Songs play in my mind as if echoing down a long corridor or hallway. An auditory memory, some imaginary or half-remembered AM gold, retro in the way of Ariel Pink. Lo-fi, hypnagogic, like a band practice heard from the street. After the sixties, we land in Philip K. Dick’s drug-war dystopia A Scanner Darkly, reading the book’s critique of McDonalds hamburgers while eating McDonalds french fries. Dick’s observations about the spread of capitalist reality appear beside the buy-sell calculations of the book’s drug-addict protagonist, capitalism thus glimpsed and understood as a system that compels us to think and behave like addicts hooked on “product.” It’s a bleak book, its cop characters as stunted and debased as its dopers — the two ultimately the same, in fact, in the case of the protagonist, an undercover narcotics officer who also uses and deals a drug called Substance D.
Children of Men is a panic-pitched end-times vision, a film about fear, all of twenty-first century humanity’s worries in quick succession: terrorism, environmental collapse, wars waged between states and nonstate actors, inequality, infertility, banditry, you name it. “Theo,” the Clive Owens character, wanders traumatized, cynical and half-numb, through a kind of hell-house morality tale, until his arrival at the miracle of the nativity. His job thenceforth is to shepherd Kee, the film’s Mary, a refugee whose body houses future life, toward the hope of the film’s Utopia, a legendary community said to exist on an island in the Azores, led by a group called the Human Project. “Everything’s fine,” people keep saying, “all part of a bigger thing!” With death and danger all around them, punctuated by moments of great beauty, Kee persists, and Theo follows, protecting her and the baby from harm. Members of the Human Project arrive to the rescue by film’s end, floating toward Kee and her baby in a boat called Tomorrow.
I re-read a friend’s novel, preparing to discuss it again with students. It’s weird and wonderful, terrifying and funny, the fictional consensus realities of Norman Rockwell paintings and Nancy Drew novels turned askew. The small town after which the book is named operates as a microcosm, patriarchy ensnaring the novel’s female protagonist, interrupting her attempts to see beyond her surroundings. Mansplaining townsfolk infantilize her, stripping her of self-confidence to the point where she doubts her own existence. All of this occurs in a limbo-like bizarro-world, some liminal Nowheresville halfway between Twin Peaks and Bikini Bottom. The book is a dystopian fabulation in some sense, its grammar taken from capitalist realism; but it leavens this weight with its slapstick and the joy it takes in language as a site of play — its reminder, in all of these ways, that Utopia is right there for the taking. Despite our society’s sometimes horrifying resemblance to the world of the novel, the book’s delight in the craft of writing shows that it needn’t be that way. The book ventriloquizes and caricatures ruling rhetorics. Institutions are made to speak: landlords wax eloquent about landlordism, mothers extol the virtues of shopping. All of these rhetorics in their recitation are shown to be evasions and denials, self-propagating fictions, avoidances of past and ongoing abuse. Against these rhetorics, the book celebrates and revels in the imaginative flights and associative leaps of its protagonist, whose mind races, a part of it still attentive, still wanting to know, still curious and free despite circumstance.
“Me with nothing to say, and you in your autumn sweater,” go the words to a song of my late teen years by the New Jersey band Yo La Tengo. I heard it the other day, only to be reminded of it again midafternoon as Sarah and I, bundled in hats and scarves, set out on a brief walk through our neighborhood. By the evening, though, I’m back to re-reading Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a book I’m teaching next week. Dick’s dystopian future depicts widespread, near-universal dehumanization as a consequence of prolonged multi-decade domestic drug war. A pair of narcotics officers review horror stories involving consequences of addiction to the novel’s fictional drug Substance D: rapid aging, blown scholarships, a sister raped by her amoral drug-dealing brothers, babies born addicted, spread of STDs. Yet Dick also shows the lack of humanity among the cop side of this nightmarish future. When speaking to each other, Dick writes, these two narcotics officers, Fred and Hank, “neutralize” themselves; they assume “a measured and uninvolved attitude,” repressing feelings of warmth and arousal and cloaking themselves in anonymity. No one is likeable in this future. In order to live in it, one has to be willing to negate the humanity of others. “In this day and age,” says a character named Barris, “with the kind of degenerate society we live in…every person of worth needs a gun at all times” (61). This is a slight exaggeration; on the next page we learn of a character who has never owned a gun. But Dick’s future is one where gun violence is a commonplace (a world, in other words, much like our own). Everyone’s paranoid; everyone’s depressed, depraved, anxious, neurotic, confused. Indeed, to the extent that novels undergo cathexis when written, this one feels strangely anhedonic, borne of a period in Dick’s life of deep psychological crisis. For more on this period, see The Dark Haired Girl, a posthumously released collection of Dick’s letters and journals.
