Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: October, 2011

On self-expression

Check this out:

My world is falling, crumbling apart, life is meaningless & that’s just the start
My hearts so sore, I can feel it breaking & I swear to god it leaves me shaking
Late at night till early in the morning, lying in bed eyes wide open. Didn’t sleep last night, like all the others, instead I just lie crying in the covers
Quick, wipe away all the tears before they come near. must hide this depression & the feelings of fear
For all they know I’m happy & always smiling, but deep inside my soul is dying
I can feel it rotting, it wants to scream, but I won’t let it… not for the time being
I can never tell them how I feel cause the happiness I wear to them is real
For them to hear that I wish I was dead… it would kill them, they’d be filled with dread
So I’ll try my best no to be selfish, I’ll keep my secret hidden & just let them rest
but god I can’t take it much longer… I’ll probably be dead before they even wonder.

The teenage author of this poem, as much as they might object, is not really taking off the mask of their day-to-day ‘false’ persona and letting their real unique self shine through in all its tortured tragedy. They are, in fact, simply putting on another mask: their ‘true’ ‘hidden’ self is as much a construct as the face they show to those around them, and this constructed identity is constituted of all manner of external influences: the hegemonic image of the ‘teenager’, music, cinema, television, and, not least, other poems like this one, which are speckled about the Internet like chewing gum and bird shit on a pavement. This example is just one of a brimming ocean of such poems: all employing the same metaphors, using the same key words, expressing the same sentiments. The hormonal turbulence of adolescence and the alienation that pervades society is not enough to account for the sheer homogeneity on display. They are all fundamentally intertextual, in constant dialogue with each other and with other forms of art, creating between them a holographic projection of decentralised teenagerhood. In writing, the author of this piece is adopting the conventions of depression, moulding herself into a particular archetype. It’s not that the depression felt is somehow unreal, but in its articulation it undergoes a culturally informed metamorphosis. Her poem is not an example of art as a form of self-expression, but of the self as something produced by art.

Alexander Semionov, smashing lazy assumptions about socialist realism like Chuck Norris with a paintbrush. I’m not actually going to talk about this painting but I think it’s pretty good

I point all this out because the teenage angst-poem is held to be a paradigm case of art-as-self-expression, and it is in fact nothing of the sort. Writers and artists do not produce their works in a vacuum. A work of art does not emerge from some cloistered part of the soul in which Pure Emotion quivers, unseen by the rest of the world. Artists are not nexuses of infinite subjectivity. They are conduits through which the fabric of ideas and aesthetics that surrounds them achieves its self-actualisation. Art is composed of references and reactions to tradition or the prevailing conventions of the time (sometimes along with outright theft). This holds true for every facet of art: the teenager’s work above is as much informed by cultural norms and the pre-existing canon as Eliot’s frenzied patchwork-poetry. The function of art has never been unadulterated self-expression but always communication. A work of art is a dialogue between creator and viewer; it is at the point of interaction between the two that the actual creation of art takes place. Good art doesn’t just look nice: it is a palimpsest, a space of continual reinscription. A painting locked up in a safety deposit box is not art, it’s just a bunch of chemicals smeared on a canvas. For something to be art it must be engaged with.

Against this, however, we have the Cult of the Artist, which continues to insist that we must know about Van Gogh’s ear to understand his paintings, which situates the Timeless Artist outside his milieu, which upholds individual self-expression as the ultimate source of all art. This obsession has had its opponents from Keats to Barthes, but still it persists: discredited in academia, it hangs on in galleries and auction houses, it dominates the way art is taught in schools, and forms the underlying narrative for the presentation of art to the public.

We don’t always blindly follow the Cult of the Artist, however. When it comes to artefacts from ‘ethnic’ or aboriginal cultures (usually those we Westerners pushed to the edge of extinction and are now equally intent on preserving in some kind of cultural stasis) there’s no consideration for individual artistry or for self-expression. In the popular examination of such works, an emphasis is placed on social function that is unseen in the criticism of contemporary and Western pieces. Art is seen as being representative not of an individual but of an entire culture, as if every member of the tribe gets together to make bone-carvings or tapestries as a commune. This is the case even in instances when such works are exercises in bragging, monuments to shamanistic prowess like the Mojave Desert petroglyph pictured above.

This distinction encodes the idea that ‘our’ art doesn’t actually fulfil any social function. What happens, though, when artists themselves start to buy into their own cult? What happens when, conscious of the existing traditions, they nonetheless attempt to express their Sovereign Indivisible Self? You get asemic awfulness like abstract expressionism, works that sell for millions but that have no discernible aesthetic or semiotic qualities, shit like this:

Jackson Pollock, Aftermath of a Marathon Masturbation Session, oil on canvas, 1950

Here we find the artist so engrossed with the idea that they must be expressing themselves and their hidden inner feelings through art that they forget to actually express anything, let alone communicate. This work induces no emotional response and has no intellectual content; any meaning it might have contained is intelligible only to its creator. If I’m picking on Jackson Pollock here it’s simply because he was by far the worst of the bunch, allowing his vaunted apolitical self-expression to be used as an ideological weapon by the CIA, who believed his series of overpriced squiggles to embody the personal freedom that can (of course) only be realised through the market economy. In a way, they were right: individualism suffuses the work; it’s self-expression for its own sake, empty and meaningless.

I’m not trying to argue against abstraction itself. There are plenty of artworks even within the expressionist school that are communicative rather than simply expressionistic; but there remains a distressing trend in contemporary art for pieces so wrapped up in their self-expressive qualities that they make any attempt at hermeneutics impossible. As a counter-example, take a work by Kandinsky, one of the pioneers of abstraction:

Wassily Kandinsky, Now That’s How You Fucking Do It, oil on canvas, 1923

In contrast to Pollock, Kandinsky’s abstraction (and even his expressionism) opens up a space for interpretation rather than snuffing it out. We are not commanded to stoke the painter’s ego by trying to imagine how he was feeling as he slapped pigment against parchment. The frozen explosion of lines and colours by themselves communicate a sense of unrestrained exaltation, an emotion not just felt by the artist but induced in the viewer; around its edges we find shapes that could almost be recognisable objects but that stop short of actual representation; in the interplay of organic and geometric forms a strange harmony emerges.

