation, CNN has started interviewing actual Palestinians in Gaza and East Jerusalem about what they’ve been suffering through, instead of leading with traumatised cats and dogs in Ashdod. Here in the UK, it’s gone backwards. Any Palestinian who speaks gets the same barrage. But what about the rockets? isn’t this all because of the rockets? Will you condemn the rockets? And if you do condemn the rockets, if you say no, obviously, I’m not thrilled by the practice of firing unguided munitions in the vague direction of large population centres, then it’s all over. Ah, well: both sides. You’re not meant to think about why the rockets. You’re not meant to consider that when Israeli police attacked one of the holiest sites in Islam, they did so in the full knowledge that this would inevitably lead to the rockets. You’re not meant to notice that Hamas issued repeated ultimatums to Israel to withdraw its goons from the Haram al-Sharif, in the miserable hope of maybe not having to resort to the rockets, and avoiding the inevitable response to the rockets. You just say oh, and also the rockets. That way, the two sides cancel each other out, and it’s as if you haven’t said anything at all. Which is the safest thing to do, these days. After the last few years, all this Jew stuff – well, it’s all a little fraught.

The reason things are all a little fraught was, I found out later, at the same protest last night. Jeremy Corbyn has never been one to miss a rally. He must have been somewhere in the big clump of people by Richmond House, the one that emanated a steady mumbling punctuated by cheers. I didn’t hear his speech; too many people loudly making takbir by the Cenotaph. But of course he was there. For half a century, this guy has been standing on principle against the evils of the world, whether they’re in Palestine or West Papua or Peterborough. And then there was a brief period, from the end of 2015 to the beginning of last year, when he fought the good fight as leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. Stadiums full of people chanted his name; thousands of us, myself included, tried to give him a nuclear arsenal. For a while, it felt like winning.

In 2017, when Labour lost a general election by a significantly smaller margin than expected, it felt like a small bathtub full of MDMA had been injected directly into my spinal cord. I remember thinking, stuck in traffic halfway to a party, with a bottle of champagne in my lap, this is beautiful, such a shame it isn’t real. As if, at any moment, the lights would blur and go cold, and I’d open my eyes to see a sorrowful little civil servant saying no, there’s been a mistake – did you really think something good might happen in this world? And that moment did come; it just took another two years. There were a lot of people trying to turn this good-hearted but basically hapless gardener into a demon, and somehow the fact that he believes in making nice but inefficacious gestures about Palestine and West Papua became something menacing, poisonous, a threat. In the end, the British public delivered their final judgement on the man and everything he’d built, and they hated it. Unlike some, I don’t take any solace from the idea that the voters were simply wrong. This was our project, and it failed. We talked about hope, and what we got was catastrophe – and it’s hard to shake the thought that there was something catastrophic baked into our hopes. Now it’s all over, but Jeremy Corbyn still turns up at every protest to give a variation on the same speech, just like before, as if nothing’s changed. In a way, it hasn’t. He’s a soldier. I’ve never been entirely sure if I’m the same.

I voted in last week’s local elections, sort of. I stared for a while at the list of candidates for London Mayor, and then drew a line through all the boxes. When I was younger, spoiling my ballot felt like a kind of insurrection, but really it was just a game. I’d scrawl some stupid joke over the piece of paper and take an illegal photo for social media. Now it just feels like resignation. None of these. What’s next? For the London Assembly, I voted to be represented by the delegates of the Communist Party of Britain. The CPB is, of course, not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain, from which it split in 1988, or the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), which split in 1968, or the New Communist Party of Britain, which split in 1977. All of these are distinct from the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), which split from an entirely separate faction in 2004. Each of these parties claims to be the sole authentic voice of the British working classes. I did not vote for the CPB with any particular enthusiasm. I’m sure if I still gave the slightest modicum of a shit about leftist lepidopterology I could find some reason to disavow these harmless dead-enders. Revisionists! Crypto-Kautskyites! But who cares? My vote was a gesture of vague, bloodyminded spite. Something like a rocket. Once things were different, but now they’re the same again. I do not like that the Labour party’s gone back to how it was before, so, in protest, I’ve gone back to how I was before as well.

After the votes were counted, I looked up the results. 598 other people voted for the Communist Party of Britain in my constituency. I was the 599th.

The first vote I ever cast was in the 2009 European elections. I was eighteen years old, and I voted for the Socialist Labour Party: Arthur Scargill’s lot. Once, the National Union of Mineworkers could seriously contest the legitimacy of a Tory government. Once, the state periodically had to ask who really governed the country, itself or the NUW – and for some time, it looked like the answer was the miners. By the time I was on the scene, in the twenty-first century, Scargill’s party picked up slightly over one per cent of the vote. Thousands of people would follow him into pitched battles with the police, but things work differently at the polling booth. It’s a less forgiving terrain. In the last general election, the Socialist Labour Party ran a single candidate, in Hartlepool, and came last.

After last week’s disastrous by-election in Hartlepool, I started to write something poking fun at Keir Starmer’s useless flopping leadership. Something vaguely Lovecraftian, shades of Innsmouth: Starmer as an unpleasant fish-creature that’s started beaching in huge numbers on the North Sea coast. No good fried; all bones in your mouth, slimy grey strands of flesh. Here’s a better idea: we’ll grind him up for fertiliser. So the fields of England grow flaccid carrots and dented balls of sprouts. I made it about four hundred words in before I gave up, vaguely disgusted with myself. I tried again, this time trying to do some clear and unadorned commentary. Here’s what happened, here’s why it happened, here’s why my political enemies are wrong, and here’s how we can do better. I gave up on that too, even more disgusted than before. Thank God, I no longer know how to come up with political opinion columns, the most debased and worthless form of writing any human society has ever produced.

The fact is that I don’t know how we can do better, and neither does anybody else. All I can say is that everyone seems to think that the only way to revive the Labour party’s fortunes is to shift it towards their own political positions, or lack thereof, and this seems suspiciously convenient. Personally, I’m not sure the party can be saved. Across Europe, all the old social-democratic parties are in collapse. There’s PASOK in Greece, which gave its name to the trend. In France, the Socialists are polling in the single digits and trending down. In Germany, the SDP is being eclipsed by the Greens. In Italy, the Democrats are the junior partners in a humiliating national unity coalition, alongside the fascists and the clowns. And in the UK, the Labour vote has shrunk at every election since 1997, with the sole exception being 2017. Something is happening in the world. It doesn’t seem to matter much what these parties say or do, or who they make alliances with; they all fall. These numbers are the footprints of something vast and destructive and moving, tangible but unseen. How many opinions does it take to slay a giant?

Corbynism had a theory of what had happened. It said that social-democratic parties were failing because they had abandoned their working-class base, given up on the socialist politics that they still want, and as a result millions of voters had become disillusioned with politics in general. What’s the point? They’re all the same. Corbynism also offered a solution: bring back the politics of the postwar consensus. Offer something to voters, a material change in their lives; give them a better set of policies, and the power of the working classes will reassert itself. Rise like lions out of slumber… I believed this, but it wasn’t true. It simply didn’t work.

The failure of Corbynism – and, frankly, the failure of much ‘class-first’ leftism – was that it mistook ontology for marketing. You start with the understanding that Britain is still a class society, that class is the real determining factor in social relations, the great turning cog that makes the whole Satanic engine spin. This is absolutely true. But then you conclude that simply appealing to broad class interests – or, in some formulations, simply saying the word ‘class’ a lot – is the one weird trick that will make people actually vote for you. This turned out to be mistaken. The old socialist parties were the expression of a unified and cohesive industrial working class, and that class simply no longer exists in Europe. Digital media and deindustrialisation have replaced it with atomised service workers, working alone, often farcically self-employed – and beyond them, the legions of the left-behind, no longer the reserve armies of labour but a pure, unbearable surplus, from which nobody needs anything but a vote, the last thing left to withhold.

In this landscape, Marx can only take us so far. In an unfinished essay, The Results of the Immediate Process of Production, he writes: Types of work that are consumed as services and not as products separable from the worker and hence not capable of existing as commodities independently of him, are of microscopic significance. Therefore, they may be entirely neglected. This gap remains: it’s worth noting that the PMC left (of which I’m obviously a part) seems to spend far more time considering the PMC itself than it does the service sector, which is often treated as a continuum of the traditional working class. But you can sketch something out. For the industrial proletariat, class struggle is a struggle over things, the objectified product of labour. For the service worker, the product is not separable from yourself, it doesn’t exist independently of yourself, it is yourself. The question who am I? becomes the core of all political contention. And what do you get? Years of piddling debate on the subject of British national identity, flags and symbols, gestures, statues, words; what songs get played at the BBC Proms, what religious minorities are threatened if you demonstrate against a murderous state a thousand miles away, all while people starved to death in their homes. Socialist politics can make gains in this environment, but often it’s simply because socialism offers an answer to the question of personal identity. It does for me. But there are – thankfully – simply not enough people like me.

So I find it hard to agree that a Labour party under Corbyn, or some version of Corbyn, would have obviously won in Hartlepool, just like in 2017 and 2019. Yes, maybe it would. But maybe it wouldn’t. Left-wing policies would be better for people and the world, but that is not the same thing. I’m actually with the Starmerites when they say that Corbynism is over, that it would have failed even without Brexit and a hostile media and the antisemitism bullshit, that we can’t resuscitate the past and we need to come up with something new. But what, exactly, have they come up with? Corbynism was, at the very least, a theory of the collapse of the left, and a proposed remedy. What’s replaced it is neither of those things: it’s just the collapse itself, triumphant. Instead of a failed solution to the problem, all we’re left with is the problem.

Look: have you seen Lisa Nandy on TV? This is your big beast? This black hole of charisma, this mumbling middle-manager? But they’re all like this. Just look at Sir Kier. Immaculately professional, like someone playing the Prime Minister in a bad BBC drama. Slight strained expression at all times, like a respectable grown-up businessman trying and failing to take a shit. It’s bad enough when someone is merely desperate to be liked, a suckup, a begfriend, but Sir Kier doesn’t even try; he just goes about in the idiot assumption that he’s already beloved. His entire pitch was the idea that he’s deeply electable, and when the voters of Hartlepool disagreed all he could do was insist that the public simply didn’t realise how popular he actually is. Hey, aren’t you that guy everybody hates? Oh my, no – I’m Sir Keir Starmer! Why did they think this would work?

In the wreckage of their party, all these people have is a kind of cargo-cult Blairism. More one-weird-trickery: just make a few anodyne gestures, and the masses will gladly follow you off a cliff. Summon Peter Mandelson from his lair – it worked in the 90s! And it’s true: by liquidating its old working-class attachments, New Labour unlocked a significant amount of electoral energy under Blair. But this is the kind of chemical reaction that only happens once. You might as well go into the next election with the promise to modernise the economy by closing down the coal mines and privatising British Rail. What else is left? Well, there’s the old last refuge: Sir Kier, architect of Labour’s toxic tilt towards Remain, shoving the cross of St George through people’s letterboxes. Display this poster with pride in your window. Flags: that’s what you dumb proles like, isn’t it? You can’t say I’m not meeting you halfway! The only thing they haven’t tried is a turn to obnoxious wokeness, a total recoil into the language of identity. This would probably go about as well as you imagine. A scurrying, the last frantic twitch, eyes darting about in panic, before the end.

I quit the Labour party in July last year. The direct impetus was a six-figure settlement the party paid to a few of its worst cynics and hysterics, against legal advice. I told my CLP secretary that I was happy to dob in a fiver a month to keep the corpse of social democracy shambling around a little longer, but if my money was going to end up in the pockets of Sam Matthews and co I could hardly be expected to stick around. To be honest, though, the real reason I quit was that it offered the possibility of no longer having to care, of being free from all these mediocrities and their petty feuds. What a relief! Finally, I thought, I can focus on the things that really matter, like medieval folktales, or geese. A very stupid belief. Obviously I’m still chained to this thing, whatever it is, the desperate hope that the world really can be improved – or else I wouldn’t have written three thousand words about it. I can’t help it. You go to protests, you vote for whatever left-wing no-hopers present themselves, you do whatever you can, and pretend with the utmost sincerity that this time things might change. It goes on. You do what’s done. You do what we’ve always done.

You can donate to Medical Aid for Palestinians here.

Meghan and the monster-machine

Everyone knows that the British press is cruel and ugly and vicious beyond belief, but I’m still not sure you really understand just how miserable it is. Look: I know these people; I know them in my bowels. I have been to their interminable shop-talking pub nights. I have done cocaine at their parties. I have felt the stale aura, the hack hideousness that clings to these people, suds of grimy desperation, slug-trails glistening from Soho to Stratford and back again, binding the whole capital in their disease… The old Fleet Street veterans, obviously: hideous. Hair the colour of tweed, raked in thin strands over a snot-scratchy scalp. Teeth like a 70s interior, stained to a nice groovy tan. Smell of stale lager, grubby little eyes, a sneer: let’s say the immigrants… let’s say the immigrants ate a swan… But the young – the young are worse. They are smart, these young journalists, the ones pounding out their eighteenth article of the day, trying to incinerate some TikTok kid or gameshow contestant or Duchess of Sussex, but still managing to post all the right hashtags, support all the right causes, read all the right novels by all the right diverse authors… It’s a closed guild, and nobody comes up through graft alone; they’ve all got their degrees. The nice broadsheet writers, they’re the real simpletons; all the illiterates are happily gushing away in the pages of the Guardian. A Daily Mail hack is something else. She has no illusions; she doesn’t get paid enough for those. She hates what she does and hates herself and hates everything else in the world.

You might think journalism is about uncovering the truth, revealing the things people have a right to know, but she knows better. Journalism means stripping everything you have away. As soon as the vast roving eye of the press lands on someone, the sheer hatred of its glare starts to singe their clothes, it starts dissolving the ground under their feet. Local teacher in FAKE BUM scandal. Outrage after sick ‘influencer’ urinates in GRAVEYARD… Comb through their social media, rummage around in their bins, get the dirt, the beautiful filth. Scatter it everywhere! Pull everything into the annihilating light! Never forget that these are the scum who hacked into the phone of a murdered thirteen-year-old girl – well, don’t the public have a right to know? See their dead eyes as they say it. This isn’t about knowledge; it’s open warfare against everything good and wonderful in the world.

Is the press racist? Yes, of course it’s racist, viciously racist, but if you think that’s the primordial sin here then you don’t understand a thing. They have no real commitment to their racism; there’s no commitment to anything at all. These people don’t hate you because they’re racist; they’re racist because they hate you. Racism is useful: it helps them isolate their targets, unleash reservoirs of animus – but if it suits their purposes to accuse you of white fragility or implicit bias, they’ll do that instead. These were the jaws that lay waiting for Meghan Markle when she moved to this country. An evil unknown in sunnier lands. The Hollywood press will destroy you, sure. But they’ll destroy you like an over-excited five-year-old child destroys his favourite new toy. Smashing it about in glee, loving it until the head comes off. The British press will destroy you deliberately, with malice. They’ll do it just to watch you die.

That was the welcome party. Time to meet the in-laws. God, who are these people? We’re a long way from Hollywood now, Meghan; just look at this Gothic horror show of a family. Emotionally repressed, sun-starved, leaking dust out their joints; they don’t meditate, they don’t do reiki, they don’t even go for a hike unless it’s to shoot something on the way – oh, but here’s Prince Andrew, lumbering gump with a child sex slave in tow; maybe things aren’t so different after all… Indeed they aren’t. Engels once wrote that in addition to the standard-issue bourgeoisie, the English have managed to create a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well. What he forgot to mention was our bourgeois royalty. Ignore all the parp and the pomp, and the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha are a very familiar type: a pack of social climbers. People who spent the last century chasing after glamorous Americans and provoking national crises in the process. Fame goblins, starfuckers with awful chintzy furniture. C-listers! Dull!

They call themselves the Royal Family, but the United Kingdom is not a monarchy. Ask anyone who has sovereignty over these islands, and even the most devoted sceptresucker will have to work very hard to not just blurt out: well, the people, of course… We’re all Montagnards now. Still, popular sovereignty never really existed; it was always a sham, it doesn’t exist in capitalism and it won’t exist in the Something Worse that’s coming soon. A euphemism, a way to cover up the giant king-shaped hole in the liberal constitution: just plaster something called the people over the gap, and hope nobody steps in. But somebody did. Who governs Britain? The seeping hatred governs Britain; the poison in the water table governs Britain; the nexus of digital, social, and tabloid media is god and king and law. The monster-machine: it decides our elections, it leads us into wars. Remember in 2005, when a trio of royal princes were papped skiing in the Swiss Alps? Charles grinning for the cameras, but muttering through his teeth: bloody people, I can’t bear that man, he’s so awful, he really is… Is that really the posture of a sovereign? Is that the voice of the vitae necisque potestas? In 2012, the press published a photo of Harry’s dick and balls, and what happened? Fifteen years before that, the press effectively murdered a princess of the realm on foreign soil, and what happened? Nothing, that’s what: they have a monopoly on the use of deadly force.

