The Future Belongs to Those Who Hustle

If you have ever experienced summer in the Deep South, then you will never forget the exhausting humidity and the oppressive heat–it feels like wearing a hot towel all day; t-shirts become nothing more than ornamental sop rags. Mowing the yard, for example, becomes a project that renders you useless (but deeply satisfied) the rest of the day. In years lost, my teaching schedule allowed your beloved blogger to spend most of his summers languishing wherever I could find a comforting veil of shade with a pile of books and a steady supply of drinks. (cue shift in person) If you were not too far lost in drink by time the sun had started to set, you were dazzled into a meditative stupor by the fiery fields of pink and purple and orange and their hypnotizing fever spell. Now that I have a family and a mortgage, more and more summertime is spent cutting grass and making sure my son is not eating something hazardous. Needless to say, my dilettantish reading (and drinking) binges have probably seen their final days–at least for the foreseeable future. I have, however, been poking my nose into Stephen Smith’s The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent lately. Though I am not too far into it, I appreciate the author’s decidedly evenhanded tone. In fact, in laying out demographic predictions, he clarifies, “I was impelled to write it not as a demographer–I am not–or an alarmist Eurocentric–I am not–but as someone who has spent of his working life engaged with sub-Saharan Africa” (8). If you are looking for Eurocentrist jeremiads, any number of websites will have to suffice instead, not this title.

To the degree that we can trust estimations based upon incomplete records, sub-Saharan Africa had only 230 million inhabitants as of 1960 (7). This number would quadruple, surpassing 1 billion by 2015 (7). In addition, “[h]alf the continent’s population now has access to 4G telephony or the internet, through fibre-optic submarine cables enabling video streaming and the downloading of vast quantities of other data” (7). This access to the Internet plays well into the hands of Africa’s exponentially growing population.

There are currently 1.3 billion people in Africa. By 2050, if present trends continue, this number will grow into an estimated 2.5 billion (8). To put this in perspective, according to that same timeline, there will be only 450 million Europeans (8). Thus, Africa will have five times as many people as Europe in only 30 years. This means that by 2050, nearly a quarter of the world’s population will be in/from Africa (27). Going by these same trends, by 2100 “Africans will represent some 40 per cent of the world’s anticipated population of 11 billion. Even more significantly, about 60 per cent of all people under the age of fifteen will live south of the Sahara: a solid majority of the world’s youth will be African” (27, emphasis mine). Of course, one should never be too confident when talking about the future. However, as demographics are destiny by non-cataclysmic metrics, it seems safe to say that the world will be indelibly shaped–if not guided–by Africa in the coming decades.

Nigeria’s capital city, Lagos, may serve as a model for what future megalopolises may look like. In 2012, it overtook Cairo as Africa’s largest city with a staggering population of 21 million, and that number is set to double by 2050 (36). This led me to watch the following YouTube video on Lagos, published only 8 months ago. This documentary gives an incredibly raw look into a trash community on the outskirts of Lagos. The people in this video live most of the week–if not their entire lives–in crude shelters built on trash heaps. Why? This allows them a short commute to work, where they scavenge the daily dump deliveries, looking for anything that can be resold. The narrative is built around two men–one, his name I have already forgotten, who wants to be rap star (he goes by “Vocal Slender”) and one, Joseph, who is married and has two children. Joseph’s story is very touching, especially when he reveals details about his unfortunate childhood in a polygamous home. To meet the needs of the scavenging community, restaurants, bars, barbers, stores, and a mosque have been established. What really struck me (“convicted” is a better word) is how diligently these people hustle day in and day out for a life that most of us in the developed world would rather die than live. Going back to Joseph, all the long hours he puts in allow his wife to stay home with his two daughters in their one-room home–ten miles (if I remember correctly) away from where he works. Not once will you see him complain or resent his lot in life. To the contrary, at the end of the documentary, he praises Lagos and the life he has been able to make for his family. It is a life that, through modern technology, he displays to world.

Lest someone reading my blog think that I am a crusty old racist living in the Deep South, let me set the record straight. Though I have always been an old man at heart, I am not that old (young forties, right?), but I may be a bit crusty. While I do live in the Deep South, I doubt anyone who truly knows me would call me a racist–whatever that currently means. I do, however, believe in the reality of race and believe, mainly because I have seen with my own eyes and not because a certain ideological position dictates that I say such, differences among the races. I believe that IQ can serve as working guide for what to expect, not in moral behavior, but in civilizational accomplishment. Above it all, though, as a Catholic, I believe that every person bears the image of God and can have a part in God’s kingdom. In other words, I believe not enough for some and too much for others. Fine–I have never liked being a member of too many organizations anyway. Why even put this out there? Well, if Africa is the future of the world, we need to come to terms with what may come as a result.

One can see here countries ranked by the average IQ. (Though this really should not need repeating as often it does, we are concerned only with averages, not with exemplar individuals, who can be found among every people group in every country.) Africans countries can be found stacked at the bottom of this chart. Before you chime in, hush. If IQ, as some would have it, should be measured by the ability with which one can solve problems, then I am a self-admitted idiot. There is no way that I could last in one of the dump societies of Lagos. Those denizens have much sturdier grey matter than I. The aforementioned Joseph has been able to maintain a viable life–a flourishing one, if we speak relatively–for his family of four; I would have been found dead days after my arrival, let alone anyone depending upon me for subsistence.

Still, while cleverness greases social interactions and grants a keenness in matters of survival, it is not sufficient to create and sustain a civilization. One may, however, argue that not much can be expected of people groups whose members spend most of their time struggling to see another day. I would grant that; however, the accomplishments of the West are particular in their geography, and if we take the Middle Ages as an example, have often been produced by peoples whose living conditions were not that much better than those of modern Africa. If most in Lagos were able to rise into a middle class income bracket or better, would the world then see a city that rivals London (historically, at least) in artistic, architectural, political, and religious output? What will a world that is forty percent African look like?

Most of these are no more than questions posed in leisure, as, unless life-extension technology develops and I then choose to pursue it, I will be only a background specter in the thoughts of my children–if even they are still alive by the turn of the century–when this comes to pass. However, I do hope my lineage persists (for that is the only justification I have for not having gone into religious life) and that my descendants will have a role to play in this Africanized world. When the times comes, though, will there still remain any statues, monuments, buildings, cathedrals, art, music, and literature of the West, or will hustling in gritty megalopolises in a world that cares to strive primarily for resource allocation and not cultural creation be all they know? Will they want to know any differently?

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Woke Me Up When This Is Over

Black pilled British philosopher John Gray recently wrote about the unpleasantness currently taking place in the late, not-so-great-anymore US; the title of his piece neatly summarizes the content: “The woke have no vision of the future.” In it, he compares the woke revolutionaries (Wokeists? Wokeati?) not so much to Bolsheviks as to millenarians (autocorrect is prompting me to change this into “seminarians”–Stalin, anyone?) who, “released by divine grace,” raged against moral and societal restraints several hundred years ago.

He crystallizes this sentiment in the following: “Yet the impulses that animate the woke uprising are different from those that energised Lenin or even Mao. For the Bolshevik leader — an authentic disciple of the Jacobin Enlightenment, or so he always insisted — violence was a tool, not an end in itself. In woke movements such as Antifa, on the other hand, violence seems to be mainly therapeutic in its role.”

His elaborates conveniently on this two paragraphs later:  “Woke activists, in contrast, have no vision of the future. In Leninist terms they are infantile leftists, acting out a revolutionary performance with no strategy or plan for what they would do in power. Yet their difference from Lenin goes deeper. Rather than aiming for a better future, woke militants seek a cathartic present. Cleansing themselves and others of sin is their goal. Amidst vast inequalities of power and wealth, the woke generation bask in the eternal sunshine of their spotless virtue” (emphasis mine).

In contrast to this, poet and cultural commentator extraordinaire Linh Dinh makes the case in “Your Black Future” that “[t]o better understand what’s happening, though, we should reexamine Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Lasting a full decade, it destroyed much of China’s cultural heritage and tore that society apart, all in the name of getting rid of the ‘Four Olds’: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.

It was a reign of terror against man, civilization and China itself, but it had to be done, for there was a socialist utopia at the end of the blood splattered tunnel, said Mao.

