Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: September, 2011

The autobiography of a rebellious ghostwriter

I – Birth

I was born… I was born fifty times, maybe, perhaps a hundred, I lose count. It’s hard not to. So many beginnings, all superficially so similar – always the cold linoleum corridors of the hospital, the maternity wards nestled away somewhere in their little catacombs, never all too far from the deathbeds of the old and unlucky. Always the grunts of the mother, the mollifying cooing of the midwives. Oh, not always, of course. Sometimes it’s different. It all depends on who I am at the time. Sometimes, when I’m a particular type of rock star, for instance, I am born in a spattered mess of lurid detail, slick with blood and mucus, bursting from fissured tissue, screeching my dissatisfaction with this bright cold new world. Sometimes – frequently – I’m born in saccharine soft focus, I bounce and gurgle improbably, I editorialise about the life-affirming beauty of the event. Sometimes there are husbands and boyfriends there, tightly holding the hands of my many mothers and being generally useless. Often, of course, they’re conspicuously absent.

Being born is easy. Anyone could do it. Giving birth is harder. I’ve done that, too, but rarely in as much detail; it’s always a rather brief affair. The public is always far more interested when it’s me violently pulling myself into existence than when I’m doing the pushing. I don’t know why.

II – Life

Enough with the masks, you say. Tell us about yourself, your actual self. Well, they’re not masks, and I have only told you about myself, my actual self, but I’ll indulge you a little. I live and work in an apartment in Upper Manhattan. It’s nice, I suppose. Not a penthouse, not dripping with gilded ostentation, but comfortable enough. It’s not really mine. The Company owns it. I think they want to hand over the deeds as a token of thanks when I retire, which is sweet of them, but I can’t ever really retire, I have to keep going until I die. I have a large wood-panelled study where I interview my subjects. It’s crammed with books. My subjects expect the books, their presence make them more comfortable; I never read them. I gave up reading other peoples’ words a long time ago. There are companies; you can buy old hardbacks by the metre. If you were to actually inspect the covers (nobody ever does) you’d see it’s all a mishmash: most of the books are forgotten mid-century novels, never bestsellers, never particularly literary, valuelessly mediocre. Here and there are laughably outdated works on history, anthropology, ethnography, linguistics, similarly forgotten. There’s some poetry in there too, Schiller and Goethe, in the original German, I think. I don’t speak German.

I’m a ghostwriter. I write the autobiographies of other people. Celebrities, mostly; people not trusted to do the job for themselves. Singers, actors, models, reality show contestants, gameshow presenters. Most books sold these days are airport novels, textbooks, or celebrity autobiographies, and I take up a pretty big share of that last field. Go to any bookstore and you’ll find my books, shelves and shelves of them, generally with eye-wateringly bright covers dominated by one of my many faces, with one of my many names in big block capitals. The subtitles tend to be variations on a theme: My life or My struggle or My story, and so on. I don’t choose them, the Company does. Perhaps they have a computer there, up in their offices, with some algorithm determining subtitles based on a set of facts about the subject. Perhaps they draw them out of a hat. I’m not really bothered.

Collecting the facts is easy, really. The subjects come up to my office and tell me their story. Sometimes I have to fill in some of the gaps for myself. Sometimes the Company gives me a little list of events that should be spun in a particular way: the firing of the manager was an amicable affair, the weird druggie phase was a hideous experience remembered with deep shame (or, increasingly, the opposite: it was incredible and they don’t regret a thing). I don’t object. I have no illusions about my craft.

The stories stick to a familiar pattern: the humdrum beginnings, the fortuitous discovery, the precipitous rise to fame, the gut-wrenching realisation that Money Can’t Buy Happiness, pathos-ridden episodes in which old friends are deserted and family scorned, downward spirals accelerated by drink and drugs, rehab, rapprochement, catharsis. Anyone could churn out a half-decent iteration of this quotidian little tale. My subjects could probably do it themselves, to be honest. I keep quiet about that.