The Futurists of the early 20th Century wanted to burn all the galleries and destroy all the cluttering art of the past (it’s a cruel irony that futurism is now just one of the many aesthetic modes for contemporary art to draw influence from). Perhaps it would be better to leave all the art of the past centuries exactly where it is, but rip the informational labels from gallery walls, blot out the name of the author on every book jacket, to encourage expression, but without the self.

Requiem: Dies iRae

Fig. 1: Infinite fractal reflexivity

There’s a sickeningly hagiographical article in today’s Guardian on the late Steve Jobs and how he ‘changed capitalism,’ courtesy of philosopher Julian Baggini. It’s crude to speak ill of the recently deceased, so I won’t waste too much space pointing out that Steve Jobs made his millions selling consumer goods nobody really needs manufactured in Chinese sweatshops where the workers (clearly not tranquillised into contentment by our clean friendly iFuture) kept on committing suicide. But even within the parameters of obituary, there’s something grotesquely saccharine in Baggini’s article:

Capitalism looks different because of what Jobs’s company achieved. His company challenges both lazy market orthodoxies and idealistic anti-capitalist critiques. In general terms it is true that all these challenges have found voice and expression in our culture elsewhere. But with Jobs they were given a clearer, louder expression, backed up by the incontrovertible evidence his life and company produced. The world may well have been different without Jobs: not so far forward as we are, less beautiful, more in tune with the lowest common denominator. If we found ourselves in that world right now, of course, we would recognise it. But we might not love it quite so much.

Baggini seems to think that Apple’s resistance to the open-source movement somehow proved to the world that quality products demand a premium price, rather than simply showing that a business run along such lines can be successful – and from this somehow draws the conclusion that non-hierarchial modes of production don’t work. At the same time he argues that Jobs’s visionary leadership struck a blow for the Great Man theory against neoliberal models of market forces, because while without him we would still have had mp3 players and tablet computers, they might not have had so much brushed aluminium and those Nice Friendly Rounded Edges we demand in all our consumer products these days. I mean, can you imagine if instead of an iPod everyone had a Zune? What a vale of tears this world would be. This is a shoddily shallow analysis, one blinded by its narrow focus on its phenomenological qualities of capitalism rather than the relations that constitute its actual substance. Steve Jobs didn’t change capitalism, he stuck to its guidebook with unwavering diligence. Style over substance, branding over utility, outsourced production, continually intensifying rate of exploitation, the relentless pursuit of new markets and new profits, all washed down with a syrupy semi-mystical techno-guruism. Henry Ford revolutionised the means of production and the superstructural society that emerges from it. Charging high prices and insisting on proprietary rights does not constitute a restructuring of our economic system. Jobs was an exemplar of the cultural dimensions of late capitalism, but little else.

Across the world, dedicated iVangelicals are leaving flowers outside Apple stores. It’s appropriate, in a way: buried in this gesture is the recognition that Steve Jobs was not so much a man as a projection thrown up by his products. This is commodity fetishism taken to its logical conclusion – products are imbued with so much importance that they take possession of their inventor; not content with mere reification, they eat him from the inside out.

RIP Ms Hou, Liu Bing, Mr Li, Ma Xiang-Qian, Mr Li, Tian Yu, Mr Lau, Rao Shu-Quin, Ms Ling, Lu Xin, Zhu Chen-Ming, Liang Chao, Nan Gan, Li Hai, Mr He, Mr Chen, Mr Liu, Wan Ling, Mr Cai, and two whose names are unknown


Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do

We did it all Dismas and I we took ‘em all I’m not sorry out in the desert we’d wait for the caravans and ride on over slice ‘em across the throat real quick the poor fuckers they had no idea we were coming before we were there and then we’d ride off with their stuff all the camels everything the camels never once faltered they never looked perturbed they don’t give a shit about people frankly and if you ask me they’ve got the right idea I’m not sorry sometimes we were out in the desert for days on end drinking as little as possible thinking about eating our horses the first time I did it with Dismas I was ashamed it’s an abomination I said we’re bandits he said we’re evil in the sight of God anyway and back in Jerusalem we got some whores and I felt better and eventually I wasn’t ashamed at all it’s not like I wasn’t brought up right or nothing our mum knew right from wrong all right she’d never fail to impress the wickedness of my actions on me she could swing a rod like nobody’s business I guess that’s why I went out into the desert because if I’m so bad I might as well do it properly but also because what the fuck else was there to do I could have joined the legions and died in some fetid bog up along the Rhine by the sword of some half-naked barbarian for an emperor who’d never know my name for the fucking Romans who killed my old man or I could hang around in Jerusalem doing odd jobs and living hand to mouth fuck that I’m not sorry every time we came back we’d get completely pissed on that good wine only the Romans can afford and get some girls and I’d see my mum and she’d cry that always left me feeling weird like someone had scooped out all my guts but it’s the life I chose and this is the death I chose too even if I didn’t realise it at the time I’m not sorry

Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise

When they first hammer the nails in it’s all you can think about the pain screams at you it blocks out everything you can’t see there’s nothing except you and the pain but it fades it fades everything does until it’s just a dull ache and after a few hours you forget about your wrists and your feet because it’s every part of your body hurting now being stretched out every time you take a breath you can feel it in your stomach your legs your arms they start to ache but it’s a slow ache you’ve got time to reflect all the time in the world you can hardly speak though it hurts too much but Dismas is trying he’s trying to talk to Yeshua kook if you ask me never had any time for God myself all those priests up in the Temple eating the burnt-offerings they’ve got a pretty good racket going on next to them I’m holier than fucking Ezekiel and Yeshua’s lot I liked even less because they all had this terrifying sincerity about them like they actually believed and all that shit about no more rich men and no more poor men well that’d put me right out of business wouldn’t it if there were no more rich men to steal from I can’t see Yeshua’s face from here but I bet he’s got that look of smug serenity and I croak out even though it hurts so much save us I say if you’re the Messiah then save us why don’t you and Dismas turns to me and I see the sweat running down his face and his blood clotting in the pores of the wood and he says we deserve this Gestas we fucking deserve this we killed all those people and Yeshua ain’t done a thing wrong Dismas of all people coming up with this shit it was his idea to start with I liked the money and the leisure but I think he really enjoyed it when we robbed those people he got off on the violence and he turns to Yeshua and says I believe in you don’t forget me and Yeshua says he says he

Woman, behold thy son!

