Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: theory

Against authenticity

I’m starting to lose sympathy for Baudrillard and Debord and Eco and other theorists of the simulacrum. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent too long in Los Angeles; maybe it’s because I am a child of the spectacle and have been duped into ‘forget[ting] that it has only just arrived’ – but it seems as if the idea of simulacrum itself is predicated on an entirely false binary, with the opposite principle being that of authenticity. Was the period before the emergence of late capitalism and its cultural logic in any way more ‘authentic’? Was the misery of a medieval serf in any way more ‘real’ than the misery of a modern wage-labourer? Was the sacred sublimity of ancient Egyptian religion or the false consciousness generated by Roman panis et circenses any different, any less artificial, any less of a usurpation of ‘reality’ than contemporary spectacular society? During the age of high Romanticism, long before the mechanical reproduction of mass culture, wealthy landowners would alter the landscapes of their estates to bring them more into line with the picturesque paintings of artists such as Lorrain; they would with Speerian insanity build pre-ruined classical follies on their grounds; they would view sublime scenery through a tinted mirror, facing away from it, so that the object of their enjoyment would more closely resemble an oil painting. It’s not hyperreality that’s a recent invention, it’s reality itself. Authenticity is not something we’ve lost, it’s a recent conceptual manifestation of the guilt and neurosis that attends an alienated society. The insistence on a lost authentic past of which our world is a degenerated imitation seems to be little more than a rehash of tired old Platonist dogmas. A far more helpful and productive concept is Deleuzian virtuality: the virtual object is not one that lacks reality, but one that lacks actuality; in its movement towards actuality the virtual has enormous creative potential.

I’m not consistent in this, of course. I still can’t stand the fucking Kindle.

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Atlantis

I started giving cigarettes to the homeless. That’s how it all began.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, they’d terrified me a little. Well, everything had terrified me a little. The flat infinity of the city, the postapocalyptic emptiness of its streets, the harsh blank gazes of the strip-mall windows, the fury of the motorists, the pervasive anonymity and its constant gasping hunger for fame. It was so unlike the familiar crowded clutter of Europe: cities there hold you close in a maternal embrace; often they’re abusive mothers, but even if they’re actively trying to kill you at least they care enough to want you dead. Los Angeles is indifferent. I’d taken a drive through South Central, and what scared me most about the place was how identical it was to everywhere else: the same skeletal palm trees, the same uneven pavements, the same low bungalows with the same architectural inconsistency. But the homeless gave me a special kind of terror: I’d hear them yelping into the night as I walked drunk along Santa Monica Boulevard, howling like coyotes; I’d see their sleeping shapes in shopfronts, looking somehow coiled, ready to spring into a furious assault. There was one man who sat on a metal bench near my apartment, wearing a bulky green overcoat half-shredded into a mess of tangled fibres. He’d mutter softly to himself most of the time; sometimes he’d bark at people passing by. Once, while arriving home, I met his gaze for a single excruciating second. The lines in his face were slimy with grease, his beard was matted with blood and dirt, but his eyes were a cold hard blue and completely clear. I wondered what was happening in his head. I wondered what line separated me from him. I wondered how easy it would be for me to end up like he was. The Californian heat was enough to drive anyone mad; it bred prophets like swampland breeds mosquitoes.

It didn’t last that long. I got used to them. I saw how my new Angeleno friends behaved: people from my office and my apartment building, they were all good people with solid liberal principles, but they acted as if the homeless simply didn’t exist, as if they were drifting phantoms that had hallucinated themselves into being. I felt guilty about it at first, but I started to do the same. The city was packed with ghosts. Sitting impatiently on a bus as it lurched haltingly towards the smog-shrouded spires of Downtown, I pretended to ignore the fat black woman in a hospital gown singing gospel songs and drumming on the stinking plastic bags that carried all her possessions. Walking with groceries, I tried to forget the plaintive looks that emerged from every underpass. I kept my headphones and sunglasses on at all times, I sank into the music, so that the bright scorching world around me faded into a blur. It worked, to an extent.

“Spare a smoke, man?”
I was on Hollywood Boulevard; I can’t remember why – it’s a dump, frankly; I think I’d gone up there to buy some tacky gifts for friends back home. It was a hot day, even in the hills; an oppressive dull gleam shone from every surface, the blue sky throbbed with a feverish intensity. I was smoking, despite the dirty looks I got from Americans on the street, despite the sticky heat in the back of my throat. He was a young man with a short beard, hugging his knees in the entrance to an abandoned souvenir store, an overflowing rucksack propped up against the wall next to him.
“Sorry,” I mumbled instinctually, not meeting his eyes. “It’s my last one.” I carried on walking, quickening my pace a little, stamping on the names of forgotten celebrities, when I felt something shift inside me. Maybe it was my conscience. Maybe it was just the swarm of fat Midwestern tourists flitting about on the street around me with their sweatpatches and their gaping hungry mouths. I didn’t want to be like them.
I turned back. “I lied,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I took a cigarette out of my packet and held it out in his general direction. He took it without a smile.
“God bless,” he mumbled.

After that I started giving cigarettes to the homeless. I never stopped to talk to them, I never even stayed long enough to register their thanks – they still made me uneasy. I knew I wasn’t really helping; after all, I was giving them cancer. Still, it made me feel a little better; at least I wasn’t ignoring their existence.

