Monday, July 16, 2018

If This Goes On - V

imagine this forever

Hey! Before you dig in, did you know that subscribers to my Patreon can now read Galaxy of Zeroes every week-ish (cough) in the virtual pages of The Hurting Gazette
I am also happy to announce the release of the first issue of The Hurting Gazette Omnibus, collecting the first five issues in their entirety in original reading order. That's almost 70K words - about as big as Brave New World, if you're keeping track at home. 

The seventh issue is now available through my Patreon. The double-sized premiere issue, featuring “The First Star Wars Essay,” is still free here. Thank you for reading! 


CW: Suicide, self-harm, politics.

So let’s talk.

There’s a quote commonly attributed to Karl Rove, from an October 2004 feature on the Bush Administration written for Rolling Stone by Ron Suskind. Everyone who could have said it has subsequently disavowed it.

You may know the quote. It’s pretty famous:

People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

You knew when you saw it that it was going to end up in the history books. Such a naked display of arbitrary power – reality itself is just another constituent to be heard from in its turn and then, perhaps, heard from less as time goes on.

It was also nakedly delusional. It’s almost like something they might say in a comic book. Not a particularly good one.

Anyway. Those guys failed spectacularly at everything they tried. Only it was a funny kind of failure, one that came with very little in the way of personal, professional, or political consequences. That’s really weird, I mean, when you think about it.

I think about it a lot. I sincerely hope you do too.

So the National, of all people, used this famous quote on a track on their 2017 album Sleep Well Beast. That was my favorite album of 2017, but 2017 was a weird year for me where I didn’t listen to a lot of new music. 2017 was also an emotional charnel house from January through to December. It’s that kind of album. If the idea of doing a rock album about the heat death of a tired grown-up relationship seems unpleasant, well, it’s probably everything you think it is. But like I say, my 2017 was pretty rough. I think there’s a chance yours may have been too. It was that kind of year.

It’s a very inward facing album, filled with observations that could perhaps be described as “musings.” It’s . . . well, I’m beating around the bush here, but it’s a rock album about being middle aged. And not the Springsteen “Glory Days” middle aged – no, this is a contemporary middle age, all quiet despair and disassociated bonhomie. It’s not an album about longing for youth. Being older is just taken for granted, and there’s something really reassuring about that. It’s not an album I think I could recommend to a twenty-year old and expect them to love – I mean, it’s just kind of sad. The kind of thing you listen to when you want to think about old memories, not make new ones.

If you know anyone who’s really into this album, maybe ask after them?

For a good while in the late Summer and Fall of 2017 I was really into this album. I bought it the week it came out at Target, because that’s the only place that sells CDs next to the dog food. That still sells CDs. This would be right before my mom went into the hospital for a couple months, so I would have a lot of time in the car driving back and forth by myself, listening obsessively to this and a few other things, the most recent Ariel Pink (which dropped the week after Sleep Well Beast), a newer band called Alwways.

So think about that quote from above, from the Rolling Stone piece, and imagine a recitation of that played over a low-key instrumental section of a song about being emotionally disassociated in the last days of a doomed relationship – “I’m always thinking about useless things / I’m always checking out,” he goes, before cooing “I only take up a little of the collapsing space.” Only. Matt Berninger has been reduced almost to a tiny pinprick of wounded beffudlement against the horizon. I hadn’t encountered that quote in a while. I heard it a lot over those few months, by now I can probably recite it from memory, to give you an idea of just how maudlin things were (well, maybe, get a couple drinks in me and I’ll show you my Karl Rove if you know what I mean). I puzzled over that quote in the song, on the album, an album without any other kind of political content whatsoever. It was perhaps an unexpected bit of “wisdom” to be chewing over in the first year of the Trump Administration, but maybe not by quite so much as you’d think.

