Adjusting to the work regime, hours clocked responding to emails, the subject muses upon what it means to be “COLLEGE RULED,” the phrase atop his notebook. One would rather dwell among gyres, vortices / brightly drawn in chalk. Gazing into one, I dream of fugitive study: texts read and discussed in the secret gatherings of an Undercommons. I read poems and hear them as they speak to me, their voices flitting about, “quick-winged / with women’s faces” (4), as in poet Alice Oswald’s Nobody. “It’s not all about you, Dad,” they say with a touch of vocal-fry (as do the rich college girls in Mike White’s HBO miniseries The White Lotus). “It’s time to recenter the narrative.”
K. sends me Jessi Klein’s article, “Epiphany in the Baby-Food Aisle.” Klein writes from her experience as the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old — her child the same age as my daughter Frankie. Klein describes an epiphany of sorts that occurred recently as she listened to Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert talking on Oprah’s Super Soul podcast about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The gist of it is that Gilbert thinks we need to reconceive the hero’s journey. “It’s not the exclusive territory of men,” writes Klein, “and it does not have to involve faraway lands.”
Instead, she argues, we ought to reconceive the hero’s journey in terms of motherhood.
“The article is powerful. It makes me ‘feel all the feels,’” writes the Narrator afterwards, wincing a bit at his use of that phrase, though he means it sincerely. The article really does trigger in him a wide gamut of emotions.
“Parenting is hard,” he adds. “We doubt our capacities. We rise to the task as best we can.”
In that sense, motherhood is heroic — undoubtedly so, notes the part of me committed to truth. Why, then, do I respond defensively?
“What about Alice and her journey through Wonderland?” wonders the child in me. “Why, upon imagining women’s journeys, must we rush automatically to motherhood?”
“My positioning as a subject,” writes the Narrator, “bars me from believing fully Klein’s account of motherhood as a hero’s journey that rarely gets its due. My sense, instead, is that that narrative is nearly universally adored; it plays on repeat throughout the culture, always to loud applause, my applause included.”
“Why, then,” adds the Narrator, “is there within Klein’s narrative this insistence that the story is neglected and isn’t getting its due? Its image of itself as victim is reminiscent of Christianity once the latter becomes the state religion of the empire: its priesthood amply compensated, able to walk proudly amid the halls of power. Christianity, in other words, when it is no longer the religion of the persecuted few, but still happy to paint itself as such, as it subjects others to its evangelical zeal.”
“And besides,” he adds. “The hero’s journey is of questionable worth anyway. In order for persons to write themselves as heroes, others must be written as villains.”
“And I am not a villain,” he insists. “Nor is anyone else in my narrative. If mine is to be construed as a hero’s journey, then the genre would have to behave other than it usually does. The tale’s villain, if it is to require one, would have to be something other than a person — not an agent so much as a structural flaw immanent to the system. A source of inner conflict.”
“If the texts that students and I have been studying this semester are best referred to as ‘portal fantasies,’” thinks the part of me that persists here in the future, “then that, too, is the term to use in discussing the new AppleTV+ television series Severance. Characters in the show pass quite literally through one or more doors between worlds, living two separate lives.”
The show’s title refers to an imagined corporate procedure of the near-future that severs personhood. Those who volunteer to undergo this procedure emerge from it transformed into split subjects, each with its own distinct stream of memory.
As unlikely as this dystopian premise may seem, we can’t fully distance ourselves from it as viewers, given our severed personhood here “IRL,” as the kids are fond of saying. “Others may not be quite as manifold as me,” admits the Narrator. “But each of us is Janus-faced. Each of us houses both a waking and a dreaming self, with each incapable of full memory of the other.”
And as the show advances, of course, we learn through a kind of detective work that the severance procedure isn’t in fact what it seems. The work-self (or “innie”) battles the home-self (or “outie”) — as do Superego and Id here at home.
Our cast can be imagined as three parts of a single psyche, plus one.
The first three—imaginable, perhaps, in relation to categories like present, future, and past—nevertheless share time in a single home, like users sharing computing time on a mainframe.
Who, though, is the Ghost? The alleged “plus one.” Not quite mind-at-large, certainly. The whole person? The unifying soul? An author-function self-fashioned into being via hyperstition? That which presides in each?
“It might be helpful,” quips the Narrator, “to map these characters onto a Greimas square.”
“But my preference,” he adds, “is to do as Iris DeMent suggests, and let the mystery be.”
“Here I am again, in this next memory,” says the Narrator. “On the beach. Only this time, it’s a new one: Newport Beach, site of my brother’s bachelor party. Imagine me in dialogue, in a sense, with the one who was there.”
Spacetime shifts here as the character reenters the memory.
“Well, what’ll it be?” wonders the Traveler. “If spacetime is reducible to a game of multidimensional correspondence chess, then what’s our next move?”
Rising in the sky above him there at the beach house, the new moon in Leo provides the Traveler a chance to ask questions. He communes with the moon, engaging it in silent dialogue, and sets his intentions for the months ahead.
A ghostly third figure joins him in the course of the evening. It shimmers into being like a hazy wonder there amid the rocks and the waves, and in so doing, intervenes in the Traveler’s thoughts. “Let us be careful what we wish for,” warns the Ghost, “as this is a powerful, wish-granting lunar cycle.”
“Warning taken, it was with great care that I made that wish,” interjects the Narrator from the future. “And in retrospect, I regret nothing.”
“Come sunrise, in fact,” remembers the Narrator, “and a commune of sorts assembled itself down near the shore. Members set out mats and, posing silently amid squawking seabirds, practiced yoga on the beach as I wrote.”