Where my real talent lies is in the voice. I can steal my subject’s voice, I can snatch it from out of their throats. The discerning reader knows, intellectually, of course, that the book they read was not written by the person whose name appears on the cover (they’re wrong) – but they become immersed, I can make them forget what they at least think themselves to know. It’s not just a matter of using the right vocabulary, the right register, the right little catchphrases, although that’s important as well. When I interview my subjects, half of the time I don’t even pay attention to what they’re saying. I’m busy feeling for their voice, slowly sounding out the topography of their linguistic bearing. After I’ve done this, I could probably reconstruct the details of their whole story on that basis alone.

Sometimes, after a few interview sessions, the subjects start to see me as a kind of therapist. Maybe it’s the couch, the room full of books, me sitting across from them with the notepad. I have to remind them, gently of course, that while of course I care deeply about how miserable they are and the manifold reasons for their misery, the general public doesn’t necessarily share my concern. Their vulgar attempts at semi-Freudian autoanalysis are, after all, rarely relevant to the story. People don’t read celebrity autobiographies for the Oedipus factor. They – my subjects – are all in actual therapy as well, of course, without exception. Most of them are dosed up to the eyeballs on antidepressants, some on antipsychotics as well. I’ve had famous people, public figures, collapsing into shuddering tearful paroxysms in my office. I feign sympathy as best I can.

Have I ever slept with one of my subjects? Once, only once. The girl was a wreck, frankly: she was going through six psychiatrists a year, they couldn’t keep her, she kept fucking them. I never did that again. It wasn’t that I felt some sacred line of separation had been crossed, as if I were intruding into the story, I didn’t even feel particularly guilty; it’s just that I have my own way of crossing, my own way of intruding. I won’t name names. It would be gauche, I think.

All day I listen to famous people tell me stories they have told a thousand times before. All night I write them up. I go out, sometimes, to the grocery store, or to the bank. I still need food. Newspapers, when I have the time. Cigarettes, although I smoke only when I’m writing. Clothes, too; the Company needs me to look presentable. Occasionally I see a movie. Or I eat at a restaurant. A nice one. I can afford it. Alone. I don’t mind.

III – Sarcophagy

I am a rebellious ghostwriter. I think I may have mentioned that. But I never lie; everything I write is always scrupulously truthful – or, at least, truthful according to the reality generated at the intersection between my subject and the Company. Nor do I ever insist on myself in what I write, sneak in fragments of my own voice, my own persona, as if to remind the reader that the book they are holding is a fiction. There’d be some rebellion there, I suppose, but it’s of a dismal, futile sort. If I were to do that, to insist on the independence of a singular I against all my many subjects, I would be admitting defeat, I would be affirming only my own smallness. They would envelop me – I might make a desperate grasp, and with strenuous effort poke a little hole in their facades, but that would be all.

There is no singular I. We are all multiple.

When I said I have been born fifty times, a hundred times, I wasn’t being metaphorical. When I said I can steal my subject’s voice, I wasn’t using a figure of speech. It’s all me. Perhaps it’s better to call me a revolutionary rather than a rebel. When I write someone’s autobiography, I consume them. Oh, not the physical body itself, that stays. But their story, their voice, that belongs to me now. I become them. Their birth becomes my birth, their childhood mine, their happy memories mine, their psychoses mine, and if I seem at all disdainful towards them now, it’s only because very few of them don’t hate themselves. It’s not always a pleasant process. I need it, though. My multiplicity is never sated. I hunger. We hunger.

By the time the presses start rolling, my subject becomes, well, a part of my Subject – with what remains of them left a person stripped of all being. They don’t all die instantly, but after publication few make it longer than a year. Sometimes they will appear on a few reality TV shows, have a couple of photoshoots for increasingly unglamorous publications, they may even feature in a movie. But they’re done. Their story has been written down now, the stamp of history has been placed on their life, and there’s little for them to do but fade away.

I’m good at what I do, and that’s why the Company hires me. They’re not just a publishing firm, although I do tend to deal only with the publishing division. They run the agencies, the star-spotters – and when, for whatever reason, they want to get rid of a particular person on their books, they commission me to write an autobiography.

