I’m northbound in the front car of the S train, gliding noiselessly over the muted bustle of the city, late one rainy spring morning. Out there, beyond the water-streaked Plexiglas panes, the overbearing sprawl straddles the horizon: grey and dreary and monumental. Behold the buildings, like giant robots turned to stone; behold the impersonal matrix of interconnection: flashing lights, concrete expanses, orderly receding lines, and the ubiquitous tangle of electric cables. Impassively, as if from a great inner distance, my gaze tracks the surging flow that animates the raw, exposed array of darkly paved arteries below. In discrete sequences of attention, I spy biomass in decorous trench coats and business suits scurrying purposefully; a flock of athletic young mothers pushing aerodynamic perambulators with a poignant air of smug righteousness; a statutorily expressive traffic warden’s dancing white-gloved hands; the shadow of a technical maintenance worker perched precariously high in an elevator bucket, daintily plugging wires into an exposed telecom relay box; cars suspended in slow motion, each distributing a quantum of humanity to some new assigned position… In a pleasant haze of boredom, I take in the omnifarious humanoid figurines of everyday life. They are disconnected from me: surely we share hopes, and dreams, and joys, and aspirations, and fears, and striving, and mortality—but our lives will, in all likelihood, never intersect beyond this fleeting contingent propinquity. Patching the deadened landscape: green spaces, few and far between. They sporadically interrupt my trance-like absorption with sharp flashes of saturated color. And once in a while, I catch a glimpse of the wretched and the insane, who cower under giant advertisements for face cream, or for morning radio programs, or for the vapid technological marvels that promise ineffable bliss, and honor, and belonging, and dignity, and status, and envious approval, and glory everlasting to the sanctified elect who can afford them. In the meantime, the damned abide in the airless shade cast by these markers of our shared communion—and there they wilt or alarmingly rage or hunt for the weak or find solace in a merciful sedation. They navigate the tragically parlous off-stage interstices of our everyday vaudeville, clinging to life in a concrete netherworld of underpasses, of subterranean car parks, of blind alleys, of frictionless and repulsive public spaces designed exclusively for mercantile transit rather than human inhabitation.
And now look: row after row of windows are reflecting the train’s ghostly, distorted image back at you. Vertiginously looming vertical planes line up, orderly and hostile, like great phalanxes set to hold the line against an unspecified enemy—perhaps the unruly urban multitude itself. Gloomy canyons of characterless facades help contain masses of humanity along the “Pelf District” thoroughfares, and channel them in and out to the Shore and the Margins. Even from here, it’s apparent that most of the buildings are empty: condos, office space—pristine and vacant enclosed volumes of congealed money, inhabited only by the specter of primitive accumulation. But then New Atlantis and the Fortunate Isles are “a favored destination for direct investment and tax planning optimization,” of course. Half-remembered fragments of a psalm I used to sing in choir at boarding school surface like an impromptu fizz, blending seamlessly with the graceless bosh of the financial brochures you find everywhere about our celebrated native shore. The process is disconcertingly involuntary, but then my mind does have an irresistible penchant for both stirring poetry and facile sarcasm:
Give unto the Lord ye kindreds of the people, for thanks to its highly educated workforce, its advanced and thriving economy, and its key position as a Mid-Atlantic commercial and shipping hub, profits from unseemly ventures can there conveniently be hidden.
Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name, for it is a white listed, respectable jurisdiction that allows foreign and domestic investors to benefit from a favorable taxation system.
Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: no supervisory institution or business partner might consider a Neo-Atlantean company, even on subjective level, as being ‘offshore’ or associated with tax avoidance or evasion.
He cometh to judge the earth: He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His truth—but, blessedly, He doth not require the beneficial owners to be registered, and offereth withal a legal system that is, worldwide, among the most lax in its handling of financial malfeasance.
People board the train. Others get off. Strangers sit across from each other and politely avert their gaze. Neighbors tactfully pretend that they don’t notice each other’s clashing and vexatious bodily admeasurement; and by this act of benign forbearance, they lay down the cool grey tones of everyday civility—the muted background against which the glow of each inner life can flicker softly: fragile and quiescently self-contained despite the sometimes flustering crush of the throng.