The aching is worse but I can still see not Dismas he can’t his head is bowed down I think he’s unconscious not sure  his ribcage is still rippling under his chest still breathing I feel betrayed almost but I can’t blame the guy if he really thinks Yeshua can get us into Paradise I envy him there’s people around Yeshua’s cross women disciples his little band of weirdos and outcasts wailing and sobbing soldiers too of course holding them back there’s nobody weeping for me most of the mob’s gone now I thought they were there for us but it was for Yeshua although a good heavy rock to the head would send me off nicely right now better than the alternative if you know what I mean and then down the hill from Golgotha there’s the brown smudge of Jerusalem all the smoke coming out from all the chimneys across the city the whole place is choked by its own miasma and the sounds drifting up an amorphous hubbub the squawk of chickens the cries of traders the clacking of carts everything sourceless formless it swirls around me the Temple though you can see the Temple its crenulated walls with their big cyclopean stones it rises right out of the noxious haze it seems to burn in the sunlight yellow and gold the thin black line of smoke from the burnt-offerings while in the cloud below a thousand colours swirl in the gyre you can’t see exactly where it ends but the hills rising up all around soft and green somewhere in them a little stream is winding merrily through the trees hares are dancing the air is full of the joyful buzzing of the insects everything is throbbing with the sheer vitality of it all there are no trees here no shade only dry earth and rocks scattered about and the holes in the ground where they plant the crosses the dirt is stained sienna piebald with dried blood when the wind picks up it blows all about my face I close my eyes but it still gets in my nose my mouth tastes of my own breath so dry my sweat-salt crystallises everywhere I itch all over so dry

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

The wave of darkness I saw it cross the hills sweep across the forests wipe clean across the city I’m plunged into it the sun’s changed now it’s a thin ring of light and just black in the middle fuck everything’s dark it’s like an eye the eye of God looking down and I shrivel up before its gaze yes I have done wrong yes I have sinned every evil thing I have done it and I am sorry I really am I know I cannot be forgiven cast me into Sheol let me wail in its darkness for eternity only avert Your eye I can’t face its accusation I can’t bear Your presence everyone’s terrified the soldiers too the disciples are praying because they all know that they’ve done wrong they all feel the interrogation of its eschatological gaze I can see them cower I can still see my body is a pallid purple glistening like a cadaver but from him from him from Yeshua there’s a glow faint but there’s a glow tendrils of light barely visible spiral around his head they reach out to the disciples to the Romans too even them encircling them winding around them all over Dismas caressing his face not to me though not to me I know I don’t deserve it I wonder if they can see it or if it’s only me shapes now bursting out phantasms made of light they’re

I thirst

Everything I can see everything still I don’t understand galaxies collide stars burn and fade nebulae swirl and on our little rock our tiny island in a vast empty sea our pinprick speck hanging in the middle of so much emptiness we pull ourselves up from protozoa to Praetors from eukaryotes to Yehudim apes band together and shed their fur they build cities they crucify people outside the walls Golgotha this planet the rock of the skull I don’t understand

It is finished

Torn concrete and the mangled wrecks of cars rubble in every corner no surface is even fractures everywhere fissures running across the ground the churning swirling blackness of the sky not black not black exactly the dim light of the sun up there somewhere its light diffused in the cloud so all its furrows glow with an unearthly light that cloud looking more solid more real than the ruins the broken glass the chunks of concrete the twisted steel littered about in the jagged husks of the skyscrapers a few fires still burn flashes of orange scattered across the scorched landscape the only colour nothing is alive here no birds no insects there’s only the wreckage the charred skeletal trees the bones and the ash hanging in the air twirling in the wind finally coming to rest like it’s snowing heaping on the branches of the dead trees more now a flurry of ash carpeting the craggy ground make it smooth again blanketing the burnt-out tanks the contorted cars hide their shame make everything white again make it white and blank I can see everything still I don’t understand the mud a sea of mud shells bursting overhead the sky glowing with artillery a group of men running across the mud rifles in hand they are mired in its stench a machine-gun rattles and they fall they sink into the mud and in the distance far off but visible villages and vineyards trucks rattling over the unpaved roads I can see men with arms like sticks in striped shirts clinging to barbed wire eyes blank just looking stripped of all feeling not speaking I can see a wooden ship crammed with people shitting and vomiting in cramped cages gaping sores seeping pus rocked by a tumultuous ocean I can see soldiers in red uniforms before a moaning crowd children clinging to their mothers’ saris they fire gunsmoke billows and there is silence I can see a line of people their hands bound slowly walking up the steps of a pyramid to an altar where a man cuts out their hearts with an obsidian knife I can see the riders of the steppe bursting into the city I can see helicopters clattering over thatched roofs I can see missiles streaking through the sky I can see arrows arcing over the green fields I can see Cain weeping over the body of his brother I can see everything but still I don’t understand

Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit

When I was ten years old I stole a trinket from a market stall a ring I think I didn’t know why I just saw it and took it and afterwards I walked with a strange gait like I wasn’t sure if I should be slouching with shame or striding triumphantly I had this feeling like an insect was gnawing away at me from the inside I showed the ring to Dismas and he said it wasn’t real gold and I said it looked cool anyway and I wore it on my finger just to show him and later that day near dusk when the slow-burning sun drapes a golden veil over the whole city I ran into the market-trader’s son and some of his friends and they recognised me at once and really laid into me they kicked the shit out of me I didn’t cry though even when I was spitting blood I didn’t cry because I remembered my dad didn’t cry when the Romans nailed him up for sedition I limped back home scuffed and bleeding my lip swollen one of my eyes all bloodshot none of the people on the street paid me any attention it wasn’t their business they didn’t want to get involved but when I got home my mum made an awful fuss she was wailing and raging and I told her everything the whole story and she didn’t get out her rod to strike me for stealing she wrapped her arms around me and I cried finally I cried and she said it’s OK now you are safe you are forgiven you are safe and I was I was home and I was safe and I was forgiven.