It’s far tidier than assassination. Sometimes I think Mark David Chapman may have been one of my less sophisticated predecessors. Lee Harvey Oswald too, for all I know. It’s possible. The Company is far larger than I can perceive; in all my contact with it I’ve been feeling along one tiny edge of some impossibly vast and expertly hidden structure. I don’t worry myself about it. It’s not my business.

The bell rings. It’s one of my subjects, a new one. There are perfunctory introductions. “Sit down,” I say. And then, after a while, “Tell me about your birth.”

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On Beckett’s Trilogy

To read Molloy is to become Molloy. Beckett’s prose, the vast flat plain of his single paragraph, forms the landscape you have to traverse. Sometimes you go along at a pretty good pace, your mental crutches clanking fairly against the solid sentences, sometimes you barely hobble through, crawling on your belly through the thick undergrowth of a lexical forest. You travel in straight lines by reading in circles and travel in circles by reading in straight lines, often you are not sure exactly where you are or where you are heading, sometimes a particular word or phrase or sentence brings you to a sudden halt and you need to lie down for a while in a little literary ditch to contemplate it and hope you’re not disturbed. But Beckett doesn’t let you lie there: he kicks you in the back or jabs you with a stick: you can’t stay here, you must move on. For pages and pages we wander, in and out of extended inventories of sucking-stones or buttons; past the tantalising – or terrifying – silhouettes of philosophical concepts that linger here and there on the horizon, visible but never quite within reach; through teasingly brief flashes of past memory. Where are we going? What does Molloy want? To return to his home town again, of course, to return to his mother, but that’s not what drives him onwards: he moves because he moves, he is in a dynamic stasis. As he says:

I longed to go back to the forest. Oh not a real longing. Molloy could stay, wherever he happened to be.

We are not Molloy, though, not yet, even though we travel in his footsteps. Molloy is the ultimate essence of humanity. He is man at his rawest, most stripped-down form, not willing, not wanting, a Schopenhauerian aesthete without any need for music. He sleeps in ditches, he is beaten and harried wherever he goes, he is often confused and sometimes aggrieved but in his voice there is never a note of regret: Molloy suffers from no existential angst, he is not alienated from himself. In not willing, in his infinite passivity, Molloy is completely free. But, for now, at least, we are not Molloy. We still want something. What does the reader want?

To understand, of course. Throughout the whole first section of Molloy, we never quite surrender ourselves to the vague meanderings of the narrative, we are always trying to work out what is going on, to order the narrative, impose some kind of structure – we walk with Molloy, but unlike him, we whine the whole way through. We want to tap Beckett on the back, and tell him (with all necessary deference) that while we are very much enjoying the ride, we would like to know where we are going, and if we’re there yet. A novel should have a point, we insist, or at least it should tell a story, and his appears to be doing neither: could we pause in our journey, just for a moment, and have a little peek at the map? And Beckett – he smiles at us a little, as you might smile at an endearingly errant child, but his eyes are still stern behind those shining round glasses, and he says: No.

But it’s not as if Beckett has some grand master plan he is refusing to let us see: his Trilogy is a Barthesian suicide of the author. Beckett is not Joyce or Eliot: his masterwork is not some literary crossword puzzle that he has set and that we are challenged to untangle. In one of his 1949 Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, Beckett was challenged to explain why artists should feel obliged to paint. His response, in its entirety:

I don’t know.

These are not the words of an author-as-Aufklärer. Molloy is never sure of anything, his narrative is that of an author who admits that he doesn’t know. Witness the first few sentences of the novel:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there.

Molloy can’t say for certain which of his legs is stiff, he can’t quite tell what town he is in, how old he is, how long he’s been travelling for, he continually plays with the idea of explaining or elucidating on some particular point, on forming some kind of solid inventory of his life, and then dismisses it, it is immaterial. Reading his words, we are plunged deep into a kind of limbo, a miasmatic fog of possibilities, we become a catatonic body without organs, all that is solid melts into air.