In due time, though, word circles back, arriving home again to the house on Shady. D. reflects upon the street name. “You know, when you said that,” he confides, “I remembered that L. lived there. Shady Blvd. She rented an apartment there during her first months in town, before she purchased her home.”
“Wow, how weird,” I reply, unable at first to contain my bewilderment. For L. is one of our colleagues. Could she, too, have been privy to the home’s mysteries? Sensing already in this discovery some hint of the unheimlich, I resolve then and there to investigate.
“I’ll have to ask her about it,” I tell him.
And ask I do.
L. and I meet that very evening, in fact, at a brewery. What I learn from her, however, dispels rather abruptly what I’d been led to believe by D.
“No, I never lived in that house. I never lived on Shady,” she replies when I press her about it. “But I suspect I know who does.”
Colleagues and I sit atop stools at the bar at Village Tavern, the three of us eating lunch and warming to each other’s company toward the end of summer. Talk turns to the icebreaker-like theme of “horror movies we watched at far too young an age”: Poltergeist for me, for instance, at the age of five; The Shining, at a slightly older age, for D., who teaches a course on ghosts; and Scanners for I., a documentarian and professor of journalism.
Inspired, perhaps, by the example of Poltergeist, I sketch for them afterwards the story of “The House on Shady Blvd,” feeling as I do so like the Traveler from H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. His was a similar tale, told with great verve over the course of two dinner parties.
“You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted,” begins the Traveler.
“Is not that rather a large thing to expect us to begin upon?” asks a skeptic with red hair.
My eyes twinkling, my face well-tanned from my time in the sun, I expound this admittedly odd and recondite matter of mine in as plausible a manner as I can muster. Contingency pauses me, however, midway in my telling. Sensing through the cloth of my pocket the buzz of my phone against my hip, I beg pardon of my companions, step outdoors for a moment, and take a call from the office of my oral surgeon. ‘Tis the “pre-interview,” says the woman on the other end, for my upcoming wisdom-tooth extraction. Call complete, I return to my companions, whereupon I compare the event jokingly to the one that prompted Philip K. Dick’s weird VALIS experience in the 1970s.
Mood thus lightened, the conversation leaps to life, undergoes a shift in quality, becomes a full, robust, multi-directional exchange.
“Next on the block is ‘recursion,’” says the Narrator, “a concept discussed at length by philosophers Armen Avanessian, Pete Wolfendale, and Suhail Malik in Christopher Roth’s 2016 film Hyperstition.
“Recursion explains how the New enters existence,” says Avanessian. “Where reflexivity is a sequence of stacked meta-reflections, as in a pair of mirrors, recursion involves an integration of parts into a whole, changing in the process both the part and the whole.”
Roth employs cinema both recursively and dialectically. Parts of Hyperstition are thus able to speak to one another via montage in the style of Eisenstein, Vertov, and Godard.
So it is that Suhail Malik appears in the wake of Avanessian, arguing from the year 2026 that recursion is how those of us who code encounter time. “Recursion,” he states, “is what the operation of coding does when, meeting up against the inexorability of time, it tries to compensate for that inexorability and produce memory.”
“I look forward to next week’s experiment in sobriety,” announces the Wizard, “required for 4-5 days after wisdom-tooth extraction.”
“Do you, though?” wonders the Traveler. “Is this ‘experiment,’ as you say, truly a thing you look forward to? Or do you dread it?”
“Part of me is apprehensive,” admits the Wizard. “I have but one such tooth. Parting with it feels like a big deal, though of course it needn’t be.”
Having come from the future, the Traveler replies, “No worries. You and I know full well that, despite its fondness for rhyme, history refuses to repeat itself.”
As Narrator, I interject here to add, “Both characters are acquainted with science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s infamous VALIS experience. 2-3-74. That, too, occurs after a wisdom-tooth extraction.”
The characters relive the event for a moment as if it were a flashback. They see before them the young delivery woman, bearing pain meds from the local pharmacy, arriving at Dick’s door. Sun glints off an ichthys hanging from a band ‘round the woman’s neck. The ichthys is the Greek fish symbol that was worn by the early Christians. Dick, blinded momentarily by a pink beam of light, receives in that moment a rapid download of gnosis directly into his consciousness.
Imagine, says the Narrator, something like what Lagunitas suggests on cans of their Hazy Wonder IPA, like the one from which I sip here as I write: “It always starts nebulous. A reflection of a refraction in the back of your frontal cortex. Then before you know it, you just know it…”
Overheard scraps of language. “Natty progress.” “Ferrari, Ferrari, daddy gets me minutes.”
“Imagine all of that happening,” says a girl, “in a bird’s tummy. Or a bear’s. Or the tummy of a fish. Or something with eight tentacles. A spider, an octopus: take your pick. A kind of spider-verse. The one who spins it occupying a space in the middle. The Laguna Pueblo people call this being Spiderwoman.”
The characters pause in their dialogue-via-montage and ponder this for a moment.
“No one need tell Spiderwoman, ‘Off the ropes! Off the wall!’,” adds the Traveler. “Life for her is like ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song.’ All is groovy.”
“Indeed,” concludes the Wizard, in transit now with the Traveler. “‘Groovy’ means knowing how to hang, how to float, how to surf. ‘Float free, in a meditative trance,’ the emblem teaches, ‘and all is well.’”
Because of its stained glass, its gaudy chandeliers, its profusion of mirrors, there was always a liveliness, a vibrancy to the Shady home’s interiors. The home’s mirrors were the equivalent of portals. Black Lodge, the occult-themed bar in town, utilized similar décor—though of course, as the name suggests, with the color removed: the Shady home stripped of its shine, replaced with an abundance of black.