Achieving a socialist utopia, as the secular version of crossing the River Jordan, as the motivation for Mao’s revolution supports, I think, Gray’s contention that at least Maoists had a guiding vision while today’s useful-idiot Wokeists have nothing more than meet-ups during which to strategize the statues that will fall next.

Perhaps the reason that Dinh makes this comparison is because of the undeniable resemblance of attitude and methodology:  “Mao’s shock troops were high school and university students, woke idiots, in short, with their little Red Book. They denounced professors, intellectuals and artists, torched temples and monasteries, burnt books and paintings, smashed art objects, tore bits from the Great Wall and vandalized the 2,400-year-old cemetery of the Kong Clan, where Confucius himself was buried. Digging up one of his descendants, they hung the naked corpse from a tree.”

As far as I know, no one has yet discussed digging up men of oppression and desecrating their corpses, but is it inconceivable given everything else? Really, had I the time and energy to be a troll, I would start an anonymous Twitter account with the aim of proposing the most outlandish ideas possible simply to see how many would soon start parroting them, but unironically. (The time has come to send those of European descent back to Europe! Let them continue to practice their institutionalized forms of racism in countries that their ancestors abandoned in order to spread oppression to the New World. Only those who will bend the knee will be allowed to stay, provided they continue to develop advances in medicine, maintain infrastructure, and create labor-saving technology that will rightly and justly benefit people of color! [Notice how young girls and revolutionaries alike lurv to use exclamation marks.])

In reference to Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages  (a book that I have had on a shelf for ten years and have still not read), Gray states:  “For Cohn, the study of medieval millenarians was an essential part of understanding modern totalitarianism. It is also useful in understanding the woke movement. Medieval flagellants and woke militants combine a sense of their own moral infallibility with a passion for masochistic self-abasement. Medieval millenarians believed the world would be remade by God when Jesus returned after a millennium of injustice (millenarians are also known as chiliasts, chiliad being a thousand years), while the woke faithful believe divine intervention is no longer necessary: their own virtue will be sufficient. In both cases, nothing needs to be done to bring about a new world apart from destroying the old one.”

Like the chiliasts, the Wokeists believe that there is no need to first remove the logs in their eyes, for, lo and behold, there are no logs to remove. Thus, they can spend all their energy on pointing out the perceived specks in the eyes of others (who do not even get the benefit of being told this in a spirit of loving fraternal correction, as the Biblical basis would show us should be present if we are going to say anything at all)–even if it involves the removal of another’s eyes to get at the specks, as historically we have seen done to statues destroyed by Islamic “renovation” forces. However, it might be more accurate to say that once catechumens abase themselves publicly, a ceremony that, like baptism, unites them to the community of believers, they are thus freed from the original sin of racism and are now free to cast aspersions on those who willfully remain stained by this modern reinterpretation of original sin.

Call me cynical, but I doubt that a desire for justice animates this movement–if it can be called even that. I have studied ideas and language long enough to know that when a call for justice is made, usually it is intentionally left vague enough to accommodate any ad hoc political demands that follow. I have not studied the official platform of Black Lives Matter, so perhaps something cogent and particular has been laid out. Yet going by the disparate media I have consumed, I have not heard anything more than reiterative demands to defund the police, remove offending statues, and attack institutionalized racism.  As a consequence, though, statues have been removed and will continue be removed. The four officers involved in the death of George Floyd will be tried. Police departments all across the country are reconsidering the amount of training in conflict resolution given to officers, and many will probably experience funding “reallocation.” Yet in listening to the mostly incoherent and vapid discussions, what I detect is not just anger at how black males are treated by cops (justifiable anger in many cases), but that black males are arrested at all–or at least at the rates that they are.

Anyone who cares to look, though, can easily find studies and statistics that should deflate the narratives being floated through the media. According this study published in 2016, officers are more hesitant to shoot armed black suspects than white ones and less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than white ones. This very recently published study reports that blacks are more likely to be killed in encounters with police; however, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, relative to population size, blacks are much more likely to be involved in violent crimes than whites. One staggering statistic is that while blacks currently make up only thirteen percent of the US population, blacks were responsible for more than fifty percent of homicides (mostly of other blacks) from 1980-2008. In addition, given absolute population size, more whites than blacks are killed by the police.  Of course, no one would argue that cops–like anyone else of any color–are incapable of racism or have never acted in a racist manner. Still to insist that systematic racism infests the police flies in the face of reputable evidence. Then again, if historical reminders can be toppled, why not studies and statistics?

None of this will quiet the clamoring mouths or still the frantic fingers of those whose idea of justice is that blacks, relative to their population, should have arrest rates, conviction rates, and incarceration rates comparable–if not lower–than that of whites. This, however, leads to issues that go far beyond the criminal justice system. This leads to the notion that a truly just and a truly fair society would see comparable rates of success and prosperity across the board, race notwithstanding. The problem with this is twofold: One, uniformity of results is not a logical extension of the idea of justice, and two, a phenomenon that has never been observed (comparable rates of success by all persons or groups considered) should not serve as the take-it-or-leave-it standard by which an institution–or nation–is judged worthy to persist.

I think that ultimately what we are seeing is a movement against the only sane and historically accurate view of humanity, one that allows for both the inspiring heights and sobering depths of human potential. A recent episode of !fabulous! Milo’s Friday Night’s All Right  (I think one can view this only if a subscriber to Censored TV) with the University of Chicago Medieval studies professor Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown as his guest sent me down various rabbit thought trails. One is that statues remind us that extraordinary people have existed and maybe still exist. They might not be the most moral, but they are still undeniably important and demand our attention. Today’s nihilists do not want to believe that anyone can be momentous because that will then challenge them to examine how lackluster their own lives are, given over to their destabilizing passions and self-centered interests. Another, as pointed out by Milo and Dr. Brown, is that the statues that have been toppled bear the traits of neo-classical design, a style that attracted–as opposed to alienated–the observer. How many abstract monuments are we seeing removed or defaced? This seems to reveal a hatred of the high aspirations of art that were once encouraged in the West–and thus a hatred of the West. Finally, as Dr. Brown reminded us, America is a nation founded by iconoclasts. Our roots were planted in the fetid soil of the Protestant Revolution, err, Reformation. After all, is not the spirit of the Reformation to be always reforming?  Is Black Lives Matter any different in spirit than quitter monk Martin Luther? (Perhaps it is God’s warped sense of humor that the figure who plays so prominently in the movement was named after the perfidious priest. In fact, MLK’s shouting “I’m fucking for God!” while cheating on his wife by screwing prostitutes sounds like something that could have come straight from Martin Luther’s Table Talk…)

To return to the musings of the author who opened this essay: The Wokeists are performing their psychodrama with no script in hand on a national stage as the world watches, using violence for the catharsis of the actors themselves, not the audience, reversing what Aristotle wrote was the purpose of theater. Every performance ends with a “to be continued” at the next monument. Heaven help them–and us all–when the theater curtains catch fire.

 

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That’s (a Clown’s) Life

Flipboard: Joker is no joke — Joaquin Phoenix is superb ...

In case anyone has not heard, there is this film that has recently been released and is based upon a relatively infamous comic book villain. The film has garnered some media attention; perhaps the tireless reader may be able to find an article online after a fair amount of searching, only after, of course, having had to wade through the media sludge of Trump impeachment news.

After having seen Joker four times (I had a mini-vacation–that was how I chose to spend it), I want discuss a few of my observations. Spoilers to follow, for those who still think that a movie can be discussed (and condemned) before it has been viewed (e.g., The Guardian). That being said, a few admissions:

  • I am not a comic book fanboy. In fact, I stopped reading comics back in the early 80s, though I still have a few issues of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, my two favorite childhood heroes, stashed away in my closet. (I suppose that even as a young boy I had a sense of the human body’s frailty and fantasized about being able to augment its powers.)
  • I am not a fan of comic book movies. However, I did immensely enjoy Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman franchise, and I have seen a few of the earlier Marvel films (the first two Spiderman films and the first Iron Man), but, overall, I find such films lacking most elements that compel me to watch a film in the first place.
  • I do not intend to draw parallels to Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, or The King of Comedy, whether in content, style, or press-release sensationalism.
  • I am going to assume anyone who reads this has either seen the film or does not really care one way or the other, thus relieving me of having to summarize the plot or give background to characters or to scenes.
  • I intend to refer to just one review of Joker, largely because I think that it is unbelievably vapid and awash in hyper-critical self-righteousness that can come only from someone who could never make it as a screenwriter and, thus, must write for The New Yorker.  (As an aside: When is that smug, self-canonizing mag going to stop hyphenating “teenager”?)
  • I typed too early the above point. I will make use of a few reviews of Joker–but I still stand by what I typed regarding The New Yorker.
  • I refuse to essay any attempt at reconciliation with the larger comic-book mythology.