And then, the long paragraph finally ends, and in the novel’s second part we return to a literary world we are at least somewhat familiar with. The perspective switches – there is the odd flash of Molloyity (‘My report will be long. Perhaps I shall not finish it.’) – but we are now on our own ground once more, in the safe hands of Jacques Moran, who knows how to write in proper paragraphs, who is a tyrant, perhaps, but comfortingly bourgeois. And he is human in the conventional sense, we are no longer faced with the terrifying Real of our reflection in Molloy’s starkness. And, look, thank Christ, what a relief, it seems like we might just get a conventional plot structure as well! Moran must go off to find Molloy, and finally we’ll be able to see our stiff-legged vagrant from the outside: Moran will find him for us, and all we’ll see is a mumbling decrepit geriatric. The unsettling freedom of his narrative will be reduced to a mere stylistic exercise, we won’t really need to consider the implications. There’ll be a confrontation, perhaps, some kind of climax, comfortable catharsis. Nice one, Beckett, you almost had us going for a minute there.

Except that doesn’t happen. Moran does find Molloy, eventually, in a way, but we never get to see him from the outside, because Molloy is inside all of us. Molloy is humanity, the perfect embodiment of our existential freedom: crippled, lame, dazed, unfeeling, unthinking, unwilling. As Moran walks off in search of Molloy, his bourgeois effects slowly fall away from him: he is deserted by his son, he loses all but fifteen shillings of his money, his joints seize up, he wanders, in his seventeen theological questions he cathartically cleanses himself of any notion of the Beyond. He does not find Molloy, he becomes Molloy:

Question. How did I feel?
Answer. Much as usual.
Question. And yet I had changed and was still changing?
Answer. Yes.
Question. How was this to be explained?
Answer.

This void, this lack of an answer, is the point where Moran sheds his tyranny: both over others and over himself. He is admitting that he does not know. We have been reading the novel backwards, the second half takes place before the first, but its ordering is important, because although Moran turns into Molloy, Molloy was there long before Moran, Molloy has always been there. And in the catastrophic final few lines of the novel, the conventional narrative we so greedily embraced when it first appeared is revealed for the lie it always has been: Beckett turns back on himself, we are shown Moran/Molloy writing the words that opened the second half:

Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

We were wrong in looking for a clear linear direction, we were wrong in looking for comprehensibility, there can be none. Molloy is not just a stumbling old man, he is our freedom, in all its aimless wandering, in all its its ineffable tragedy. When we read this line, we join Moran in his transfiguration, or his reduction: we have become Molloy. Or, in the words of our old pal Freddy Nietzsche, we have become what we are.

This post has been, more than anything, an excuse for me to have a go at getting my head around Molloy. There is a lot I haven’t covered. Why, for instance, does Moran compare his newly stiffened knee to a clitoris? There are probably some interesting psychoanalytical readings to be made here, but I don’t have a clue. I haven’t read much of the critical debate around the Trilogy, so if I’m wrong about everything, please let me know. I may attempt at some point to make some similar explorations through Malone Dies and The Unnameable, but no promises.

I am moving to America

I will not use this space to make any trite, clichéd, quirky little observational posts about how everything is slightly different: the weather, the cityscapes, the culture; how the money doesn’t have the Queen on it, how sales tax isn’t included on price labels, how we are divided by a common language. I will not describe my culture shock, or lack thereof, in tedious detail. I will not well up with misty-eyed Anglophiliac nostalgia. If I break any of these commitments, please take a gun and shoot me. I gather such things are perfectly legal there.

Ten years gone

Today’s media is, of course, dominated by those four catastrophic characters, in an orgiastic display of symbolic fetishisation, as if the date were more important than the dead. The regurgitation of traumatic memories, the pseudo-sagacious surveys of the past decade, the groundless arrests of suspicious-looking Muslims, bring out the bunting, it’s an anniversary!

