How I got these scars

by Sam Kriss

boas

BRITISH COLUMBIA, 1895

I learned to laugh where the whale bones were. On the iron shores, where gulls tittered and tore the last scraps of greying whaleflesh from ribs half-buried in the muck. Where curving bones threatened the foam, like the earth itself had fangs. Where the boulders were carved with bug-eyed faces, fat-lipped, grimacing; the sisiutl, sea-monsters. In low unadorned longhouses, huddled in the chill, where I sang: ‘Wa haiya, wa haiya, the weapon flew into my hands, the tool with which I am murdering, with which I am cutting off heads.’ And around me they sang: ‘The great madness entered our friend, he is killing old and young.’ Here I blackened my face with ashes and reddened my nose in the snow. Here I tore my clothes and tossed eagle-down in my hair. Here I became the nūlmal, the fool dancer, the killer clown. Here I learned that laughter is mine and nobody else’s, and when the boy – my cousin’s son – laughed as I japed and spun, I put my lance through his neck.

But who is this stranger in the cabin? Squatting by the fire is a man of no tribe, or who gave up his tribe – the Deutsche Juden – many years ago. A lonely creature. Not timid, with his virile moustache and his shock of dark hair, but passive. Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, does nothing: he just sits and observes, even when the boy is speared. Only scribbling in his notebook: ‘They do not dance, but, when excited, run about like madmen, throwing stones, knocking people down, and crying… They dislike to see clean and beautiful clothing. They tear and soil it. They break canoes, houses, kettles, and boxes…’ In the summer months the Kwakiutl live in small bands, whose chiefs are ceremonial or mediatory. Only in the winter, when the world turns harsh, do they congregate together in one place. This is the ritual season, the potlatch season. But it’s also the season of the clowns. And these clowns officiate: they set the times of the ceremonies, they punish anyone who eats too slowly or performs the wrong dance… What are they if not a form of police? In the summer these people are peaceful anarchists, and in the winter they fall under a crazed dictatorship… Mein Gott, we’ve got it all backwards; the fool dancers aren’t a chaotic response to repressive society, they’re the basis for the whole structure… And even though he’s a lifelong opponent of cultural evolutionism, he can’t quite suppress a guilty thought. Is this how it all started? When political power first showed its face to the world, was it really in marble and bronze? Or was it a face like this, blackened with soot, decked in rags and shit, its centre bursting out into a huge red nose?

He looks into the fire, as if it could have an answer, and it does. A figure circles four times around the fire – tonight, she is the Kinqalalala, the female slave of Baxbakwalanuxsiwae (a figure he’s already described in his notes: the great cannibal god, He-Who-First-Ate-Man-At-The-North-End-Of-The-World, every inch of his body covered in terrible chomping mouths). At each turn, Kinqalalala throws a handful of something into the fire, and there’s a flash. Shapes indistinct in the flames. Here a molten ditch cut through the earth, and slimepits where the bodies rot. Here a bolus of flame bigger than cities, a sun-mote brought down to cauterise the earth of life. Here a barbed-wire cage webbed tight against the earth, thrumming with frenzy and exhaustion. He doesn’t know it, but he’s witnessing the vast long mistake of the twentieth century that is to come. And somewhere, rising through all this wreckage, a single wordless laugh salutes the highest joke.

