Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: January, 2021

Death and the treasure

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

On the morning before their wedding came the knock. I will see you again on my way out, he said, but the evening was silent. She waited long into the night, and when morning came again she folded up her white dress and put it away forever.

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

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

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

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

The machines on the peak were used to pump out old mine-shafts. Some had been flooded with water, some with oil of vitriol, or aqua valens, or any of the other poisons that collect in a working mine. One day they drained a long-abandoned cavern, and when the miners went inside they found a nugget of silver bigger than any they’d ever seen. Hauling it out into the open air, they found that it was not a lump of metal at all, but a man. Some miracle of alchemy had occurred in that mine: a precipitate of silver had formed around the corpse. This man’s face was as full and lively as it had been on the day he went into the mountain, for all that his eyes were fixed open in their silver casing. Still, nobody in Kuttenberg could recognise him. Nobody knew the dead man’s name. He might have fallen into that pool of vitriol the night before it was drained – or he might have been an ancient of these hills, who dug out their silver ten centuries ago.

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

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

* * *

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

The old golden savages killed their philosophers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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