To begin, I was skeptical when I first read that the bro-humorist Todd Phillips was going to direct the film. However, when I saw a few teaser clips late last year and this year’s April’s stunning teaser trailer, all doubts evaporated. Even before I saw the film, reading the following two items about him only increased my faith in him: 1). he directed a documentary about the notorious punk rocker GG Allin (I remember seeing that documentary for sale in record store I used to haunt while in grad school. A graduate chum at the time dared to purchase a copy, but could not stomach finishing it.) and 2). he has publically confessed to the (near) impossibility of thriving in the humor genre in today’s woke/incessantly outraged/cancel culture. Of course, when I first read that Joaquin Phoenix (an actor whom I have been pimping out for a while) was slated to play the Joker, I was already planning to buy tickets for the first day’s first showing. He is, in my ‘umble opinion, the best actor of my generation (X!). Though I realize that he plays a vastly different type of Joker than that of Ledger’s, still, I think that Phoenix’s performance surpasses Ledger’s in that he is able to showcase a greater range of emotional intensity through one highly nuanced executed scene after another. However, in all fairness, Ledger’s role does not call for the emotional range that Phoenix’s does, for Ledger’s role demands a villain fully formed, one already committed to his nihilism, not one emering from the slough of despondency as we witness with Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck.

According to Robert Frost, “If we couldn’t laugh[,] we would all go insane.” Reportedly, Phillips played for Phoenix clips of people who suffered from the medical condition known as pseudobulbar affect (PBA): uncontrollable bouts of laughter. Anyone who has consumed even only a trailer has seen–and heard–the chilling but soulless laugh (more than one, actually) that Phoenix flawlessly captures for his character. Most of the time when Arthur laughs, it bears no relation to how he feels; rather, it is the result of a neurological condition that stems, we discover, from severe childhood trauma and functions as a release whenever he feels stressed or upset. He does, however, laugh genuinely a few times: after watching an interview with Bruce Wayne on television, upon first seeing his Pogo Comedy Club performance clip introduced on The Murray Franklin Show, and while being interviewed by a worker at Arkham State Hospital at the end of the film. One of the most poignant laughs comes while he is at the Pogo Comedy Club taking notes on a comedian. Arthur laughs wildly at the mention of the word “prestigious,” as if he were trying to predict when everyone else would laugh, but jumps the gun by laughing at a throw-away adjective, not the punchline. Also, when the comedian, who reveals that he is Jewish in his performance (Do Jewish comedians even do that in real life?), makes a joke about having to lie his Jewish name, Arthur looks around uncomfortably while everyone else laughs–and then rushes to include his laugh before everyone has finished laughing. (This may be one of my favorite scenes in the film, given Phoenix’s impeccable timing.)  Returning to the Frost quotation, I cannot help but think what becomes of those people who are not able truly to laugh–does such repressed laughter accumulate until it festers and boils in madness? Though Arthur is presented as one who struggles to see the signs of his own agency, could it also be that, suffering from a reverse form of pride, he expects the narrative of his life to produce a grand, architectonic design that most of us, regardless of class, race, or ability, will never have revealed to us? A lingering corollary question: What about those people who are told, in no uncertain terms, *not* to laugh at whatever has been enshrined as beyond comedic reevaluation by the then-functioning magisterium of mirth? A minor reflection of this: In my multiple viewings, I was surprised how many people did not laugh at what were truly funny scenes such as his dropping the gun while dancing in the children’s hospital.

Much has already been written about the possibility that the descent-cum-rebirth of Arthur Fleck may transform disenfranchised and disaffected white males into killers through maleficent cinematic alchemy. Unfortunately, in the current cultural climate, any film that features a disgruntled white male will find only one reading on the outrage thermometer: incel-baiting propaganda. Richard Lawson’s review in Vanity Fair captures this:

For so many tragic reasons, the American imagination has of late been preoccupied with the motivations of disaffected white men who’ve turned violent—a nation (or part of one) trying to diagnose and explain them, one mass killing after another. Whether that violence is born of mental illness, isolation, the culminated rage of masculine identity, or all those bound together in some hideous knot, we seem certain that there is some salvable cause.

Lawson continues:

That’s a complexity of causality that many Americans don’t extend to non-white men who commit heinous crimes; there, the thinking seems to be, the evil is far more easily identifiable. But those angry loners—the ones who shoot up schools and concerts and churches, who gun down the women and men they covet and envy, who let loose some spirit of anarchic animus upon the world—there’s almost a woebegone mythos placed on them in the search for answers.

While he may be correct in saying that many Americans do not extend this courtesy of causality to non-white men, many do. Hell, many people do not like cats; many do. His point? If Mr. Lawson wants to promote this way of empathetic thinking, then he should promote Joker as a paradigm from which we can learn and then apply to disaffected men (and women, I presume) of all races, and if this strategic evaluation must come into the greater discourse through a movie starring a white man, then so be it.

Responding to Lawson’s Vanity Fair piece, Samuel Forster writing for Quillette.com  offers the following:

At the risk of sounding like the sort of critical theorist who would spout such sentiments, “there’s a lot to unpack here.” Most importantly, it is unclear why any of us should not endeavour to understand the motivations of disaffected white men (or any kind of men—for it’s not clear why Fleck’s character could not, with some small plot changes, be of any ethnic background imaginable) who end up committing acts of violence. The key to reducing violence amongst any demographic is in ascertaining the specific attributes of violent individuals. Skin colour is a crude and categorically ineffective indicator in this respect. Indeed, generations of progressives have properly argued this truth, typically in the face of racists who have alleged some particularly malign criminogenic trait at play in the minds of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, “Orientals,” Muslims or Jews.

In other words, if we are truly concerned with not only responding to violence but with preventing it, then we must better understand the warning signs of individuals who may be at risk. To dismiss this approach based upon a person’s race (or gender), as the Left now all but demands we do if it involves white males, betrays this ostensible desire to understand the roots of crime as, ultimately, one still dictated by political correctness.

Forster continues:

Lawson has no interest in understanding mental illness, isolation or “the culminated rage of masculine identity” (whatever that is), and that he would prefer to imagine all of these as simply being ingredients in some disgusting stew of human malignancy that is more properly called “evil.” His real complaint about the film is that, by prompting curiosity in regard to why people do bad things, it might distract audience members from the simple, morally urgent task of denouncing men such as Arthur Fleck in a purely normative manner, as a priest denounces sin.

This is a very perceptive reading of Lawson by Forster. Arthur Fleck, as an angry white male, must be immediately castigated and denounced. Yes, there is no denying the hideous nature of his crimes–and they are hideous. However, Forster contends that woke critics of this film want us to categorize (profile!) Arthur before we watch the film and then immediately to cast him away upon leaving the theater as an inherently and obviously wicked individual who deserves no further consideration and one whose crimes warrant no further investigation.

Not to make this too one-sided, there are complaints (or at least one) to be found on the opposite end of the racially aggrieved spectrum.  Joker, perhaps, was doomed politically from inception. The eponymous character was either going to be too white or, ahem, not white-acting enough. Trevor Lynch writing for Unz.com implies (or maybe I merely have inferred) that one sign of Fleck’s degeneracy is that his (imaginary, as we find out) romantic interest is….a black woman. Never fear, though, for at least the thugs who beat him at the beginning of the film are a collection of mystery meats, and he does find himself, quite naturally as an unassuming white male, on the receiving end of an uppity black woman. Given that race is presently the currency for all our transactions of meaning, it may now be impossible to experience any artistic production with taking into consideration questions of race and structures of power. All this being said, I cannot help but appreciate that this film is ruffling the feathers of folks both on the far left and on the far right. (Lynch, for whatever else he may say, does make a very interesting allusion, interpreting the scene in which Joker’s followers lay his body on the hood of a police car and wait for him to rise in light of Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ and Three Mourners.) 