Once, the absolutist monarchies turned themselves into vast spectacles: zebras and brocade, trumpets blare; gaze upon my magnificence… A nice trick while it lasted, but between the spectator and the spectacle something cancerous started to grow. Now you can watch The Crown on Netflix and switch over to the BBC News and it’s all the same show. Instead of a monarchy, we have some royals, a gaggle of chinless freaks for us to coo over. People still seem to believe the last lie left about this family: that they’re deeply private, that they prefer to keep to themselves, stiff upper lip and all that. No: this is the least private family on the planet. Kings no longer have two bodies; every swelling of a ducal uterus, every princely emission in an underage girl, is now in the common sphere. Unlike other celebrities, unlike even politicians, they are in no sense private individuals. Objects of mass consumption before they’re even born: the royal fetus, the royal blastocyst… In a way, the Royal Family are the most republican institution this country has: a res publica, a public thing. Ground zero for our age of mass digital surveillance and control, in which nothing is secret and you have to carefully curate your image at all times, or else. Not rulers: exemplary subjects.

And what about these royals: are they also racist? Again, yes, of course they are. But this racism works in curious ways. A tale from the family scrapbooks: in 1881, King Kalākaua of Hawaii visited England during his world tour, and was invited to a party at the Spencers’. Also in attendance: the Prince of Wales, who would one day become Edward VII, and his brother-in-law Frederick, Crown Prince of Germany. Edward insisted that Kalākaua should take precedence over Frederick, since a king outranks a prince; the Germans objected. Edward replied: either the brute is a king, or he’s a common or garden nigger, and if the latter, what’s he doing here? So, yes, racist – but between race and status, status usually wins. It’s not for nothing that in the run-up to the Duke and Duchess’s wedding, there was no question that the glamorous black mother of the bride would be invited – but her dad? This fat, balding, miserable schlub, this baseball-cap-wearing white-bread lumpen American from Newport, Pennsylvania… Not exactly sexy, is he? Not very aspirational. Not the type we want to be seen with, in case it rubs off…

Last weekend, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, performed a two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey for American TV, in which she claimed that she had been mistreated by the British press and mistreated by the Royal Family and that this mistreatment was racist. I don’t doubt any of it for a second. I don’t doubt that they made creepy speculations about her son’s skin tone, and I don’t doubt that they left her contemplating suicide. Her story sounds like Bluebeard in his bloody chamber – but fairy tales are true. Bad things happen to the women who marry into this family; somewhere in its twelve-hundred-year history it picked up a curse. All the gold tassels in the world couldn’t cover up the crumminess of this land: there’s barely a mile between Kensington Palace and Grenfell Tower, and the headquarters of the Daily Mail are on the way. But then in the same interview, the Duchess told her in-laws: we haven’t created this monster-machine around us in terms of clickbait and tabloid fodder, you’ve allowed that to happen. And again, there is a monster-machine, and the royals are in it up to their donkey-teeth – but what, exactly, does the Duchess of Sussex think she’s talking to? Oprah Winfrey? An old LA friend? And the multiple camera teams, crouching over her shoulder – did they just happen to come along too? It’s behind you, the monster is behind you right now…

In her interview, the Duchess of Sussex talked about a trip she and Prince Harry had made to South Africa. Because, she said, the Commonwealth is a huge part of the monarchy, seventy percent of which is people of colour, right? I know how important representation is… how much it meant to them to be able to see someone who looks like them in this position. So should township kids look at her and think, maybe one day I too can marry into the line of Theodoric of Wettin… There’s something very Anglo-American, very parochial, about this sort of idea. Why should South Africans need a European monarchy to give them a sense of worth? As the Duchess might be aware, since 1994 South Africa has acquired quite a few black faces in high places; black politicians, black intellectuals, a black business elite… But the poor are still poor. Diversifying the ruling class hasn’t stopped South Africa becoming the single most unequal society on earth. The thing that’s lacking in Africa is not black representation; its population are not a minority. But still, the Duchess blunders in with her Anglo ideas and her rigid Anglo schema of the world – how different is she, really, from the first crop of British royals to set their feet on African soil?

This is what it comes down to: she is one of the Firm, through and through. Already, a narrative is taking shape, Meghan vs the Monarchy – but there is no monarchy, and there’s no sense in which she is on the opposing side. These people are all the same. For all the rumours of some terrible rift between the Duchesses of Sussex and Cambridge, when Meghan was first pushed in front of that burning eye I remember being struck by just how identical the two of them seemed: the same Photoshopped smile, the same bone structure, the same face, as if the royals were cloning these women in a lab. (Maybe that explains it: undifferentiation, mimetic crisis…) The Duchess is not trying to take down the monarchy. The sovereign function of the monarch is now invested in the press, and her interview could only feed the monster-machine, empower it, set its gears and tentacles whirring faster. I want only good things for the Duchess of Sussex and every one of God’s creatures, which is why she and Harry should move to a shack in the woods and forage mushrooms. But she won’t: she has to keep on producing the mediated spectacle of royalty. She’s good at it! Have you not seen her personal arms? A shield Azure a feather bendwise Argent quilled Or between two bendlets Or all between two like feathers Argent quilled Or… per the palace, the quills represent communication and the power of words. There’s also to the sinister a songbird Argent wings spread, which also represents the power of communication. Like all those B-movie villains, giving themselves clever little names; enchanté, I am Seigneur Méchant de Mont-Staire… She’s announcing to the world in heraldic code: I am the machine, the monster is me…

What she really wanted to do, it seems, is patch the monster over to a different version of the machine. Oprah instead of Piers Morgan; something a bit sunnier, a monarchy that might inspire people, provide a model of courage, tell them that their feelings are valid… the same compulsory disclosure, the same commodification of experience, the same spectacle, but now it’s supposed to be a kind of therapy. Maybe she’ll start a podcast. The Americans ate this up: the same old stale British shit, stewed cabbage and doldrums, but now it tastes so fresh. See how they applauded His Royal Highness Prince Harry The Duke of Sussex, Earl of Dumbarton, and Baron Kilkeel – not for choosing his wife over his scummy little clan, which is genuinely honourable, but for confronting his white privilege. The same man who once gunned down Afghan herdsmen from his Apache helicopter: now he wants to talk about colonial undertones. He’s learned their language, and it’s working. They’ve shown that the monarchy does its job even better when stops even pretending to hold anything in reserve. Speak your truth, Hal! Make him King! Maybe in five or ten years, when the couple inevitably divorce, he’ll trot out the other side of this new vocabulary: abuser tactics, gaslighting, toxic personality… she isolated me from my family, manipulated me into denouncing them… Response from the other side, weepier than ever… And you: who do you believe? Because now that we’re talking about justice, it matters deeply who you believe; you have a moral duty to care about it. All the intellectuals and republicans are free to rubberneck at the royals just like everyone else… And the monster-machine-monarch clanks onward, shining under Californian skies, bursting with light, that bright clean pure annihilating light…

What if we kissed in the abandoned GameStop?

This wasn’t the plan, exactly, but you held the line even when everyone else sold, and now you’re the majority shareholder in GameStop Incorporated. It’s all yours: five thousand stores to play with however you want. Some of the worried-looking executives took you on a brief tour of your new portfolio. They call it a brick-and-mortar business, but in fact it’s mostly drywall: scratchy, crumbling drywall slotted into dead linoleum malls. That’s right, the worried-looking GameStop executives told you, anything you want, you can game for free. You looked at the titles. Tax Accountant Simulator 4? A big-titted elf blows a kiss at you from the cover, whispering: come calculate my long-term capital loss carryover, my lord… Meanwhile Hog-Farm Tycoon promises to let you choose from over 1800 state and federal subsidies! and offers all-new groundwater contamination physics. Are the worried-looking executives trying to teach you some kind of lesson? But this one looks violent, at least. Operator: Drone Wars – real kills! Real carnage! NOT under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court! What happened to play? When did everything turn into a new kind of work?

This store was boarded up when you arrived, but everything inside is still pristine. In the dead malls the lights shine evenly and the acres of grey carpeting unroll smooth between empty shelves. This is the beige inferno. Brighter patches on the walls where the logos of long-extinct brands once hung: a massacre happened here. Empty fountains, ungurgling. And as you started walking out into the mall, dropping your free copy of Serf of Destiny (‘Ten thousand hours of tedious side quests!’) and just striding out until you could no longer hear the worried-looking executives calling you back, you noticed something else. A faint suggestion of music. Too ghostly to make out the tune or the timbre, but it was music and it was there. As if these square drywall columns were humming, resonating, as if they descended deep underground, becoming stakes to pierce the centre of the earth, where some lost demon sits in a cocoon of fire plucking each in turn. The music of the malls: a symphony for every abandoned retail space, everywhere in the world. If you could hear them all together, maybe they’d be beautiful. As it is, it’s maddening: the sound of a swallowed echo, the sound you hear once human life is gone. Maybe one day the entire universe will make that sound.

This is not a ruin. You saw ruins, as the worried-looking executives drove you from mall to empty mall. The great wide belly of America, blistered with bedsores. Wet rotting houses, potholes in the roads. It’s getting bad out there. First they gave out Fentanyl, now it’s the vaccine. For what? Haven’t you seen the weather? Better to stay inside and play video games. Better to stay inside and play the stock market. Build vast imaginary kingdoms from some warm mildewed pit of a home. At night, gales blow over the tangled woods that surround this place, and Main Street is clogged with dead slimy leaves. That was a ruin. This is something else. A clean white empty building on the edge of town, a mallsoleum. A monument to its own passing. America was always someone’s graveyard, from the moment the first Europeans blundered ashore; now, it’s a graveyard of malls. Your empire.

You read somewhere that these places were designed without right angles. Every corner is slightly wider than ninety degrees; they brought in the mathematicians to turn every mall into a labyrinth. The idea was to keep you dazed as you wandered about in there, lost but happy. Hide the clocks; make the exits a little harder to find. At every turn the mall would unfold into new, previously hidden dimensions: JG Ballard topologies, theoretically endless. Stores you’d never even noticed, stores not marked on the directory by the entrance, stores that sell stranger goods, amulets, muttering scrolls, tangle of beads in unholy patterns, tunnelling down to knucklebone and arrowheads, stores for our primordial selves, stores selling arrangements of the stars and knapped darts of flint, stores that are ossuaries, skulls rubbed with red ochre, each cleanly pricetagged, each with its barcode dangling on a bit of string… We have only penetrated the shallowest layers of mallspace. About a decade ago, some terrorists took a bunch of hostages at a luxury mall in Nairobi. The army surrounded the place, with Israeli counter-terrorism experts on the ground, but the siege was a disaster; dozens died. Hard to conduct straightforward military operations in this non-orthogonal world, where everything slips away.

After a few hours of wandering, you change your mind and head back. Your GameStop is gone; in its place there’s the coiled empty shell of a Nordstrom. This wasn’t the plan, exactly: the plan was to get rich. There are some people who make money effortlessly. Not that they were born into the stuff, not all of them at least, but they have a hunger for it. Hustle, they call it. Driving up and down the city, buying kitchen appliances on Facebook Marketplace and reselling for twice the value. Some nobody starts making bad egg videos on YouTube, suddenly they’re pulling in six figures. Everything is collapsing, falling into mulch, but someone will always get rich stripping out the copper wires. Not you, though. You are not one of those people. You worked a job and thought about quitting every day, until the virus came and your job quit first. You made just enough to start getting a taste for things you couldn’t afford, like lunch, or non-elective surgeries. It’s alright, you told yourself, I’m only beginning, my real life hasn’t started yet. You are thirty-eight years old.

So when GameStop stock started rising, you sunk everything you had. And at first it was a rush: your money doubled, tripled; you kept checking your phone every thirty seconds to watch the number go up. When you dreamed at night, you dreamed about stocks. No more weird oneiric geographies, no more disconnected images, no gorgeousness of childhood fears. In your dreams, you were in your perfectly ordinary apartment, looking at your phone, watching the numbers getting bigger – and when you woke up and looked instantly at your phone it was real, your dreams were literally coming true… Although you were barely sleeping at the time, because this stuff was like coke. A big fat fluffy line that never ends, racked up from here all the way to the moon. The shit that makes you mouthy, makes you tell complete strangers how much money you raked in just this month. I should start my own fund… I should sell stock tips on Patreon… And now – now you own a whole damn company. So why doesn’t it feel like victory? Why have you now spent six days lost in this dead and empty mall, licking sawdust out the corners, a million miles from home?

If you’re honest with yourself, it wasn’t even about the money, not really. It was a movement: standing up to the tycoons, the hedge-fund banshees, rallying around an embattled small business, the little guy… Only how did a retail giant with five thousand outlets become the little guy? Only because there are deadly waves moving through this ruined land. You can see them by the hollowness they leave in their wake. The next big thing in entertainment is cloud gaming: never mind physical discs, you don’t even need to download your games, you just stream them off a Google or Amazon server farm in a nuclear-hardened bunker somewhere out west. Pay a reasonable monthly fee to rent the computing power: feudalism is back, and this time it’s got a gun. In five years, owning an actual games console will be for weirdos and antiquarians. You might as well post some daguerreotypes to MySpace from your Leibniz wheel. It’s not just the malls: everything is emptying, becoming weightless, abstract. Everything you have is rented or streamed: your home, your music, and your opinions too. You don’t have a girlfriend, but there’s a stranger you’ve paid to moan your name on OnlyFans. You can pay rent on her attention. Squint your eyes, and it’s almost like touch.

You know that this is bad, even if it’s so convenient, even if you can’t really articulate why. The GameStop bubble began when hedge funds started spending billions shorting the company: they knew it wouldn’t survive the Great Emptiness that’s coming. But thousands of amateur traders didn’t pour their money into GameStop simply because they noticed that the short interest in GME was over 140% of the float, and that enough options could trigger a short squeeze on a potentially volatile security. They did it because, as various columnists have pointed out, these were nerds who congregated on Reddit; they liked GameStop, they had warm feelings towards it, and they didn’t like the idea of these rich Wall Street chads making a tidy profit by bankrupting something they cared about. It’s the same for all the meme stocks: people like going to AMC cinemas; they have fond memories of using a BlackBerry or a Nokia. They want to keep these things alive. (Or even practice a kind of corporate necromancy, bring them back from the dead. Shares in BB Liquidating, the holding company that inherited what’s left of Blockbuster, spiked by 700%.) The material world might be reduced to a handful of doomed capitalist enterprises, but we will not let it vanish! Of course, you still use Amazon like everyone else, and even if the cinemas were open you’d still be catatonic in front of Netflix every night; you invested in GameStop as a substitute for shopping there. A protest against the hollowing-out of reality – but one that took place entirely on the level of financialised abstraction. You made a bubble: something empty and lighter than air.

Still, it was funny. God, it was funny to see how much it made the titans of finance squirm. This is dangerous! This is the Capitol riots all over again! Speculative bubbles? Sure – but only for the right class of coked-up chancers, the ones with credentials, not for you. People with numbers after their names, yes, but Brick van Gloot III, not PussyEatah23. Don’t you know that the stock market exists to provide capital for productive industries? Don’t you realise that a good investor looks at the fundamentals? Don’t you care that you’re inflating this stock way above its intrinsic value? Only – what productive industries? What fundamentals? What intrinsic value? As everyone has already pointed out, nobody worries too much about these fogeyisms on a normal day, and the markets have been uncoupled from the ‘real’ economy for a very long time. Just google ‘Dow Jones’ and see: stock indexes have been coasting to an all-time high throughout the pandemic, while the rest of us were experiencing the sharpest economic collapse in modern history. But that’s only half the story. It’s not that what ought to be a single system has broken in two; this disarticulation is baked into how markets work.

The basics. A stock’s price rises when investors want to buy, and investors buy when they think its price will rise. In other words, prices are largely determined by what investors think other investors are likely to do. You might buy because you think a company has good ‘fundamentals’ – but equally, it could be because they’re about to get a fat federal bailout, or because there’s a cult of deranged day-traders out there who believe its CEO is the Maitreya Buddha. It doesn’t matter. This is why tech companies can make billions from IPOs despite never actually turning a profit: as long as everyone thinks that all those other rubes think it’s a moneymaker, then it is. Behind all the arcane language, it’s just ordinary dumb-ape psychology. Keynes compares these markets to a beauty contest in which the judges don’t vote for the contestant they personally find the most attractive, but the one that they think the other judges will go for. Everyone on the panel might have secretly fallen in love with Contestant Six, but each of them considers: well, my tastes run weird, and Contestant Four is a much more conventional beauty… As always, it’s not really about the girls, it’s about the other men. Keynes notes that ‘the shares of American companies which manufacture ice tend to sell at a higher price in summer when their profits are seasonally high than in winter when no one wants ice.’ If you were investing based on the year-round profitability of a company, buying ice shares in the summer would be a stupid bet. But if you’re buying because you think other people will make that same stupid bet, it suddenly makes a lot of sense. You end up with a whole field of very smart professionals, all making stupid hollow meaningless bets because everyone else is doing the same thing, setting up rituals, fluctuations that retrench themselves for no sensible reason – while the ice melts, unheeded, unimportant, underfoot.