Stevie Cobb and her Incredible Rhizomatic Orchestra

four in the morning in nasville tennessee.  stevie cobb is deconstructing the keyboard. stevie cobb is dreaming strange dreams. stevie cobb is metabolising glycogen. stevie cobb can do several things at once. stevie cobb is a multiplicity of multiplicities.

silence. the faint dusty smell of an empty theatre. the slightly mournful stage lights bright. all bright. on stevie cobb’s shirt the dandruff. sparkling. on stevie cobb’s arms the fine network of wrinkles. bits of piano everywhere. reels of piano wire. keys scattered all over the wooden floor dispersed. like teeth after a bar fight. the brooding tenebrosity of the concert hall behind her seethes. the hazy orange light coming in through the windows. casting strange shapes on the opposite walls. stevie cobb is deconstructing the keyboard.

the problem with the keyboard is that it is a series of channels. blighted by organicity. entire purpose is to channel and direct musical flows. impede lines of flight. arborescent sequencing built into its construction. but you need a piano. there’s not a piano part in the piece the orchestra is to perform. you need a piano. so you have to deconstruct the keyboard. find the subtext of the piano. probe apart its internal contradictions. start with the black and white notes. a binary in urgent need of expansion. stevie cobb rewires the black and white notes. white notes sound flat and sharp now. but that’s just inversion. make them multiple. there’s a lot to do.

it’s two in the afternoon before the keyboard has been fully deconstructed. light in the windows. people bustling about around her. the light here always has the consistency of treacle. it doesn’t pour in bright and clean like water from a tap. slides down the walls. heavy light. it’s clammy. the sweat of pride. droplets that cover stevie cobb’s forehead. like thorns. like blisters. she pulls back the cloth. behold the schizopiano! there’s only seven strings now. one for each octave. and a sliding mechanism. stevie cobb holds a pedal. runs her hands along the keyboard. hinges churn. mechanical arms sweep up and down from inside the piano. it seems to be working. stevie cobb releases the pedal and plays the first couple of bars from the finale of rachmaninov’s third piano concerto.

dum da-dum da-dum-da-dum-da-daa da (ba bee boop boop ba bee boop boop) DUM da-dum da-dum da-dum-da-dum-da-daa…

players applaud. it’s not quite the same. the sound is different. notes almost melt into each other. like a steel guitar. stevie cobb is pleased with it. could have done more. could have prised apart the false unity of the note. have the whole piano play a single note. b flat.  for instance. every key a different imagining of b flat. different timbres. different moods. you’d need eighty-eight schizopianos. but it would work. the chords that would sound out from such an array! she’d need to write scores in three dimensions. time note emotion. next time.

still work to be done. for a start. how can you deterritorialise a bassoon? how do you situate it away from its bassoonicity? stevie cobb flicks the bassoon with a single serrated fingernail. you have to see beyond the bassoon. you have to consider the bassoon as what it could be rather than what it is. what is the body without organs of a bassoon? how are we to go about precipitating the bassoon’s becoming-other? start by considering everything the bassoon is not. find the break. the line of separation. feel for its molar segmentarity. then dehierarchialise it. smooth out its striated space. what isn’t a bassoon? it’s not a castle. a light-bulb. it’s not a. a. not a. a fish. it’s not a fish. turn the bassoon into a fish. give it gills. in a frenzy stevie cobb stabs the bassoon with a boxcutter denting tearing. give it gills.

so much to do. some of the players are worried. the performance is tonight and stevie cobb is still modifying the instruments. they know of course that ‘performance’ as an event situated in space and time is a structural construct. they know they must operate according to nomadological principles. they know they must tunnel through the various striations. performance. concert hall. audience. wipe them smooth. but still. the performance is tonight. and stevie cobb is still modifying the instruments.

some of them are practicing. but sometimes stevie cobb comes up behind them and grabs the instrument out of their hands seize it. she’ll peer at the thing as if she can’t quite understand what it is. look at all the other ways you can make sound from this. listen to this. she raps on the body of the cello knuckles tapping hollow. a musical instrument is a text. it has its dominant readings. it has its subversive readings. it can be deconstructed. maybe hit yourself over the head with it. she demonstrates. listen. it’s sonorous.

has stevie cobb gone mad?

the performance. people cluster in the lobby. black jackets. white shirts. black dresses. red shoes. cologne. lipstick. a smell. cigarette smoke. malt whiskey. perfume. stevie cobb designed the posters herself. debussy’s la mer. big letters. as performed by stevie cobb’s incredible rhizomatic orchestra. small letters. laura turner concert hall. schermerhorn symphony center. nashville tennessee.

stevie cobb watches them file in. sitting on the podium. small puddle of warm light around her. boxer shorts. grubby t-shirt. skinny legs pale. bristling with fine hairs pale. dandruff. scratches her hair. she hopes there’s a riot. she’d give anything for a riot.

madames et messieurs. sous votre siège il y a une flûte. il peut faire beaucoup de sons. les frapper les uns contre les autres. si vous voulez. some of the audience don’t understand at first. but as their neighbours retrieve the flutes they too reach under their seats. they hold them in their laps. perturbed. we will not play music to you. we reject the false binary of performer and audience. play your flutes. at any time. any way you want. play them now.



one. two. one two three four.

first movement. de l’aube à midi sur la mer. soft. low. brass quiver. shimmering waves of strings. crescendo almost reached. back down. rolling. those in the audience who know the piece sit with an air of studied recognition. the sounds are all a little different. but not too different. a clarinettist rips two pages from his score. suddenly he is playing a triumphant major theme. others follow suit. scores upside down turned. cymbal spins over the audience like a discus. like a frisbee. crash against the far wall. paint and plaster shower down. the whole piece being played at once. no discord though. rhizomaticity is not atonality. swells and lapses still. melodies intertangling. stevie cobb licks her baton. the oboe a plodding melody. stops. silence. cymbalist swings the remaining cymbal by one edge. smashes it against the xylophonist’s head. all instruments burst into sound. drag the players along with them. a glorious swell. you can pick out one instrument. listen to its melody alone for a few seconds. then let it sink back into the harmonious cacophony. or listen to the strings as they cut angles across each other. or the vocalists coughing melodiously. the contrabassoonist and the tubist are kissing passionately. they swap instruments and return to their music. then break again to resume.