“Naval Yards—” declares the helpful, deathless female voice of public transport, “Travelers headed to Breakers, please change trains.”
My thoughts, like bubbles bubbles bubbles, ascend buoyantly as if through a liquid medium composed of the last vestiges of sleep, of the hypnotic rhythm of the track’s intermittent mechanical jolts, of the luxuriant, sensual repose that comes from wearing one’s body with ease, of the muted hum of the powerful electric motors revving up and down as the train speeds from station to station, of the desultory peace of a day without ambition, of a welcome, pleasantly unguarded mood—like a warm current in the cold ocean of my habitual foreboding… A bubble surfaces, and it occurs to me that what defines a city is that it is a place of strangers—an arena of floating, unfixed identity; a stage where you can be whoever you want to be, as long as you settle on the right mask and don the relevant disguise. Class, wealth, cultural origin, gender, soundness of mind, sincerity, a benign disposition: all of these can easily be counterfeited… Most of the time, people are what they seem—except when they’re not. As Sherlock Holmes, the characteristic hero of the first modern behemothic urban agglomeration, was well aware: it requires only close attention to a handful of external signs—the always potentially mendacious display signals of anonymous mass social intercourse. This was why it was so crucial for the greatest of fictional detectives to cultivate his famously penetrating discernment at a glance. He needed to be able to navigate with confidence the new, ambiguous, mixed, and therefore alarming multitudes of Victorian London: unerringly to find his way among the fog-cloaked street urchins and beggars; among the somber, conventionally austere, and putatively respectable cane-wielding gentlemen in top hats; among the upright and repressed ladies—those tightly wound blooms of silk and taffeta and pink flesh and tremulous sensitivity, forever threatening to come apart at the seams, because of some mysterious and dismaying centrifugal quality of their alien femininity. In such a floating world, the inquisitorial champion of the worthy middle classes—that segment of society which must have felt most threatened by the new tumultuous flood of humanity—needed to become almost preternaturally attuned to the minutest subtleties of appearance, so that, armed with his sharp gaze, he could hold fast the ground of factual reality and slice through the mendacious veils of appearance. If he was able to identify the most minuscule symptomatic incongruities that estranged the actor from his or her presumptive context—the tiny errors that gave away a despicable usurpation, an almost perfectly crafted subterfuge—then he could offer a reassuring guarantee that the legitimate social order would always, after all, be maintained.
“So then I was like: no! That’s so gross!”
At Victoria Circle, the car swells with an untidy flock of teenage girls from Saint-Jude’s in tartan uniforms. Heedlessly, it makes its way to the back of the train, shedding gossip and censure like smithereens of poison confetti:
“And she was like: you know, blah blah, whatever. And I was like: uh, seriously, fam, you should get that thing looked at. I mean: can you believe she would actually ask me that?”
The uncomfortably familiar, loud, drifting notes of dismissive judgment seem to fill the aisle. In a kind of daydream, I see them swell into pink balloons, wafting for a moment in mid-air before bursting with a wet, graceless pop—diffusing in their wake the reek of rash striving and oversweet perfume.
“Wait! Shut up Amanda! Does anyone have a cigarette?”
Bubbles, balloons—tenuous surfaces, each circumscribing their own measure of yearning: such are the simply connected surfaces of my metaphorical topology…
Bubbles: one way of understanding society is to think of it as the sum of all the minute interactions individuals engage in with each other every day—the expressive interpersonal exchanges through which we manifest basic respect or deference or benevolence or love or competitiveness or aversion or disapproval or contempt or aggression or whatever you like. In the 1950s, a famous Canadian-American sociologist called Erving Goffman, had the idea that playing roles for each other is basically what our social life consists of—as if we were all actors putting on one giant play called “Society” of which we were also the audience. In this view, you can never “just be yourself” because, in public at least, the self is always mediated by some sort of dramatic performance. Whenever we interact, we necessarily modulate our behavior by selecting from an extensive but finite range of specific available parts: loving mother, rebellious loner, concerned citizen, attentive student, seductive rake, diffident stranger, respectable burger, authoritative expert, violent bully, self-righteous landlord, consummate professional, humble supplicant, open-minded teacher, charismatic leader, satisfied customer, domineering boss, pitiable beggar, paternalistic doctor, dignified churchgoer, hypocritical waiter… We take these up, in sequence, from moment to moment, and then discard them again, according to the requirements of our evolving everyday circumstances. And society exists as the aggregation of all these tiny theatrical representations—as the teeming integral of such expressive micro-performances.