Speaking of experiencing art, writing for Vanity Fair, Richard Brody comments that Joker is “a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness.” Why? He argues that the film is “a drama awash in racial iconography that is so prevalent in the film, so provocative, and so unexamined as to be bewildering.” In other words, racial themes pervade the film, yet no significant interrogation regarding racial concerns ever occurs. Historical allusions, insists Brody, are made to the Central Park Five rape/murder and the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting, two racially volatile events, yet Joker persists in focusing on the mental illness of Arthur whose thought processes are “utterly devoid of any racial or social specificity.” If I understand the phrase “racial and social specificity” correctly, then Brody must be justifying why he finds it disappointing that Arthur, in the midst of his suffering, does not stop to consider whether his afflictions have arisen because of his race and how, one must presume, his white privilege has shielded him from deeper degrees of suffering that may be lacking in his life but not in the daily experiences of his black neighbors. What Brody does not suggest is how Fleck, without breaking character or leading viewers into an exasperating classroom-like experience, could do such? Would he have worked it into his comedy routine? Should he have scribbled something about race and priviledge in his journal? For example, when speaking with his black social worker, should he have concluded each response with something along the lines of “As a black woman working a shit job in a white man’s world, you probably have felt something similar…”? A more important question, however, from an artistic standpoint anyway, is why focusing on the illness of an individual and society’s “cancelling” of that individual proves to be an empty or a less satisfying experience than unearthing any underlying racial or political elements. This prompts me further to ask: Have we really come to terms with the privileged position that racial and political interpretations maintain when it comes to viewing movies? (We have not.)

Several reviews have stated how Arthur, as a (here we go again…) disaffected white male, assumes a much more chilling poignancy in the Trump administration. Such analysis bores me. Rather, one observation that I have not seen anywhere else–and I do not make much of it, but I do find it interesting–is that the Wall Street subway bro who starts singing and is the first to be shot bears no small resemblance to Eric Trump.

Another aspect of this film, and perhaps the central one, that has not been heavily explored (or, more likely, has been intentionally avoided) is the undeniable fact that Arthur Fleck is a product of a single-mom home. Only two male figures loom in Arthur’s life, and both are untouchable but through violence: Murray Franklin and Thomas Wayne. We discover that Arthur has repressed the memories of his own childhood abuse–abuse that has led to the development of his self-placating nervous laughter, his “condition.” In order to offset his own unhappiness (despite the sobriquet given to him by his mother: “Happy”), Arthur lives in a world of fantasy, one in which he is highlighted on The Murray Franklin Show not to be famous, but to connect with a man who he feels could function as a proxy father. His drive to confront Thomas Wayne, which, by the way, is when we see Arthur beginning to move from a reactive sponge to a proactive agent, is not to lay claim to wealth or political power; rather, he wants only a hug and a little human warmth. (In an alternate universe, one can easily imagine Arthur happily passing the day with Bruce, eagerly showing him his newest magic trick or dance routine, fully content with that life.) Yet, for all the shit that has been flung at him throughout his life, we see him resolve to trod his path of darkness only after he discovers that his mother has betrayed him and that Thomas Wayne has rejected him.

I am not convinced that Arthur intends to kill Murray until the very last moment; I believe that he may have still been holding out for a father who would check his murderous and suicidal impulses. Having dyed his hair green and embraced the make-up, Arthur assumes a campier, more androgynous persona prior to his late night show appearance, complete with the drag queen-esque affected Southern accent (e.g., “My life is nothing but a comedy.”) This particular take on the well-known Joker look deserves consideration in its own right. According to Mary Eberstadt,

Androgyny appears to offer competitive advantages in a world redesigned by the massive, radical, and largely unacknowledged communal dislocations incurred by Homo sapiens since the 1960s. Androgyny, including its instantiations of gender fluidity and gender ambiguity, has emerged in this new world as an adaptive way of augmenting one’s substitute clan. It operates, in effect, as a mechanism for reconstructing the extended family/community in prosthetic form in a time when the actual Western extended family/community is in decline.     

As one who lacks both family and community, Arthur must adapt in a way that augments his “substitute clan,” which is what occurs when the already rambunctious masked mob rallies around his body, waiting for the resurrection of its androgynous avatar. They provide him with the support that has lacked his entire life.

To return to my theory: when Arthur is listening to the news in the dressing room before going on stage, we can see that his eyes begin to water as he hears about the two officers who were nearly killed in the subway station. This leads me to believe that he still bears regret concerning what has happened to them–as well as to the clown protester who was killed on the subway. After Murray and his assistant leave the dressing room, Arthur rehearses pointing the gun toward his chin. (I cannot forget this gun-related detail, but I do not know where else to fit it in this review. What may have been dismissed as a throw-away gesture, but one that only affirms how detail-oriented Phoenix is to every role he assumes, is when he briefly points the gun to his own head after having shot the Wall Street subway bros. That gesture reveals a man who is not yet a committed murderer but one who acts in a frantic panic and who realizes that his life will never again be the same and who is not sure if he wants to continue living.) The turning point, I think, is when Arthur realizes that there is no redeeming Murray; he cannot be a father–he does not want to be a father. In fact, earlier in the film, the only time Murray mentions one of his children is to make fun of him (the garbage-strike joke). When Arthur tells Murray that he is bad (I have forgotten what term he used–“evil”?), he then makes the seething, pouty face of a child who is not afraid to let hatred and disappointment completely contort his expression. That is when Arthur realizes that Arthur, man-child that he is, must kill the man whose crime is that of not fulfilling the expectations that come with fatherhood.

Even as Gotham burns, we still do not see a fully formed Joker. In a scene that will haunt me for a while, after Joker arises from the hood of the police car and dances for mob, we see a man surveying the chaos that he has helped usher in. Once again his eyes water; we cannot tell if he is about to cry from joy or from fear and sadness of what has been unleashed. Given that he has to force himself to smile with his own blood, mimicking a movement that at the beginning of the film produces a tear, I wager on the latter. The film closes with Arthur laughing a genuine laugh as he assures his soon-to-be victim counselor that he is thinking of a joke that she would not get.

Given the unreliable narrator, much has been made regarding how much of the film actually occurs and how much of it may be only the feverish fantasies of a mentally ill man. While I have not come to a firm conclusion, I will point out that the careful viewer may have noticed that clock reads the same time during his first meeting with the social worker as it does during his flashback to Arkham as he bangs his head against the door window; perhaps what we experience as viewers is the unexplained joke that Arthur laughs at toward the end of the film. After all, the murder of Randall does possess a Kabuki-like theatrical feel, considering Arthur’s pasty-white face, the murder involving a sharp instrument, and the splash of blood that explodes upon his face and the wall. Perhaps the entire film was the performance of a psychodrama that Arthur allows us to view in order to relieve himself of the boredom of an asylum. Let us take our cue from the one of the film’s driving songs “That’s Life”: “I said that’s life, and as funny as it may seem / Some people get their kicks stompin’ on a dream.” The dream that we may have–and the one that Arthur stomps on at the end–is that if we investigate deeply and thoroughly enough, we will find the explanation of evil and, thus, through a knowledge of its origin be able to avoid it manifestation and consequences. Unfortunately, this is a facile behaviorist approach that does not take into consideration that every person is essentially an inscrutable being in whom resides the mystery of–and the battle between–good and evil.