first flute notes waft from the audience.

stevie cobb remembers. the old white house in the catskills. running through the forest scabbed knees. climbing the cliffs. blood and mud. why don’t you play with dolls like all the other girls. remembers. later. mrs elderman the piano teacher. stephanie you need to play according to the score. the music rises like the mountains. the flutes. the audience. lofty trees packed like commuters on trains. undulating. and in the autumn the screeching tumult of red and orange and brown. cloud-carpets of leaves. someone rushes on stage from the audience. starts to play the schizopiano. the prickling of leaves on her back as she lay with adam on the forest floor. that summer she saw the sea for the first time. fourteen. a tidal wave of flute music from the audience. like a single note. the music twisting sinuously around it. until the last line of flight stretches out to infinity and the surging sea is stilled. first movement over. a lingering air of melancholy.

the audience leaps to its feet. applause commotion. so daring. so inventive. so unusual. so exciting. what an experience.

the first gentle notes of the second movement. jeux de vagues. scherzo. audience waiting for the furore to begin again. giving them permission to join in. licensed anarchy. structured rhizomaticity. safely ensconced in the soft prison of culture. what fun.

stevie cobb sits dejected. it’s all working perfectly. they loved it. it has been a failure, an utter failure.

Zarathustra in Basel

The clear streams sing no more in the mountains, and the lush pastures of the plains shudder as articulated lorries rumble along the Autobahn.

Zarathustra is silent in the communal sitting-room of the Pflegeheim. The chilly winds of eternal recurrence have blown the hair from his head, and now only a dank grey fringe hangs limply down the back of his neck. His crown is scabbed and speckled, the sharp blue of his eyes has faded to beige, his lips quiver arhythmically. Only his nose still juts forward accusingly: a faint shadow of the ferociousness with which his eyes once interrogated those he spoke to lingers on in its haughty bend.

Once he had walked in the hills and the deserts, and had loved every thing that he saw. He had exulted in the poetry of the brooks and the mournful whisperings of the swirling sands. He had drunk deeply the cold water of the mountains, he had strode boldly through the dappled forests. He had walked on tightropes and danced on embers, and everywhere he went he would spread his teaching. Zarathustra scorned all morality and weakness, Zarathustra would never look behind him, Zarathustra would always surge on forward, in Zarathustra’s voice could be heard the screech of the eagle that embraces its freedom and the roar of the bear that does not hide from its own power. Except now there are no more rocky landscapes to traverse, and in front of him there leers a void. Once he might have plunged himself gleefully into that chasm. Now, for the first time, Zarathustra is afraid.

Zarathustra stares out the window. Across the street, rows of identical suburban houses behind neatly trimmed lawns. Clustered round them are globular cars, wheelie-bins, milk-bottles, plastic toys. Behind, the grey shape of the Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical factory, and in the hazy distance, the outline of the Basler Messeturm. There are mountains out there, somewhere in the distance, high peaks and jagged cliffs, glistening with ice, soaring through cloudless skies, bold and terrifying, the precipitous haunts of hawks and wolves. He can’t see them.

There’s a nurse. Perhaps she has always been there.

– Would you like us to bring you your lunch, Herr Köhler?

– Herr Köhler? I am Zarathustra. I am the imp dancing in the heart of the flames, I am the triumphant roar of the gale, I am the thunder of hooves and the surging of the sea. I am life itself. I drink only the pure light of the heavens. I eat only in the joyful company of my companions.

Only he doesn’t speak. The words roar in Zarathustra’s head, but his throat seizes up, and from his lips only a broken mumbling emerges. Maybe it’s because he almost doesn’t believe it any more.

– I’ll just get that for you, shall I?

Zarathustra never used to look over his shoulder at what he had left behind. Even if he came to the same place twice he would always find it different. Zarathustra never used to be remotely concerned with being or with essence, because he knew that everything around him was always becoming, always reaching out to be something greater. Now Zarathustra is trying to remember. Now Zarathustra is trying to remember who he is. He had been a Persian once, a wanderer, a lofty firebrand. And a Prussian, too, a solitary genius racked by frailties. But there are other faces and other images, his old class at Weiterbildungsschule, his commander during Militärdienst, the brown and avocado tiling of his bungalow – there’s no order to them, no sense. They are not Zarathustra’s memories.

– Here you go.

The nurse is holding a tray in front of him. In one little compartment, doughy-looking potatoes and semi-disintegrated beans. In another some shreds of stringy meat wallow in a puddle of gravy. A plastic cup half-filled with water, and three pills in red and purple capsules. It isn’t food: food must nourish the spirit as much as the body, it must leave a man feeling refreshed and vigorous. This is just matter, sustenance to stave off death for another day. It is smallness and mediocrity. He will not eat it. Zarathustra shakes his head.

– Am I going to have to feed you myself?

Balancing the tray in one hand, the nurse scoops up a forkful of meat and potatoes and brings it towards Zarathustra’s face.

– Open wide.

Zarathustra’s arm jerks out, he strikes the bottom of the tray with the last of his anger. Gravy splatters the nurse’s blouse, water drenches her face, potatoes slide down the front of her skirt. She storms out. Zarathustra isn’t proud of what he’s done, there’s no nobility in striking the small-minded, but he’s relieved that some dying glint of the Will still burns within him. He’s not been defeated, not yet.

The nurse returns, thin-lipped, cold-eyed. Kindness and humanity can only go so far. She tries so hard to help the old man, to keep him warm and safe and fed, but he seems incapable of gratitude. He doesn’t want to be helped. She knows that he’d appreciate the effort she puts in for him if he were in his right mind. She is a caring and selfless woman, even if hers is a thankless job. Two hundred milligrams of thioridazine for Zarathustra.

The machine

It’s early when I wake up. I’m dehydrated, there’s a clammy taste in my mouth, but I’m not too hungover. It’s better, actually: if I’d drunk enough water the night before I’d have slept through my alarm clock, and as a writer it’s important that I get in to work on time. It’s not long after dawn, but the cold bright Moscow light is already shining through my curtains.

Ludmilla, my landlady, is already up, frying eggs in the kitchen.

“I didn’t hear you come in last night,” she says.

“I was quite late,” I tell her. “I’m sorry.”