For free-market ideologues, the market is an information-processing machine: its point isn’t to make money, but to send price signals. (Profit motive is what powers the machine, but it’s not its purpose, any more than the point of a car is to burn up petrol.) Here, they’re absolutely right, but not in the way they think: a stock market is a semiotic system, and it operates on the same rules laid down in Saussure’s structural linguistics. Every bet in the market exists in a field of relation to other bets in the market; the density of other bets are what gives it its value. There is no necessary relation between sign and referent.

But as psychoanalysis has shown, linguistic systems structure the entire psyche. It’s not for nothing that Keynes chose to describe the market as a beauty contest; he’s describing the same schema that Lacan gives for neurotic fantasy. In Lacan, your fantasy is not your own innermost authentic wish; it’s what you imagine the other desires from you. An animal simply wants to fuck something warm; as a fully neurotic human subject, you want to believe that your lover wants you too. You fantasise about their fantasy. ‘It is qua Other that man desires.’ Simulate the desire of the other for fun and profit. The markets really are a fantasy: all those heavily roided finance bros tenderly imagining what the other might want, these deep empaths trying to conjure your desires before you’ve even formulated them yourself. Che vuoi? What do you want? Is it equity in Tesla at $850 a share? Is that what your heart desires? Neurotic fantasy spills out of the trading floor; electric tendrils of desire cling and couple, writhing around each other – and as we recede from the wet kissy sounds of Wall Street, we can see the whole shuddering mess of tenderness and love, its spread, writhing to its outer edges, carving deep gashes into the invisible parts of the world, tearing them open, leaving ruins, leaving empty malls…

Yeah, where does this leave you? What about the proud owner of GameStop, Inc., wandering in mallspace, chained to all this obdurate physical waste? The GameStop investors challenged the entire fantastical system; rather than playing the subtle game of imagining what other people might want, they got together, reached a consensus decision on their desires, and then set about making it happen. Maybe this was why leftists got so into the whole thing: it might not abolish private property, but at least it looks a bit like collective action. If enough of us buy this stuff, its price will rise, so let’s do that. This isn’t supposed to happen, even though obviously it happens all the time. Technically, the structure of this kind of market activity is perversion: the pervert, unlike the neurotic, ‘knows very well’ what he desires. He disavows castration, the gap, the signifier hollowing out the world of things. (See all the GameStop investors who seemed to think their market hijinks could actually save a dying retail chain.) Well – so what? If the choice is between the madness of capital expressed as a monstrous, rational, all-consuming system, or the madness of capital expressed as a weird private perversion, I’ll always side with the perverts. Now that socialism is over, perversion is the only thing we’ve got left. But it still isn’t an answer to the Great Emptiness, and there was always going to be a crash. There would always be someone left in the desert of the real, the wordless rubble that remains once fantasy is gone. There would always be a loser. There would always be you.

On your twelfth day in the empty mall, you found a dead rat in the middle of the lino. A husk, dried in distant winds. Fur peeling back from fangs and eyes; that cavernous hollow of a belly sheltered under such delicate ribs, a fine scrim of red-black viscera between the naked bones, and full of maggots. You picked off those fat white worms and ate them one by one. Sucked them off your fingers. This was the meal you wanted. It tasted good.

Death and the treasure

A rider appeared outside the camp at midnight. In his left hand, he held a scroll; in his right, a severed head.

As this rider approached the centre of the camp, every door was opened for him, and silent courtiers ushered him towards the seat of power. This was the camp of King Zheng of Qin, who had chosen to conquer all of the Seven Warring States, and bring everything under Heaven into his hands. Now he had turned his armies towards the northern state of Yan. The severed head belonged to Fan Yuqi, a general who had betrayed King Zheng to fight for his enemies. Now the rider threw his head on the table before the king. Then, more delicately, he placed down the scroll. Son of Heaven, he said, I have presented you with these two treasures as a gift. This head is the lesser treasure; I have brought it so you will know I am your friend. The greater treasure is this scroll, which is a map of the state of Yan which you wish to conquer, the most accurate map ever made.

Slowly, the rider unrolled the map from west to east, pointing out all the features of Yan: the roads along which Zheng might march his armies and the towers that defended them; the villages that were good for plunder and the lean wastelands where barbarians roam. Soon Zheng saw that this map really was the most accurate ever made. He examined a minor river, and something in the ink made the water seem to churn and flow. Zheng saw clumps of ice floating in the rapids and fields glittering with springtime frost; he heard the lively chatter of the peasant-women as they took their clothes to be washed, and smelled the good sharp smell of logs burning in a stove. When he peered closer he could even see, between the brushstrokes, the footprints of those women, stamped deep in the half-frozen mud. For an instant, Zheng felt that he was very small, and the map on his table was larger than the room, larger than his tent or the camp that contained it, until it sprawled as vast as the kingdom of Yan itself.

What the Son of Heaven did not know was that the man in his tent was an assassin sent by the Crown Prince of Yan, and that his enemy Fan Yuqi had given bis life willingly to help the plot. This assassin had hidden a slender dagger inside the map, and once the entire kingdom had been unrolled, he would seize the dagger and thrust it into King Zheng’s heart. But once the map lay flat on the table, there was no dagger to be seen. Instead, the map showed a large island in the Gulf of Zhili formed in the shape of a dagger: an island that had never been known of before, with many pastures where the blade had been sharpened, many orchards along the line of its grooves, and many cities with strong walls where precious stones had been inlaid in the dagger’s hilt.

At once, King Zheng understood the plan, and he had the assassin buried alive in the black earth. Using the map, he quickly conquered the kingdom of Yan. Afterwards, he declared himself Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of Qin. Then he sent a fleet out into the sea, and found an island there in the shape of a dagger with many pastures, many orchards, and many cities with strong walls, which was populated by his enemies, and thousands of them were slain.

* * *

This story comes to us in two parts. They are pieces of a puzzle, and each is slightly less than half of the whole.

In the first part, there is a poor merchant who lives in Cairo. Once he was rich, but his fortune has vanished; he had to sell his scented palace, and now he lives in a hovel where the dust in the courtyard piles up against the trunk of a long-dead olive tree. But one night, this merchant had a dream. In his dream he saw a beautiful mosque with four minarets and two golden domes stood side by side; the minarets were also coated in gold and carved with all the names of God. In his dream, the poor merchant heard the voice of an angel, who said to him: your treasure is here; find this place, and dig. In his days this merchant had travelled up and down the valley of the Nile, but he had never seen a mosque like this one, and neither had any of his fellows. He tried to draw the mosque of his dreams, but with each version he made it felt as if the image was fading, and every picture was only a more imperfect copy of the last. One day, he presented a painting to a very old traveller who now begged on the streets. Where he had once tried to show the mosque in every false detail – the walls with their mosaics, the pleasant avenues with their trees, the way the light burned on the golden domes, and the cool waters of the sabil – now, there were only six lines: two curving for the domes, four straight for the minarets. I know this place, said the beggar; I didn’t recognise it before. I saw it when I was a much younger man: this is the mosque of al-Kadhimiya in Baghdad.

At once the merchant set off in a caravan for Baghdad. It was night when they arrived in the city, but he saw those golden domes shining above him, and ran to the mosque to dig up its grounds. Soon the noise woke some people in the nearby houses: they sent for the guards, who seized the merchant and beat him with palm-rods until he was all but dead. Finally he was brought before the head of the Caliph’s police, who asked who he was and why he, a stranger, had come to Baghdad only to desecrate its mosque. The merchant, who was an honest man, told him about his dream, but the chief only laughed. You idiot, he said, don’t you know that dreams mean nothing? Let me tell you a story: not long ago, I had a dream in which I saw a poor hovel in Cairo with a dead olive tree in the courtyard; a voice told me that a great treasure was buried there. But I wasn’t foolish enough to actually go to Egypt and start digging up someone else’s garden. Now, he concluded, go back to your own country, and don’t trouble us again.

The merchant travelled back to Cairo and returned to his hovel. He uprooted the dead olive tree in his courtyard and dug; on the third day he found a jar full of faceless gold coins, worth just as much as the money he had lost, to the last uqiyyah.

The second part is also about a merchant of Cairo, but this one is rich. While attending the market in Baghdad, he was jostled by a stranger. He looked up: the stranger was hidden in white robes, but his face was unmistakeable. This was Azra’il, the angel of death, and the figure cast a terrifying glare on the merchant; it started to walk towards him. It is said that only those who are about to die can see the the angel of death. This merchant was a healthy man, even in his age, but there are many ways to die, especially in a foreign city. The merchant fled. Leaving his wares behind, he took his fastest horse and set off across the desert to Egypt, his home, where death would not be able to find him. He made the journey a night and a day; exhausted, he collapsed on the ground in front of his hone. The ride had been hard, the sun merciless, the ground rocky and broken. Now, soft lights burned in the windows of his house, and a scented air came from the gardens – but after such an ordeal he could barely manage to crawl through the gates. At last, a pair of feet appeared in front of him. He looked up to see the face of Azra’il. You have caught me, said the merchant, but tell me: why did you threaten me when I saw you in Baghdad? The angel of death knelt, and as the merchant drew his last breath he replied: I was not threatening you; I was only surprised to see you in Baghdad, since I knew that we had an appointment here in Cairo, tonight, at your house.

Both of these stories have the same form; only a few of the details change. In one, a poor man chases treasure; in the other, a rich man flees from death – but both go on a journey only to find that its cause was already waiting for them. In both there is the apparition of an angel, in both a mystery. Who buried the coins? And why would Azra’il be at the market, when the angel of death has nothing to buy or sell?

Perhaps these tales describe the same merchant: once he was poor, and then he became rich; God, in His wisdom and for the edification of His worshippers, chose to humble His slave according to the same design with which He had rewarded him. But there are some who say that these two men were the same in a more subtle sense. It is known that the followers of Pythagoras held to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls: across the span of many lives, a man is made to repeat the same journey, without end. In one generation he crosses the sands for riches, in another he only wants to live – but he does not wonder why there is already a set of tracks leading across the desert. Once this man was Brutus, then he was Judas, tomorrow he might be the brother in your house. Perhaps God creates such individuals only once: in the crystal prism of time their number seems to increase, but in eternity there is a single creature, walking in his own footprints for the first and only time.

Perhaps – and this is the doctrine of the more melancholy scholars – the rich merchant was the first, and the poor merchant came afterwards. After we die, they say, a mourning angel performs one last cruelty. The body that is still here after you have gone: deep in the black earth, it suffers a change, and every heart forever stilled becomes a cold hard blank gold coin.

The most sorrowful of all are those who say that both tales are really a single tale, and that in some mystical sense, glimpsed only by the sages, death and the treasure were one and the same thing.

May God, the most glorified, the most high, who knows all things, protect us from what we seek.

* * *

In the town of Kuttenberg in Bohemia there was a monastery and a silver mine, and all the men were either monks or miners. In their abbey, the monks – who were Cistercians, and wore white – praised the Blessed Virgin at all the appointed hours, but the miners – who wore black, so they would be dressed well for their funerals – knew that another power also rules the earth. In the labyrinth of that mine, there were a few hidden grottoes that were the Devil’s chapels: a miner would throw the rough Baphomet a crust of bread on his way into the mine, and then thank the saints for his safety on the way out again. You can afford few enemies underground.

This man was a miner. Every day he would tap on the window of his bride-to-be as he walked up to the mountain and kiss her good morning. In the evenings, when he returned with a face blacker than his shirt and silver nuggets in his pockets, he would tap again. The date of the wedding was set for the feast of St Lucia: the shortest day of winter, when all the world wears silver robes. On that day he, too, would wear a coat of white.

On the morning before their wedding came the knock, but the evening was silent. She waited long into the night, and when morning came again she folded up her white dress and put it away forever.

In those first few weeks, she would sometimes look at the mountain that rose high above Kuttenberg, and think: he is there. Somewhere behind the walls of stone, in that vast underground world where veins of silver glitter in the dark and the bodies of men disappear. How could she ever forget him? He was made of solid rock now, and his monument would stand over the town, unchanging, forever.

But she did forget. After only a few months, she could no longer conjure his voice in her head when she felt lonely, and when it was winter again, she had trouble recalling his face. The man became a gap in her world. He had only disappeared; she was the one that was dying. Whole regions of herself falling away. That sharp hopeful glance when he came to tap on her window: she would never glance that way again. She’d lost a way of turning her head and opening her eyes, like the amputees whose arms were crushed in the mines – only what she was missing was her face, her lips, her throat. There was no one else she could speak to in the way she’d spoken to her husband-to-be: a part of her voice was locked away where there’s no air to breathe.

But not in her dreams. In dreams he would visit her, with a face that was cloudy and couldn’t be looked at, but which was always his: as immediately his as the ant crossing a sunbeam is itself. She would forget that he was in the mountain, which meant that she forgot to say all the things she needed him to hear. Like I miss you. Like come back. When she woke, it was like that first evening again, and all she wanted was to sleep: sink deep into the stillness of silver seams and stone.

Years passed, and the mountain changed as well. Engineers arrived from every corner of the Empire with new methods and new ideas. Some of them tore open the face of the mountain and smashed up boulders to get at the treasure inside. They built machines: first the wheels were turned by horses on treadmills, then by pistons and steam. Soon the charcoal-burners had stripped the hills of their forests; black smoke poured incessantly from the peak. Everything in Kuttenberg was coated in sticky soot. Even the white habits of the Cistercians turned grey, so they fled the abbey, which was taken over by tax collectors. Men in dark livery who demanded to be paid in silver thalers, since the ground was now too poor to farm and the streams too poisoned to fish. The families who had once lived here moved out, and new people moved in. Dead cattle rotted in their fields, but there were no flies in this sour air. Only thick heavy crows, who hopped on both feet between the exposed ribs, uttering dark and joyful cries.

The machines on the peak were used to pump out old mine-shafts. Some had been flooded with water, some with oil of vitriol, or aqua valens, or any of the other poisons that collect in a working mine. One day they drained a long-abandoned cavern, and when the miners went inside they found a nugget of silver bigger than any they’d ever seen. Hauling it out into the open air, they found that it was not a lump of metal at all, but a man. Some miracle of alchemy had occurred in that mine: a precipitate of silver had formed around the corpse, so that nothing could decay. This man’s face was as full and lively as it had been on the day he went into the mountain, for all that his eyes were fixed open in their silver casing. Still, nobody in Kuttenberg could recognise him. Nobody knew the dead man’s name. He might have fallen into that pool of vitriol the night before it was drained – or he might have been an ancient of these hills, who dug out their silver ten centuries ago.

For a day they let the silver man lie on the church altar, the brightest thing in that black and ruined town. All the people came to look at this marvel, even the blind old woman who had always lived alone in her little wooden house, who went out in a mourner’s shawl even though she had never been married. She ran her fingers over the cold silver of his face, and there was something she remembered there, even though she couldn’t remember what it was. When it was done they put him in the black earth again: a small plot in the churchyard, unmarked, to await the final call.

It was the shortest day of winter; the day of Saint Lucia’s feast.

* * *

Once there was a man of the Umuako whose wife fell ill and died. After she was buried he left his home, which was too full of her things, and his native land, which was too foggy with her memories. For years he walked, seeking a place he had heard about long ago: the shining city of the immortals where there is no death. He knew he would find this place when he came to a village without a graveyard, where there were no beloved corpses to be sent into the black earth, and at last he found one. Here every house had copper wire woven into the thatch, and the mud walls were studded with dozens of copper bracelets; each ngwulu contained the fortune of twenty lifetimes. The eze of this village invited the traveller to dine with him as a guest, and the traveller accepted. As they were eating a stew of well-seasoned meat, the traveller noticed that this eze lived with only his wives and children in the family compound. Respected igwe, the traveller said, if this truly is the city of the immortals, then where are your mother and your father? Or is it the custom in your land for fathers to live apart from their sons? No, said the eze, my parents are here. And he pointed downwards at the traveller’s bowl.

The old golden savages killed their philosophers

Yesterday, in the funniest thing to have ever happened in Washington DC, thousands of Trump supporters breached the US Capitol in an attempt to prevent Joe Biden’s victory being confirmed in the Senate. This is worrying, for obvious reasons. These people are entirely disconnected from reality, susceptible to far-right messaging, capable of violence, and numerous. It’s a dangerous erosion of democratic norms and the rule of law. It’s tragic: four people died in the disturbance; four worlds have gone black forever because of the doomed political fantasies of a TV game show host. But it’s also – and this is not an ethical judgement, or even really a commentary, just a statement of the facts on the ground – hilarious.