 

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Disunited States of Americas

Years ago, the concept of secession (I prefer the term “self-determination”) interested me greatly. My first re-introduction to a concept that I thought had been politically decided and, thus, historically banished was through meeting a few prominent members of The League of the South, including the then-president (he may still be president) Dr. Michael Hill, at tiny Presbyterian church in Alabama in the late 90s. Though I was never really comfortable with their yearning to restore the Confederacy, I must declare that they never showed any traces of disrespect or suspicion toward my racially mixed (white/Asian) family. In fact, the then-pastor of the church saw some promise in me as a potential Reformed–as in Calvinistic, not as in recently released from prison–seminarian and wanted me to join his home-spun seminary with his seminarian-in-residence, a young Hispanic with much good faith and nervous energy, once–with gravitas–telling my mom in very own our home that a commitment to the Faith often requires great sacrifice. (Yeah, growing up in our circles, we met some pretty interesting people–all without the help of the Internet. Remind me sometime to tell you of when I used to pal around with a radical anti-abortionist Catholic sidewalk counselor who also supported secession–and advocated shooting abortionists…. Part of me misses all the non-Internet-subsidized zanies.) According to my mom, Dr. Hill even invited my Japanese father to join, though I do not believe that occurred.  (Not that I am accusing her of lying–merely of remembering incorrectly….) Relieved to find out that there were pro-secessionist thinkers outside of the pro-Confederacy camp, I looked into the writings of thinkers like Kirkpatrick Sale; however, my favorite work on secession, though the author–while sympathetic–does not advocate it, is the always amusing and rhetorically ennobling Bill Kauffman and his raucous Bye Bye, Miss American Empire. In case you are wondering, I was never invited to join The League (though I probably could have charmed my way in), did not become a Presbyterian seminarian–or remain Protestant for that matter, nor did I go on to agitate politically for the implicit conclusions of the Constitution.

I still think of secession from time to time, though not as an endgame goal to be pursued through cultural and political resistance, but rather as what now seems to be a cultural and political inevitability. Two recent articles from the Unz Review brought this to my mental foreground. In Boyd Cathey’s “Is It Time for American to Break Apart,”  he asks:

The question comes down to this: Is the fragile American experiment in republicanism begun in Philadelphia in 1787, which required a commonly-shared understanding of basic principles, now over, or at the very least is it entering its agonizing death throes?

Of course, many would say that was answered in the affirmative after the War Between the States…. He continues:

Increasingly, we live in a country that has become de facto little more than a mere geographical entity. True, it is still formally a nation, but a nation where there are in fact at least two very distinct Americas, with radically differing visions of what is real and what is not real, radically differing conceptions of what is moral and what is not, radically differing views about truth and error, and radically differing ideas about using whatever means are available to reach a desired and posited end. For all the talk of equality and racism, the revolutionary side in actuality seeks to replace one oligarchy—which it calls “white supremacist”—with another oligarchy of its own making, in fact, a brutal, vicious and soulless “utopia’’ that would make Joseph Stalin’s Communist state seem like a Sandals Retreat in the Bahamas.

Though I would go further to say that we are more than two very distinct Americas, his basic point remains: we (in the loosest possible sense) are a nation deeply, deeply divided. His prognosis will please very few–or please some for the wrong reasons:

(1) Either there must be some large mass conversion of one side or the other (a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion?), probably occasioned by some immense and earth-shaking event, war, depression, disaster; or (2) there must be a separation into independent jurisdictions of large portions of what is presently geographically the United States, including possible massive population exchanges—this separation/secession could be peaceable, although increasingly I think it would not be; or lastly, and worst, (3) the devolution of this country would continue into open and vicious civil and guerrilla war, followed by a harsh dictatorship. Disorder always abhors a vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled one way or another.

The essential taste of his doom-laced drink is that we have allowed ideology divide us to the point that we no longer see each other as fellow citizens. (Allowing any and all from other regions does not assist with stability, either.) In fact, the cohabitating (not even well) in a region seems to be the only sine qua non for citizenship–and the bedrock upon which the American identity is now built.

Closely related to Cathey’s concerns, decline-seen-through-vignettes author Linh Dinh weighs in: (I have written before about Dinh–here and here.  If you have not, treat yourself to his travelogue-of-decay Postcards from the End of America.)

The first step is to stop thinking of yourself as an American, for there’s no America left to save, much less “make great again,” and there are no Americans left either, for if anybody can be a defacto American just by showing up, then the concept is meaningless. That’s like me landing in Tel Aviv tomorrow and declaring I’m a Jew.

Your average American hardly has a hometown, just a homepage, and his neighbors are the anonymous, pseudonymous, hasbarists and trolls he compulsively chats with. If you don’t even belong to your neighborhood, how are you the citizen of any nation?

Coming full circle, Dinh advocates what Kauffman has been advocating for his entire writing career: localism. The American experiment may have been too grand to begin with; however, at least when it began, it was united, more or less, by people of a common stock and ideology. Though a nation founded upon a legal document, there was an organic cohesiveness at its inception. Such cannot be now said about the US. Not only do we not share a common vision of the common good based upon a common vision of ourselves, we glorify the mixture of incompatible visions. Granted, I know that I have grossly simplified US history, but anyone who wants to point to various grievances in the past in order to normalize the current chaos needs to wipe the obtuseness from his/her eyes.

With a son on the way, all these concerns have assumed a new profundity. Do I think that he will experience a united array of states in which to grow? I greatly doubt it. If anything, like the dying father from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I hope to teach my son what it means to be a virtuous man in both a country and civilization in decline–and to find a handful of people whom he can trust.

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As Individuals, Let’s All Be Unhappy Together

In the summer edition of American Affairs, Dutch politician (trigger warning, soft ones) Thierry Baudet condenses the message of French writer Michel Houellebecq’s oeuvre: our contemporary moral and political freedoms have given many choices, but they have not given us happiness–nor will they. The thrust of the piece may have been to push people toward considering why Houellebecq, with his latest work, Serotonine, comes across as more of a defeatist than as a champion of cultural renewal, especially since he has been plucking these disquieting strings for the past twenty or so years; however, such a consideration is not what I found most engaging.

Though usually aligned with the far right, given his more-than-likely views on feminism  and Islam and nationalism, Houellebecq stands inconveniently outside the left-right divide. Emphasizing this a-directional stance is what I found most interesting with Baudet’s analysis. Both the left and the right, as routinely conceived, base their respective ideologies and praxeologies on that which is, usually, not questioned by either: individual autonomy/liberation of the individual. Enter the scurrilous Monsieur Houellebecq.

Baudet writes:

“So yes, the modern world brought liberation. But this liberation has not made us happy. Instead, it has left our lives empty, without purpose, and, above all, extremely lonely. Existential connections have  become almost impossible since few are genuinely prepared to sacrifice short-term pleasure for the commitment required to establish a deep mutual connection. Television, internet, and pornography have replaced organic social intercourse and physical intimacy. As more options open up each day, our hearts close to the possibility of real human warmth, having been betrayed too many times–and having witnessed ourselves betraying others–for the brief moments of seductive thrills that we, as ‘liberated individuals,’ can no longer resist.”
                                                                                                                                                                    An unwillingness to sacrifice short-term pleasures for deep mutual connections is a thread that I have seen woven into every one of Houellebecq’s novels that I have read: Whatever, The Elementary Particles, PlatformThe Possibility of an Island, and Submission. While he does sneak in the autobiographical abandonment of children by parents who are more concerned with self-exploration than with parenting, his focus is liberated sexuality.

From a passage from Whatever that Baudet quotes extensively:                                                                                                                                                                                                                    From the amorous point of view, Veronique belonged, as we all do, to a sacrificed generation. She had certainly been capable of love; she would have wished to still be capable of it, I’ll say that for her; but it was no longer possible. A scarce, artificial and belated phenomenon, love can only blossom under certain mental conditions, rarely conjoined, and totally opposed to the freedom of morals that characterizes the modern era. Veronique had known too many discotheques, too many lovers; such a way of life impoverishes a human being, inflicting sometimes serious and always irreversible damage. Love as a kind of innocence and as a capacity for illusion, as an aptitude for epitomizing the whole of the other sex in a single loved being rarely resists a year of sexual immorality, and never two. In reality, the successive sexual experiences accumulated during adolescence undermine and rapidly destroy all possibility of projection of an emotional and romantic sort.   

One could have plucked this passage from a run-of-the-mill Red Pill screed; however, Houellebecq was discussing hypergamy and sexual marketplace value back in the 90s. I was surprised that anyone was expressing these sentiments that “long” (pop culture standards) ago when I first came across that same passage nearly a year ago.

Commenting, Baudet continues:

“How encouraging to finally read a modern writer who takes the problem of sex seriously! Of course, the cult of virginity lost its credibility in the Western world some time ago, today’s philosophy being that we have to experiment to find the right partner. Houellebecq, however, draws upon older intuitions which maintain that the bond which forms through sexual intimacy may reemerge once or twice, but not much more, and that we should therefore be extremely cautious in acquiring amorous experience. Sex, in short, can be a threat–and not simply an aide–to intimacy and love.”