It was a couple of weeks before I saw him again. The man I had given my first cigarette to was kneeling in a sleeping bag next to a fast food place not far from my apartment building, trying to position a purple-bound book in the dim streetlight.
“Are you hungry?” I said to him.
He looked at me quizzically. “Always.” He peered at me for a second. “Hey. Ain’t you the cigarette guy? I remember a face, man.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Hold on.” I went inside.
I came out with two burgers and sat down next to him. “What’s the book?” I said.
“Oh, it’s the Bible. Got me through a lot of tough times. Better out here than out in combat.”
“You’re a vet?”
“Iraq. Three tours. I saw some shit out there, I can tell you.”
“Yeah?”
“Not like buddies getting killed, you know. I mean, it happened, but I was never there…” He flung up his hands. “I was at Camp Alpha. You know where that is?”
“No.”
“Babylon, man. We built this base right in the ruins of Babylon. It was all reconstructed by Saddam. But still. We’d be getting drunk at night and running round all these ancient buildings, climbing over these statues to gods, and we didn’t even know their names. It just felt like… at night it was like they was staring at you. You could almost hear ‘em chanting, like these deep ancient chants…” He looked down and started to unwrap the burger. “You gotta think I’m crazy. It’s just, you know, I don’t get to talk to people all that often.”
“Not at all.”
“It was just like, shit, I never even finished high school and I’m walking round Babylon. I was a fucking dumbass nineteen year old, and I was meant to be teaching these guys – the Iraqis – about democracy, when it was them that invented the whole thing – architecture, government, writing for fuck’s sake. I didn’t know that. By the end of it, when I kept getting called back, I was pissed as hell. Punched my CO right in the face after he kept going off on some hajji bullshit. Then I got my big chicken dinner – shit; BCD, bad conduct discharge – and, you know, the rest…”
We ate in silence for a while. When I left I reached out to shake his hand.
“You didn’t ask my name,” he said. It wasn’t an accusation, just a statement of fact.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You apologise a lot. I’m Brandon. Brandon Leigh.”

Brandon slept on the street in Skid Row. Every day he took the bus up to Hollywood or the Westside to panhandle. I think he must have worked out that I lived in Santa Monica; most days I’d see him sitting on the street not far from my apartment building. I didn’t mind. I would buy him some fast food and he’d tell me stories from the war – or one story, at least. Brandon was fixated on a single image: four young Americans cavorting through the ruins of Babylon, and one of them suddenly stopping, feeling a cold breath down the back of his neck, the chill of something vast and hungry and incomparably ancient. He didn’t believe in the gods of Mesopotamia; he was a good Christian, after all. It was something else: a vibe, he said. A terrifying vibe.
“Why do you do this?” he asked one day. “It’s not like I’m not grateful or nothing. But you gotta admit it’s pretty weird. Most folks here just ignore people like me.”
“I’m not from here,” I said. “I don’t know. I don’t like to ignore things. I want to experience everything.”
“You been to Skid Row yet, man?”
“I’ve been past it.”
“If you wanna experience everything, that’s where you gotta go. I’ll show you round.”

Brandon and I took the bus to Skid Row that weekend. We rode in silence through the sterile skyscraper-speckled landscape of Bunker Hill. After that the terrain became flatter; the Art Deco flourishes of the buildings to the West faded into squat white warehouses, car parks, empty lots in which a few stray tufts of grass shivered. Slowly the streets became more and more crowded: people wandering aimlessly, sitting in doorways, lying supine on the pavement, squatting next to their tents. The low cityscape was broken by the odd old brick building with a spluttering neon sign. The shopfronts were all boarded up. Paint peeled from the facades of the buildings.
“Welcome to America’s only Third World city,” said Brandon as we stepped off the bus.
The stench was overpowering. Rotting waste, sewerage, old urine, body odour. A tide of litter lapped against the kerbside. The ground was sticky beneath my feet. Most of the people that thronged the street stood silently. A few chattered continuously in a low mumble. Through the day’s haze the brooding grey shapes of the towers to the west could just be made out, monolithic and threatening.
Brandon followed my gaze. “I don’t wanna make this a race thing,” he said. “But you gotta admit, most of the folks out here are black. And most of the folks up there are white.”
I couldn’t argue with that.

I went back a few days later. Brandon introduced me to some of his neighbours. Some of them mumbled politely. Some were silent; they wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“It’s not much,” he said afterwards. “But it’s a community.”
“More a community than most places in this city,” I said.
“Ain’t that true.” He stood up. “Listen. There’s this church near here, they do shave and a shower… reckon you could just watch my things? Fifteen minutes. Police’ll confiscate it otherwise.”
I waited, reading Brandon’s bible. I was halfway through II Corinthians when I was approached by two people: a tall woman in black jeans with her dark hair cut short and skin as pale as porcelain, and a scrawny acned guy in a polo shirt slightly too big for him. The woman crouched down next to me. “Hi,” she said. “My name’s Molly and this is Tim. We’re from the Brotherton Foundation.”
“Hi,” I said, and told her my name. I extended a hand. She didn’t shake it.
“You have an accent… are you documented? You can tell us. It’s strictly confidential.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I have a work visa.”
Molly’s brow furrowed. “You’re not-”
“I’m not homeless,” I said.
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry. It’s just we try to keep track of all the guys here, so that if something happens to them… what are you doing here?”
“I’m watching someone’s stuff for him.”
She peered at the rucksack. “Brandon?”
“That’s impressive.”
She shrugged. “It’s my job. Who are you with? I haven’t seen you here before.”
“I don’t work with a charity. I just… I just come here sometimes.”
“That’s weird.” She gave a wry smile. “Are you writing a novel or something? Listen, our office is on Sixth. You should drop round some time.”