It’s funny in the way that the truth is always funny. Here is the bland citadel of American power, big white halls with mediocre paintings, men in breeches either firing muskets at each other or engaged in some lofty Enlightenment-era debate. The myth of America. And here, hooting and hollering as they ransack the place, are the Americans. This is the world you made: an army of corn-fed cretins, blasted in the face by digital media until their brains shrivelled into radioactive pebbles; churning flesh in the gears of the most advanced bureaucracy ever devised by man. A nation that rants, that stands on street corners yelling to itself, sometimes into a camera, sometimes into the faces of anyone passing by. They came here from the dead places. Car dealerships, yacht clubs, poisoned creeks; the places where covid swept away twenty million years of cumulative memory and nobody really cared. Not the wretched of the earth, but a new kind of lumpen. The rabble at the dead end of history, lost in a world that no longer needs their productive labour, or their folkways, or their lives.

One of them was a topless, muscled man wearing a fur hood, patriotic face paint, and horns. Another came to the protest with a bright red MAGA cap perched on top of his ghillie suit. Others were dressed in Revolutionary War outfits, or as cavemen, or simply looked like they’d just escaped from a hospice. Orwell once wrote that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. Now, the same thing is happening on the right: yesterday’s crowd included a man hoisting a sign that read NO BLOODY CIRCUMCISERS – PERVERTS IN U.S. COURTS, U.S. SENATE OR U.S. PRESIDENT, NO FORESKIN NO PEACE!!! Given that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, all these people could have easily hidden their identities – but because of they’ve convinced themselves that a cloth mask dangerously cuts off your oxygen supply, they allowed their faces to be photographed, and now they’ll all be rounded up and sent to federal prison for a decade. One of the fatalities occurred when someone tasered themselves by accident. When they broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office, they took turns pretending to be her, sitting in her special chair, picking up her phone and acting as if they had to take an important political call. This is funny. Even funnier is the spectacle of the politicians themselves, ducking in the aisles, cucked and cowardly in their ridiculous plastic-bag gas masks, trembling in fear as their own constituents try to rip the wood panelling off the walls. This is not what an attempted coup looks like. This is the circus. And you’re lying, you’re lying to yourself and everyone around you, if you claim that you’re not entertained.

More than half a decade ago, I wrote up a fruitless A-to-B anti-austerity march through central London, ending in Parliament Square: The Palace of Westminster was within puking distance, and we were in the hundreds of thousands; I couldn’t understand why nobody was rushing the gates to actually overthrow the government. Even if they had cops with sniper rifles on the roofs, they couldn’t shoot all of us. It never happened. The closest we ever came was the storming of Millbank Tower in 2010 – and that was always enemy territory; we couldn’t march through Tory HQ and shout, like the people who breached the Capitol: this is our house, this belongs to us. If it had been leftists breaking into the halls of power, we’d have known exactly what to do: declare a provisional revolutionary government, set up a thousand different subcommittees, and then immediately start braining each other with congressional paperweights in a series of bloody factional purges. This lot, meanwhile, had no idea what they were supposed to actually do once they were inside.

For a while they milled about, carrying flags and stealing things. They didn’t even start any fires; all they left with were some bits of wood and covid-19. There was no plan to any of this, because their brand of right-wing populism isn’t really a politics at all. It has no real coherent sense of what it wants to abolish or what it wants to uphold, and a long frantic scream instead of a theory of change. This is why you don’t need to worry that a ‘competent fascist’ might come along to pick up where Trump left off: incompetence and incoherence is the substance of this movement. Nothing that smells like ideological rigour will stick in our swirling stupid age. (This is why it’s equally unlikely that these unfocused anti-establishment energies will be redirected into a populist grand coalition with the left. This isn’t a primitive dissatisfaction that just needs a few lessons on how surplus value works to mature into a good socialist analysis; it’s its own thing, not inchoate, but a final form.) A friend of mine once came across a QAnon protest in London and realised that she simply couldn’t understand any of their signs, all of which seemed to have to do with the politics of an entirely separate reality. As a political demonstration, it was a total failure; it did nothing to communicate what the activists thought was going on or what they wanted done to fix it. But it wasn’t a political demonstration. What these people want is simply to be recognised: for the social machine to know they exist. (Obviously, this same instinct is perfectly capable of wearing the skin of left-wing politics too. It’s the spirit of our age; it swallows everything it finds without discrimination.) Entering a semiotic zero-space does nothing to hurt this cause; if anything, believing truly stupid and incomprehensible things only adds to the mystique. Force the machine to ask why. Is this fascism? Is this a coup? The protesters broke into the temple of American democracy, not despite the waiting cameras, but because of them. They want to see themselves floating within the system of images. Notice me. Care about me. Give me a hug.

They know that Trump really won the election; the truth of it is in their bones. All the stuff about voter fraud is just an elaborate rationalisation of something very visceral and very universal and which has nothing to do with politics. If Trump actually lost, then it means I don’t matter. If Trump actually lost, then the universe repudiates me. Hard to blame them: very few of us are capable of confronting the Lovecraftian reality of our blind, uncaring cosmos. These people aspire to exist, and they were just unfortunate enough to sink all their cathectic energies into a painted clown instead of something more appropriate, like a sports team or a war. But you can understand why: here, the same affects go all the way up to the top. Just like his followers, Trump doesn’t have a plan. If he’s still refusing to concede defeat, it’s simply because he believes in the power of positive thinking. Just like your ex-girlfriend, he thinks that the universe will give him whatever he wants as long as he wants it hard enough. It’s worked well for him so far, hasn’t it? So why give up on your dreams now?

In the end, it’s hard for me to feel too upset about anyone who trashes a big public building in Washington DC. I last visited DC about a year ago; unfortunately, I had friends there. Unfortunately, because it’s grimmer than a typhoid-riddled refugee camp or a North Korean jail: the worst, most miserable place in the world. This is not a city. It’s an endless maze of low barriers and security zones, a place infinitely cordoned off from itself. Every street is lined with low ugly business-park blocks that modestly announce themselves as the headquarters of some kind of terrible global evil: the International Directorate for Diarrhoea and Diarrhoea-Causing Pathogens, the Alliance for Tearing Small Holes In Mosquito Nets, the US State Department, the IMF. Evil without grandeur: the ground floor of every one of these blocks is always occupied by a CVS or a Peet’s Coffee. You want to eat? Eat this cinnamon swirl; it’s made from corn syrup and chalk. Your only other option is some brassy gloomy den of a hotel restaurant, where greased lobbyists feed their politicians on plates of paler flesh, scorched and braised, with truffles grated on top. Don’t ask what animal this came from. You don’t want to know his name. In the streets, the DC people bustle about: cut-throat mediocrities with suits shinier than their lanyards and foreheads shinier still, visibly humming with satisfaction. I made it! I’m here, in the birdshit trench of despair where Everything Gets Done! It’s good that these people don’t get Congressional representation. They shouldn’t get to breathe. Nothing good can survive in a place like this. Imagine if Slough or Swindon or Milton Keynes were also the nexus of a fanatical empire bent on world domination. Imagine seventy square miles in which the Nazis won the war.

The one really interesting place in DC is the Lincoln Memorial. It has what Albert Speer called Ruinenwert, ruin-value. (His idea was to construct buildings that would one day produce sublime wreckage, as a noble example for the Aryans of the distant future. The Red Army made sure that Nazi Germany left no monuments. As ever, America picked up the slack.) After all, it’s already a kind of tomb. The marble is too smooth, it glows too evenly; begging to be slapped about a bit, roughened up by time. I imagined the ceiling collapsing, the bog-weeds marching out of the Mall and up the famous steps to wetly choke these stones. The man himself sits there on his marble throne, huger than life. Maybe in the future, the savages that will inhabit this place might regard Lincoln as a kind of stern primordial god; maybe they’ll sacrifice twins at his feet. The text of the Gettysburg Address is chiselled into one wall. Lincoln is apparently no longer a woke hero, but it’s still stirring stuff. These are the words of someone who really genuinely believed in his political ideal – a new birth of freedom, an extirpation of the sin of slavery – and who was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of lives to achieve it, before he finally gave his own. A man like Lenin or Napoleon, a bloodied founder of the law. I imagined those holes in the wall cracking and filled with slime, and the tomb-dwellers of the future barely noticing them as they shuffle in and out carrying skinned deer and captive children from the other tribe. Outside, on the windswept steps, a black-clad Christian with a megaphone was preaching to a crowd of none. On Judgement Day, when you stand before holy God, it won’t matter a bit about Donald Trump. The Bible says all have sinned. Call Donald Trump a liar if you want, but how many lies have you told in your life? A few steps away, but not facing him, a man in dayglo cycling gear stood and heckled. YOU ARE DEFENDING A PIMP, A LIAR, AND A CON ARTIST! JESUS WOULD BE APPALLED! The secret is, of course, that the collapse I was imagining had already happened, that it’s been happening since the first syllable of recorded time.

As bowtie-wearing types have pointed out, the storming of the Capitol looks a lot like a barbarian sack of Rome. The gardens ravaged, the altars and chalices profaned, the Huns rode their horses into the monastery library and mangled the incomprehensible books and reviled and burned them – fearful perhaps that the letters of the books might harbour blasphemies against their god, which was a scimitar of iron. But what kind of Rome is Washington DC? To be honest, maybe it’s the same one. Philip K Dick got it: The Empire never ended. A single state, unevenly distributed in time. Storming out of the colonial lands to the west, far away from the traditional centres of civilisation. A ruling class that turns its genocidal conquests into a series of fun and fashionable diversions: foreign food, foreign décor, foreign clothes, foreign gods. An underclass that simmers and periodically threatens to burn everything down. Slave plantations. A set of good solid decent civic virtues that always seem to have really existed somewhere in the past, however far back you go. (Or – and this is always a nice rhetorical trick – among the barbarians.) And that unique combination of brutality and silliness, entertainment and administration and death. What was their civilisation? Vast, I allow: but vile. Later writers tried, but they couldn’t really understand the Romans. The medievals and early moderns had no reference point for the ruins they inhabited. Europe had to wait until the twentieth century, until it was once again conquered by a huge frivolous empire that only wanted to entertain. The primary instrument of Roman rule wasn’t the magistrates or even the legions, it was the arenas. Auction off the tax collection, let some local notable have his crown, but build a circus. The empire depends on it. Or maybe that’s the wrong way round: maybe the majesty of the Roman state, with its court poets and its marble halls and its great orators with their hands nailed to the rostra, only existed to spread the institution of the arena further across the world.

This time around, of course, things are simpler. There is nothing outside the empire and nowhere left to expand. There is nothing sacred to be defiled. You can worship God and the scimitar at the same time. The barbarians have always been ourselves.

The itch

The universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes.
An old French lai

It doesn’t take much to be exiled from this village, which sprawls in timber and straw by the mouth of the river. A limp is enough. A child born with fingers scrunched, a hare lip, or his knees pointed in. This one had an itchy eye. Most eyes want to look; for whatever reason, her eye wanted to be touched – and not gently. Better a rubbing knuckle than a stroke, better still a fingernail to dig and tear. It satisfied nothing, but once she’d started it was so hard to stop. The more you rub, the more it hurts, the more you keep on rubbing. Dig into the pain, deeper; claw through into the ugly and endless pleasure of an itch.

She might have been beautiful, but soon the skin around her left eye became thin and raw and shed small white flakes. Something other eyes couldn’t bear to see. When she scratched too hard there was blood, and afterwards the wound crusted over. Where the dirt got in, it bubbled and seeped. An eye set in a ring of boiling flesh. Nobody ever threw her out of the town, and no door was ever barred to her, but she never married, and eventually she went away to live in the hills. Higher than the trees will grow or the herds will graze, in the great blistered interior of the land, where winter winds scrape against the naked rock. There, in a little sheltered crevasse, she built her shack with yellowing moss on the roof, cultivated her garden, enjoyed the secret joys of her eye, and at long last she grew old there, alone.

This is the story of how the itch finally cost her the eye.

It wasn’t only the lame or the harelipped that vanished from this town. There was the girl whose footsteps led down across a meadow to the banks of a bright cold spring; there were no footsteps leading out. Another girl became a voice singing to herself in the forest, which you can still hear on moonless nights, when the sheep on their hillsides twitch worried noses and the insects fear to creak. Her high brave voice in the hollow of the woods. One girl, they say, was offered a ride out of town by a strange carter whose wheels left no ruts in the road. He kept his promise: she was never seen again.

Where did they go? On its outcrop, just over the river from the town with its streets dug through tight-packed dung, the English earl had his castle. Like an enormous gemstone: its high sheer curtain walls, its turrets. At low tide, the river was shallow enough to wade clear across. The brownish silt would suck at your shoes, and when it gave them up it released the smell of sulphur. When the people went across to pay their taxes, they would track mud over the smooth clean flagstones. This felt like part of the design: a reminder that you are a stain on the world. A generation ago, when Madog ap Llywelyn rose up to reclaim this land, the English knights fanned out from that castle over the countryside, burning fields and houses, killing fathers and taking away girls. Eventually they stopped burning the fields, but they still rode out for the girls. Everyone knew they kidnapped any young woman who went wandering the paths at night. She would be bundled up and carried away, off to that cold sheer castle to cook and clean and sew. And because everyone knew this, they never had to mention all the girls whose own families had sent them over the river. In a little stone room, the earl’s reeve would look a girl up and down, put a hand on her thigh or her forearm, squeeze. Smack his wet lips, nod, and pay her father with a handful of silver coins. There were many families ashamed and close to starving with a stash of silver coins buried in the soot of the hearth.

But there was also the girl on the rocks. She had been a crofter’s daughter; betrothed to a slight young man who crabbed along the shores of the bay, who knew the pools where scuttling things went to hide. This crabber was the one who found her there one morning, her back arched over the curve of a great boulder jutting out into the sea. Her body hung with seaweed and slime: a funeral robe. Her eyes still open: hard staring icy blue. They buried that girl in the black of the ground, but the crabber wouldn’t go. Around the same time, he started to drink. Outside the wake he leaned on a yew-tree and laughed in the mourners’ faces: that’s only a thing you’re burying, shit-brains, go on, go weep for your wooden doll. The family had to throw rocks until he left. In the night, he’d wander drunk over the rocks by the shore, calling her name. Because the girl he loved was still alive. Because the real girl’s eyes were green.

One night, many years later, this crabber wandered too far, until he found himself in a part of the country he’d never seen before. Lost and hungry, with frost forming in the grey of his beard, he ranged over the hillsides until the forests fell away and the grass became hard scratchy scrub. He thought he might die of cold. But finally, he reached the crest of a hill and saw beneath him a large stone house, with flowers growing up the walls and a warm light in every window. As he came closer, he could hear the lively music and the chatter of guests, spilling out of the doors, lounging around the scented gardens. The smell of roasting meat, and a sudden warmth in the air, like those close clammy summer nights when even at midnight the birds announce the dawn. When the guests noticed him, they crowded around; they told him how wonderful it was to see him and how glad they were he’d finally come. We have a place for you, they said, we’ve been waiting so long. What was this party? A wake, they said. These people were tall and beautiful and dressed like gentlemen, but they spoke to him in his own language. They offered him wine and meat. Starving, he accepted. One of them took him by the hand and led him inside, but just as he was about to pass through the door a young servant-girl grabbed his arm. Leave, she hissed, do not eat their food or drink their wine; it will turn to soil in your mouth, and this funeral is yours. He was almost at the doorway before he turned. The house was so warm and inviting, with its hundreds of candles and its mingling of perfumed skin. It felt, in a way he couldn’t describe, like sleep. But when he turned he saw the side of the servant-girl’s face, and her eye as green as pond-weed or the fields after rain.

The crabber woke on that rock, his back arched over the curve of the boulder, strewn with seaweed and slime. Overnight, banks of ice had built up by the foot of the stone. But in the scratchy scrub-hills high above the bay, he found a circle of ash burned into the earth, and a few singed petals still drifting on the wind.

The people in the village knew better than to disbelieve him, but they kept their distance all the same. The man was elf-touched; he had lingered by the gates of that other kingdom. Everyone knew it was there. The place of the invisible people who live underground, more ancient than the treeless hills, as deep in this country as its slate or its coal. They were here before the Normans and the Saxons both, and before the name of Jesus Christ. They speak the language of rustling leaves, or a knock from underneath the hearthstone on a winter’s night. Sometimes a ring of mushrooms might appear in the middle of a grassy field: a fairy-circle. There are places in the forests where people know not to go, where the trees warp in elderly coils, marking the drift of invisible forces in the slow vastness of time. Where the dawn always comes a little later; where boughs carry heavy wolfmoss robes. Where you might find a single human toe, twitching, sprouting from out of the muck.