She chuckles, showing her fractured row of coffee-stained teeth. “You artists,” she says. “You’re all such bohemians. Drunk all night, dishevelled in the morning… reminds me of my youth.”

I look down at myself. I hadn’t thought I looked too bad: my boiler suit is freshly pressed, and I’ve had a shave. Ludmilla is busying herself about the kitchen, salting the eggs, slicing bacon, boiling water. “Coffee?” she asks.

“Thanks,” I say. “Have the newspapers come in yet?”

“Only Izvestiya.”

“That’s fine.”

After breakfast, I take the tram to work. Early as it is, it’s already full. Minor Party functionaries in trim suits sit on the hard chairs, reading Pravda. I glance at the headlines over their shoulders. In front of me a fat babushka in an ugly floral blouse and a shawl sways with the jerking motion of the tram, at one point staggering backwards into me. She mumbles an apology through her gums.

Getting off the tram, I can see my workplace hanging ponderously on the horizon. The Pushkin All-Soviet Literature Factory sits heavily above the rest of Smolenskaya. The old six-storey buildings with their cracking paint, criss-crossed by tram lines and telephone wires, look like a gaggle of peasant huts under the shadow of an opulent gold-domed church. From some of the more narrow streets close by you can’t see it at all, until you turn a corner and there it is: lurking at the end of the boulevard, rising haughtily above the cityscape around you, its broad smokestack plunging blasphemously into the crystalline morning skies. It was built in the early years of the Revolution, I think, when stark modernism was still considered a virtue in architecture. I’ve seen old photos: back then, there was something quite elegant about its simple angularity, its sheer smooth sides folding together to form a vast tapering roof. Stalin hated it, of course: in the thirties, he had the smooth concrete faces overlaid with crinkly columns and false windows; he put onion domes on its four corners in the hope that they would detract attention from the huge chimney. It’s a shame, but what can we do? I’ve thought about petitioning the managing committee to restore the old façade, but there’s precious little money in the state coffers for architectural renovation these days.

Off to work, then. I walk down Kompozitorskaya to the factory, clocking in by the heavy wrought-iron gates that ring the building. “Morning, comrade,” says the guard. “Good morning,” I say. Past the freight bay, where a big lorry growls steadily as two men in overalls carry a pallet of magnetic tapes to be taken out to the printers, under the wide arch of the main entrance, into the factory floor. There are no windows here, but it’s bright and cool: a hundred or so fluorescent lamps hang down from the ceiling, and fans slice through the sweaty air. In the middle of the floor sits the Machine. Its tendrils reach out into every corner: conveyor belts stretch diagonally from the offices in the upper floors, pipes and wires come in from all sides, forming an electric web in which the giant spider-Machine sits, whirring. From its centre a single brass tube reaches out to the ceiling: this is where the steam and fumes from the underground generator are passed out through the smokestack.

During my first week at the job, I was shown round the whole Factory. The technicians explained in slightly condescending language exactly how every part worked and how they fitted in to the grand operation. I don’t remember much of it now: the vodka isn’t good for my memory, and I’ve never been much of a mechanically-inclined man – I am a writer, after all. But I’ll try to explain its workings as best I can.

The Factory produces novels at a rate of between three and five a day. Many of these are rejected at Quality Control, of course, but that’s still an impressive number, proof that mechanisation works in all areas of life. In the Concept Office is a huge punch-card computer. In the founding days of the Factory a team of typists was marshalled to input the basic details of hundreds of thousands of novels: Russian and international, popular and literary, classic and contemporary. More novels are still being added, of course: those from the Factory that have won particular acclaim or sold particularly well, and those from abroad that get past the censors. This information forms the computer’s database, a set of numbers that it continually re-arranges. When the computer comes up with a concept that one of the literature commissars in the office considers viable, it produces a punch-card which is sent on to Development. There, a series of engines take the basics – genre, plot structure, setting, hero, antagonist – and flesh them out. There’s a new computer there (made with American technology, although nobody likes to admit that) for creating characters based on not only the complex figures of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, but Freudian and Lacanian theory. Also in Development is a machine running an algorithm that produces titles and generates a name for the novel’s supposed author. This data is sent on to Structure, where another set of engines reconfigure it into chapters and paragraphs. Finally, a series of punch-cards is sent out to all the relevant areas on the factory floor, where hundreds of workers with their various machines do the messy work of actually writing the story. It’s all stored on magnetic tape. One final machine stitches together all the various fragments produced across the Factory into a single coherent story. Once it’s finished, two reels are sent out: one to the printers, and one to the Criticism Factory in Leningrad, where a similar array of machines condenses the novel for a review to be published in the Literaturnaya Gazeta.

It’s all very efficient, but I can understand that some people might find it a little soulless too. Surely great literature can only be produced by the mind of a single genius? Surely a machine can never do the work of a poet? But the fact is that the Machine writes very good books. The more literary ones are reviewed in foreign journals, in countries where nobody knows about the Factory: the Americans gush about the soul of freedom buried just below the surface of the text, the enduring libertarian sensitivity that survives Communist oppression; the French, meanwhile, are similarly enthusiastic about the wealth of psychoanalytical readings offered, the delicate handling of complex philosophical problems. The British, it must be said, tend not to like them all that much, but even there the odd book will win some praise: The Skylarks, for instance, or The Last Passion of Vasily Fyodorovich. Why is this? Well, it’s not really the Machine that writes the books, it’s all of us: all of the thousand or so writers at the factory. The Machine is just the tool we use to express ourselves. Some of the finest literary minds of our generation are here, in blue boiler suits, cranking machinery and tightening conveyor belts.

I work on the dialogue gears. They’re near the front of the Machine: dialogue is one of the last things to be slotted in to the novel. The gears themselves form a tall chrome cylinder, around which a dozen or so workstations are laid. They make a clicking noise as they spin, the clicking of a hundred declarations of love, a thousand confrontations between fathers and sons, grandiose speeches, morose reflections, angst-ridden confessions. If you have an ear for it, you can tell what kind of dialogue is being produced by the tone of the clicking. Right now, the gears are clacking along at a fairly high speed, so it’s probably a popular novel, or maybe a less important exchange in something weightier. The noise is quite high-pitched too, coming from near the top of the cylinder: the larger deep characterisation gears at the bottom aren’t engaged. A trashy romance, I’d guess. But then after only a few seconds there’s a whirr and the gears fall silent – it’s only a very short exchange, so probably from a war story or a science-fiction adventure.