This miserable totality is driving me stir-crazy. I conjure on my telescreen an episode of The Mike Wallace Show from May 18, 1958 featuring Aldous Huxley, described by Wallace during the episode’s intro as “a man haunted by a vision of hell on earth.”
What I find, with some surprise, in this broadcast is a description of twenty-first century reality, especially if by that I mean reality here in the United States under the current Trump regime. Yet this world of ours also isn’t quite the one Huxley imagined, due to his misunderstanding of the logic of capitalism. Unlike Brave New World, for instance, it isn’t so much a world of “people happy where they oughtn’t to be.” Fear and anger, rather, are the dominant emotions in this world, whipped into being through omnipresent policing and gun violence. Given the structure of the built environment, one rarely experiences other people, one rarely experiences any kind of “group dynamic,” except via mediation, thanks to the ubiquity within the society of money, cars, and cellphones. Members of the dominator class drive around under these undemocratic, unfree circumstances communicating their dominance with their GOP bumper stickers and their MAGA hats and their open-carry firearms, while the rest of us hunch over steering wheels or stand alongside busy highways waiting for city buses, growing harried and bitter as we rush back and forth between rented or mortgaged living spaces and corporate-governed sites of production and consumption. In fact, I begin to wonder as the interview proceeds if it isn’t ultimately some deep-seated fear of rhetoric, of “verbal boobytraps,” as he says, that drives Huxley’s evolution, his turn in the final years of his life toward mysticism and psychedelics. Hope depended for him upon the possibility of direct, unmediated access to and experience of truth. Rhetoric maintains its victory, as it has in all hitherto existing societies, turning all of history into a forced march toward “thoughtless pleasure and ordered efficiency,” only to the extent that it succeeds in distracting us from the truth of the injustice of servitude, the truth that murmurs up from within. For what is “applied science,” what is “instrumental reason,” after all, if not rhetoric?
Ears perk up, as on a hound. I do this whenever others wish to converse with me about “traps.” We’ve all lost time to sinkholes and vortices, haven’t we? As I drive along a parkway, an old woman walks past, head tipped back, pouring sunflower seeds down her gullet with the palm of her hand. Would it be fair to liken the invention of a cognitive map to the invention of a superior mythos — one suited to one’s historical moment? Those who call themselves scientists still walk in a mucky world, don’t they? A grizzled oldtimer, sucking on a pipe, lowers his eyes and grumbles ominously out the corner of his mouth, “Ain’t that the truth.” Imagine me speaking to you through a medley of voice actors. Plants today feel prickly, causing me to flinch upon contact. Colored-pencil illustration of fingers, their nails polished, rolling up a thing and lighting it. The buzz of an air unit conspires with the ring of insects out back to wake me like an alarm. Hot damn, where am I? I justify my actions with as loose a code of ethics as possible: just go with it. Become one with the democracy of the self. Contain multitudes comfortably and without apology. So many bugs, though — one must refrain from scratching and striking out at them. For peace, the Lord hath provided us with places indoors. Inner spaces. Learn to stress inwardness as well as presence. No need to crave others’ possessions. The Master of the Self — a master in reach of everyone — redoubles that wealth of joyful intensity within. And that doesn’t require renunciation of the world. Just the opposite: take it, it’s yours and everyone else’s. A small lizard scampers off my stoop. A little black one, with stripes like a skunk. The world in that moment is flush with novelty. These minor revolutions console us in the big one’s absence. These are our share of what was promised: our inheritance. Drug laws are flouted en masse because the people know what works best. A perfect litmus test for detection of the authoritarian personality: do you or don’t you allow yourself entry into the Kingdom of God? As soundtrack, by the way, for today’s entry, allow me to suggest The Isley Brothers’ great cover medley spoken on behalf of and from the standpoint of the meek, “Ohio / Machine Gun.”