Sometimes, in the night, they will join a pile of planks into a boat or sew leather into jerkins. If a house is untidy, they will scamper through every room and clean. Our drudgery is play for them; they are lighter and happier than we are. They are the the tylwyth teg, the Fair Family, and they do not know sin or sadness or jealousy or toil. They do not bear the curse of Eve. But because they aren’t serious about it, their work is poor: the boots the fairy-folk stitch tend to fall apart, and most of the thread they spin is useless.

Sometimes they steal human children, and leave one of their own in its place. Spiky-faced infants with rough skin or goat teeth; loud upsetting wails. You can send away a changeling by putting it in the oven or over an open fire; this is how many mothers quietly removed a troublesome or sickly child. But the best way is simply to show the fairy something it hasn’t seen. In view of the cradle, brew beer or boil stew in an empty eggshell. Your baby will exclaim: I am old, so very old; I lived when the oak was an acorn, before the forests grew – but I never saw beer brewed in an eggshell before! Then, discovered, it will vanish, leaving your real child in its place. The changeling is not really a baby.  It’s one of their elders, one whose time has come. For the tylwyth teg, the upper world is where the dead go. We are like shades and spectres to them: so heavy and mournful, bent down in our sadness, diligent in our monasteries, obedient to the law, and regretful when we die.

But for all their lightness, the tylwyth teg must live underground, and they cannot bear the sun. Their lives are in laughter, but they pay their tithes to Hell. They love spinning-wheels, needles, fine clothes, good meat, and good wine; they love music, tiaras, courtly dance, flowers, and golden coins – but the doorway to their other kingdom is far away from all those softer artificial things, high up in the hills where the wind howls against naked rock, where nobody lives except an old woman with red weeping welts all around her eye.

Without much else to do, this old woman became wise. She knew how to make a poultice to treat a broken leg; she knew what herbs to feed a sickly calf and how to tell tomorrow’s weather from the wriggling of the worms. A few times a year she’d be called down to the village to attend a difficult birth. Sometimes the mother would live, and sometimes she did what she could to make her dying easier. She was like the charcoal-burner in his hut or the lonely crabber who still pined among the rocks at night: someone necessary, but best kept far away. Paid in a few sacks of oats come harvest, firewood or fish.  Once, the call went out not from the village but the castle: two riders in chain-mail appeared outside her door, and while she spoke no English they made her understand that she was needed. She had never been on the back of a horse before. Inside the castle, she walked smooth flagstones and peered into its hundreds of halls. She saw girls she might have delivered, twelve or thirteen years old, scurrying around. Sometimes a bowed face to hide the bruise. She delivered the Countess’s child safely, and while the lady kept her head under a silk veil, she still left with the secret that the Earl’s wife kept her cunt in the French manner, without hair. Also a single gold dinar, which dented when she bit it. A line of writing around the edge of the coin testified that there is no god but God.

The only thing she didn’t learn was a cure for her itching eye. She could soothe a nettle-sting or the last gasps of death, but nothing could fix her eye. It wanted to be touched. It wanted to bleed.

Later, her legs grew weak and the hair started thinning on her head. Worst of all, her fingers stiffened. Harder to spin her thread or cook her meals. Eventually she went down to the village again. Crossed the mud-flats to the castle fair, where she might find a servant-girl to help her in her age. It was Christmas: a lean time; much to hoard and little to sell. In shivering tents the villagers displayed their last skinny parsnips, their young skinny daughters, their old skinny mules. Red-faced girls, roughened in the fields – but nobody wanted to hire themselves out to the old woman with the blistered eye. Nobody wanted to live out in the wilderness and the hills, a day’s heavy slog from their cousins and friends. At last, she found a girl who was standing all by herself. She was maybe seventeen years old. Lanky; gormless. An upturned nose; a triangular mouth half-open, showing a pair of rodenty teeth. Wide passive eyes, the eyes of the cows in their marshes. Hair like hay. Skin like sea-scum, or wet uncooked dough. She said her name was Eilian, which is a boy’s name, the name of the Roman saint who built his church on Ynys Môn. But the old woman shrugged. Everything is wrong in the world, so why not a name? She showed Eilian the gold coin, and offered it for a year’s work in her cottage. The girl readily agreed. They walked back together, not speaking, into the high barren hills.

Eilian was impossible to understand. In the mornings she would clean the shack, chop wood, light the fire, milk the goat, and set a pot of llymru bubbling over the hearth. In the afternoons she would churn butter or weed the vegetable garden, in the evenings she would spin, and at night she bedded down with the old woman in her heavy woollen coat. She did everything she was ordered to, but she needed orders. Eilian, chop some firewood. Eilian, light the fire. If she wasn’t told what to do, Eilian would simply sit and stare, her mouth hung open, with that little nub of a chin dangling in the middle of her neck. The old woman had a crwth: one evening, she asked Eilian if she could play. The girl took the thing and plucked a few strings like a child would, grabbing them at random. Pling plang plong. The old woman handed her the bow, and Eilian looked at it without much understanding, before suddenly breaking into a tune of dark rasping beauty, a song that sang with the winds in the black night of the moor. Slow and broken: the heartbreak of the land. It lasted a single minute, and then she handed back the box and continued staring at the wall. That song, whatever it was, had no meaning for her.

When she span in the gloaming, Eilian would take her work outside. Squatting in the snow, she looked like an old half-buried stone. Her curving back, wrapped in a lumpy coat – that was the silhouette of the boulder. The thin hair that snapped about in the furious January winds – that was the last clump, clinging, of summer straw. The silence of the mineral world. Especially since, even though it was hard to make everything out in the yellowy gloom, it looked to the old woman that when she sat outside Eilian’s long listless limbs never actually moved. Still, the work was done; Eilian spun all the wool that could be sheared, more than the old woman could possibly need. And if she forgot to tell Eilian to carry the wool back inside, half a dozen spindles would be left to rot in the snow until morning.

On the first day of spring, Eilian disappeared. After a long day shearing sheep, and a night of unwholesome dreams, the old woman woke to find the place cold and empty. On the hearth, she found a gold coin with Arabic letters stamped around the edge. The girl must have wandered down the hills again, following the goat-paths home with her mouth open and her arms drooping empty by her side. Well, at least she’d returned the coin.

The old woman spent her summer alone, eating little things, mushrooms. When the new year approached again, she only noticed from the stars. A year is like a life is like a day: you come into it bleary and slog through the long dark early reaches, waiting for something to get better, but when it ends it ends all at once.

The call came on the night of the solstice, the longest night of the year. This man looked like he had come up from the castle again: a short man, with a beardless and pretty little face, dressed in fine silks embroidered with golden thread. He asked if she was the midwife, and she said that she was. The man was in a panic, but there was still a kind of laughter swelling out in his cheeks; he was the kind of man who’d smile in his sleep. Not to be trusted. He led her to his horse: the biggest animal the old woman had ever encountered, a snorting monster heavier than a bull, with bright madness foaming from every hole in its face. They did not ride through the hills to the castle. Instead, the master gave a vicious crack of the whip, and the creature bolted higher up into the wilderness. They stopped, finally, by a place the old woman knew well, a patch of high moorland crowned with old stones. But this place was not how she remembered, because between the boulders gaped the mouth of a cave where there had never been a cave before.

The master lit a lantern and led her inside, and when the passage narrowed they crawled. Icicles of stone there, damp grit underfoot. And deeper: marks on the wall, flashes of surging antlers in the lamplight, or huge crude tusks. Once, something had lived here. Greasy scorches of soot, fragments of bone. The old woman knew a tale about a cave like this: a boy had found a gap in the rocks hidden by a scrap of turf, and inside a vast hall of stone where thousands of men in ugly spiked armour lay as if they had died in a heap, each clasping a switch of hazel. Frightened, the boy started to run for daylight, but he hit his head on a large bell suspended from the roof of the cavern. It clanged loud enough to shake the earth, and at once the men jumped up and started to shout: is this the day? Has it dawned? Is this the day? No, the boy managed, not today. Then the warriors went back to sleep. Not long after he emerged from underground, the boy pined away and died; nobody learned what day those men were waiting for. If we are lucky, we might never know.

Here, said the master. Here, in the foggiest depths of the cave, someone had cut a square hole through the rock and placed a heavy golden door. The old woman pushed, and the hinges were as smooth as butter. Inside was the most sumptuous place she’d seen, grander by far than the castle on the strait, maybe grander than the courts of France she’d heard described in ballads. The floor was heavy with richly coloured Persian carpets. The walls were decked in tapestries and furs. A huge fire crackled from its hearth, and everything glowed in its light. The brass baubles, the fine wooden furniture heaped with rare foods. Peaches, cherries, sides of salmon: summer delicacies in December. And a bed. Carefully, the old woman removed her boots so as not to spoil the carpets, and walked on suddenly aching feet over to that bed. The girl there had passed out in her labour, and the sweat was high on her forehead. The master hovered by her side. Save my child, he said, if you can only save one of them, then bring me my son.

She saved both. The boy, when he came, was fat and healthy, bellowing. The mother, pale, exhausted, mostly slept. When she looked at the old woman her face was clouded, only barely aware that someone else was in the room with her. She would take a few days to recover, and in that time the master invited the old woman to stay. She could warm herself by his fire, take whatever she wanted from his table, and tend to the mother and the child. She accepted. Finally, just before he left, the father passed a glass bottle into her hands. This oil, he said, is to be rubbed into my son’s eyes, only gently, but twice every day. And be warned: you must not touch your own eyes with it, not even a drop, or your fate will be terrible indeed.

The baby cried every time she poured the oil over his eyes. The fits would last for hours, each one worse than the last. She did her best to soothe him, bouncing him in her stiff skinny arms. She ate from the table: a few ripe apricots. They were soft and juicy, but not at all sweet. A salty-bitter taste, and something slimy between her teeth. These fruits were barren: without a stone. She looked at the tapestries on the walls, which all depicted hunts. The gentlemen on fine black horses were shown surrounding a bear; they thrust stone-tipped lances and split open the animal’s brains. She examined herself in the large polished bronze mirror, the wreckage of her face. The fire burned high. So why was she so cold? And why did it prick her feet so much to walk on that smooth, well-carpeted floor?

After maybe a night and a day – the place had no windows – the mother started to stir a little. She nursed the child and kissed his angry little scalp. She didn’t speak. She was beautiful, but something about her face troubled the old woman. Maybe she looked a little too much like the old woman herself might have looked, if she’d led a softer life. Once the baby was vomiting little glugs of milk, his mother gave him over to be anointed. The old woman shook a drop of the oil onto her left finger, and rubbed the baby’s eyes; he bawled, she handed him back. Now her eye itched again, so she sat on a chair and scratched. Pulse over the skin of the eyelid, push until the eye bruises the back of its socket. She had been scratching for quite a while until she noticed the slight greasiness between her finger and her eye, and realised that she had rubbed the oil into her own eye. Slowly, she withdrew her hand and opened her eyes.

This is what her right eye saw. There was the well-furnished room, the carpets, the tapestries, the fire, the table, the bed, the food, the baby, and his mother. But the left eye saw something else. It was only a matter of perspective, the slight distance between one eye and another, the world seen from a slightly different angle. Like peering behind a stage to see the ropes and the sawdust. Like peering around the back of a stately manor, where the pigs eat kitchen scraps and shit in the same mire. The left eye saw that this room was not a room, but a wet cavern. That there was no carpet, but the rough rocky floor that had shredded the soles of her feet. That there were no tapestries, but an array of skulls staring with empty sockets from every cranny: the skulls of deer, foxes, bears, and yes, human skulls, fractured, pierced with a stone-tipped lance. That there was no fire, but a fissure in the vault of the cave through which the drizzle came down. Not a table: a moss-furred rock. Not a bed: a stagnant pool of fronds and slime. No summertime fruit, but fat white feasting slugs. The left eye saw that the baby was a monstrous imp, covered in thick dark fur, that grinned through sharpened teeth. And his mother, naked in the slime, bleeding from the dozens of tiny deep gashes all over her breast, was Eilian.

Eilian, said the old woman. The girl looked up, still dazed. He said you wouldn’t see me, she said. Tell me what happened, said the old woman, and she told. The tylwyth teg had come to her on the moor, she said, and offered to lighten her labours. They would spin for her and chop the firewood; they even taught her their music. In return, she agreed to marry their elf-king before the first day of spring. The days between the winter solstice and the spring equinox are the season of the fairies, when the world slips away from the sun, given over to the unhomely powers of bog and heath; these are the dark rotting days in which fairies roam. In Elfland, it is always winter. Every night, Eilian had resisted the tylwyth teg; she slept with a belt of braided rowan-twigs across her waist, which the fairies cannot touch. But on the last day of winter she was so tired from her work that she forgot to wear her belt, and the elf-king came in the night to take what was his. Fairy weddings have no ceremony. In a minute the brutal business was done, all while the old woman slept next to them, dreaming goatish dreams. As soon as it was over he took Eilian away with him, under the hills to the sunless kingdom he ruled.

The old woman told Eilian that she would help them escape, but the girl shook her head. Wait a little longer, she said, and go when my husband returns; he will pay you well, but he must never know that you can see through his charms. Again and again the old woman tried to convince Eilian to abandon her monstrous child and leave, but every time the girl refused. Eventually her face took on a hard glinting set; there was a vein of cruelty there that the old woman would have never expected from the gormless girl at the castle fair. Eilian no longer left her mouth hanging open. How can you understand? she said. You are still a maid.

Her husband paid as well as was promised. Four gold coins, each identical to the dinar in her home. Down to the Arabic around the edge; down to the bite-mark. But later, when she’d returned to her shack and she looked at the coins again with her right eye closed, what she held was a brown handful of human teeth.

Much of the world stayed the same. The hills were the hills, the rain was only rain. These things had not been glamoured. But animals seemed larger through her new eye, and wilder too, shining primitive. The nanny-goat that munched behind her shack was no longer a goat, but Goatness itself. Maybe Adam had named something like this in the garden: a goat with a beard that kings could only imitate, a pair of horns finer than the Devil’s.

She learned things. She discovered that Elfland is not a different place under a different sky, but the world in its hiddenness. Every dark secret place is theirs; the empire reaches through the caves and the burrows, the dungeons, the cracks of the earth, and into your home. It’s under your bed and up in the rafters, in all the places that frighten children. Imagine a ball, and cup your hands around it tight: you’ve built a doorway to that other realm. Still there were secrets she couldn’t penetrate. They had to do with death, but also the savagery of the elves on their wedding-nights, and the way thick spears of grass throb towards the sky, and raw antlers shedding blood with the velvet, and the fact that Christ was born in the fairy-season, and Eilian’s mocking smile when she said you are still a maid.

The sky was one place to begin. She discovered, when she looked through her left eye, that the night sky was black and empty and there were no stars.  And when she steeled herself on a winter noon and stared directly at the sun, she wept for a week. The vastness of that dead thing, that carcass. She saw that what lights our days is a funeral pyre.

Once several weeks had passed, she noticed that her eye had stopped itching. She felt the skin with a cautious fingertip: it was healed.

Eventually, the old woman wandered into town for the market, to see if it was possible to spend one of her teeth. It was funny how the banners streaming from the castle were really only drab and white, with plain black letters that said SLEEP and CONFORM and OBEY. The market was busier now; the first daffodils were blooming, the first lambs were tottering bravely in the fields. She walked the stalls and felt invisible. Everyone in town had known her by her hideous eye, and now it was gone she could be anyone: a grandmother, maybe, from the next village over the hills. As she wandered, she noticed another figure always ahead of her, tripping from bench to bench, grabbing a loaf of bread, a measure of barley, a pot of herrings, throwing them in a black velvet sack. Thief, she cried. The vendors all looked up, but nobody stopped him. The old woman strode forward and grabbed the criminal by the scruff of his neck. Thief, she said again, but when he spun around she saw that this thief was none other the man who had come to her door on the longest night of the year, the man who married Eilian.

You can see me, said the elf-king, clearly delighted. Well, I did tell you that your fate would be terrible indeed. You must have been so confused by the things you saw! And how could you possibly understand them? You know how fond we are of our little tricks and our little games. Tell me, did you imagine that it was the truth? Now the elf-king drew himself very close to the old woman so she could smell the carrion on his breath, and whispered in her ear, like someone telling a juicy secret to a friend: there isn’t one. And although the fairy was still standing there, still smiling, still in his fine silks and perfumed hair, for an instant she saw that he was a mask. Something churned beneath his surface: the serpent that strangles and is the world.

Now, said the elf-king, which eye is it that you see me with? By your squint I know that it’s only the one. The old woman didn’t have a moment to answer; he was already peering close at her left eye, the one that had lost its halo of livid skin. In an instant, he flicked a bulrush and pulled out her eye. The eyeball glistened on the spear of his stick, dangling its bloodied wormy trail. Jelly ran out from where it had been pierced. An eye is only a ball of wet matter, invisible to the one that uses it. So is a brain. The elf-king flicked the eyeball to the ground, stamped on it once with the heel of his shoe, and then he went on his mischievous way to steal a round of good yellow cheese.