“…that’s great but give the phone to daddy now okay? Yes, I know darling, but I can’t do that right now. I have to go help Nana.”
We go from one interaction to the next, casually picking up a new “part” every time we are in the presence of others, along with a whole set of attitudes, demeanors, expressions adapted to the “story” we want to establish about who we are in the moment, and what is actually happening. Now, this doesn’t mean that we’re being “fake” because the very idea of “fakeness” or inauthenticity would imply that we do possess some authentic center—and that the roles we assume can allow us either to reveal it straightforwardly, or, at other times, to misrepresent, to disguise, or to obscure it. But for Goffman no such center exists—except perhaps as an inchoate, undefined subjective nexus holding together our multiple masks. Human beings always live within a specific social context: we can’t help it—from the very start, we’re caught in a contingent web of interconnection with other people… Even the most misanthropic hermits acquire their sense of who they are by growing up in a given family, in a given culture, in a given society, conditioned by given social interactions. And it’s because we can never truly exist in isolation, because we’re always to some extent dependent on others, that we can only ever “be who we really are” artificially—by performing the roles that integrate us into this great web of ever collaborative and anon competitive self-invention. We need each other, as scene partners and audience members, in order to become the expressive roles we play: we can only be ourselves insofar as we interact with each other—thereby taking part in the collective elaboration of our shared reality. All the world is but a stage for this protean self dramatically to project itself outwards:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
We shine out expressively and, by virtue of this histrionic effulgence, somehow configure our own intimate structure within, while at the same time composing an orderly public space without. Rather a neat trick! Reflecting on it now prompts fleeting, imaginary tableaux to flicker before me—like an flash-cut montage ironically dramatizing my own Baroque predicament: silken fabric in stagy folds frame my momentous exit from a Starbucks, clutching my colleagues’ vanilla lattes; cheeky putti flutter in my wake as, with the imperious haughtiness of Juno Capitolina, I hail a zebra cab; allegorical representations of vanity, hope, and confusion, are arrested in spiraling, evocatively hyperbolic postures around me, as I stop on the sidewalk outside the iStore to rummage through my handbag for one last piece of gum…
“Yes. Right, got it. Ken? Don’t forget to ask the builders about the sink.”
But is there a “backstage” of private conscience behind all this theater? What about people’s inner experience? If I’m honest, I don’t remember; chances are that, as usual, I never finished the book. I’m no scholar—and for me, ideas are really just shiny things I pick up in the sand and play with for a while, before throwing them back into the ocean… What I do recall is that I was really smitten with the notion that we could all think of ourselves as barnstorming performers of everyday life—because that’s exactly how I feel most of the time: like an actress, you know, “playing the role of a lifetime” with all the dodgy, unsteady resources of melodramatic stagecraft and hysterical pathos… The whole thing makes perfect sense to me, because I’m such an incorrigible ham!