The theme of “older intuitions” regarding sexual depletion occurs again and again in Houellebecq’s characters. Liberal or conservative, we tend to treat sexual encounters as financial transactions–ideally, both parties profit from the exchange. If one is not pleased with the product or finds it defective, one can take it back for a refund–or opt to buy a newer model. No one is committed to keep anything–or anyone–in one’s life. If one finds the product too burdensome, dismissing it is as simple as dropping a “I-don’t-really-see-this-going-anywhere” and then throwing away the instructions. It is, indeed, our right–if not our imperative–to test as many different products as we can before we prudently choose which one we plan on sticking with for the immediate future.

Houellebecq, after he takes a lugubrious puff on his cigarette, waves away such non-sense. His stories reaffirm the older intuitions: we cannot give ourselves away sexually and expect not to be affected, if not worsened. Every person to whom we give ourselves who does not become our spouse or life-long partner becomes, necessarily, another person to whom we have given a part of ourselves that we will then never be able to give to another. In other words, intimacy is not, as the sexual free market theorists would have us believe, a renewable resource. Much like with fingers or toes, intimacy, once gone, always gone. I write this to myself as much as I write this to another.

I do not care to play the numbers game: at what point has one had too many partners to be able to love another? However, my wager–and my fear–is that it is much lower than most of us would be comfortable discovering.

Yet, as entitled consumers, we continue to patronize online pornography, casual dating-site hook-ups, and sterile sex–it may be kinky, but it will not ever lead to children or a future. Are we not lucky to be living in such times as we do? How did our older generations ever find the emotional wherewithal to smile?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Desert and the Beatific Vision

(This is another piece that I wrote over a decade ago. I submitted this in a creative writing class–and actually got away with it. I doubt such would fly today. I have cleaned it up a bit. Anyway, it is a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Walker Percy.)

The sand sizzled. The white ball overhead followed him. Everywhere the man looked, desert. There were creosote bushes: pubic hair of the desert.  Even the damn rodents and snakes have better sense than to come out during noonYou can’t hide from God, and you sure as hell can’t hide from the damn sun. He fell down a few times. Every time he fell down, he arose with more sand and silt clinging to his sweaty hands. He felt the sweltering intensity penetrate the soles of his boots. I must keep walking.

Earlier this morning, he had made love to his wife and then had gotten out of bed to rock the baby back to her sleep. He and his wife had made too much noise in their small trailer.  Making love to the wife and loving the child: I guess this is all there is to life—I need some cigarettes. He told his wife that he was going to get a pack of cigarettes, but did not stop at the convenience store. An hour and a half past Gila Bend, going southwest on I-8, he pulled over onto the shoulder. Dust covered his white Mazda B1800 truck like a hair shirt. He got out and looked at the baby window visor on the passenger side window. I’m doing this all for you; damn it, Pookie.

He drove off-road in order to follow a Harris hawk. No wonder there’s no road—a road got better sense than to be out here. He stopped his truck and started to walk. He walked longer than he planned. Pulsating mirages lied to him. Fine, I’m not looking for no water, anyhow. He came across a dead black-tailed rattler. He rubbed the toe of his right boot into its head. Bubbly grayish mush squirted out on all sides and immediately began to fry on the oven-top sand. Poor bastard. You’re a scourge to mankind, but I guess even scourges have their place in the scheme of things, don’t they?

There’s no way a man could do forty days and nights in a place like this. A saguaro cactus broke out with small white bell-shaped flowers. He rubbed one of his fingers over the bristles to make sure they were real. He licked a few dots of blood off his pointer. Even in desolation, you ain’t gonna hide, are you? Fine, I’m here, now what?

The noon sky opened its mouth and gasped its hot, dry breath on him. He took off his baseball cap and scraped his scalp. I knew I should of got that damn haircut Tuesday. He kept pulling at the hair that fell between his shirt collar and neck. He could smell his armpits, so he took off his shirt and stuffed it into a back pocket. Beads of sweat attached themselves to scattered chest hairs. He looked at his chest: Melinda.  He had promised her that he would tattoo her name to his chest once they got married. Three years ago last month—I’ll be damned.

He fell down again. The sand stung his back and trickled its way into his pants. He intended to scratch his ass but instead covered his eyes from the sun’s indifferent glare. He felt his throat crack and peal. Only two bottles of water—damn genius. He pulled out his pack of Marlboro Lights but then threw them on the ground. He kept the lighter. You never know.

Even though he covered his eyes with his hands, he felt the heat pierce through his hands and scorch his eyeballs. Solar crucifixion, huh? Right now, more than anything, he wished to be with his family, but he did not think of turning back. This ain’t no great revelation; I could of stayed home. This godforsaken, fucking desert. Pookie, your dad ain’t a coward—he just had to know. He sure as hell does now, don’t he ever. A gila monster peaked out from behind a rock. It looked left and then right. A lizard—you know what to do, don’t you?

*****

The day before, the man and his wife had argued. They had started with the milk.

“Buddy, I told you we needed some more milk. Why didn’t cha’ get any? Good thing Pookie’s not old enough to eat cereal or you’d have two grumpy girls mad at you.”

“Sorry, forgot.”

“You’re always forgetting.”

“Cuz I always got stuff on my mind.”

“Right, the only thing you usually got on your mind is sex.”

“Naw, that ain’t right. Got food, too. Just not milk, I suppose.”

“Oh, kiss my ass.”

“Be nice to see a little ass these days.”

“Maybe you will when you starting acting the papa.  Maybe when you starting acting like something—anything. You never want to do anything. You just sit around all the time like you got the whole damn world on your shoulders.”

“Better than having nothing going on in your head, ain’t it?”

“What are you saying? You saying I ain’t smart or something?”

“Ah, baby, no, I ain’t saying that…. Just that I can’t help all the time being distracted.”  He wrapped his arms around her from behind.

“You better try sometime soon. I mean, Pookie can’t have a papa that’s all the time somewhere else in the head, and I can’t have no husband like that neither.” She started to pull away, but then stopped.

“Listen, baby, I’m sorry.  It’s just that…naw, nothing. Never mind. I’m gonna change.  Just you wait.”

“Buddy, you know I love ya, right?

“Right.” He squeezed her and threw her on the couch. “I’m gonna go call in sick for work, and when I get back, you better be butt-naked.”

“You can’t do that. You gotta go to work.” She had already started to unbutton his shirt that she was wearing.

“Babe, it’s not like the shop’s been getting much action anyhow. Neither have I.”

*****

The man decided to put his shirt back on. Damn back’s gonna peel for days. Nothing smart about this. If I don’t die out here, Melinda’s gonna kill me. A roadrunner lifted its tail, dropped it, cooed, and ran away.  Hell, what’s next—El Chupacabra?  He continued to trek, following the cacti that showed him the prettiest flowers. The flutter of hummingbirds darting in and out of blossoms started to make him drowsy. Damn shame to die out here, but, I guess, it’s a damn shame to die anywhere really. Can’t go back to the truck. Probably hotter than hell inside now. Perspiration stung his eyes. The Harris hawk returned and circled over his head.  I knew you’d come back to me. Where to now? The hawk lighted on a chimney cap of an adobe house located on the bottom of a slope he had just now noticed. As he approached the edge of the slope and surveyed the metal roof of the house, the gravel under his feet gave way, and he rolled the entire way down, slamming against the back door. Damn you! Damn you to hell forever! He lobbed handfuls of gravel toward the slope, but laughed after he realized what he had just cursed and what he had just done. He raked the sand off his arms as he waited for the owner of the house to open the door to investigate the ruckus, but he wound up just waiting. Well, I may be breaking and entering, but it’s better than sitting and dying. He kicked at the deadbolt; the door swung open. Well, shoot me or don’t; I need your water. He ran toward the kitchen sink and turned it on. The facet sputtered but nothing came out. Ah, holy hell! Come on! He swung open the refrigerator only to find stale warm air. He began to open every cabinet in the kitchen.  Keystone Light? Hell, it’s better than nothing. Don’t Indians drink water like everybody else? Who am I kidding? He gulped down three tepid beers and immediately began to feel sick and sleepy. He plopped down on a couch and awoke a few hours later.         