My visits to Skid Row became more and more frequent. Most days I’d spend an hour or so there after work, sometimes giving out cigarettes and burgers, sometimes just talking to the residents. Many of them were suspicious at first; they didn’t know what I wanted from them. To be honest, I wasn’t too sure either. I got to know the eccentrics of the neighbourhood: Megan, the dumpster-diving daughter of a Silicon Valley millionaire who wore clothes stitched from palm leaves and insisted that she had been a yeast infection in a previous life; Bertrand, a wizened old man who walked around naked pontificating in aristocratic tones about the continuing relevance of Hellenic Classicism as a model for the worthy life; Rhonda, a drag queen whose shopping trolley was filled with discarded cosmetics she’d found in bins across the city; Colin, who went to an internet café every day to record a rambling videoblog. I ran into Molly occasionally, often with Tim as well; we gave each other a nod of recognition and sometimes chatted for a few minutes. I never did drop into the office. I think my presence confused her a little.

It wasn’t always pleasant. I saw paramedics fret furiously as a woman gave birth on the street, surrounded by shit and muck. I saw an argument between two men escalate suddenly into a knife fight; their lumpy overcoated forms circled and darted with an almost balletic fluidity. I saw near-spherical Latina prostitutes drag their patrons into Portaloos, I saw emaciated junkies whose eyes darted about from the bottom of dark cavernous pits, I saw men vomiting blood and oozing pus. It was never dull, though. Everyone there believed in something grand and cosmic: Brandon had his spirits of Mesopotamia, Megan her hippie Hinduism. Most had their own hobo variations on Christianity, some had intricate conspiracy theories – they saw demons and aliens behind the placid faces of the comfortable Angelenos who walked past them, carefully ignoring their existence. I had a long theological conversation with a recovering junkie who’d joined a twelve-step programme at one of the local churches.
“There’s two powers in this world,” he told me. “There’s the Light. That’s the blood of Christ. Then there’s the darkness. That’s the tar. The darkness draws you in. It makes you all safe and comfortable. The Light hurts. But the Light is life and the tar is death, and that’s all there is to it. You can’t receive the blood of Christ while your own blood is still full of the tar.” He coughed. “Do you know Christ as your saviour?”
“I do,” I lied.
“God bless, God bless you. The dark does bad things for you. It made me steal from my momma. It made me want to hurt my fellow man. That shit even got me kicked out of Atlantis-” He stopped, suddenly, with the stricken look of someone who’s said something they shouldn’t have said.
“What’s Atlantis?”
“It’s a bunkhouse near here,” he said hurriedly. “They don’t take no junkies. Don’t blame ‘em.”

I saw Molly the next day. “What’s Atlantis?” I asked her.
She and Tim were taking a lunch break, eating quesadillas on a bench by a bus stop. She had a smudge of guacamole by the corner of her lip. I didn’t mention it.
“It’s a myth,” she said.
“Not the legend. Something here called Atlantis.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s a myth. OK. The story goes that back in the Nineties a bunch of homeless people started living in the disused subway lines under Los Angeles. We actually used to have the best public transport system in the country, but it all got closed down during the Depression… anyway, they’re supposed to have built this whole underground city of the homeless. Like two hundred thousand people. With electricity, even. They hook themselves up to power lines. And they’ve got common ownership over everything. There’s all these houses down there but they don’t belong to anyone, they sleep in a different place every night. So their society doesn’t make the same mistake as ours. A lot of the guys believe in it. You can see why, really.”
“But it doesn’t exist.”
She smiled. “Well, we can’t know. But no. It doesn’t exist.”
“Yesterday someone told me he’d been there.”
“A lot of the guys came out of psych wards, you know. They’re not always reliable.”
“He seemed pretty cogent.”
Tim leaned over. “If you’re into all that kooky shit you should talk to Roy Kelner,” he said. “This philosophy professor up at UCLA. He used to come down here every weekend and talk about Atlantis. He really believed in it.”
I took down the name.