The National put that quote in a different context and made it a lot easier, once I had thought about it for a while, to see the emotional tenor of those words. The reason why it seems so cartoonishly evil is that, to me at least, it sounds like something you imagine someone saying, in terms of the fact that it lays clear the malice at the heart of the sentiment in a way that would usually only be a dog whistle. Imagine sitting in traffic and drifting off in boredom, putting these fateful words in the mouth of the impossibly beautiful woman who no longer gives you the time of day. Like the woman in these songs – only described by her absence, a chiaroscuro person.

Those words are arrogance. It doesn’t seem plausible that a real, live human being would actually say those words out loud because the philosophy described in them is so obviously, patently absurd and self-defeating that you’d need to be extraordinarily high to have it make even a passing kind of resemblance to sense. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore” – famous last words for conquerors since time immemorial. The underlying premises behind reality do not change simply because the ruler deems them inconvenient.

So why is this woman absent? Why are there no songs about her on Sleep Well Beast? I puzzled over that a bit but I think the answer is fairly straight-forward. He’s not blaming her. This isn’t “Idiot Wind” with its suffocating bilious rage. The fact is that the relationship died, and sometimes when that happens it’s no one’s fault. The album knows this. It doesn’t really want to drag the other party into it on anything other than the level of allusion, because it knows that it would just be petty, vindictive, possibly just repellent. Two people who once loved each other are now on completely different planes of reality. He doesn’t try to blame her for his behavior, or use the album as an opportunity to air a one-sided grievance. There’s a power differential between the semi-famous rock star and the person who isn’t, and Berninger never oversteps, in my judgment. The person who isn’t a famous songwriter doesn’t usually get many chances to settle the score.

I mean, sure. There’s lots of pleading, appeals. The core of the album, found a little over halfway through, is a song called “Empire Line,” whose chorus is the simple question:

Can’t you find a way?
Can’t you find a way?
You are in this too,
Can’t you find a way?

It’s the worst sound in the world. It sticks in your throat because you know what the answer is. He knows what the answer is, too.

But crucially he doesn’t try to represent the conversation as equal when he knows it isn’t. It’s not actually about her at all. It’s about him. She’s not in this too. She left a long time ago. That’s kind of the problem. She’s not there, and neither is anyone else:

I’ve been talking about you to myself 
‘Cause there’s nobody else
And I want what I want
And I want everything
I want everything.

Maybe that’s the problem.

One of the best pieces of advice I got in my entire college career came in the form of an observation about the Great American Novel Moby Dick.

I am certain the person who made this observation had made it a hundred times before to hundreds of undergrads. I didn’t even like this person, truth be told – but this one very simple thing has stuck with me long past almost everything else. I’m paraphrasing, but this is the gist:

The most important parts of Moby Dick are the parts with the whale minutiae.

If you’ve read Moby Dick you know the feeling of huffing along somewhere in the deep thicket of the novel and coming across those first chapters of factual recitation of whale lore. It’s not a fun feeling because it’s an acknowledgement that this wonderful book which had begun as such a rousing pulse-pounding adventure story and buddy comedy in jolly old Nantucket was actually maybe going to get a tiny bit dry and tedious before all was said and done.

Now, I’ve read Moby Dick twice and I can assure you that the tedium is intentional. It’s a very contemporary impulse, actually, the construction of an archive of interpretive material beyond merely the symbolic or metaphorical or psychological level. When you read Moby Dick you have to grapple with the fact that the significance of whales to human myth and imagination – no small significance, either, as whales remain the only animal whose sheer size naturally conjures associations with divinity – is no greater than the significance of whales to human science and economy. It is at the intersection of these that we see the process of dismantling the living creature into pieces precisely measured for separate sale by capital, the process which consumes so much gory (and homoerotic) real estate in the middle of the book.

What’s the whale a metaphor for? Maybe there is no metaphor. Maybe the point is that the whale is bigger than we understand. To make any creature or person or phenomena into a metaphor is to rob them of the most basic right of standing for themselves. The whale is its own reality. When the whale asserts himself the book promptly ends. He alone survived, etc.