LONDON, 1920

Ah, so this is what a philosopher looks like. He looks sad. The great thinker approaches the table timidly, nose-first, sad wet eyes following far behind. ‘You must be Georges,’ he says. Georges stands, removes his hat, shakes the philosopher’s hand. ‘Monsieur Bergson,’ he says. Henri also removes his hat, removes his coat, sits down. ‘I hope this restaurant is to your satisfaction,’ he says. ‘I know the chef to be French, but there have been no good waiters in this city since all the Germans left.’ They talk about this for a while – the small travails of being a Frenchman in London, the scattered places where one can still get a good hat, a good shave, a good steak. Something vicious wants to bubble up through Georges’ throat. ‘What about a good fuck?’ he says. ‘These English girls, they don’t have any word for partouze.’ Henri looks like a startled rabbit. ‘Just a joke,’ says Georges, and he laughs. Henri laughs too, but he’s nervous. Those eyes dart from the menu, to the grinning face of the young man in front of him, to the exit, the empty chill outside, the everywhere-else where he’d suddenly much rather be. He’s a kind and generous man, which is why he’s agreed to meet this young student from the British Museum – but ever since the War these young students have been crueller, stranger, their heads all muddled by Marx and Freud… ‘I read your book,’ says Georges suddenly, ‘your essay on laughter. I must admit – please, forgive me – I’d not had the pleasure of reading your work before.’ This surprises Henri. ‘And you wish to be a philosopher?’ he says. ‘I don’t regret my essay, but perhaps you should begin with something more substantial – my Matière et mémoire, perhaps; I would gladly lend you a copy…’ Georges shakes his head. ‘This is precisely the matter,’ he says. ‘I think your essay might have cured me of philosophy altogether. If I could ask you something… how can you write so many pages on laughter, and all of them with a straight face?’ Henri appears to consider this. ‘But surely, Monsieur Bataille, you must agree that the comic forms part of the human tissue? That it is as worthy of serious study as any other facet of experience?’ Georges shakes his head. ‘You misunderstand,’ he says, sadly, disappointed to his core. ‘I don’t doubt that laughter is worthy of serious study. But is serious study worthy of laughter? That is to say, Monsieur Bergson, why must you be so eternally serious? What is the laugh if not the annihilation of all seriousness, all propriety… yes, even philosophy? How can you write a study of laughter without first staring into the sun?’ Henri doesn’t say anything. ‘Have you not read the anthropological reports on the primitives of British Columbia?’ says Georges. ‘Their societies are ruled by clowns, but it’s forbidden to laugh at them, on pain of death.’ ‘I’m not sure I follow,’ says Henri. ‘Allow me to demonstrate,’ says Georges. ‘Here’s another joke; you’ll like it. Toc toc toc.’ Henri sighs. ‘Qui est là?’ he says, and then Georges pulls out a pistol and shoots him in the head.

HUẾ, 1968

A line crawls across this city. On the other side of the line lies chaos and Communism, and the people shiver under the terror of the Viet Cong. They have lists of enemies – ‘tyrants and reactionaries,’ in their jargon. Names are read out on loudspeakers. The tyrants and reactionaries assemble dutifully in the designated places, and then they’re trucked out of the city, never to be seen again…

On this side of the line, freedom reigns. On this side of the line, by sheer coincidence, all the buildings are in ruins. And the line is moving: whatever all those cowards back home might want you to believe, the line is moving, and the bright realm of freedom and ruin grows larger every day. A column is trudging forwards, through the mire, to push against that border. Helmets and rucksacks, assault rifles or flamethrowers slung over their shoulders, and at the front, the banner of the LCAB, the Ladies’ Crusade Against Beastliness. Two Marines lean against some piled-up rubble, smoking. Before Tet, this was a bar popular with GIs, and they’ve returned out of sheer instinct – in the same way that migratory birds sometimes flap over the chaos of the war, looking for trees long since defoliated, eaves shelled into fragments while they were away. These Marines know better than to whistle at the LCABs as they pass, or make any crude remarks. That would fall squarely under Beastliness, and Kissinger has given the Ladies all the necessary authority to punish any beastliness, in any way they see fit. So they just watch them as they pass, from a thousand yards’ distance. Afterwards, one passes the joint to another. ‘Someone’s gonna die,’ he says. Maybe the Ladies; maybe their enemies. This is the law.

Somewhere in Huế, the Commies have set up a secret special-weapons unit: pinko intellectuals from Europe, alongside loonies scraped from asylums over three continents. Every day, shells from across the frontlines burst overhead into a flurry of pamphlets. Some of this artillery-borne propaganda is dense, in tiny print. ‘WHAT IS LAUGHTER? The laugh is a painful spasm affecting the chest, neck, and face. When laughing, a subject experiences a significant decline in reflex response and awareness of his surroundings. Vision in laughing subjects may be blurred. They may experience salivation, watering in the eyes, nasal congestion, shortness of breath, or involuntary animal-like vocalisations. Laughter substantially reduces combat effectiveness, often fatally. HOW IS LAUGHTER INDUCED? The laugh may be induced by certain chemical weapons. However, we are also developing the capacity to induce laughter through the combination of words, noises, and actions. We can turn any part of your language into the laughter-weapon. Even the most basic movements of your body – eg, coitus or defecation – are not safe. HOW CAN I PREVENT MYSELF FROM LAUGHING? You can not prevent yourself from laughing. If your people do not leave Việt Nam, we promise to spread joy and laughter among your ranks.’ Other leaflets are far cruder. One shows a grotesque cartoon of an old man with an erect penis, and the slogan: ‘AMERICAN SOLDIER, GO HOME… To Be Gay With Your Dad!!’