It was slow at first. Sometimes I’d idly wonder if I was unknowingly walking directly above Atlantis. I asked a few more people in Skid Row what they knew about the place. Many of them believed in it. Only a few claimed to have been there, but their descriptions were rambling and contradictory: Atlantis was populated entirely by horny white women, Atlantis was decked out with chrome and holographic screens, Atlantis was a humid jungle miles below the Earth’s surface, Atlantis existed across a portal to another dimension. I never saw the junkie evangelist again; I talked to Molly but she couldn’t recognise him from my description. I started trying to draw pictures of the place, shakily to begin with – I’d abandoned my art some years before. The first attempt looked like a subterranean Skid Row. Chiaroscuro against a background of tangled wires and scuffed brickwork I drew bodies slumped against the walls of corrugated-iron shacks. Bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceilings gave long shadows to the piles of litter between the train tracks and the shit running down the walls; in one corner a mange-bitten rat posed dramatically on its hind legs. It didn’t look right: this was not Atlantis. I tried again. This time, I decided that the founders of Atlantis had had the subway tunnels faced with white marble. Shining chandeliers were placed at regular intervals; they bathed everything in a soft crepuscular glow. Jutting from the walls were Ionic colonnades; here and there were fountains and statues depicting the gods and heroes of the homeless. The citizens of Atlantis were drawn strolling around at a leisurely pace, naked, with beards and long glossy hair. They slept wherever they pleased, on the steps of the various temples and academies, or on the long grass strewn with wildflowers that had been planted on the tunnel’s floor. Only the wires and pipes running through the ceilings and the odd subway car converted into living spaces served to remind that this was not some supernatural realm but a city buried under the streets of Los Angeles. I discarded that one too: what I had drawn was a fantasy; I knew that a real Atlantis existed. My third attempt was closer to the truth, I think. Why would the Atlanteans, who had successfully hidden their city from the world for decades, be content to live in the spaces carved out by Los Angeles? What if they had continued to excavate, broadening the abandoned subway lines until they all converged? I drew an immense cavern, crisscrossed by flaking girders from which bundles of power lines hung loosely. Floodlights were bolted to some of them, a glittering constellation of floodlights, shooting beams of light in random paths, revealing fragments of the vast city below. Atlantis was a bric-a-brac mess; its streets were a tangled scribble, like those of a medina or a medieval town. The buildings were all in irregular shapes, built on top of each other; none had all four walls made from the same material. Winding around and between them were more wires, ziplines, staircases, slides, hidden passages, secret entrances. Towards the centre was a cluster of skyscrapers not unlike those in the city above, but these too were wreathed in twisting ramps and staircases, like ivy around the trunk of a tree. Atlantis was a schizophrenic city, but it was consistent in its own logic; its anarchy was a warm and human one, a necessary counterpoint to the cold rational gridded psychopathy of Los Angeles. I kept the drawing in a drawer in my apartment. I never showed it to anyone.

The next week, I called in sick at work and decided to find Roy Kelner. The UCLA campus was broad and open, dotted with green spaces. Little kids ran between the trees, shrieking unintelligibly. Musclebound students in vests and sunglasses bumped fists as they crossed paths with each other and walked on without saying a word. In front of one building a gaggle of earnest-looking types were protesting against something or other. I asked for Roy Kelner at the front desk in the Philosophy department.
The receptionist frowned. “I don’t think I know him. Hang on.” She tapped at her keyboard. “K-E-L-N-E-R? I don’t think there’s anyone by that name here.”
Another woman’s face appeared from behind a doorway. “You’re looking for Kelner? He doesn’t work here anymore.”
“He got fired?”
“Not exactly. Is this about Atlantis?”
“Kinda, yeah.”
“Yeah, we get people asking about that sometimes. One guy wanted to make a documentary about him. Kelner was my professor when I was at grad school here. He got really weird about it, to be honest. We were meant to be doing Contemporary Continentalism and all he’d ever do was talk about Atlantis. Obsessed. He was so certain that it existed. And then one day he just vanishes. No note, nothing.”
“What happened?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe he found it. Who knows? I’m sorry I can’t help. He did write a book about it, though. The Impossibility of the Real: Theorizing Atlantis. He put it on our required reading list.”
“You don’t have a copy, do you?”
“’Fraid not. They should have one at the Powell Library, though. It’s just across the quad.”

The library swarmed with students tapping away at their laptops: I only saw one, a dark-haired girl in green leggings, who was actually reading a book. Kelner’s book was very slim; more of a pamphlet, really. Underneath the title was a painting I recognised as Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego. I opened it a few pages in:

The homeless operate according to a temporal and spatial paradigm that constitutes a nomadic smooth-space disruption of the striations of space as interpreted by the State. They manifest themselves not as a series of molar entities but as a single substance engaged in a total deterritorialisation: their model is not that of the herd but that of the swarm.

I flipped forwards a few pages:

Here it may be valuable to consider the development of the subterranean city in terms of Negarestani’s ( )hole complex and his conceptualization of solidus and void.

Towards the end:

Hardt & Negri’s assertion that resistance is ontologically prior to power provides a reversal of traditional social dynamics that allows for a wealth of new theoretical approaches. Similarly, a richer understanding may be achieved if it is postulated that it is, in fact, Los Angeles that forms a vast parasite on Atlantis; a teeming, grossly over-extended remora-city whose inhabitants live out their lives unaware their existences form a superficial manifestation of a far more profound reality. Los Angeles, home to the entertainment industry and epicenter of global spectacularity, is constructed of artifice and simulacrum; it is only its leech-like attachment to Atlantis that prevents the entire city from drifting off into the air. It is the tellurian powers of Atlantis that maintain, direct, and control the nature of existence in the surface-city. The lack of popular recognition for the city’s dark twin and the official denials of its existence do not demonstrate that it is unreal; rather, they demonstrate that in the society of the spectacle, the Real unavoidably takes on the aspects of myth.