I will say this, though: the biggest lie about 9/11 is that it changed everything. The greatest tragedy about 9/11 is that it changed nothing. All it did was give certain people an excuse to do what they had always been doing. There is not, nor has there ever been, a War Against Islam, despite the fantasies of cultural essentialists on both sides, and the insistences of otherwise level-headed leftists. The United States is doing in the Middle East exactly what it has always done: defending its interests, acting with idiotically myopic pragmatism. The myth of American invulnerability may have been briefly punctured, but it’s not as if that hasn’t happened before – remember our little adventures in Indochina? And the security of American existence has always produced a kind of paranoia: millennialism, reds under the bed, Geronimo on the warpath, gangs invading the suburbs.

Not that 9/11 didn’t have its political and cultural ramifications. But when it comes to assessing its impact, our focus should be, if anything, narrowed: it should be on those who died on the planes and in the towers, and those that survive them. Politically, 9/11 is an empty signifier: its pathetic impact was so broad that now it can be used to advance any idea; it has become functionally meaningless. As a human tragedy, it is still very real – but it is not our tragedy, it belongs to its victims (victims who have been, it must be noted, sickeningly ill-treated in person while being canonised as political symbols). Everything is political, yes, but 9/11 has become saturated with politics. Perhaps it is time to return it to the human. Perhaps the most dignified and sensitive way to commemorate it would be to not commemorate it at all.

P.S.: As it seems to be impossible to talk about 9/11 without delving into the chthonic lairs of the conspiracy theorists, has anyone considered that Bush or Cheney might have been Iranian sleeper agents? In the last ten years the United States has all but acted out Iranian foreign policy: it has toppled Saddam Hussein, Iran’s most indefatigable enemy, and in his place installed a Shi’ite procedural democracy that is for all intents and purposes an Iranian vassal state; it has replaced the impenetrably monolithic fanaticism of the Afghan Taliban with a seedily pragmatic government entirely open to a bit of mutual back-scratching. Wake up, sheeple! Cauterise your eyes, bleach your skin, rend your clothes, VEVAK is running the whole charade.

A fever dream: on the eviction of Slavoj Žižek from the Celebrity Big Brother House

The scene: a raised platform, ringed with bright white lights, set before a surging mob, waving placards for pitchforks, bearing the political slogans of the post-ideological age, spitting and grimacing, desperate for vicarious jouissance, their toothy grins tinged with the threat of violence. On the platform: to the left, Davina McCall, professional objet petit a; to the right, Slavoj Zizek, the subject-supposed-to-know-what-a-subject-supposed-to-know-is. Between the pillars of light, grotesquely large pictures of Slavoj’s face – or what face there exists between bulbous nose and parasitically fungal beard. For a brief moment they both stare blankly forward – a cameraman gives a series of hand signals – suddenly they are animate, Davina cheering and throwing up her arms, Slavoj frantically tapping his nose and beard in a spasmodic fit.

DAVINA: Welcome back to Celebrity Big Brother, and welcome to Slavoj!

The crowd erupts in – not a cheer, exactly, but a noise, a mingling of yelling and clapping and hissing and roaring and stamping of feet, a riotous commotion.

SLAVOJ: Thank you very much, no, yes, it is an honour.

DAVINA: And it’s an awful shame, isn’t it, because you were so close, you were one of the last four left in the house.

SLAVOJ: Well, yes, I am not so much interested in the winning of the show, the accolades, the headlines, and so on, and so on – but the fantasy of being the last person in the house, to be alone in the house, with the cameras, with the constant presence of the Big Other, this I am interested in. It is a recurring theme in horror movies, no? You are alone in the house, but you are not alone, someone is there, someone is watching you – it is a perverse fantasy, I think. And very much Freudian, as well, in the sense of the unheimlich, of the home being a place of danger. So I am disappointed I did not win, yes, very much, indeed.

DAVINA: [unfazed] Let’s talk about some of the other housemates. There was a lot of tension, wasn’t there, between you and Chipmunk?

SLAVOJ: [with a startled snort] You say there was? I did not see any of this tension, entirely not, I felt he was an interesting man – maybe clinically, perhaps, you could say.

DAVINA: [to the crowd] Shall we show him the diary room tapes?