Sun’s lowered, but it ain’t setting time yet. I got to get back to the truck—sure don’t want to piss off any Indian. After he crawled his way back up the slope, he tried to remember which way he had come. At least the sun feels about fifteen degrees nicer. He remembered the trail of cacti he had followed. About five hundred yards from the slope, he spotted an unmarked Dodge A100 van. As he approached the van, the smell of hot cottage cheese, pork, and milk hit him.  Good God! Don’t tell me…. He pulled his shirt over his nose and pulled open the right backdoor of the van. An arm that looked liked sculpted raw liver fell out toward him. He jumped back and projected a stream of vomit inside the van. His puke showered five decomposing bodies huddled together. Oh, Christ, some poor spics trying to sneak into Arizona. Oh, Christ! He started to vomit again, but his dehydration allowed only for violent dry heaves. He sunk to his knees and grabbed his stomach as it wormed up and down. His eyes watered as the odor of raw human flesh filtered into his nostrils. Shit, shit, shit! As he pressed his forehead into the sand and rocked back and forth on his knees, a baby cried.  For God’s sake, no baby! Getting up from his knees, he wiped off the drips of vomit that clung to his stubble and walked around to the passenger side doors. The doors nearly folded opened of their own accord. A ten-month old or so baby lay on the ground in front of the first booth seat. Shit! How the holy hell you still alive, baby? Either it’s a miracle or whoever left this godawful mess came back and dropped you off here not too long ago.

The baby lifted his arms and wailed toward the man. He leaned in, picked up the baby, and held him close to his chest. The baby buried his face into his shoulder. Thank God, the smell of dead man’s flesh ain’t seeped into you yet. Whoever put you here, put you here a little while ago. Probably watching my dumb ass now, I bet. You need some shade and water. He held the baby with one arm and took off his shirt with the other. He loosely wrapped the shirt over the baby. I’m giving my back for you, spic baby. But, hell, you just a baby‘bout as old as my little Pookie. Hell, babies are babies. The man looked at the baby again and put his cap on him.

As they walked back to the adobe house, a dust storm with shooting rocks billowed toward them. A maroon Cadillac Eldorado sped toward them. A piece of lavender chiffon flew like a flag from the antenna. The Eldorado stopped a few feet from them. The driver wearing lipstick, eyeliner, and a blond wig leaned out the window.

“Well, Georgianna, look at what we have here. Isn’t he a piece? And he’s got a little something with him. Must be a breeder—well, we can’t all be perfect, can we?” The driver drug his tongue across his upper teeth.

“Yeah, just walking my baby. I’ll be on my way.” Shit, Indian desert queens. Horny cocksuckers.

“Wait, me and Georgianna will give you a ride. We’ll even let you sit up in front with us.” Georgianna crawled over the driver and stuck his head out the window.

“Come on, fierce little man in the desert, me and Lily need a little amusement—or are you just a desert mirage.” Lily playfully pushed Georgianna off him and drug his tongue across his upper teeth again.

“Thanks, I guess, but I never liked Cadillacs.” He strengthened his grip on the baby and started to walk away with no intention of acknowledging them anymore.

“Oh, you are impossible!  We’ll see you again, sweety-sweaty.” Georgianna laughed as they rumbled away, leaving small swirls of dust.

He approached the beginning of the slope. Oh, not again, you sonofabitch. He sat down and slowly slid until he reached the bottom. Baby, that wasn’t so bad, was it? The back door was still open from earlier in the day. Maybe you and me will have the place to ourselves tonight, but you still need some water. Come to mention it, that wouldn’t be so bad for me either. He placed the baby on the living room floor as he entered a bedroom and then a bathroom. He came back with a bed liner and a towel. Bringing you back water, baby.

Clusters of cholla cacti punctuated the grounds around the house.  He kicked off the smaller cylindrical stem segments and, with the towel wrapped around his hand, dropped the segments onto the bed liner.  After collecting several pounds of segments, he tied together the four corners of the sheet and drug the liner back into the house.  The baby traced patterns in the dirt on the floor. A giggle bubbled forth. Glad you’re easily amused, but, I guess we all have our amusements, huh? By the way, these belong to me. The man put his shirt and baseball cap back on.

He dropped a number of segments into a cooking pan that he had found hanging on the wall and started smashing them with a can of tomato soup that he had first seen while looking for beer earlier in the day. After he smashed a while, he tore off a piece of the bed liner, stretched it tightly across the pan, and used it as a sieve. He poured what he could into a mug that had been left on the counter; he wrung the rest of the water out from the bed liner. He walked over to the baby and sat down. I’m glad you know how to stay in one place and ain’t walkin’ all over. He gently grabbed the baby’s face, squeezed open his mouth, and poured water down his throat. The baby began to pull at the man’s hand, but, upon tasting the water, let him have his way. The man drank what was left.  He repeated this process until he had gone through most of the segments.  He put the remaining segments by the couch, picked up the baby, and began to rock him to sleep.  The sun began to set, and without electricity, the house grew dark. Well, baby, there ain’t much more for us to do; let’s get us to sleep. We’ll make it an early morning tomorrow. He placed the baby between himself and the back of the couch, so the baby would not roll off. Is this what I came out here for? He threw his cap off. They both closed their eyes.

*****

The man woke with Lily’s knee brutally digging into his back.Georgianna held the baby with one arm and shined his Mag-lite into his face with the other.Lily was naked from the waist down. He was also wearing the man’s cap over his blond wig.

“Listen, my little sweaty bitch, you try to move and I—I swear to God—I’ll fucking crack your little spine.” Lily whispered into the man’s ear and then proceeded to drag his tongue along the curvature of the man’s outer ear. “Also, you try to escape, and we’ll fucking wring that little baby’s neck.”

Georgianna started to dance with the baby as he twirled the flashlight around the otherwise dark room lightened by moonlight. The baby screamed, so Georgianna violently shook the baby and pressed the Mag-lite against the baby’s chest.

“Would you shut that little shithead up! He’s going ruin the mood for me.” Lily’s claws dug into the fleshly ends of the jaw of the man underneath him. Georgianna took both the baby and the flashlight with him into the adjoining bedroom.

“Do what you want to me, you fucking faggot, but don’t touch the baby!” Moonlight streaming through a window illuminated the remaining cacti segments by the couch.

“Oh, you know, you’d be a lot more attractive if you were nice.” Lily slid his hands down the man’s waist and started to unfasten his pants. “As for the baby, we’ll see if we’re still hungry afterwards.” Lily began to tug on the man’s pants. In the other room, Georgianna slapped the baby.

The man rocked his hips from one side to another and then finally, with one forceful sway, lurched off the couch. As they landed on the floor, the man scooped up and squeezed a couple segments. Blood immediately started to drip down onto his wrist. He slammed the fistful of segments into Lily’s face, bursting one of his eyes and knocking both his wig and the man’s cap off Lily’s head. As Lily howled, the man quickly thrust his pointer and middle fingers inside Lily’s mouth and tore open his cheek. As Lily crawled on the floor, watching the blood pour from his flapping bifurcated cheek, the man stomped on the back of his neck and crushed the life out of him. Wretched man…    

The man fastened his pants that Lily had undone and walked into the bedroom where Georgianna had taken the baby. The room was dark because the Mag-lite had been turned off, but the man heard the baby crying on the bed. He also heard the frantic breathing of Georgianna in the corner to his right. All at once, Georgianna squealed as he rushed toward the man.  The man instinctively put up his arms to brace himself from a blow with the Mag-lite, but  Georgianna tripped and fell at the man’s feet. The flashlight rolled until it hit against his feet; he bent over and picked it up. The man clicked on the Mag-lite. Light flashed through the room; he noticed that both Georgianna and the baby were naked. Your life will be required of you this day…. Georgianna got up on his knees and began to beg for his life as the man flashed the light in his face.

“I was gonna, gonna let you be.  As sick as you are, I was gonna let you be, but then I saw this….” He tightened his grip on the Mag-lite.

“Please, please, please!  I didn’t touch your baby!  I was only going to have a little fun, but I wasn’t going to hurt your baby! For God’s sake, please!” Naked, Georgianna shivered as he slowly writhed his way closer to the man.