A radio broadcast, a book, even a movie, that can seize the people exposed to it, make them break out in violent spasms… the top brass are worried, and it’s understandable why. Huế is exporting body-bags at a prodigious rate, and at home, the appetite for war is diminishing. ARPA’s trying to engineer its own version of the laughter-weapon, but trial versions (tested illegally on black civilians) are stubbornly ineffective. ‘So look,’ says a Pentagon scientist in a windowless cell. ‘I’m white. I know, right? Like, Whitey-McWhite-white. But I’m trying to get better.’ Behind the one-way mirror, they monitor the test subject’s heart rate, his breath, sweat, hormone levels, brain activity… nothing. Why isn’t he laughing? ‘Please,’ he says, ‘I’m begging you, please can you just let me out of here?’ The scientists know that some kind of cruelty – sadism, even – is essential to the procedure, but even after dumping the bodies of a thousand failed test subjects in landfills across the country, it just won’t work. Still, there’s one interesting finding. Certain individuals from certain socioeconomic strata are entirely immune to the laughter-weapon. The Viet Cong can broadcast whatever they want; the upstanding patriots of the LCAB suffer no spasms, eject no crude and ugly noises, have no spit running unwholesomely out of their faces. So now, combat teams of conscientious young ladies fan out across the city, finding VC laughter-weapon cells buried in the rubble, and cancelling out their cruelties with bright clean jets of flame. Leave the world purer. Kinder. More empathic. More polite.

At the head of the column, the head of the LCAB battalion is being interviewed by a spectacled young man for Stars and Stripes. (And is that – is that a peace button on his helmet? Above the words ‘BORN TO KILL’?) All the usual questions. So are you gonna get that weapon before it’s too late? Aren’t these tactics proof of the cruel and underhanded nature of the enemy? But then he gets a strange glint in his eyes. ‘Don’t you think,’ he says, ‘that destroying this weapon robs us of an essential part of the human experience?’ The commander’s head whips suddenly towards him. ‘The human experience?’ she says. ‘What’s your name, young man?’ The reporter swallows. ‘I’m Sergeant J.T. Davis,’ he says. ‘But they call me the Joker.’

NEW YORK CITY, 1985

‘See, what they don’t understand about Bernie Goetz is that he’s a vigilante, a crime-fighter, an honest-to-God American hero… Those folks watch cartoons about the heroes who dare to stand up to crime, but when it actually happens they want to prosecute the man like he’s a criminal? No, no, no. Haven’t they seen what’s going on out there? You got people scared to go out at night. You got people scared to walk the streets of their own city, cuz of what the young folks might do… And down there it’s even worse! Down there the sun never comes up! You walk these streets and think you’re safe, while not twenty feet beneath your shoes there’s folks getting beaten, folks getting mugged, folks getting killed, twenty-four hours a day… Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there? What kind of world is this, where the kids are beating up on their elders? How did we, as the guardians of this community, let it come to this?’ Give the man his due: Walt is a powerful speaker, but this is entirely the wrong audience. It’s not his fault that his charging, stomping oratorical style comes with a slightly slipshod attitude towards the Word in its written form. The names are so similar, after all, and as for the photo on the posters – ah, white people all look alike. So while Walt thinks he’s addressing a fundraiser for Bernie Goetz – the subway avenger, the white man who shot four unarmed black kids on the 2 train when they asked him for a cigarette, who shot two of them in the back – the attendees at an academic symposium on Clifford Geertz’s Anti-Anti-Relativism watch politely, and wait for this unexpectedly impassioned presentation to meander a little further towards the point. Geertz himself, the plenary speaker, shuffles through his papers: this man isn’t citing my work at all… Still he continues. ‘You know what I say? I say Bernie Goetz is the sanest man in this city. And do you know, do you understand what it means to be a sane man in a crazy world? It means wherever you plant your two feet, that’s where you stand, and if someone tries to threaten your life where you stand – then you put! him! down!’ At this point a graduate student starts to ask a question: has Walt considered the relevance of his namesake Walter Benjamin’s Kritik der Gewalt to this issue? The law prohibits individual violence, not because it contingently contradicts the content of the legal system, but because it challenges the juridical form itself… The fear of some lone individual (and aren’t individuals getting lonelier and lonelier, as Reagan goes to war against the unions, as capitalism starts to eat away at the foundations of society itself?) picking up a gun and exercising sovereign authority all by himself – it’s not just a practical fear, it’s an ontological horror. The madman returning from the mountaintop with the tablets of the Law. A cruel new social order, festering like a parasite inside the corpse of the old. Only – if Goetz is found innocent at trial, what would that say about the present constitution of the State? Roy looks slowly around the room. ‘Now what kind of foolish question is that?’ he says, and then it starts to dawn on him exactly where he is. Oh, how they laughed.