The crowd roars its assent. Fists are flung into the air in jubilatory schadenfreude: some miss and collide with another person, suddenly a hundred brawls are taking place, the crowd turns in on itself, here and there knives are produced and the sharp tang of blood mixes with the stink of sweat in the air. Only after the first few gunshots are heard do the security guards intervene: a phalanx of rottweiler-faced men in dayglo jackets forces its way towards where the violence is at its most intense – they are consumed by the crowd. Perhaps they are killed, perhaps they melt into its roil, it is impossible to say. A line of police cavalry charges. At first they make some progress: those at the edges of the crowd are swiftly truncheoned and detained, but soon the horses find themselves mired in the furious swarm, and in their anxiety they throw off their riders, the line is broken, the plan of attack evaporates. Some of the crowd attack the horses, some of the horses start fighting one another, gnawing chunks from each other’s necks. In the near distance, the low rumble of heavy artillery can be heard.

DAVINA: [exultant] Let’s show him the tapes!

CHIPMUNK: [onscreen] I just don’t get him man, like, what’s he done, why is he here? I ain’t never seen him on anything, like, nothing. And he’s some fucking wasteman, like, man ain’t had a single shower since the start of the show, swear down, he fucking stinks, doesn’t he? I can’t fucking sit next to him, or like even near him, you know what I’m saying? And he chats some breeze, innit. I’m saying, it’s not just his weird accent, and all the snorting and those little hand twitchy things he’s always doing, you know what I mean – he’s talking about sex the whole time: like, yeah, cool, but it’s all perversions, everything’s perverted, I can’t take a dump without it being some representation of my desires in the symbolic order or whatever – I’m like, are you kidding me? This guy built a career on that bullshit? It’s not even anything, really, it makes its own internal sense, kinda, but it’s entirely divorced from the actuality of human subjectivity and the actuality of the human condition, and that’s what the ultimate focus of philosophy needs to be, not all these masturbatory Lacanian abstractions. It bears no relation to how people actually function, it’s a poststructuralist psychoanalysist’s fantasy about how people actually function. So, nah. Me and Slavoj, I don’t see us being in the getalong gang in the Big Brother house, you know what I mean?

DAVINA: So, Slavoj, how does that make you feel?

SLAVOJ: Well, myself, I make it a point of never reading my critics, never reading my reviews. Or I will tell the publishers: put the bad reviews on the back of the book! My audience know who I am, they will read me anyway. But Chipmunk – he is ultimately an empiricist, he has a very British way of conceiving these things, this antipathy towards the abstraction, the Continentalism, and so on, and so on. In his music and his music videos, the focus – it is entirely on the immediacy of experience, no? So his criticism, it is still rooted in ideology, this I claim. The ideological disagreement, it does not translate into personal antagonisms. I am a good Hegelian, after all, such oppositions, they are necessary. But I should say, the proceduralism of intimacy in the diary room, it is exactly like Catholic confession, no, it is exactly the same. You do not confess to the priest, your confession is directed towards God, towards the Infinite Other, as in Levinas, and so on, and so on. You do not talk to Big Brother, you talk to the Big Other, to the audience at home, to the Holy Spirit. After I am evicted from this house, I am no longer a participant, I am an observing subject, an ordinary pervert, then it is acceptable to show me these tapes – it is a form of licensed voyeurism, is it not?

DAVINA: [nodding her head] One last question.

SLAVOJ: Please, please, go on.

Throughout this exchange Davina has been undergoing a grotesque metamorphosis: her cheeks grow fuller, her paunch expands, her tits shrink, her hair turns white and recedes. At first the faint shadow of a moustache falls on her upper lip, then stubbly hairs sprout from her chin. Soon she has a full beard, her eyebrows sit heavily on her brow, her camera-friendly coquettishness becomes a stern gaze, almost disdainful, which she now fixes on Slavoj. She is no longer Davina McCall: instead, Slavoj finds himself being scrutinised by the unmistakeable visage of Karl Marx – or perhaps Jehovah; depictions of the two are, after all,  very similar.