I sit down at my station and clock in again. The conveyor belt to my right hums into life. While I wait for my first assignment I chat to my neighbour a bit. Pyotr is a heavy-set man with a bristly moustache and a long mane of slicked-back hair. He wears his boiler suit with two buttons open, revealing a pale flabby chest dotted with hairs and the silver Orthodox cross he wears around his neck. We don’t agree on much: I think he considers me something of a naïve ideologue. We’re still good friends. Before the full mechanisation of literature Pyotr had been a poet, a romantic nationalist. One stanza of his became quite famous; it was chanted by soldiers during the Great Patriotic War. Before my time, of course.

The roaring gales of our land command you

The streams that cut through ice and snow

The pastures of your kinsmen implore you

Go on, to victory, go!

“Did you see Magda last night, then?” Pyotr asks.

“I did,” I say. “We went for a drink at that place off Khamovnichesky.”


I shake my head. Magda’s family is Czech, I think, or Polish. She works as a typist at the accounting department, and so far she’s rebuffed all my advances good-naturedly but firmly. She has a lover in the Navy, Valentin. He’s stationed at Vladivostok, and sends a tearful telegram once a week. She showed me a couple. They’re all rigidly formulaic, the same soppy dross every time, far less inventive or emotional than the love-letters the Machine produces.

“I don’t know what that girl’s thinking,” says Pyotr. “Her boy’s probably getting up to all sorts of shit out in the East. Brothels on every corner out in Vladivostok. Fucking sailors get all the fun, right?”

“She’ll come round,” I say.

“You just need to man up,” says Pyotr. “Grab her by the shoulders, tell her you’re madly in love with her. None of this taking her out for wine and pirozhki. You’ll only spoil her.”

“Vodka,” I say. “Not wine.”

Pyotr sniffs. “I like a girl who knows how to drink.”

The conveyor belt makes a clunking sound and deposits a punch-card in the tray. I examine it. The exchange I’m to write is for Where The Mountains Meet The Sky, a rural melodrama set around the time of the emancipation of the serfs. Not my favourite project, but better than the war thrillers that have come to dominate the Factory’s output. A line of code is printed along the top of the card: the dialogue is between Aleksandr Mikhailovich Nikiforov, a small landowner who wants to sell the family estate and move to the city, and Olga, his conservative mother.

“What’ve you got?” says Pyotr, peering over.

“Melodrama,” I say. “Look at these figures.” I show him the row of numbers. “Seven for register. Seven for intensity. Eight for statement length.”

“You’re such a snob,” says Pyotr. “You’d rather every book we wrote was just terse despair, wouldn’t you? You’re like a little Kafka.”

I chuckle a bit at that. There’s another whirr from the gear-cylinder, and it falls silent. It’s my turn. I walk up and reconfigure the dials, set the stylistic parameters, input the novel code, then slot in the card. As the wheels churn I smoke a cigarette, leaning against the cylinder itself, enjoying the feeling of its throb. Eventually it clanks to a halt and spits out a reel of magnetic tape, along with a paper copy of the dialogue I’ve just written. I have to proofread, of course, and make such adjustments as are needed: I am a writer, not a mechanic.

Olga, her head bent low by her misery, went to stand by the window of their dacha. “Look at all this, Aleksandr,” she moaned. “This is your land. This is the land your fathers fought with musket and sabre to protect. These fields you disparage so cruelly are nourished not only by the tenderness of the earth but by the blood of your heroic ancestors. How can you refuse so solemn a duty? How can you turn your back on the history of our family?”

“I see only dead black soil,” said Aleksandr Mikhailovich Nikiforov. “I see only the dismal weight of the centuries bearing down on us. Our history is a prison! Yes, I dare to say it! Our noble ancestors keep us in as much servitude as they did the serfs! They stare at us with a baleful eye from the portraits on our walls and fix us in our allotted place! Don’t you want to be free, Mother? Don’t you want to escape the tyranny of our past?”

“What freedom, my son, what freedom? You would exchange the wide expanse of our homeland for the gutters and filth of the city? You would walk with beggars and Jews on every corner? Oh, how could I have given birth to such a son, one who spits on the graves of his fathers? Forgive me, Lord, forgive me! Mikhail, forgive me for giving you so impetuous an heir!”

“Mikhail is dead, Mother. He is dead, and I will not allow him to rule over me from below the ground! The farm is mine now, and it is for me to decide what will be done with it. Your pitiful wailing will not alter the course I have chosen.”

As I read on the exchange intensifies, insults fly from both ends of the room, until Aleksandr, overcome by fury, grabs a rolling-pin – and there the dialogue ends, of course; the matricide itself has already been written, and if I want to read it I will have to buy the book.

It’s not exceptional, but it’ll do: I punch the card number into a keypad and send the roll of tape down another conveyor belt to be stitched into the rest of the novel. More cards arrive. Writing Where The Mountains Meet The Sky is more of a mindless labour than I like to admit. Others are more engaging; the parameters are looser. For quite a few I have to make several versions on the dialogue gears, pick one that I think works the best, then feed the tape into the gears again and make such alterations as are necessary. For literary texts this input is important. The dialogue gears are an advanced piece of machinery, but the imagery and metaphor cogs used are far more rudimentary than those elsewhere in the Machine, and sometimes a writer has to fill the gaps. That makes all the difference. It’s the difference between this:

 “You do give me happiness,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “But my sadness is so huge, it swallows up all the happiness you give me. I love you, Yuri, but my misery is stronger than your love. It’ll destroy you. That’s why I can’t stay.”

And this:

 “Yes,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “You do give me happiness. But you can’t ever make me happy. There’s a hollowness inside of me. There’s a black hole right at the heart of my soul, and it sucks in all the love and happiness you give me. If you keep me, and keep giving me all your love and all your joy, it’ll suck you in too. You’ll be left like me. Yuri, I love you too much to let that happen. If I stay with you I’ll swallow up your soul.”