Before long I stopped going to work entirely. I’d spend my days in Skid Row and my nights doing feverish research in my apartment. A few of my friends still called me occasionally, but after a while they started to drift away. I scoured the Internet for maps of the tunnels under Los Angeles and started looking up prices for head-mounted torches. I read accounts from other people who’d spent hours traipsing around the catacombs of the city trying to find Atlantis. I knew why they’d failed: they were trying to invade Atlantis, to plant their flag on its soil. To go there one had to be invited in. I thought about trying to contact Kelner – even if he’d found Atlantis maybe he still read the paper; I could place an advert in the Los Angeles Times. My trips to the laundry became sparse. I stopped shaving; I trimmed my beard occasionally, when I had the time. My jeans frayed at the cuffs. I didn’t replace them.

I was sitting on the kerbside, smoking a solitary cigarette, when I saw Molly running past me. “It’s Jerome!” she said.
I followed her. Around the corner, a moustachioed cop was wrestling for control of a shopping trolley with a wiry old man in a ragged t-shirt. Molly stopped next to them.
“Sir,” she said, panting. “What’s happening here?”
“I’d stand back if I were you, miss,” said the cop.
“What’s happening?” she said again.
The old man fixed Molly with a frenzied stare and shook his jowls, liberally dousing us in spittle. “They wan’ my treasures!” he said. “Stop ‘em, Moll! Buzzers! Bluebottles! They wanna take my treasures!”
“Let him keep it,” said Molly. “Sir, he’s not hurting anyone.”
“Your man here has a shopping cart full of bottles of his own urine,” said the cop. “It’s a public safety hazard.”
“It’s all Jerome has,” she said.
Jerome made a lunge for the cop’s waist. “Buzzers away!” he roared. The cop pushed him to the ground and cuffed him. Jerome writhed desperately. “A-da-da,” he moaned. “A-da-da-da. Not my golden. I made it myself. Stop ‘em, Moll.”
“What’s your badge number?” said Molly. “I’m going to make a complaint.”
Jerome’s head darted upwards and struck the cop on his chin. “My treasures!” he roared. The cop truncheoned him in the back of the neck. Molly rushed towards the trolley.
“Stand back!” shouted the cop. With one knee now on Jerome’s neck, he pulled a Taser from his belt. “Not one step!”
“Or what?” said Molly. “You’ll shoot me? Give him his things back!” She reached out to grab the trolley handle. The cop fired: there was a sudden crack of electricity, and two darts arced out to Molly’s chest. She fell over backwards. Her head hit the pavement with a dull thud. One arm twitched. Jerome shrieked. I rushed over to her. There was another crack. The world flashed a searing white.

“Jesus Christ,” said Molly as we walked back around the corner, defeated. “Fuck. I need a drink.”
“Shouldn’t you go to a hospital or something?”
“I’m Irish. I need a drink. I’m going back to the office. I’m going to have a drink and then I’m going to get that fucker fired. You want one?”
“It’s only five in the afternoon… what am I saying? Of course. I’d love one.”
The office was, as it turned out, two small rooms over a dollar store, half-buried in papers and ring binders. “As you can see, we’re not the most well-funded organisation out here,” said Molly, reaching into a drawer and withdrawing a bottle of whiskey. She took a big glug. “I hope you don’t mind drinking from the bottle.”
I laughed. “Reminds me of being a kid.”
Molly sat down on an overstuffed sofa leaning against one wall and beckoned me to join her. “Where do you work?” she said. “I don’t think I even asked.”
“At this accountancy firm. It’s not very interesting.”
“So what makes a guy who works at an accountancy firm suddenly decide to spend all his time on Skid Row?”
“I wasn’t always an office drone. I used to be-” I paused.
“What?”
“Don’t laugh.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“I used to write graphic novels. Unpublished, of course.”
“That’s cool. What were they about?”
“Superheroes… my thing was superheroes with boring powers. I did a whole series about a guy who had laser eyes, but they were only good for scanning barcodes at the supermarket.”
Molly laughed. “That’d go some way to explaining your obsession with Atlantis.”
“What about you? How’d you end up working here?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I came down here for college, from a tiny whitebread town up in NorCal, and I was just so upset by it all… you know, two months in and I was a radical feminist and an anti-poverty campaigner and everything. I just wanted to help, I guess.” Molly stood up. “Do you like blues?” she said, walking over to a CD player in the corner of the office.
“Sure,” I said.
She pushed a button. A few dusty-sounding guitar notes sounded out. As she walked back Molly swayed her hips a little, clicking one hand, looking slightly bashfully at the floor.
“My dad only ever had one record,” she said, sitting down next to me. “He’d play it the whole time in the car. Robert Johnson. You know him?”
“Isn’t that the guy who sold his soul to the Devil?”
“At the crossroads, yeah. It’s actually all based on this Yoruba legend. It’s not necessarily the Devil. It’s Eshu. The spirit of the crossroads.”
I thought of Brandon, hearing the voices of dead gods in the ruins of Babylon. “There’s myth everywhere. Under the surface.”
Molly gave me a strange look. “You’re such a Romantic,” she said.
“Aren’t I just.” I slid an arm over her shoulders and leant towards her.
“Oh, knock it off.”
“What?”
“It wasn’t a fucking compliment! Why are you here? I’ve seen you. All you talk to the guys about is Atlantis. This made-up tooth fairy legend! Like they don’t matter. There are real people suffering out there, and you come down here because – because what? You find it interesting? You get some sick aesthetic enjoyment out of their misery?”
“That’s not true,” I said, not fully believing myself.
“Yes it is! You don’t really care, do you? You’re interested, but you don’t care.”
“You’re drunk.”
“It’s still true. You don’t give a shit about anyone apart from yourself.”
I stared at the floor. “I don’t know how to.”
Molly stood up. “Please go,” she said. “I’d feel a lot better if you- please, just go.”