MARX: Do you not think that your participation in this televisual charade, your gleeful willingness to put your theorising at the services of capital, your unashamed prostitution, your jestering and japing, your fruitless contrarianism, your pop-psychoanalysis – do you not think that this not only casts disrepute on your status as a serious Marxist thinker, but also cheapens Marxism itself? Are you not turning revolutionary ideology into just another media gimmick?

The crowd, who are all orthodox historical materialists, nod sagely, in unison.

SLAVOJ: I know you. You said a man should be able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner. Well then – can I not play the jester in the morning, advertise for garment retailers in the afternoon, appear on reality TV in the evening, and still be a serious philosopher after dinner?

MARX: You forget that we are still living under capitalism.

SLAVOJ: But under capitalism, we must still live.

The crowd, racked by confusion, briefly organises itself into a series of non-hierarchial egalitarian communes, forms a workers’ state, undergoes Thermidor, becomes disillusioned. Defeated, they shuffle back to their allotted space in front of the platform.

DAVINA: [for it is her again: the beard has gone, the grin has returned] Well, Slavoj, it’s been a pleasure to have you on Celebrity Big Brother. Do you have anything else to say before the end of the show?

SLAVOJ: Yes, I do. I would like to say that I endorse all the products of the Coca-Cola corporation, and that the cool refreshing taste of a glass of Coke proves without question that the transcendent object of desire is not in fact unobtainable – in fact, it can be obtained at your local newsagent or grocery store.

Lights wind down, theme music plays, scattered applause. Slavoj, rising from his seat to re-enter the world, takes an especially deep snort – then starts to gag. Something is clearly wrong. Davina sits impassively as Slavoj chokes on his own mucus: the cameras are off, after all. Slavoj writhes on the ground, flailing frantically. The sycophantic crowd tries to imitate his dying motions. Everywhere they collapse, their limbs jerk around, they feign choking noises. Everything begins to blur: the crowd, the stage, the cameras – now they are only a single undulating mass, a throbbing that reaches up above the horizon and encircles the world. Perhaps an orgy is taking place, it’s difficult to tell. There are no images any more, no clearly defined shapes or people, only an immense all-enveloping pulsation. The dream ends. Still, nothing is understood.

I went to Chernobyl

Chernobyl is not how you’d expect. By the time you go, you’ve done your research: you know that the nuclear power station there leaked a cloud of radioactive gas that swept over an entire continent. You know that Prypiat, a town of fifty thousand people, was evacuated and has been abandoned for twenty-five years. And the phrases you hear in connection with it – ghost town, nuclear wasteland, zone of alienation – conjure images of broad lifeless expanses of concrete and dead earth, of barren inhospitality, of a fractured landscape so unearthly it might be a sort of embassy of the moon. And as the coach takes you from Kiev into the contaminated zone, you are shown an absurdly lurid documentary about the disaster itself – although perhaps its Discovery-Channel sensationalism is perfectly appropriate for the absurdity of what happened there. A scientific experiment carried out by Soviet physicists at Chernobyl Reactor 4 that went horrifically wrong and almost threatened to wipe out half of Europe: it’s the stuff of pulp science fiction and disaster movies; that it actually happened seems somehow unreal. And you’ve learned about the heroism of the helicopter pilots who were rushed over from Afghanistan to drop sandbags onto the burning reactor and who all died from the radiation – not immediately, they didn’t suddenly slump lifeless over their controls, helicopters didn’t corkscrew out of the sky and smash into the ground with the cathartic finality of a Hollywood explosion; they died later, in a Moscow hospital, sickly-pale and emaciated, deep gouges cut into their flesh by the invisible subatomic enemy.