Canción de Trump

This isn’t about… yeah, it is about me, I guess, when you think about it.
Donald Trump, November 2, 2020

In October, President Donald Trump suggested he might leave the country if he lost the election. Now, he’s lost. He won’t go, but I like to imagine him in Greenland. You might remember that only last year, there was a brief scandal when Trump suggested buying the island from Denmark. The Danes stuck their chests out and refused the deal, and everyone pretended to ignore the fact that the island is functionally an American colony anyway, dotted with US military bases and only barely, vaguely, fictionally under Danish sovereignty. Maybe that was why the sale never went through: so Trump would have somewhere to flee.

Imagine Trump in Nuuk, scraggly-bearded and swaddled in a parka, trudging through the snow with his rod to fish. A quiet man, a teetotaller on an island full of broken violent drunks. He has his own way of being broken. Imagine Trump in the island’s lonely hinterlands, a hermit. Greenland is a haunted country, numinous and cold, whispering; one of the last places that’s still truly wild. Reindeer nuzzle the close dark moss, seals bask on their floes, glaciers creak and there are monsters in the deep. Imagine Trump alone, watching the northern lights spin gorgeous threads across the sky, alone. What would happen to the man if he had nobody to watch him, nobody paying attention? If he had to be a person, a living subject, rather than an image and a symbol and a name? Would he develop a conscience? Would he become wise? Or would he just dissolve into motes, and drift away in the Arctic wind?

The Greenlanders know. Their monsters are the qivittok, spirits of the strange or unworthy people exiled from the community. No human can survive alone in this cold and beautiful place, and so the qivittok become something other than human: furry or antlered, gruesome mongrel forms. Some of them can fly. They live in the mountains and attack travellers, leaving piles of gnawed red bones in the snow.

In a way, the qivittok is what Trump has always been. Trump’s rhetoric centre around the community, the flag, the symbols of belonging, because this is what he’s always lacked. He’s never had relationships, only transactions, and even those are few. In his businesses, he avoids partnerships, shareholders, or joint enterprises. He grew up lonely, the son of an indifferent father, insulated from the world by his wealth. It takes a lonely man to plaster his own name over tall buildings. It takes a lonely man to need this kind of concrete proof that he really exists.

What it comes down to is this: Donald Trump is simply not like other people. He is something different, an alien walking among us. A creature from a haunted land. In his own way, a genius. Something bright and rare and strange.

Donald Trump doesn’t hold himself like an ordinary person. He isn’t straight and he doesn’t slouch; he bends. Creasing at the waist, torso angled forward to hide his incredible fatness, which means that his big round damp coquettish arse is constantly sticking out behind him. Most people acquire their bad posture from a lifetime of bad habits, but Donald Trump’s stance is deliberate. He came up with a terrible new way of standing on his feet, all by himself.

Donald Trump doesn’t look like an ordinary person. He is orange; the man is visibly orange. White around the eyes, like a painted clown. A soft, moist, puckered mouth. Everything about him is soft; you could spread one of his teeth on a slice of toast. His hair is an elaborate combover, extremely long on one side, folded back and forth over his scalp. In the old patriarchal schema, men were seeing subjects and women were visible objects, but Donald Trump is a thoroughly feminised man. He has to appear a certain way, with a full head of hair, because he dreams of being the reservoir of someone else’s desire. Sometimes, in high winds, the whole structure of his hair opens up, and you can see his shockingly white and crusted pate. You think that’s upsetting? Just imagine how Donald Trump’s hair looks when wet.

Donald Trump doesn’t talk like an ordinary person. Usually, when someone speaks in a non-standard form, it’s because they’re part of a language community that’s developed its own grammars and vocabulary. There is nobody on earth that speaks like Donald Trump. He is a language community of one. What he speaks isn’t even a jargon, it’s just bizarre. On the one hand, his speech is utterly impoverished. It’s incapable of conveying almost any of the major human experience. Everything he says is somehow integrally inappropriate. Here is a man who once described Frederick Douglass as ‘an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognised more and more.’ Like something out of Gertrude Stein: the black sludge of words, the sticky deposits left once language and communication have gone. But at the same time, his speech is incredibly fecund. The rolling rhythmic intensifiers that turn it into something like music, the way things are always very nice, very special, very good, or very, very, very… bad. Trump’s language never exhausts itself; he can fit a potentially infinite number of words between one concept and the next. This language really is a virus; a blob from outer space, breeding. Everyone I know has tried, at some point, to imitate it, and we all think we’re very clever. (Watching the chickens peck around the garden, I sometimes imagine them in his voice. We love mealworms, folks, don’t we love mealworms? Very wonderful mealworms, very nice and very delicious to eat. We love laying an egg.) But Trump invented this virus; he cooked it up in the strange secret lab inside his head. We just copy and pass it on. Infected. Transfixed.

How did a country as conservative as the United States ever manage to elect a man as utterly weird as Donald Trump? For decades, politicians have tried to sell themselves to ordinary people by pretending to be normal. Look at me eat a hot dog at a diner, just like all of you gurning rubes! Cramming wobbly tubes of pork into their mouths: aren’t I relatable? Aren’t I your abuela? But Donald Trump eats pizza with a knife and fork. You could not get a beer with him. He would not shake your hand. You are nothing alike. And still it doesn’t matter. Who ever said that people want to be governed by someone just like them? That’s what the ruling classes think, because they’re all covetous narcissists who want political power to wear a human face: their human face. They want their little daughters to grow up believing that one day they, too, could maintain an extrajudicial kill list. But the great mass of the people know better. They know that political power is something distant and strange that comes down from the white northern wastes.

It’s the sheer strangeness of the man that made him so intolerable, far more than any of the evil things he’s actually done. Even before he was elected, a vast conceptual production system was churning, trying to produce The Meaning of Donald Trump. Reduce him down to a single concept, something we know and can understand, something assimilable. So, for instance: Trump is just a cipher for race. Reterritorialise him on the stark terrain of white and black; people voted for him because they’re racists and they wanted to do racism; white people have a congenital sickness and its name is Trump. They’re still saying this, even after he increased his vote share among every demographic group except straight white men. If Trump really is making racial dogwhistles, his actual supporters don’t seem to hear them. The only creatures pricking up their ears are the racially-fixated media classes.

Another: Trump is a fascist, and his Presidency was a fascist regime. We all have an idea of what fascism is and what it looks like, so let’s just stuff this strange new creature into an already existing box. This theory has lost some credibility since Trump failed to suspend democracy or invade Poland, but I think there’s actually something to it – so long as it’s understood that Trump is fascist in the Theodor Adorno sense; the way that, say, the Marvel cinematic universe is fascist, rather than the way in which Adolf Hitler was a fascist. He’s a fascist because we live in an age of irrationality and unfreedom, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are fascists too. (Especially Kamala.) In other words, it’s true, but it tells us nothing at all.

A weaker version says that Trump is simply an authoritarian. He’s like those gaudy dictators in countries with unpronounceable names, the ones who build giant gold statues of themselves and rename the months of the year after their horses. Country-scale interior decorators with the power of life and death. Which is fine, but you don’t need to go trekking out to the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert to find a model of authoritarianism. Trump was a businessman, and he promised to run the country like a business. Every beloved small mom-and-pop business is a dictatorship in miniature, helmed by some grubby little Napoleon who leches on the employees, issues memos on acceptable hairstyles, or forces them to listen to his favourite conspiracy YouTubes while they work. But while they might admire him, none of these people will ever be Donald Trump.

What all these interpretations miss is that Donald Trump is the only person to have ever become President of the United States by accident. He never really wanted power, and he didn’t know what to do with the thing once he had it. He had no programme and no politics. His whole period in office was an aimless meander: sometimes he borrowed some policies from the people closest to him, sometimes he made them up as he went along. He spent most of those four years complaining that dishwashers don’t give you the kind of shine that they used to. If he was actually a right-wing populist, he would have given out multiple $1,200 stimulus cheques during the pandemic, and then handily won re-election. But he  didn’t. None of this was part of the plan. He simply wanted to win rather than lose – so people would pay attention to him, so he could continue to exist. That’s all. And around this tiny, dense, irrational core, millions of people built their own explanations, their own private reasons to love him or hate him and everything they wanted him to represent.

Trump has managed to form the passive centre for two personality cults: the one that loves him, and the one that’s no less of a cult for wanting him gone. To be honest, I prefer the first cult. They make better music. ¡Ay, ay, ay, ay, por Dios, yo voy a votar por Donald Trump! The negative cult thought they were resisting the man, but everything they did reeked of complicity. Obsessing over his every movement, freaking out under every one of his tweets. They ate up his turds one by one, greedily, smacking their lips, and then proclaimed: this shit is awful, it tastes disgusting, it’s poisoning us, and may I have some more? Rather than actually countering his worst actions, they were fixated on the idea that they could make him feel a certain way: mocking him, humiliating him. That stupid balloon of Trump as a baby that cost £16,000 – for what? To hurt his feelings? Why bother? All it did was charge him with subjectivity and substance – in other words, give him exactly what he’s always wanted. Even now, liberals aren’t satisfied with defeating Trump in the election, they want him to admit defeat. They want him duly chastened. They’re still trying to give the man a soul.

There are things that led to Trump. The millions consigned to surplus population, the hollow promise of the Obama years, the general social decay, the culture of fame and attention and narcissism in which he grew. All these conditions are necessary, but none of them are sufficient. Just like the world itself, Donald Trump has no singular meaning. He is an empty, misshapen container for others to fill with fantasy and desire.

Franz Kafka – the only man in human history to truly get it – tells a story about a crossbreed, a creature ‘half kitten, half lamb,’ inherited from his father. This thing also has no reason to exist. It should not exist. But against all reason, it does.

Sunday morning is the visiting hour. I sit with the little beast on my knees, and the children of the whole neighbourhood stand around me. Then the strangest questions are asked, which no human being could answer: Why there is only one such animal, why I rather than anybody else should own it, whether there was ever an animal like it before and what would happen if it died, whether it feels lonely, why it has no children, what it is called, etc.

They’re asking what the animal means, but Kafka doesn’t know. His creature seems to be happy. It likes to play, to dance, to purr, to run and skip around outside. In the proper order of things, something so unnatural ought to die. Watching his creature, Kafka decides that ‘the knife of the butcher would be a release for this animal,’ but that knife will never come. This monster was a legacy; a gift. So he looks at his crossbreed, and the crossbreed looks back, ‘challenging me to do the thing of which both of us are thinking.’

Today, we’ve beaten Donald Trump. We’ve banished the nightmare. We, the ungrateful of the earth, have done what Kafka couldn’t bear: we slaughtered the crossbreed. This is your victory. Enjoy it if you can.

PS: This really ought to be an entirely separate essay, but we’re all here now, so I might as well press ahead. About a week before the election, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled Why Leftists Should Vote for Biden in Droves. The actual argument is contained in a few sentences:

Mr Trump’s re-election would mean four more years of scrambling to shield the already insufficient Affordable Care Act, but a win by Mr Biden would allow socialists to go on the offence and push for a Medicare-for-all system. Mr Trump’s re-election would deal irreversible damage to the planet, but there are signs that Mr Biden could be pressured to adopt the ambition of the Green New Deal… These policies would not constitute the realisation of socialism, but they would help lay the foundation for liberating workers… Socialists should fight like hell to get Mr Biden into office – and then fight him like hell the day that he becomes president.

I disagree. I’m not saying there aren’t some upsides: the next regime will probably rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and ease sanctions on Iran, either of which could be worth the price of admission. But it will not create a more favourable terrain for socialism. Let me put forward another perspective: Joe Biden is going to eat you whole. Not aggressively, not deliberately, not with those white chomping teeth. He will consume you like a basking shark, trawling the seas with his mouth wide open, and you have already drifted right into his maw. His victory marks the end of the road for the American left as a significant political force. There will still be people with opinions, but they will never come close to forming policy. Joe Biden will do to the socialist left what Donald Trump did to the evangelical right.

Not so long ago, the evangelical right were genuinely terrifying. Under the George W Bush administration, they waged eight years of insane culture war, not to mention the actual war to reshape the Middle East. Abstinence and creationism in schools; the Ten Commandments outside courthouses, a curtain to cover the Spirit of Justice’s naked tits. Preachers screaming that Obama was the Antichrist. Gay marriage bans. Christofascism. And where are they now? Some of the churches those preachers screamed in are boarded up, and some have been converted into condos. Plenty are still going, but the parishioners are more likely to believe in some QAnon dribble than any imminent Rapture. Nothing collective and congregational; everything is scattered now, networked. It might come back – there are always revivals – but for now, organised Protestantism has lost its claws in American political life.

This is why. In 2016, the leadership of the religious right banded together to stop Trump winning the Republican primary. They were appalled by him, and for good reason. Donald Trump is, at heart, a New York liberal, a proud and open moral degenerate. How many abortions do you think he’s paid for? But when it came to the general, everything changed. What were they supposed to do – vote for Hillary Clinton? Don’t you know she eats fetuses? So they made their moral compromises, took whatever sops they were offered, and lined up behind Donald Trump. He’ll pander to them a little, when prodded. That’s enough.

Now, the Democrats have learned that this new revitalised socialist left can be cheated, backstabbed, connived against, offered absolutely no concessions whatsoever – and they will still vote for you. Not just that: the poor cretins will dance in the streets to celebrate your victory. So why give them anything now? The left has used up its last weapon, and they used it against Trump. Now they’re supposed to go on the offence for Medicare For All – but how? Pressure Biden for a Green New Deal – but how? Fight him like hell? But with what weapons?

One of the ugliest features of the Trump years was the way liberals suddenly found it in their hearts to forgive George W Bush. You can understand why they forgot his murder of one million Iraqis – they all voted for it, after all – but this was the president of Jesusland, the man whose mutant Christian army tried to get rid of their nice French cheeses and their nice French wine. In this context, though, it starts to make sense. Liberals could embrace the figurehead of the evangelical right because the evangelical right had become toothless; it was no longer the enemy. In the same vein, you can expect the right wing to start making similar overtures to what remains of the Bernie camp. In fact, it’s already happening. For instance, outlets like Quillette have started pointing out that class, rather than identity, is what really divides people. They’re right, of course, but why are they saying it? It’s not as if class analysis, even class analysis for babies, really gels with their ideology. Leftists can write for right-wing magazines if they want (I do), appear on their TV shows, spread the message; we all need to eat. I’m not here to pass judgement. But don’t ever imagine that some broad populist alliance is in the offing. The right will embrace you only because you are not a threat to them. You’re a legitimising trinket. They will wear you around their neck. This amulet that was your bones.

Of course, the Trump camp have been instrumentalising the left in other, subtler ways too. Over the summer, watching the political violence, the shootings, the militia on the streets, the revolutionaries seizing whole neighbourhoods, quite a few people I know decided that the United States was close to collapse or civil war. It wasn’t, of course. (One thing that never once occurred through all those months was an actual exchange of fire.) Instead, the state had strategically voided its authority over certain small areas, like the area that would become the CHAZ in Seattle. This was an obvious election ploy on Trump’s part: create pockets of instability to frighten his suburban base into voting for a stronger, more brutal, more repressive state. He was counting on the left to dramatically fuck up with whatever wisp of power he gave them, and even if it didn’t win him the election, they did exactly what he wanted.

On June 29th, self-appointed security forces in the CHAZ murdered Antonio Mays Jr, a sixteen-year-old black boy. On July 4th, armed protesters in Atlanta, occupying the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by police, opened fire on a passing car. They murdered Secoriea Turner, an eight-year-old black girl. Both crime scenes were heavily tampered with by protesters; the murderers of Antonio Mays and Secoriea Turner will probably never face justice. These names ought to be as famous as George Floyd or Tamir Rice. Why aren’t they? This is a genuine question: why? It’s fine for the left to turn itself into a circular firing squad over pronouns or microaggressions or awkward interactions – but not murder? After all, the scenario is very familiar: an armed authority claiming police powers indifferently destroys the lives of the same people it’s supposed to protect. But it turns out that these wonderful anti-racist abolish-the-police community defence units are actually far more sadistic and far less accountable than ordinary cops.

These killings ought to pose a major theoretical crisis for the insurrectionary left. These dead children should haunt your sleep. How is it that a movement against the police murder of black people ended up committing police murders of black people? What went wrong in your analysis of power, violence, and the state? How did this movement so quickly lose its moral right to complain? Because that right has absolutely been lost. It shouldn’t be hard to decry murder without hypocrisy, but here we are.

I don’t want to agree with him, but René Girard has an answer:

As soon as the essential quality of transcendence – religious, humanistic, or whatever – is lost, there are no longer any terms by which to define the legitimate form of violence and to recognise it among the multitude of illicit forms… The act of demystification retains a sacrificial quality and remains essentially religious in character as long as it fails to come to a conclusion – as long, that is, as the process purports to be nonviolent, or less violent than the system itself. In fact, demystification leads to constantly increasing violence, a violence perhaps less ‘hypocritical’ than the violence it seeks to oppose, but more energetic, more virulent, and the harbinger of something far worse – a violence that knows no bounds.