I didn’t go back to Skid Row the next day. I sat around listlessly in my apartment, watching TV, trying not to think about Atlantis. That afternoon I had a less than friendly visit from two officers of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. They explained as I packed my possessions that as I hadn’t shown up for work in weeks, my visa was no longer valid. On the flight back, I stared out the window as the desert melted into the vast flat cornfields of the Midwest, as the Appalachians soared past me, as the interminable expanse of the Atlantic was finally broken by a rolling patchwork of tiny constricted pastures. I was home, back in that crowded little space where all the ancient myths died out centuries ago.

I manage. Friends and family were surprised to see me back so early; when I tried to explain what had happened I could tell that they didn’t really understand. I have a job, and my old apartment again. I’ve given up drawing altogether, which is probably for the best. Most of the time I don’t even think about it. But whenever in one of those little moments of blankness my mind floats away from its surroundings – when I’m in the shower, or on public transport, or bored at the office – it always goes to the same place. I float through the miles of empty tunnels under Los Angeles, chasing the faint gleam of a light that is always close but never within reach, searching for Atlantis.

Guest column: the ghost of Theodor Adorno reviews Sepalcure’s self-titled album

As a Marxist, it is essential to resist any attempt to mystify or romanticise the afterlife. It exists, in its faint pallid way, of that one can be certain; but while its existence may indeed be problematic for adherents of vulgar materialism, those who accept the reality only of the material world and not of any spiritual plane, there is, it seems to me, no reason why the validity of dialectical or historical materialism should be brought into question by the unexpected fact of life after death. Therefore it only remains to conduct a material analysis of the role of the ghostly realm in relations of production. Concerning material production it appears to have little relevance – we ghosts work in no factories; nor do we consume any tangible commodities. In terms of cultural production, however, our influence can indeed be felt: sometimes we may seize the hand of a living writer, painter, or composer, and create through him. Ghostly labour is at once alienated – we do not own the product of our exertions – and unalienated, a prefiguration of labour under Communism – our labour is driven not out of economic necessity but is rather the product of a free expression of creative impulses. On occasion a cultural artefact will flow in the other direction, arriving by some agency in the shadow-world of the dead, where we may appreciate or criticise it. Sepalcure’s self-titled album is one such piece.

Before considering Sepalcure, it is essential that the album be placed in its historical context, and in the context of my own posthumous theoretical development. While I maintain my commitment to high modernism against the products of the culture industry, and regard theorists of the ‘postmodern’ such as Jameson overhasty in their dismissal of my theories as ‘irrelevant’ in the postmodern age (despite the adoption of popular culture as a supposedly reputable field for serious academics, surely its material origin and social function are unchanged since my time, as is the general structure of capitalism) events since my death have forced a readjustment of my formulae. As more recent developments have demonstrated, the culture industry is fundamentally parasitic: it does not create so much as it appropriates. Elements of popular culture deriving from the people themselves may, their non-intellectual aspect notwithstanding, also be considered as radical art that disrupts or challenges the prevailing order (although they can never be as liberated or as autonomous as high culture) – however, such an emergence is always followed by a process by which it is subsumed by the culture industry. This process can be observed in the trajectory of the hippie movement, in punk, hip-hop, and in contemporary electronic music – perhaps even in the development of jazz during my lifetime. (Maybe I was too harsh on those jazz players… In the cold grey world I now inhabit there is so much time for regret…)

The musical roots of Sepalcure can be found in the dubstep movement of the early to mid 2000s. While the electronic music that preceded it was almost uniformly sympathetic to the culture industry – being as it was music not appreciated for its intrinsic aesthetic qualities but as a necessary element in the creation of leisure-time, a leisure-time structured by the organised working day of alienated wage-labourers, a leisure-time the sole purpose of which is to act as a release valve for the negative effects of life under capitalism, a leisure-time that in its socially mandated abandon and Bacchanalian excess only reinforces the drudgery of weekday labour – in early dubstep we find a form of electronic dance music of which the primary mood is not one of elation but one of alienation. The radical potential of dubstep can be illuminated most clearly by an examination of the metamorphoses it underwent during its integration into the culture industry and subsequent mass popularisation, of those elements of it that were deemed unacceptable by the bourgeois culture industry and excised.

While, as I have argued frequently, works produced by the culture industry tend to emphasise repetition, as repetitive music lends itself more easily to mass manufacture and easy consumption, culture industry dubstep lost much of the repetitive element, opting for a fast-flowing cacophony of various distorted sounds rather than the propulsively monotonous quantised wobble of dubstep in its early incarnations. This can only be because the repetitiveness of dubstep was not, as in other forms of popular music, a mere manifestation of the prevailing mode of mechanical reproduction, but when coupled with the overall air of alienation, actually constituted a critique of it. While its industrial repetition contributed to an overall aesthetic effect, more importantly it prevented leisure-time from being seen as wholly separate from alienated labour, it shattered the illusion of leisure as an escape from the banalities of life under late capitalism. This pervasive sense of alienation was in the process substituted at the first opportunity for either an insipidly euphoric harmoniousness or – more commonly – a ‘dark’ aggression, a feeble imitation of the more profound paranoia it supplanted. The reason for this is evident: anger and aggression are cathartic, they allow the purging of dissatisfactions built up through the antagonisms of the working week. In the grotesque devolution of dubstep from a musical form marked by alienation and repetition into one marked by aggression and variance within a specified field, the conditions for its integration into the apparatus of the culture industry can be clearly discerned.