Star Wars isn’t a metaphor. This book is about a lot of things but this book is still always consistently about Star Wars even when it’s about everything else, and the reason why isn’t because Star Wars represents anything at all. Star Wars doesn’t stand for anything but itself. Culture writing in this late capitalist hellscape of 2018 resembles nothing so much as the crew of the Pequod setting out to hunt, capture, and vivisect the mighty leviathan. It’s gruesome business. We filet every square centimeter of meat for piping hot takes, served daily all year round.

I mean, come on. This book could have been about anything, really, but the reason why it’s actually about Star Wars is that by being about Star Wars there’s a chance more people might read it. I don’t think I’m giving away any trade secrets there, hoss.

But Star Wars – well. Star Wars is big enough to accommodate even the most capacious intellect because it’s a beast designed around the idea of scale. From the very first moments of the very first movie you are seeing things that are designed to impress upon the audience, and convincingly, the illusion of size. People like seeing really impressively large things on the movie screen. Give people a window into a universe where really impressively large things happen on a regular enough basis and they’ll make you a billionaire.

Star Wars isn’t a metaphor. When I lost my shit in the grocery store parking lot because I left my keys in my car, I really was going back and forth between having an active breakdown and figuring out how best to use Starck and the Phoenix Squad. I’ve been on this farm for a year and I still have not missed a day of farming my game, even in the midst of the most grinding depression and poverty and despair and apocalyptic current events, it’s still a reason to get up in the morning even after two and a half years.

I used to think I should feel ashamed about that but I guess writing a book about the process has, at least so far, helped me appreciate the significance of wringing whatever meaning from life that you possibly can while you can. And honestly, after doing this for two and a half years and counting the scale of the endeavor has sort of become the point. It’s a part of my life.

And now it’s been a year.

Didn’t plan it that way, certainly, but I write these words on the July 4th, 2018 – one year to the day after I last saw my ex outside the terminal of the Cleveland airport.

How has it been a year? It doesn’t seem long ago now, just a little bit. A year on the almond farm with my parents and their dog and cats.

How has it been a year?

I bought a chain a while back to wear around my wrist – beautiful piece, stainless steel. Fits my general motif. I wore it for a few months and it was quite comfortable – fit perfectly on my wrist, not too heavy.

You see . . . it was a hard thing, a very hard thing, to realize that I have within me a streak of slavish dependency. That makes me ashamed of myself. I avoided being alone for decades because I was afraid of what I might find out about myself, and sure enough, I only had my final revelation about being trans after I’d been living semi-independently from my ex, then at art school. I was afraid of being alone – so afraid, terrified of something I knew was hiding in the back of my head, getting ready to leap the moment I let my guard down.

Peoples’ emotions are very loud for me . . . and I think just that fact made me desperate to stick to as many other people I could. If I was around someone else I didn’t have to listen to my own problems. I could just ignore them, which I did for over twenty years – we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. But you can’t outrun a faulty premise. I found it exceedingly difficult to make good decisions while acting under an incomplete understanding of myself.

So what happened? Lying to myself did nothing but compound every problem in my life. It led me to a place where my only options were simple: change or die. I’ve hurt people . . . more than a few. Not intentionally, certainly, but that’s cold comfort. I didn’t know anything about myself, in so many ways . . .

Suddenly I nod off. I’m trying your patience. More than usual. I’m having trouble getting through the fog, this last section has been hanging pregnant over my head for the better part of the week. 

I jerk awake. The room is dark and my computer is on the floor next to me. I don’t remember turning the light off or putting the laptop up . . . I’m still listening to Stars (“Sunrise / oh sunrise / when will the night be gone? / It won’t let me go”) on my headphones. I turn the music off. I hear a scream . . .


Galaxy of Zeroes

If This Goes On - V

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