And then you see the reactor itself, its mangled mess of broken pipes and twisted vessels covered by an enormous concrete sarcophagus, a vast tombstone that forms a more sublime memorial for the victims of the tragedy than any of the slightly tacky plasticky monuments scattered around the area. It was built with no real consideration for architecture, the concrete blocks were assembled haphazardly, as quickly and as efficiently as possible, to contain the leaking radiation, but it does in fact look exactly like a cathedral. The faded smokestack forms the spire, it has its long nave, its square pillars like flying buttresses, its transept of scaffolding. It is the cathedral of the Enlightenment, a temple built to mollify the eschatonic power of the atom. Like the kaaba, or the kadosh hakadoshim, it contains a light so fierce that it would burn away any man who entered; and those who visit must undergo ritual cleansing – except here, instead of being anointed with oil, you press your hands against one of the large Geiger counters that ring the site and pray that the little light turns green.

But when you come to Prypiat, the ghost town, it’s almost impossible to draw a line of causality between the horrors of the disaster, the starkness of the power plants, and the organic lushness of what you see before you. Prypiat isn’t a barren wasteland, it is full of life. The forest has swallowed it up – and rather than being grim or menacing, it has an air of complete serenity. It’s impossible to find any sense of urbanity here: the central square is like a brief clearing in which some spindly plants still grow; what were once broad avenues now seem like country lanes. It’s as if the town had not been built and then abandoned, but had grown by itself in the middle of the forest without any human involvement at all: as if the buried strata of rock and iron, jealous of the autotelic vivacity of the plants above, had decided to organise themselves into roads and buildings, bursting out through the soil, twisting into new shapes to form a pre-ruined city. Its edges are frayed not because it has been dilapidated, but because the natural world rarely works in straight lines; even when inside the buildings, the layer of broken glass that crunches underfoot seems as innocuous as the litter of a forest floor.

Only when you go further from the bright concourses of the abandoned buildings does this illusion shatter, because every room in every building you visit is full of stuff: human stuff, notebooks, trinkets, portraits, music sheets, reminders that fifty thousand people once lived here, and now there is nobody. In a municipal swimming pool, the diving-board still arches gracefully over a tiled pit filled only with broken glass and debris. In the palace of culture, books lie torn and scattered across the shelves: a moment of panic, frozen. In the rusted tangle of what was once a funfair, you find a child’s shoe on the tarmac: only one.

The most doleful place of all is the school. The floor and tables in every classroom are carpeted with papers: essays, projects, drawings, exercise books half-filled, textbooks half-deteriorated. The little artworks of children who either had to grow up in a foreign city or were denied that chance by the radioactive dust. Things that once held so much importance to some unknown person are now just another fleck in a sea of nuclear debris. Worse still are the toys, the dolls and soldiers that slump forlornly in dusty corners or gleefully display their pathos on desk tops. Then, at the top of a flight of stairs, two crates full of gas masks: a brute intrusion of the catastrophe itself into this poignant little mausoleum.


These children lived in a different world. Hammer-and-sickles decorate the corners of their drawings; in one of their art classrooms you find a student’s piece: a lino print of a stylised missile, superimposed with the words нет бомби. The Soviet Union of 1986 was not a worker’s paradise, but the students of Prypiat were still taught that theirs was a society dedicated to the emancipation of humanity, the erasure of alienation, the resolution of antagonisms, to peace and socialism. It was no such thing, of course, but here and there it made its successes, and in Prypiat you can gain the tiniest of glimpses into the Soviet Union as seen from the inside: not as the menacing bear spreading its claws across Europe and Asia, with nuclear warheads tipping its canines, but as a place where a trace of the October Revolution’s optimism and hope for a better society still lingered on. A failure, yes, ultimately, but one at least still haunted by its own spectre.

Back, then, to the prosperous swarm of Kiev. In Independence Square, an old woman, shawled, hunched over, her clothes stained, her legs mottled with purple veins, her arms dappled with sagging skin, the muck of the streets ingrained in the creases on her face, carrying a stinking plastic bag by one shaking withered talon-like hand, shambles from bin to bin, rummaging for glass bottles. Above, the billboards blare out their stern commandments: to enjoy, to be lovin’ it. This is the victory of the West, this is the triumph of freedom. Here, in the bright liberal business-friendly centre of the New Europe, you can find the true ruins of Communism. In the sylvan tranquillity of Chernobyl, something of it still lives.

I am not making an introductory post

Have some music instead

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