I would like the left to take power. But this left, the one we have, the one that systematically misuses whatever power it gains, the one that says nothing when children are gunned down in the street, does not deserve it. We blew it, and I don’t know how to fix this. But if you’re looking for a left case for Joe Biden, there it is.

Why you ought to vote


Here’s something that’s changed lately: people are no longer ashamed to speak to the world at large in the imperative mood. It’s normal, now, to give orders to perfect strangers: stop doing this, start doing that. This is extremely rude, but I think I only really grasped its full horror when I saw an infographic telling me, in the jolly strident tones familiar from social justice advocacy, to Stop Making Depictions Of Blobfish As They Appear In Low-Pressure Environments. Hey asshole, why don’t you mind your own damn business? Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t draw? I’ll draw blobfish wobbling on the peak of Everest if I want! I will draw blobfish in space! I will draw the unhappiest and most exploded fish you’ve ever seen, its guts forming a frozen halo in the void, its lumpy baby-pap residue of a face collapsing into expressions of glumness too wearied for you to even imagine! Because I know the pain of the rapidly ascending blobfish. I have suffered its agonies; this miserable sack of slime is my brother. But you know nothing. How could you, in your bright helpful world where you’re always earnestly trying to do the right thing, understand a blobfish’s horror of the sun? Please, you quail, no, don’t depict suffering, don’t make art out of wretchedness, save me, I can’t handle the truth. Ingrate: I should force you to look at my drawings! Endless chapbooks full of collapsing psychrolutids! A pastel Holocaust of weird saggy fish! Did you really think you could take away my God-given right to draw marine wildlife however I see fit? Did you really think this tyranny, this affront to Enlightenment values, this new abyssopelagic Bolshevism – did you really think it could stand? Fuck you! Do you not know that we are warriors for a holy truth?

And it doesn’t even end with the blobfish. The big command right now, of course, is to VOTE. If you want, you can spend $850 on a black cashmere sweater that says VOTE in big white letters on the front. Not loud enough? You can also get a turquoise long-sleeved t-shirt that says VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE on the front and VOTE VOTE on each of the arms and incidentally looks like absolute shit. If you want to tell people to VOTE while also reminding them that it’s possible to buy vaguely acceptable burritos from a popular fast casual chain, you can get a plain white shirt that says CHI-VOTE-LE for just $11.03. Naturally, this entire process is extremely asymmetrical. There are far more people stomping around instructing the world at large to VOTE than there are people earnestly wondering what civic activities will be on offer this Tuesday, or how to inoffensively depict a blobfish. There are no t-shirts that read PLEASE TELL ME WHETHER OR NOT I SHOULD PARTICIPATE IN ELECTORAL POLITICS. A vast overproduction of answers to a question nobody seems to have actually asked.

Obviously, I’m now going to get in on this grift. These are your instructions for how to vote in the upcoming US presidential election, and you can take them as seriously or as unseriously as you want.

If you’re legally entitled to vote in the upcoming US presidential election, and you feel like voting, YOU SHOULD VOTE. If you don’t meet both of these criteria (for what it’s worth, I don’t), YOU SHOULD NOT VOTE. If you really, genuinely want to vote for Donald Trump, there’s not much I can do to help you, but YOU SHOULD VOTE FOR DONALD TRUMP. If you really, genuinely want to vote for Joe Biden, then likewise, but nonetheless YOU SHOULD VOTE FOR JOE BIDEN. If you’re seized with the desire to vote but don’t want to vote for either of these two people, then YOU SHOULD VOTE THIRD PARTY, WRITE IN ANOTHER CANDIDATE (WHERE POSSIBLE), or DEFACE YOUR BALLOT.

That’s it. What I am not saying is that you should simply do whatever you were going to do anyway. You should only vote for Trump, or Biden, or any of the others, if that is what you really want to do. Not because you’re scared of the other choices, not as a compromise, not as the lesser of two evils, not because you feel constrained by the two-party system, not out of duty, not because you live in a swing state, not even because of the political consequences you think might result if your chosen candidate wins. Really, you should forget about politics entirely. It’s neither the time nor the place. Just vote because you want to, or else don’t.

In the past, in this space and elsewhere, I’ve had some unkind words for the empty liberal form of the vote. Our activism and our engagement should not be constrained by the ritual of ticking boxes every few years; it saps and neuters our political energy; we need to find ways of making a difference that aren’t already given to us. Which: yeah, fine. But the fact remains that for most people, voting is the full extent of their political activity, and it will probably remain so. This isn’t entirely terrible. A world where everyone is an activist, kvetching and clamouring about their chosen issue – it would be an unbearable nightmare. And give the empty liberal form of the vote its due: it really does manage to give people a brief moment of freedom.

When you vote, you vote alone. You’re accountable to nobody, watched by nobody, in the papery secrecy of your own desires. Capitalism likes to pretend that what it offers people is an array of endless choices, but market decisions are always invisibly constrained, even for the very rich. Here, at least, liberalism lives up to its utopian promise. You decide, and sovereign is he who makes the decision. We can dream about some future liberated society all we want; right here, in the present, this is the closest most people will ever get to any measure of real freedom in their own lives. An isolated, monadic freedom (Marx would call it one-sided), not the type I’d really prefer, but probably the best we can expect. Maybe this, more than any purely pragmatic fears, is what drove racist voter suppression campaigns, both in the Jim Crow era and today. The servile classes must not be allowed to experience this instant of total irresponsibility, this pure and arbitrary sovereign choice.

This is why I find the command to VOTE repellent: a forced choice is no longer sovereign. Just as much as the ones purging the voter rolls, you’re trying to take away someone’s freedom to decide. But lately, the line has changed. The critique of the blank command to VOTE has been absorbed; now, the busybodies are just as likely to tell you to VOTE, BUT ONLY IF YOU VOTE FOR BIDEN. There’s something very uncomfortable about the idea, as suggested by some of my friends, that Bernie Bro types really ought to tick the box for Biden, that they have a moral duty to prevent a second Trump term. Firstly, because it assumes that these votes belong to Biden by default, and that voting for anyone else – or simply not voting at all – is to rob this poor lonely man of that which is rightfully his. No: let’s accept this liberal institution on its own terms; your vote belongs to nobody but yourself, and if you don’t like someone you shouldn’t vote for them. And further, because what about the Trump voters? Do they share the same duty? It’s hard to imagine that they could, or how the presumption that their vote somehow rightfully belongs to the DNC could possibly hold. So: are you comfortable with an ethical system that simply doesn’t bother addressing itself to millions of people, that writes them off as something other than moral agents? Are people who disagree with you about politics reduced to wild nature? Do they have the same ethical status as lions or tornadoes? And if so, by what right could you possibly condemn them?

The only good reasons to vote in this election are non-political. As a personal experience, voting is defensible. As a mass activity, it’s horrific. If you follow Kant – himself a crucial figure in the history of telling other people what to do – then there’s still an argument for voting politically, even if your vote doesn’t really matter: imagine if everyone acted that way. (In fact, you don’t even need to imagine; Saramago did it for us in his Ensaio sobre a lucidez, which you should read.) But a Kantian would also be bound by the Selbstzweckformel: ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.’ Words to live by. Do you really think these candidates see you as an ends in yourself? Then do not make yourself their means.

The great democracies no longer conscript entire populations to die fighting each other in the trenches, but there’s still an echo of that age. An actuarial power, one that’s interested in counting and mobilising large numbers of passive and pliable people. White feathers for conscientious objectors. Each individual sacrifice is basically meaningless and changes nothing, but you’re forced to make it anyway. Cancel out a stranger on the other side. Something very, very different from the clamour of the masses or the cry of the oppressed. It was the French revolution that introduced universal suffrage, and also the levée en masse: these are just two different versions of the same thing.

In any case, politically, there’s nothing much at stake. This is not a popular idea; like every election, this one is supposed to be the most consequential of our lives. The only thing everyone involved seems to agree on is that it’s all incredibly important. In one voice, they insist that you should whip yourself into a gibbering frenzy about it. Aren’t we on the precipice? Hasn’t Trump (or Biden, delete as applicable) done horrific evil? Absolutely – but what do you think the Presidency is? It’s the position of symbolic war chief, someone to lob large rocks at the other moiety. In some non-state societies, political life is dominated by charismatic Big Men whose formal powers are hazy and undefined, but who exercise authority through their personal and kinship ties. In a way, this is a perfect Millsian representative democracy. (Deleuze and Guattari describe the schema perfectly: the grand paranoiac, surrounded by his perverts.) The Presidency of the United States is slightly more formalised, but however many parping trumpets and silly motorcades surround the institution, it’s still only slightly.

So, for instance, Trump is widely blamed for America’s devastating losses from the coronavirus. Chaos and mismanagement have certainly played their part, but chaos and mismanagement are endemic to American society, regardless of who’s in charge. France is governed by a Jupiterian technocrat, but it’s also a society in which a few joyously chaotic undercurrents still survive, and it hasn’t fared much better. Trump’s major impact might have been to muddy the waters among his supporters by casting doubt on various public health measures. So: vote him out, right? Sanity reigns once more. But the Big Man is a discursive, political leader, and voting out a Big Man doesn’t make him disappear. It’s funny: whenever they’re out of power, the Democrats tell you that electoral victory will simply wash away all the bad ideas forever. But as soon as they take the reins they can’t actually do anything, because of all the conservatives. (Obviously, this works in both directions. Vote for Trump to get rid of all the woke globalist postmodern neo-Marxism! Only – has this phantom been preying on you more or less since he took office?)

For the most part, the powers that these Big Men hold are the powers to do evil: to kill, to act senselessly and arbitrarily. That’s what power means. Kids in cages, assassinations on foreign soil. What you’re voting for, when you vote politically, is the right and privilege of supporting this evil instead of being forced to oppose it. (The technical term for this is ‘going back to brunch.’) The idea that you can vote for someone and then hold them to account is a nonsense; you’ve already sacrificed whatever leverage you had. The only way to hold a Big Man to account is to defect: join the sycophantic gaggle of perverts that surrounds one of his competitors. This is where your principles get you: trapped forever in the orbit of some big fat cretin, pleading for him to save you from himself. Crisis consumes everything, but the system is unperturbed and the stakes are always low.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that someone could put the entire system itself at stake. This was the best argument for Bernie Sanders: he could have been an effective Big Man, precisely by turning power over to his perverts; he could have penetrated the membrane enclosing politics, as an image or hologram of the independently organised and extrapolitical forces in society at large seeking to effect a more general change. But these possibilities are always brief, and if you don’t short-circuit the entire loop quickly enough the result is always the same. A few days ago, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the Labour party. Already, he’s become the centre of a black legend; the lies and libels are calcifying, hardening, taking on the impenetrable solidity of official fact. There’s no longer any point even that the whole antisemitism scandal was confected from top to bottom; we’re in the Kafka-trap stage, where disputing a slander only convinces people that it must be true. This is what happens when you try to make politics actually matter: they destroy you. They will turn all of your virtues against you, they will blacken your memory, they will fuck you so thoroughly that it’s not even about you any more, you’re a shell, you’re empty, you’re dead, and your name is now just a weapon, an insult lobbed against people who once dared to breathe your air.

Yes, it’s true that Trump is equally abhorred. But he’s also been in office for four years, and in that time the system has not broken open; he’s directed it further inward than ever before. In 2016, for example, he ran against NAFTA. His replacement, the USMCA, received bipartisan support. The only real difference between the two was that his version was a populist, heartland-themed neoliberal trade bloc, a piece of immiserating administration for our moiety and not theirs. The Democrats, who no longer want to include subjects like international trade in their discursive armoury, were happy to concede it. A set of commands to vote for Trump argues that he ‘represents the human party, even if bad humans, or even subhumans, whereas Biden is the avatar of forces which are not entirely human, but composed of abstractions or categories.’ It’s a nice line, even though I thought the post-Landian right were supposed to scorn all such mawkish humanism. But it falls apart in the end, because the other side believe the exact same thing. No, Hillary and Joe aren’t perfect, they have flaws, they’re only human, but they have stories, they’ve suffered, they’ve struggled, they’ve been brave, they persisted – and meanwhile Trump isn’t even a man, he’s just the nexus and embodiment of every structural evil: racism, sexism, imperialism, transphobia, an avatar of the transhistorical Straight White Male…

So: don’t vote to make things happen. Don’t vote to change the world, or the country, or the large-scale structure of society. This might be possible in another time or another place, but not today. Things will not get better. Things will not be normal. These are not the stakes. But vote, if you feel like it, because it might still be good for you. For a moment, you can be powerful, arbitrary and cruel, rampaging around the world, propelled only by your own desires. Following these instructions doesn’t actually do anything. There’s no way to distinguish your vote from all the others; like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, you’re outwardly indistinguishable from everyone else, without any ‘chink through which the infinite might be seen to peer forth.’ This is the entire point. There’s just one last problem. If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible to speak about our ‘authentic’ desires. What we want, even how we want, is always structured by our encounter with other people. And because the world is chaos, there’s always a rift of ambivalence right through the middle of every preference. How are you supposed to make the sovereign choice when you yourself are a contested territory? Don’t look at me; this one is for you to work out on your own. I’m not here to tell you what to do.

Why look at fire?

Some time in the twentieth century, the fires started to disappear. Gaston Bachelard was one of the first people to notice; in his magisterial The Psychoanalysis of Fire, he points out that ‘the chapters on fire in chemistry textbooks have become shorter and shorter. There are, indeed, a good many modern books on chemistry in which it is impossible to find any mention of flame or fire. Fire is no longer a reality for science.’ That was in 1938. In the pages that follow, he talks about his pride when tending to the fire in his stove every morning, or parents rapping their children’s knuckles when their hands stray too close to the hearth. A text from a different world, one in which people lived close to their fires, intimately, in relationships worth subjecting to psychoanalysis. How much time do you spend around open flames?

Sometimes I still smoke cigarettes, and there’s a gas hob in my flat, but all I’d need to do is switch to vaping and move somewhere with an electric stove, and fire would vanish almost entirely from my life. Open fires do not heat our homes, cook our food, or provide our entertainment. The only places they tend to survive are special occasions and religious rites. The presence of fire marks out particular moments from ordinary time. Candles for birthday cakes or romantic dinners; Diwali and Hanukkah. Years ago, when I was a student, we used to make bonfires in our overgrown nettle-strewn garden, burning sticks from the park and unwanted furniture left by the kerbside, slowly dismantling the landlord’s greenhouse and burning it piece by piece. But if one person had gone into the garden alone to make a fire and warm themselves with it, the rest of us would have started locking our doors at night. The fire was for sitting with each other, drinking and talking. It was a social ritual. It did not belong to the world of the profane.

Fire has almost vanished now. This does not mean that it’s gone. The machine I’m using to write these words is powered by a nationwide network of enormous fires that never go out, oil and gas burning under huge chimneys, set in blackened and grassless landscapes – but these fires are invisible. So are the big burning pools of petrol that power vehicles on the street. When fire appears again in the ordinary world, it’s always in the shape of a disaster or a god.

* * *

On November 7, 2018, a man walked into a country-themed bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and fired thirty rounds from a semi-automatic pistol into the crowd. Twelve were killed. Days later, the fires came. Mourners, gathering at community centres to stand vigil for the dead, found the sky clotting over. Ash rained over the town. Footage from inside the city shows the pink haze, fringes of grass hissing with smoke. From the surrounding hillsides, the fire is a giant squatting heavily over Thousand Oaks: a monster from a very old world, roaring up through the surface-sheen of the California exurbs. A journalist who’d been in town to cover the shooting and its aftermath commented of the flames: ‘I was entranced by both their beauty and their power.’ On the face of it, this is a very strange thing to say. Isn’t it almost insensitive? Already, the fires raging across the western United States had killed dozens of people, many more than the gunman at the Borderline Bar & Grill. She would never have dreamed of writing that there was an aesthetic grace in the act of mass murder, that she was somehow attracted or impressed by the killer, that her horror at the crime was tinged with awe. But fire is different.

This year, the California fires turned the sky orange over San Francisco. It looked like a fever dream: the skyscrapers with their white glowing windows against a city in Martian red; a world that had already ended without noticing. Another journalist described the scene. ‘People really don’t know what to do right now. Everyone on the Embarcadero is stopping to record the sky and chit chatting in a way I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic.’ I’d suggest that people did in fact know exactly what to do. When there is a fire, even if it’s the fires of Armageddon, you stop and look at it. You huddle with other people, and watch.

Fire is not simply one of the many things that are interesting to look at: plausibly, other things are interesting only insofar as they resemble fire. Digital screen displays, which grab so much of our attention: it’s not hard to work out why your gaze keeps drifting to the TV in the corner of a bar; it flickers, it glows. Birds in flight, or trees in the wind. The gaze of an animal: a live animal is always more interesting than a dead one, because there’s that invisible flutter behind the stillness of its eyes. Sometimes we call it a spark. And humans too. A beautiful person is a person who is, in some sense, on fire.