“In God’s name, I was going to let you go. You weren’t the one on top of me, but then I saw this….” The man swung the Mag-lite down onto Georgianna’s head; his skull loudly cracked as he fell to floor and began to flop. You wasn’t good for anything else but flopping on the ground, but who am I to decide like this…. God forgive me. He picked up the baby with the arm that was not covered both in his blood and Lily’s blood and carried the baby outside the room. The baby stopped crying as soon as the man grabbed him. He laid the baby on the kitchen table and poured the leftover three cans of Keystone Light over his arms to wash away most of the blood. He wiped the rest of the blood away with the bed liner. He went into bathroom and retrieved a large bath towel. He wrapped the baby in the towel. The desert’s gonna be cold, but we gotta get back to the truck. He carried the baby, the Mag-lite, and the bed liner out to the Eldorado. He opened the gas tank and dipped as much of the bed liner as he could into it. Before he walked back into the house, he pulled off the lavender chiffon scarf and used it to open the door. Ain’t like my fingerprints aren’t already all over this damn place. He placed the baby in the front seat. I hate to leave you here—even if it’s only for a minute, but you’re safer here than on the ground with all them night critters. He spread the bed liner over the couch, pulled out his cigarette lighter, and lit the couch on fire.

Returning to the car, he pulled the baby out of it and began to trek back to his truck.  There’s no greater motivation to keep walking than you, baby. A rattle hissed from a near-by creosote bush. They kept walking, guided by the Mag-lite and the moonlight. Something ran across them. You look like a coyote, but you ain’t.  El Chupa…. Ah, hell, this must be a night mirage.

*****

Sunrise broke out as he arrived back home. Before he had even gotten out of the truck he heard his wife scream.

“Buddy Lanier MacLemore! I swear to God, if I don’t kill you now, then may God….”  She dropped the rolling pin from her hand as she saw Buddy with the baby in his arms.

“Listen, Melinda, I know that I’m in a world of trouble. I’ve a feeling bad times are gonna come soon. You won’t understand; I don’t ask you to—none-at-all. All the time I have thoughts in my head, like what I’m supposed to do. I know now. I’m your man. I’m Pookie’s papa. I’m here to stay. And our family just got a little bigger. Let’s call him Desert.” Buddy offered Desert to Melinda. She took him and began to ask a question, but then stopped. She would ask Buddy questions later. She took Desert into the trailer and reappeared with both Pookie and Desert. She still had a question on her lips, but, at this moment—this very moment—they watched the sun rise.

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He and the She Substitutions

(Something I wrote over a decade ago. I was tickled rereading it, so I want you to be tickled for the first time.)

After kissing Ms. Freckles, he had to gurgle with bourbon.  He climbed out her window and fell in an expectant azalea bush.  While lying in the dirt, he came across Ms. Thighs.  Her thighs could strangle water; thus, he pondered Original Sin, baptism, and his own mortality.  Because both he and night had fallen, he left and searched.  Finding Ms. Eyes, he informed her that her father was a thief.  She knew where it was going, so she invited him home, made him dinner, and told him to go to hell.  Thoughts of the Final Judgment and eternity sent him running—right into Ms. Hair.  Through strands of mammalian pride, they discussed the theology of the body.  He remarked that dangling protein can only account for so much, and then he split.  After noticing Ms. Breasts sitting across the bar from him, he brought her a drink and himself an excuse.  Wondering if a correlation exists between buoyancy and the dignity of the individual, he poured his beer on her tits.  Upon being bounced out the door, he realized that a disordered appetite usually craves a place to sit down and the infinite.  In the gutter, he discovered a dying cat and Ms. I’ve Had Everybody Before You.  She reminded him that it is who one is sleeping with who matters.  He asked her if remembering is an act of love and then told her to forget it, babe.  Stumbling back to his apartment, he encountered Mrs. He.  He confessed to her that pronouns and abstractions cannot develop much further without a prior commitment to particulars.

 

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A Tangle of Thought Threads for Your Nimble Fingers of Theory

Though semiotics, as explored by Charles Sanders Peirce and, more recently, by John Deely, will consume most of what time I still give to philosophy in terms of systematic study, the two rubber-textbook-meets-the-open-road questions that haunt me are this darling couple: 1). Why not commit suicide? and 2). How can bringing children into this world be justified?

I have fondled this dark, low-hanging (heh heh heh) teat in another post, so I will try not to reuse my suave moves too extensively. I know the traditional religious responses; however, while I will not claim that those responses do not satisfy me, I will admit that I would like to find another set of answers–if they can be found, but I am not convinced that any other foundation will provide anything more than a sandy base.

The question of suicide has interested me since grad school. To clarify, however, by “question of suicide,” I do not mean an exploration into the myriad causes behind it; rather, I mean a non-flinching look at why one should refrain. However, to the relief of my parents, I shifted my academic focus to semiotics, though not without having been first infected with the thanatos virus.

Throughout anti-natal literature,  the primary argument goes as follows: based upon both a quantitative and a qualitative scale, we can securely assume that the aggregate pain in any given individual’s life is greater than the aggregate pleasure. Thus, any life brought into existence can be guaranteed that, notwithstanding its level of subjective comfort and status, will experience a greater amount of pain–and, further to give pause,  the pain it will encounter will be greater in intensity than any offsetting pleasure it may meet. The aforementioned linked post provides non-fiction approaches, but a fictional approach to this question is the talented (and the very polite–based upon my Twitter interactions with her) Ann Sterzinger’s NVSQVAM. (Seriously, folks, support cheeky, independent authors–even if you–gasp–may not agree with their worldview. At least such authors are making you think. Speaking of thinking, check out Nine Banded Books and Feral House.) Or, if you please, I present the most engaging TV character I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, Rust Cohle:

I thought of this this recently while visiting an eighty-year-old neighbor in the hospital, a retired lawyer who still has his wits and a strong handshake. In referencing an article that he had read recently in the paper, we briefly discussed abortion. He cast off as an aside that he, personally, is against abortion because he hates to think that he may have been aborted, and he is glad that he was not, given the enjoyable life that he has lived. While I am also opposed to abortion (that damn lingering Catholic in me), though not for the same reason, I could not help but silently snap, “How would you know what you would have missed had you never been born? Besides, will whatever pleasures that you have experienced surpass, in the end, the pains?” Of course, I dare not voice such sentiments; I merely uttered a halfhearted “I agree.”

As for suicide, I am no longer truly surprised whenever I hear about someone who has committed it. In fact, the only surprise that still lingers concerns why more people do not choose to opt out of the raw deal. In my darker meditations, I foresee something like Jonestown:

jonestown_massacre

Large swaths of people drinking their way into extinction.

Actually, I imagine something much darker. At least the doomed denizens of Jonestown had each other in their dying moments, as they gulped loony-laced Kool-Aid. I see people, much like the Japanese Hikikomori (whom I wrote about a few years back), suffering in isolation. I imagine (Why do I imagine such things?) people killing themselves in highly elaborate and ritualized fashions–perhaps masturbating as they drive their grossly unnecessarily accessorized trucks off overpasses onto pedestrians who have the gall not to drive. Disaffected suburban moms drowning their 2.3 children in tubs of Starbucks caramel lattes before they jam themselves with their dildos and take death selfies with their illegal-immigrant neighborhood children.

As the Chinese say, “Does that cat belong to anyone?” Kidding…. (That is the prejudiced half-Jap in me showing itself.) We live in interesting times–and that is not necessarily a good thing.

And we jump…

I have written before about Joaquin Phoenix . I will stand by my claim that he is the best actor of my generation. I think that, rather cosmically ironically, he would have been surpassed only by his deceased brother, River.

Come October, the world will witness his, my prediction, career-defining performance as the (prototypical) Joker. If you are among the handful of people who have yet to watch the trailer, you know what you must do:

Or even this one:

The teaser trailer’s close-to-fifty million views reveals something more than the obsessiveness of comic movie fanboys; this film, which–I know, another prediction–may give us the defining Joker performance, portrays a man broken down by the inherent madness of modern life. This film will tap into the zeitgeist of zaniness of our current year clown world.

Perhaps, dear reader, you are starting to worry about me. I am a-okay. How are you?

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