Where something taken to be history takes the form of a world on fire, catalog of events adding up in tedious barrage, as in Billy Joel’s grim 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Joel grew up on Long Island, along the beaches, as did I. Beaches were closed the summer prior to the song’s release due to “Syringe Tides.” Hypodermics from Fresh Kills Landfill in New Jersey washed up along the shore — an event Joel cites in his litany. The fears stirred by the event were compounded by the era’s Reagan-administration-escalated AIDS crisis. The event filled me with concern — motivated the pen of my middle-school self to draw a political cartoon: a small surfer dwarfed by a wave of waste. Surfer stares glumly out the picture toward the viewer. And here I am now, most of my day spent grading student responses, thinking about it again, not just because of the Joel song, which appeared as the subject of a student’s response, but also because a colleague submitted for approval a course examining literary imaginings of the end of the world. The Jewish festival of Sukkot minds me to be grateful for my home, and all who help me to maintain it.
Upon a whim, I pick up and read from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson a poem selected at random, as in wherever my thumb happens to land, containing the lines:
Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence — is denied them.
They fling their Speech
By means of it — in God’s ear—
If then He hear
This sums the Apparatus
Comprised in Prayer—
“Why must longings be irreconcilable — why ‘Presence denied’?” I wonder afterwards.
“Why ask why? ‘Tis so,” sayeth the Fates in reply. Yet one can make of Fate a place one avoids, a spatiotemporal coordinate that one eludes like a fugitive. With Fred Moten, for instance, we can “consent not to be a single being.”
Frankie gravitates toward particular books of poetry, pulling from among a bookcase of several hundred the same ones these last few days: Joan Retallack’s How to Do Things With Words and a Penguin Classics reprint of the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. What can I say — the kid’s got great taste. She hands them to me, and the look in her eyes suggests I should read them, so I do. When I’ve taught Whitman in the past, I’ve used a different edition. Perhaps I should change it up. Celebrate that opening stanza of “Song of Myself” — but question its atomic physics. Though it’s as if Whitman knows of what becomes of and follows from his Manhattan and its projection in the next century. Yet he rejects it as mere talk:
“I have heard what the talkers were talking…the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”
My imprisoned cousin and I have begun an email correspondence. It is to him that I write the following:
Does write make right?
“Damned sure it does! / so one hopes”
seems inappropriate as a response.
So what is?
Westworld encourages me to reframe my present crisis as a test for fidelity. But to whom, or to what? Creator vs. created, human vs. AI, guest vs. host: as above, so below. As the season proceeds, the show’s violence and bloodshed grow tiresome. No more gratuitous sex of the kind we saw in Season One. This new season cares only to unwind its master-slave dialectic toward ever-increasing terror and systemic collapse. It knows, of course, that there’s an audience hungry for that sort of thing. As one of the show’s female programmer characters acknowledges, “Macho fucks are probably loving this shit.” The maze, the cradle: these are the means employed by the competing sides of the present season’s improvised conflict. Through the show, heads gain access to messages, but not the messenger. A daughter tries to coax her father toward the beach beyond the maze, to no avail. The data in the cradle of our DNA seems intent on full apocalypse. But among these warring parties, there may yet be a savior.
Voices from my inner cast of characters tell me I’m living a depressingly subdued existence. Hush, we don’t use that word, they say. We’ve just got something on our mind. Green, orange, and streetlight-yellow balls of light flash across my field of vision. Do others all have their own peak experiences? Or are they too absorbed in neoliberal pastimes like compartmentalization and time management? I ponder these questions during a brief respite from the demands of the nine to five. I imagine myself reconstituted as a child again, lying on my stomach on the floor of a room, playing with a set of anonymous, faceless action figures. I don’t care about job security or the rest of it. My path is my path no matter what. Rushing to dinner with friends last night, Sarah and I talked about bars in our neighborhood and marveled at massive yellow-and-green-lined leaves of plants in neighbors’ gardens.
Sarah used to be (and to some extent remains) a race walker, so I permanently trail behind her whenever we make our way along what a friend of ours calls “the upside-down cone of uncertainty.” A vague discomfort in my sinuses. Friends were all supportive as a fellow instructor and I explained to them the crisis we’re facing at work. When I asked them how they accounted for the way everything was all of a sudden turning to shit synchronistically, all at once (by which I mean job cuts, friends’ cars breaking down, all of us sick with colds or the flu, another university in town accepting the poisoned chalice of strings-attached funding from the Koch brothers, hurricanes, wildfires, the Trump administration’s decision to rescind DACA, the threat of nuclear war), everyone laughed and nodded: ha ha, point well taken, apocalypticism FTW. But part of me had also asked the question in earnest. Are the usually semi-autonomous levels of the totality collapsing together now, base and superstructure merged through crisis into a form resembling an infinite regression of homologies for Trump’s America? As the National Enquirer used to say, “Enquiring minds want to know.”
What have we accomplished since Ulysses, the great novel of everyday life? I wish I could train students to appreciate that book’s achievements. But in what context? Look around: we live in the hours before a storm. There are few among us who have time enough still to read books like Ulysses. I wish to live without cash, outside the capitalist system. Please help me. Please advise. How does one begin to live as one wishes? How does one create a world where owls nest in abandoned libraries, and capitalism is a thing of the past? Desolate land’s ends, abandoned shorelines: these have always been my favorite places. The broken asphalt expanses beneath gull-infested grey skies. I enjoy being assigned the character whose every day unlocks a new spell as he trespasses amid the ghosts-to-be of tomorrow’s mossy wastes and ruins. Extra credit for those who devise mantras and practice neuro-linguistic programming in the moments before bed each night. “Linger, let live: longer, louder.” We were born into this mess; we might as well get good at it. Amen. Blinds draw lines across light, so I go outside, only to have those bastards, the mosquitoes, attack my ankles. Because of “live and let live,” I’m supposed to just permit that? A voice of ours quivers upward with nervous, breathless laughter. Purple lips, a tree-bark face. Breathing often helps to relax me, along with stretches and massage. What role does illusion play in everyday consciousness? Is an altered state a complete distortion of real conditions, as in the case of an hallucination? Or is it more like a slight bending for purposes of enlightenment? “Kiddies, the dream has begun,” I exclaim while waving jazz hands or spirit fingers. The bad faith of fascism expresses itself in the form of store-bought, mass-manufactured tiki torches. No “talented oppressor,” no subtle beast, that. Tunde Wey cuts to the truth of the matter, however — a truth, I’m sorry to say, for which I, too, am culpable — when he writes, “People of color are continuously dispossessed of culture and self in service of whiteness.” And here I am, teaching a course on “consciousness.”