For me, at least, there’s a certain type of fire-image that’s hard to look away from. Probably the most famous version is the one above, from the Oregon wildfires of 2017. At the Beacon Rock Golf Course, a few players calmly finish their round. In the hills behind them, every tree is outlined in flames. The pictures of San Francisco bustling its way through the apocalypse are part of the same genre. But my favourite is from 2018: produce workers hunched over in the fields, still picking crops while the sky burns. There’s an obvious political resonance to these images: this is bourgeois indifference or the cruelty of the wage-relation; this climate change, the world burning while we look the other way. A diagram of our lives, moving furniture around in a house on fire. But I think the real fascination comes from somewhere else.

These images violate every rule of classical composition, starting with the law that the foreground in an image should always be brighter than the background. How do you light your little tableau when the mise-en-scène is burning? Wildfires makes a mockery of figure and ground; they always has the capacity to pour out from the edges of the image and breathe hot danger at the viewer. It’s the revenge of the setting, the unheeded pliable stuff of the world, against our system of objects. Its effect is not quite the same as the sublime. For both Burke and Kant, a canonical case of the sublime is a ship at sea, threatened by terrible stormy waves – but only for a viewer on land, who is himself safe from any peril. For someone on the boat, it’s simply peril. But fire abolishes that remove. However distant you are, it’s spreading.

There’s another kind of image that actively moves towards you as you approach. We love to look at fire because it is a mirror.

* * *

Traditionally, fire is not ours. It always comes from somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a gift; very often, it’s stolen. Prometheus descended from Olympus with a burning fennel-brush; Maui tore out the fingernails of fire from the goddess Mahuika. The God of Moses likes manifesting Himself in pillars of fire and burning bushes: ‘for the Lord your God is a consuming fire.’ The Israelites understood things very clearly. But what about the people for whom fire is brought by birds? In a Breton folk-narrative that survived well into the modern era, the wren steals the fire of heaven, but his wings are burned; he passes it on to the robin redbreast, whose chest is torched, and who passes it on again to the lark, who delivers it finally to the ground. Similar stories crop up across the world – the fire-bringer is variously a wren, a finch, a cockatoo, a crow, or a hawk. (And birds do actually carry fires: black kites have been observed clasping flaming sticks in their beaks, spreading fire in dry forests to flush out prey. Some people have been tempted to use this to argue that indigenous folklore encodes important scientific knowledge. This is euheremistic drivel. Don’t ever debase myth by dressing it up as data; myth is true in a far more important way. The truth of these stories is in the birds themselves: so firelike, trembling in quick feathers.)

In what might be the starkest version of the fire-origin story, fire is first stolen not from the gods or from heaven, but from women. A tradition among the Gaagudju of northern Australia, collected in 1930 by JG Frazer, holds that once only the women knew how to make fire; when the men returned to the camp after hunting, the women would gather up the burning ashes and hide them in their vaginas. In revenge, the men turned themselves into crocodiles and killed the women. ‘When all was over, the crocodile-men dragged the dead women out on the bank, and said to them, “Get up, go. Why did you tell us lies about the fire? But the dead women made no reply.’ They didn’t realise what they had done. Innocent reptiles, who understood none of the things that come from fire: warmth, and light, and knowledge, and death.

(Freud, who may or may not have been aware of this story, tells a similar myth. Human civilisation was only possible once men could restrain themselves from urinating all over any fire they encountered in homoerotic glee. Women, whose ‘anatomy makes it impossible for [them] to yield to such a temptation,’ might have got there first. A faint image emerges of women frustrated for thousands of years, constantly discovering fire, drawing themselves to the precipice of a long steep slide into advanced technological civilisation – only for the men of the tribe to arrive, honking and hollering, extinguishing the germ of all future society with joyful streams of piss.)

It’s with the emergence of philosophy that fire lost its secret history. Heraclitus declared that the universe was ‘made neither by God nor man, but it ever was and is, and will be, an ever-living fire’ – but Thales said the same for water, and Anaximenes for air. What’s interesting is that nobody ever proposed that earth might be the arche, or the fundamental substance of reality. The earth is always this particular piece of earth, granulated, strewn with rocks and bones; a silent archive of all the wrongs that have been done to it, shelved away in its sedimentary layers. It carries the dead weight of its history. Fire, meanwhile, takes no impressions. ‘All things are an exchange for fire,’ writes Heraclitus, ‘and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.’

This is an interesting comparison. It took Marx to really burrow into the universality of gold, to dig beneath the blank face of the money-form and see what hidden histories of suffering it contained. We could do the same with fire. As it turns out, the Bretons and the Gaagudju were right, and Heraclitus was wrong. Fire does have a history; it is, like us, contingent. We can say precisely when fire entered the world: it came to us in the year 470,000,000 BC.

* * *

In biology lessons, as a child, I was taught the properties of living things: movement, respiration, reproduction, excretion, and so on. It was stressed that all of these criteria must be met before you reach the magical status of life. Viruses adapt and reproduce, but they are not themselves living organisms. And fire, too, does so many of the same things that we do. It breathes in air and eats up fuel; it splits and spreads, and leaves ashes in its wake. But fire is not alive, it’s only a chemical reaction. (Well, so am I.) And that was that: I never wondered why it was that fire sprung out of a dead world and licked so close to life. The answer ought to have been obvious. The things that burn are, almost exclusively, organic materials: grass and wood; flesh and fat. (There are exceptions; flammable organic materials like methane can be produced by abiotic processes. Titan, a moon of Saturn, has glorious swirling methane seas, and Titan is lifeless – at least, as far as we know. But Titan also has no oxygen in its atmosphere. Those seas roil in the distant sunlight, but they’ll never burn.)

Before the emergence of living terrestrial organisms under an oxygen-rich sky, there was no fire. The slow crawl of molten rock down barren volcanoes, the diamond-spray of magma as asteroids collided with a liquid slag-heap earth, the distant nuclear reactors in the stars, but nothing that could be called a flame. Fire is the bright twin of terrestrial life. It’s been here as long as life has, exactly as long as we have. Maybe we have things the wrong way round. Maybe life is not a particularly important phenomenon in the universe; maybe it’s just the placenta, a self-replenishing stock of fuel, the egg-sac for a world birthing fire.

But humanity is a special case. Bernard Stiegler suggested that technics are a system in which human beings serve as the genital organs in an evolution of the inorganic; we are the reproductive system for our ever-changing tools. But for Stiegler – despite all his Promethean references – the paradigm of epiphylogenesis is in flint-knapping; tools of stone. ‘One must first ask what mirage of the cortex is experienced as pathbreaking, in the hardness of flint; what plasticity of grey matter corresponds to the flake of mineral matter.’ But fire fits his schema far more efficiently. By disguising itself as a technical instrument for human use, fire unconstrained itself. Tens of thousands of years ago, forests that would once burn and regrow and eventually burn again, returning the nutrients locked in trees to the soil, were burned for the last time; early humans used fire liberally to permanently clear the forests, creating wide grasslands in which to hunt. Tens of millions of years ago, intact forests were fossilised; now, we dig through the geological strata of the earth, tearing out vast quantities of coal and oil, to meet the fire they escaped the first time round. The distant past is burning, the future fills with smoke. If the movements and stasis of history make us feel anxious, unmoored, neurotic, it’s because we are simply a time machine for the flames.

As Stiegler argues, this relationship is based on a mutual constitution. Our australopithecine ancestors had a long digestive tract; ours are significantly shorter. This is because we evolved eating cooked food: when proteins and starches are broken down by heat, they can be digested much more efficiently.  Parasites and pathogens are killed by cooking, and humans have weaker immune systems than our ape relatives. It’s possible that the ability to cook unlocked significant energetic surpluses, with the shrinkage of the energy-intensive gut allowing for the costly development elsewhere. For instance, a bigger brain. The much-hyped human consciousness might, in the end, just be the residue of fire, a lump of charcoal left smouldering in our DNA.

What we’re not born with is any hardwired instinct for rubbing bits of wood together until there’s a spark. ‘Lay the secret on me,’ King Louis demands, ‘of man’s red fire.’ But Mowgli doesn’t know the secret; all he has is an alimentary canal that’s incomplete, that needs to be plugged in to an external, cultural machine. You need technics, language, science, and traditions. There is no pristine originary pre-cultural state of nature in our history. Instead, if you want to see where nature meets culture, if you want to see your origin and your future and yourself, then look into the flames.

The company of geese


The first animal that ever made a person happy simply by existing was a goose.

In book XIX of the Odyssey, Penelope makes a small confession to the stranger that’s come to her house. ‘I keep a flock of twenty geese here,’ she tells him. ‘They come in from the pond to pick up their grain and I delight in watching them.’ As far as I can tell, this is the first time in literature that an animal is honoured not for being beautiful, or loyal, or strong, but for the sheer pleasure you get from seeing another living creature going about its day.[1] Penelope’s days are not happy. She’s spent twenty years waiting for something to happen, and nothing does. Every time we meet her, she’s either on the point of bursting into tears or curling into a depressive sleep.  She doesn’t get any joy from her palace, or her treasures, or even her son. She suffers. But watching her geese, just sitting idly and looking at them as they come in from the pond, gives her delight. 

It’s weird to feel such a kinship with someone who lived three thousand years ago, and who didn’t even exist to boot – but I get it. Whatever your miseries, it’s delightful to be around geese.

For months now the weather’s been balmy and the pubs have been shut; I’ve been spending a lot of time around geese. Like a somewhat thinner Tony Soprano, with marginally more hair, in the middle of a catastrophe, getting sentimental about waterfowl. In Regent’s Park, my favourite are a family of Egyptian geese that’s taken to lazing around near the Hanover Gate. The goslings are nearly grown now – only a few scruffs of down around their necks, their bodies breaking out in dappled ochre – but they still like to huddle close to each other, and they still sing in delicate cheeps. Further along the lake, Canada geese honk and plod out of the water in big genial gangs. There are a few greylags too, with their handsome dented faces. They seem to breed later; their goslings are still tiny and yellowish, little marzipan figurines.

I find geese beautiful. But I have no illusions. These are supremely ridiculous birds, and they know it. Their big, heavy, jellied walk on splayed and silly feet. The way they wag their stumpy tails. The constant laughter of their honks. The grand implausibility of their flight. Geese are slapstick creatures. They’re perfectly capable of being graceful, when they want to: watch them preen their feathers, see how that long neck dips and glides. When they dive to snatch something underwater, it’s with oiled precision; when they fly high overhead, it’s in a perfect V. But most of the time, they choose not to care. Geese are ironical birds, always mocking themselves. It’s there in the eyes, the most expressive eyes of any bird. I know some chickens, emotionally complex and surprisingly playful animals, but a chicken looks at you through hard-rimmed jewels. The eyes of a goose, on the other hand, are black and very deep. They will meet your gaze, and it’s impossible not to know that something is in there, inquisitive and alive, looking out at you. The gleam of a primordial chuckle at the world.

But sometimes, when it’s grazing, or drinking, or in a confrontation, a goose will walk with its shoulders hunched and its neck stretched out straight, held parallel to the ground. You know this stance. You’ve seen it huge, in bones, at the museum. Make no mistake, this thing is a dinosaur. Other birds never let you forget their ancestry. Ted Hughes saw it: ‘Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn, more coiled steel than living…’ The lizard shines through in tilted heads and predatory stabs. With geese it works the other way. What are we missing, when we reassemble all those enormous bones? When we draw dinosaurs, we give them monstrous skeletal grins – but we lose the way they might have skittered over the water, their happy waddle, and the laughter of their song.


Birds have always been signs and portents; the ancient Greeks had the same word, ὄρνις, for bird and omen. Hence Aristophanes: ‘A word can be a bird for you.’ In prophecy or poetry, all language leaps to flight; it becomes avian. ‘Turn your minds to our words, our ethereal words, for the words of birds last forever!’ (In the same play, we’re reminded that the birds are ‘older far than Kronos and the Titans, and even Earth;’ the true gods and kings of creation.) Geese, too, are symbols; Penelope’s geese appear in a prophetic dream. Like all good symbols, they’re contradictory. First, geese stand for loyalty. They mate for life, and raise their young together. Pairs dance together when they reunite. They return to the same nesting grounds. They mourn when an egg or a gosling is lost; if one partner dies, the widow is inconsolable. Konrad Lorenz, who virtually founded the discipline of ethology – the study of animal behaviour – on his studies with geese, writes that ‘a greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms described in young human children… the eyes sink deep in their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang.’ Lonely poets have always seen themselves mirrored in the mourning goose. Du Fu’s The Solitary Goose, written during the Tang Era: 谁联一片影, 相失万重云 – or, in Burton Watson’s translation, ‘Who pities his lonely form, lost from the others in ten-thousand-layered clouds?’ But geese strive to help their lonely. If a goose is tired or injured during flight, a few others from the flock will drop out of formation with it and stand guard until it’s recovered. And at the same time, geese also represent transience. They migrate: these heavy, fickle birds brighten the world for a season, and then the leaves change and they’re gone.

Geese don’t just signify; they also talk to us, specifically to us. Studies have shown that humans are capable of understanding geese signals intuitively, without any special knowledge of the animals. You can tell, without even thinking, when a goose is honking contentedly, when it’s searching for something, when it’s warning you away, or when it’s raising the alarm. Their sadness is bodily, viscerally the same as ours. So is their dancing, clucking, foot-stomping joy. The only other animal that shares so much of our semiotic space is a dog, and dogs are our own creations. And geese sometimes have the upper hand. In 390 BC, when an army of Gauls scaled the Capitoline Hill, the guard dogs slept, but the Romans were warned by the clamour of Juno’s sacred geese. Their ability to pass on meaningful messages has been understood for a very long time. It’s why geese are still used as guard animals today.

Like dogs, geese understand our language. They can learn their own names; flying geese will come to land if you call out for them. Even wild geese will quickly come to recognise individual humans, and can form strong friendships with us. But they also include us in their own speech. If you try to miaow at a cat, you’ll only get a blank look in return; cats have developed a one-way signalling system for humans. It’s not a medium of conversation, it’s a way of getting what they want. But geese want to chat. They know we can understand them. When they graze in groups, geese make soft reassuring noises to each other, in a complex social call and response – and when humans imitate their noises, they respond.


In all their relations with humans, geese start with an assumption of equality. These are profoundly democratic birds. They certainly have nothing like a pecking order, and their monogamy guards against harems, dominance displays, or the greasy pole of hierarchy. (It’s not that these things don’t exist in geese, but they’re far less significant in their social behaviour than in other gregarious animals – like seals, for instance, or ourselves.) But this is not the same as being docile. A goose will calmly stand its ground against much larger animals. This extends to humans too. A few high-profile pecks and a defamatory video game have given geese a reputation for aggression, even malice, which is entirely undeserved. They don’t dislike us; nothing could be further from the truth. They’re simply not afraid of us. (Foxes, which I also admire, are the same. If you catch a fox loping across the road late a night, it will usually slow down, pause to study you with a slow, deft, mocking glance.) Lying down in the park, I once felt a slight tap on my head, and looked up to find a herd munching grass around me. If they trust you, they’ll even let you hang out with their goslings. These creatures are equally at home on land, on the water, and in the air: all of creation is theirs; they can slip from one realm to another whenever they choose. An animal with such majestic sovereignty can afford to be gentle, and unflappable, and brave.

Geese are territorial. They know which patches of land have been set aside by other geese, and also which territories are claimed by humans. If you see a group of geese genially and noisily going where they’re not supposed to be, it’s not because they don’t understand; they’re contesting our claim. This is more a game than an invasion; geese have a good ironic attitude towards the institution of private property. Anywhere that isn’t physically occupied is assumed to be up for grabs – and then the geese await our response. As always, they’d like to talk to us, to engage with us, because they believe they can. Sometimes we can annoy them, and sometimes we need a good sharp peck to keep the peace, but for the most part we’re good-natured, gregarious, and faintly silly animals, with occasional glints of intelligence, waddling lopsidedly over the earth.

We would be a far better species, and this would be a far better world, if we were more like the creatures the geese think we are.


(All goose photos mine.)


[1] Yes, fine, sure, there’s Hyperion and his cattle, ‘the cattle that gave me such joy every day as I climbed the starry sky and as I dropped down from heaven and sank once more to earth.‘ But the Sun is a god, not a human being, and a purely sensory pleasure in the natural world has always been the prerogative of the sovereign gods. ‘He saw it and it was good.’ For the sailors, these cattle either have utilitarian value as food, or else they’re sacred, in the sense of being forbidden. Men and their stomachs.  Homer likes to describe Odysseus and Telemachus with the epithet θεοειδής, godlike, but in fact it’s Penelope who, in a quiet moment with her geese, touches the divine.
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