Sepalcure marks a reaction to this capture. Rather than simply reverting to the atmosphere of earlier music, as in Krytpic Minds’ Can’t Sleep, Sepalcure maintain the disjointedness of dubstep while casting aside the actual musical vehicle it formerly inhabited. The achievement of this album is to combine a radical, almost Schoenbergian dissonance with accessible listenability. It is swathed in vinyl hisses and muted analogue sounds that waver in and out of key, the various musical textures and chopped-up vocal samples form an oblique fog into which melodies fade and re-emerge, the drums pop and crack at offbeat intervals. Unlike the more commerical strains of house and bass music, it is non-cathartic, leaving a sense of incompletion that defies the attempts of capitalism to subdue discontent through the provision of leisure and simple, gratifying cultural artefacts; there is a sense in which it refuses unqualified enjoyment.

Its harmonious discordance is a direct product of the cultural milieu that surrounds it, and in particular of the parasitic gluttony of the culture industry. For this reason Sepalcure is not a work of autonomous high culture, its significance can never transcend the political and cultural conditions of its creation.  It does not address the untransfigured suffering of man, only the specific neuroses of late capitalism. As a suite of electronic compositions that mimics the organic imperfections of earlier forms it is only a pale shadow of real artistic vitality. Nonetheles, as a reaction against prevailing conditions it does constitute a radical work.

Back II Beckett: naming the unnamable

There’s a novel. Oh not a novel exactly, not exactly, you couldn’t quite call it that, it doesn’t have any of the usual features, no plot, for instance, and precious little in the way of setting, but I’ll call it a novel, for the sake of, for the sake of what exactly? No matter, no matter, it is what it is. I’ll start with what I can see, it’s a good enough place to start as any, or at least I think so. There’s a voice, or several voices, it doesn’t matter, they’re all the same, or they’re all different, or they’re all the same precisely because they’re different, it’s not important, things like difference and similarity and identity don’t have any meaning any more. It doesn’t make any sense to talk about who the voice is, what the I of the novel is, the novel obliterates all is-ness, all ontology falls away in the vague mist, it doesn’t make sense to talk about what the novel is about, there is no room for about-ness either, no space for intentionality, or rather, there’s all the room in the world, an infinite space, but it’s empty, all void. I said I’d talk about what I can see. A voice, then. Or several voices. In a grey mist. It talks about itself. Or sometimes it talks about other people, or it talks about itself on the command of others, except the others are also itself. All it knows is that it must go on, it has to talk about something, except there’s nothing to say, but if it can say the right thing, if it can arrive at some truth it can be silent, but there can be no truth, so it must go on. Every attempt to talk about anything in particular is thwarted, it’s impossible, there can be no signification, there can be no significance. There are flashes of figure and background, a torso in a jar, a family in a cage, a Worm, but they melt away, they were only imagined, or rather, they were only real, the phenomenal world is only a matter of conjecture after all, especially in a novel, where nothing is real in the first place. It asks questions but gives no answers. What is the self, what is fiction, why do artists create, why do we speak, what is meaning, what is existence, meaningless, all meaningless. How am I to even start talking about this book? I could talk about other works, I could talk about Dante, I could talk about Joyce, I won’t do that, it wouldn’t help. I could be Lacan and say that the novel is about the horror of the Real, about subjects without subjectivity, about the unconscious structured like a language and the reality that lies outside language, I could be Deleuze and say that the novel is about difference and repetition, about eternal recurrence, about the multiplicity of the individual, about a subjectivity trying to refer to itself as an Oedipal whole and continually failing, always bursting out into multiple personalities, deterritorialising itself into Mahood and Worm and the others, the them, reterritorialising back into the arborescent structure of the self, insisting that it must say something about itself before it can be at peace, failing because there is no self, or I could be Schopenhauer, and say that the novel is about the Will, always reaching out for something, something it can never quite reach, speaking as willing, futilely willing the end of the Will, or I’m sure if I put my mind to it, if I used all my cunning, I could be Marx, I could talk about the subject alienated from himself, but it wouldn’t help, none of it would get me anywhere, I’d get lost in the words, they’d devour me. The novel is the death of criticism. Criticism is the attempt to draw meaning from a text, the novel has no meaning, its meaning isn’t even that there is no meaning, it points to nothing, the critics stumble over themselves trying to work out what any particular thing means, they’ve made a category error, the novel isn’t for them. It’s written in an emotionless tone but its effect is an emotional one, it is written in abstractions but it’s incredibly visceral, it’s for the reader not the critic, in writing this I’m making the same mistake, I shouldn’t have written anything, except maybe ‘read The Unnamable‘ in big letters, no matter, I’m like the Unnamable myself, I must go on, I must keep on speaking. The emotional effect. It’s like being shaken by the shoulders and slapped around the head, it’s like being a child again, being lost, but the most terrifying thing of all is the ending, I didn’t expect it, the formlessness of the novel is frightening at first, but I get used to it, I settle into its flow, I lose all hope of conclusion, I don’t expect any teleology, everything will go on exactly as it has been before, a wandering that can never end. But it does end, something catastrophic happens, something eschatonic, and the catastrophe at the end is more shocking than everything that has gone on before, at first I am plunged into a novel about nothing, without a distinct narrative voice, one in which the unity of the subject is not assured, but then there’s a door, not a door looking out onto some vague sea, a resolutely symbolic door, it’s not that there’s nothing, that would be too concrete, too definite, there is something, it’s always out of reach, there is hope, there is redemption, it’s not for us, or not yet at least. Meaninglessness is easy enough to accept, after a while, it’s everywhere, we all secretly know it, to be confronted with some vast and distant and transcendent truth is what really scares us, I face it, I cringe from its glare, it is out of reach, the novel is over, I go on.