LOS ANGELES, 2019

A killer clown is on the loose.

The weather here is perfect every day of the year, and you spend your life inside, consuming entertainment media. When you do venture out, it’s to the canyons and valleys, where you trim and tone your body so it looks more like the images of bodies you’ve seen, so it can be turned into a more pleasing picture. You live alone with a very small dog. You’re afraid of the other people, the lonely sexless weirdos who stay indoors, whose lives are directed by entertainment.

The world churns out pretty things for you to enjoy. Like a child, holding up some squidged clay in two timid hands: look what I made. I made a movie. I made a TV show. I made an opinion column. I made it so that you’d be happy. Far away, there are coups and genocides and workers jumping off the roofs of their factories, to keep it all moving, so that you’ll be happy. So why aren’t you?

After the revolution withered and the religions drifted away, the only one left was the clown. He is here to entertain. The planet’s getting warmer: a fiery red desert on the equator, and permafrost melting into fringes of unkempt green. One huge mask, spinning giddily through space.

It was already too late when we realised that this clown, like all clowns, is carrying a gun.

The Army surrounds the red-carpet premiere with tanks and armoured personnel carriers. (This basically derivative pastiche movie about a sad clown who hates society – it’s simply too radical and dangerous.) Busy soldiers dig trenches through Hollywood Boulevard. (So why are they all wearing white masks?) Attack helicopters chuckle in the sky overhead, and outside the city, generals in bunkers stare at computer screens, their fingers trembling over the red button, ready to commence a full-scale nuclear bombardment of the greater Los Angeles area if the Thing inside the cinema starts to stir.

And in the dark, it does stir. Baxbakwalanuxsiwae, the cannibal with a thousand mouths, who lives in his lodge at the frosty edge of the world. Mouths that chomp human bones and tear human flesh; mouths that once burst, in the old cold times before the world, into the first and endless laugh.

I, who learned how to laugh where the whale bones were, watched the gunfire start. I squatted by the burning city – not timid, but passive. I saw moviegoers streaming in terror out of the cinema, only to be cut down by the soldiers outside. I saw tanks grunt in formation to pound the building, one after another in turn. And from far over the hills, a screaming across the sky.

Here I sung my song.

Ham ham a’mai, ham ham a’mai, hamaima ma’mai, hamai hamamai.

Utter the hamatsa cry, utter the hamatsa cry, the cry of the great spirit who dwells at the north end of the world.

Utter Baxbakwalanuxsiwae’s war cry, utter Baxbakwalanuxsiwae’s war cry, the cry of the one who eats living men.

Utter the raven’s cry, utter the raven’s cry, the cry of the cannibal pole which is the Milky Way of our world.

Utter the hoxhoku cry, the hoxhoku cry, the cry of the one who is going to eat, whose face is ghastly pale.

Utter the clown dancer’s cry, the clown dancer’s cry, the cry that is heard all over the world.

Wa ha hai, waiya wai.

 

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