Eventually a whistle sounds out, and it’s time for lunch. I go upstairs to meet Magda. She’s sitting alone in front of her typewriter at the accountancy department, her head cradled in her arms, sobbing gently.

“Are you alright?” I say.

She doesn’t say anything. She just dangles a thin piece of paper in front of me with a limp hand.

“What is it?” I say.

“It’s from Valentin,” she says. “How could he?” She collapses into tears. I read.


The time I spent with you was the happiest time of my life. Your letters gave me solace in this distant city. But we are both human, and we both have needs, and I think it would be better for both of us if we moved on to other people. I will not forget you.

With love,


“I know what he’s been doing,” spits Magda. “He’s been screwing some whore out in Vladivostok. I loved him. How could he?”

I put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go for a walk,” I say. “You’ll feel better.”

We go to Presnenskiy Park and sit on a bench in the shade, under the haughty gaze of one of the skyscrapers that cluster around the banks of the river. I’ve bought some blini, which we eat with sour cream. She moans some more about Valentin, while I try not to reveal my inner exultation. She’s not crying any more, at least.

“Let’s get some vodka,” she says suddenly.

“I do still have writing to do,” I say.

“And I still have counting. Come on, you old reactionary. I’ve just been dumped. I want to get drunk.”

She seems more cheerful as we walk to a café. It’s on Krasnaya Presnya, a busy road, and the passing apparatchiks and bureaucrats look at us with thinly veiled contempt as we sit with our glasses.

“To new beginnings,” says Magda.

“To new beginnings,” I say. We clink glasses and drink.

After the third glass Magda is positively exuberant. “To be honest,” she says, “I don’t know what I was doing all that time. Waiting for months on end for Valentin to come back when there are so many other people here in Moscow. Like you.”

She sidles up to me a little, and stares into my eyes for a moment. We kiss. My hand moves down from her shoulder to the small of her back, hers strokes the back of my neck.

“Decadents!” shouts an old woman further down the street. Magda draws away, embarrassed. She pours herself another glass.

We walk back to the Factory hand in hand. At the gate Magda plants a kiss on my cheek. “Meet me tonight,” she whispers.


“Here. At the Factory. After the whistle. When everyone’s gone. By the description generator.”

I walk – somewhat unsteadily, it must be said – back to the dialogue gears.

“You stink of booze,” says Pyotr. “I didn’t see you in the canteen. Where were you?”

“I went out with Magda,” I say. “To Krasnopresnenskaya.”

“That girl again? You’re wasting your time. There are so many other girls here. What about Anna at the plot-device device? She’s pretty. And single.”

“Magda’s not with Valentin any more. I’m seeing her tonight.”

That gets him interested, he rubs his belly. “Where?”

“Here. By the description generator. After everyone’s gone.”

He whistles. “Nice.”

The rest of the day drags on a little. I write a few comic exchanges – the Machine can be surprisingly funny. In one, a village idiot finds himself unexpectedly called for an audience with the Tsar due to a bureaucratic mix-up. Another has two buffoonish philosophers discussing the nature of Hegelian ontological Essence in relation to a potato, and ends when one of them, in desperation, eats it. Then another from Where The Mountains Meet The Sky: Aleksandr is in court, charged with the murder of his mother. The judge accuses him with dread gravity of the heinous crime of not only killing Olga, but of hating her as well. In an impassioned plea, Aleksandr quotes Luke 14:26 at the courtroom, he argues for the eradication of all things old and the construction of a bright, shining new Russia, free from the strictures of Church and tradition. The judge, baffled by the radicalism of the youth, condemns him to death. The Machine gives the judge a demotic register, which I have to correct manually. Something must have got lodged in one of the gears again. These things happen.

Finally the whistle sounds and the machines start to wind down. Pyotr nudges me in the back as he leaves. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says. “Have fun.”

I stay at my desk until the guard comes. “We’re done, comrade,” he says.

“I’m just doing some proofreading,” I say. “I’ll be finished soon.”

The guard shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He chucks me a key. “Lock up afterwards, would you? Dedication to the job’s a commendable quality, but I need to get drunk.”

Only then do I set off: away from the dialogue gears, past the exposition engine, past the monologue machine, past the plot-device device, to where the description generator juts out of the main body of the Machine. It’s not a tall cylinder like the dialogue gears, but a big misshapen metal box from which cogs and conveyor belts extrude at seemingly random intervals. There aren’t any chairs, either. The writers on description have to work standing up.

Magda’s there already, perching on the edge of one of the desks that abut the machine. She beckons me forward with a single finger. I grin. We kiss.

“I thought today wouldn’t end,” she says.

“You’ve only had to wait a day,” I say.

She pulls me closer, and starts fumbling with the buttons of my boiler suit. I press myself against her. She overbalances for a second, reaches out with one hand, pulls down a lever on the side of the generator. There are a series of clunks, then a hiss, then the familiar whirring sound of a machine warming up. The desk starts to vibrate.

“Shit,” says Magda.

And then another noise, from inside the machine. A sudden scream that lasts for a fraction of a second before being cut off. Then a crack. The cracking of bones.

I lunge for the lever and turn off the engine. With Magda’s help I wrench one of the iron coverings from its surface. She screams. A body slides out and lands in a disjointed heap on the factory floor. Its back is broken, its legs are mangled, its head is twisted to one side, its eyes stare emptily into the distance. It’s Pyotr: fat, moustachioed, naked, one hand still clamped around his cock. There’s no blood. But printed all over his body are words, lines of text, random descriptions from the generator, weaving patterns across the dead poet’s thighs, his chest, his arms, his face, stamping their mark on him, claiming him as their own.

Across steppes and pastures she flies, yearning, endlessly yearning

The room was dark but cosy, warmed by the pleasant heat of a small stove that crackled merrily as we

the narrow streets, tinged yellow by cumulative layers of grime and misery

the grand prospect of the river itself, that

He was a short man, but with an intelligent face, one that never seemed to grow angry or to

thundering like a herd of wild beasts, full of fresh energy and vigour

given an eerie tinge by the soft light of the moon

deep in its sylvan tranquillity she

the inviting warmth of her body

as if nothing had come before this moment, as if this moment would never end, as

where the yellow beacon beckons

A narrow field was

next to the


his desire for


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