Guest column: Slavoj Žižek reviews ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’

It would be tempting to perform a crude Freudian analysis of the Harold & Kumar films, to say that in Harold and Kumar we find the basic categories of superego and id respectively, with Kumar as the hedonist that leads the two into a state of peril, and Harold as the rational law-abider who constrains the desires of his friend, and so on, and so on. But this is not the case. We must always be conscious of the fact that the ultimate command of the superego is to enjoy, to fulfil your fantasies; and because the object of desire cannot be attained, it is that same superego that is the source of anxiety. Is it not Kumar, then, who is then the superego? Our desires lead to neurosis only when they are consciously articulated.

We must ask: what is desire in this film? It is not the smoking of marijuana, that forms only a kind of subcultural backdrop to the narrative. Rather, the Harold & Kumar films take the form of the heroic quest: the heroes must go off and find something, they have escapades along the way, eventually it is retrieved and there is the happy ending. In Lacanian terminology this ‘something’ is the objet petit a, the transcendent object of desire. It is the eventual obtainment of this object that renders the first film, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, a work of fantasy. What is desirable about the objet petit a is intrinsically linked with its quality of unattainability; it is only in the fantasy-space of the film that such desires can be realised. In the film, the attainment of the hamburger is bound up with the attainment of other fantasies – Harold stands up to the bullies of the workplace, he talks to the girl he is attracted to, and so on, and so on. White Castle is therefore a symbolic representation of all desire. One could comment on the imagery of the white castle itself – in medieval poetry the white castle is a symbol of Heaven or the Kingdom of Truth; then as now the white castle is a transcendent Utopian image – or, as Derrida would have it, a messianic image, an image of that which is always yet to come – in which is encoded our very earthly desires, as in the Islamic fantasy of the seventy-two virgins.

But see what happens in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. This is not at all like the first film, the two heroes are not acting on their own desires. Rather, Harold must find a replacement Christmas tree for his father-in-law: he is acting out of a sense of duty towards the Other. The pivotal moment of the film is when Harold tells Kumar that he does not have to replace the tree, rather, it is that he wants to. And again further on, when Kumar faces his responsibility for his unborn child: it is not because he has to, but because he wants to. This is not, I think, a casting aside of duty so much as a reinterpretation of duty. Here, we see the old Kantian conception – Du kannst, denn du sollst! – being dispensed with, it is too rigidly compulsive, it does not sit easy with our liberal individualism. What we get instead is a strange inversion: Du sollst, denn du wollst! – you must, because you want to!

I find this despicable, almost totalitarian, even – far more so than Kant’s formulation. Even our desires are not our own, the hegemonic order insists not only that we do our duty, but that we really want to do so. It is like when Saddam Hussein published his novels under a false name: his megalomania was such that he did not just want good reviews because he is the dictator, he wanted the people to genuinely love his writing. Only when the novels were derided in the newspapers did he republish under his own name and shoot the critics. Is what we see here not the same thing? If there is a message in this film, is it not that we must genuinely love the duties imposed on us by capitalism, that we must find jouissance in the fulfilment of duty?

Where A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas fails is precisely in this attempt to reconcile duty with desire through the matrix of capitalist institutions: the family unit, the workplace, Christmas, and so on, and so on. Duty towards the Other must not be subject to desire! What we must instead admit is that under capitalism our desires are different to our duties, or, in the language of vulgar Marxism, our desires are superstructural to the economic base. Our duty consists of confronting and changing our desires, not in the alienating manner of the Freudian superego, but through the radical project of overturning the current socio-economic order in the name of the Other. Against the false union of duty and desire we must proclaim the primacy of duty, we must, in effect, return to the old Kantian formulation. It is significant that the finale of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas requires the intervention of the supernatural in the form of Santa Claus: under capitalism, duty and desire cannot ordinarily be reconciled. What is needed in our situation is another form of supernatural intervention – the intervention of Benjaminian divine violence. Only then can this antinomy be untangled.

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.

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.

silence.

resignation.

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.

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.”

“Anything?”

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.

Magda,

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,

Valentin

“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.

“Where?”

“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

splendorous

his desire for

if

The autobiography of a rebellious ghostwriter

I – Birth

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

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

II – Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III – Sarcophagy

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

There is no singular I. We are all multiple.

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

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

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

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

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

On Beckett’s Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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