“Yes. No, I don’t know when I’ll be back—”
I do suspect that, if one’s goal really is to find out what forces ultimately shape, like, the whole of society and also explain its evolution, then merely describing and somehow “adding up” these individual interactions… can only be part of the picture. But, nevertheless, this idea does give you the satisfying feeling of having grasped something that isn’t trivial about the world. It must be right, on some level. We are always caught up in the process of suggestively signifying our intentions to each other; of communicating by using stories, or at least whatever disparate collection of equivocal dramatic fragments happen to be available; of contriving to create relational configurations that fit into some narrative we can recognize as meaningful; of eloquently broadcasting our place, real or imagined, in the social order and demanding a certain level of recognition as the reward for our performance; of searching for purpose and value in emotionally affecting games of reciprocal influence. And my experience is that we do end up acknowledging each other, at least to some extent, as partners in the myriad open-ended scenes we find ourselves improvising together, in tacit solidarity. It pleases me to think of our performances as cooperative, you know, for the most part: managing each other’s impressions; helping each other keep face and stay in character—when, inevitably, a false note does creep in here or there, and a flustered player misses her cue or flubs his lines… We can cultivate civility by taking in stride the moments of calamitous improvisational incoherence that do inevitably occur on occasion; on good days, with a laudable equanimity, we can learn to meekly tolerate the rambling, disjointed performances of our clumsier partners, not to mention our own occasional catastrophic ineptness. More generally, we just end up making a habit of tolerantly disregarding the ordinary dysfunctional static pervading our splendid, anarchical, many-voiced theater of self-presentation. If you put it like that, doesn’t it all seem reassuringly amiable and benign? And maybe it’s actually true. But it’s also possible that as usual, I’ve mangled the signal—and I’m simply indulging in one of my wishful, shambolic misapprehensions.
“I can’t hear… It’s just: the reception is terrible.”
Sneaking a look over my shoulder, I see that the warm, gushy, softly peremptory voice I’ve been picking up for the last three stations belongs to a plain blond woman in a blue-green pastel pompom hat, with a stack of boxy Tupperware containers in her lap and plastic grocery bags at her feet. She’s talking into the small microphone dangling from one of her earphones:
“No, no, no, of course I don’t want the granite! Veto. That would be super naff.”
In the car, everybody else is quiet and inscrutable: the obese man with the wire spectacles and the soiled cardigan, the dapper businessman with the pulsing jaw and the pointy brushed leather Italian clown shoes, the Indian girl lost in contemplation of whatever profound mysteries are concealed in the vast hypnotic sweep of her Samsung Galaxy’s screen, the shifty watery-eyed old lady who keeps rooting around restlessly in her oversized bag, the dowdy middle-aged woman reading a romance novel with an expression of serene rapture, the three-man Nigerian cleaning crew in their green coveralls—standing loose-bodied and impassive around the industrial floor sweeper they seem to be in the process of transferring to a new station…
“We talked about this. Just tell him I’ll call him. Anyway—”
Everybody is an actor… But everybody is also a spy.
“Okay then. Yes, that would be fantastic.”
Holding our peace, we become opaque: illegible, inaccessible to each other. Yes, because we can’t, alas, read each other’s minds. Such a pity! And so, it occurs to me that we’re all forever trying make up for this regrettable telepathic impairment, by using the rudimentary but also often quite ingenious tactical and imaginative means at our disposal to breach each other’s fortress of silence—seeking out the magical “open sesame” (or perhaps the 8 digit access code…) which, appeasing the jagged demons of self-protective diffidence, will throw open the gates of our fellow human beings’ lived experience—so that we might gain access, at least in a indirect way, to these adventitious streams of consciousness…
“Sure, whatever, either way is fine.”
I mean—all these people around me: what’s happening inside their head? Are these skulls filled with thoughts, just like mine? And are they the same thoughts? And do these thoughts sometimes surge like a teeming effervescence—unbidden, but rather welcome, all things considered—right up to the moment when, spiraling madly, they begin to imperil the delicate internal balance that must imperatively be maintained, lest we unravel? And can my neighbors, like me, at first simply witness the bubbles rising up for a while in the space of their awareness, until again, unavoidably it seems, they end up losing themselves in the lift of this spellbinding host—borne aloft by the tiny pressure of each notion, of each conceptual adumbration, of each imperfectly defined mental picture, all combining with a startling and irrepressible collective force to push their minds along, in a mad scramble to some mysterious region above—lucent shallows beyond which some hypothetical boundary looms? Sad to say: I, for one, never quite make it to this surface level, and always tarry just out of reach. It hovers above, like the radiant prospect of abundance—of dazzling perspicuous understanding, brimming with a pure and soothing and vital energy; it comes into view indistinctly, like the promise of a luminous, sun-drenched transcendental clarity—forever withheld, yet forever tantalizing. And so I never do reach Jerusalem—yes, but what about my neighbors?
“Okay. Love you! Bye. Yeah. Bye.”
So many bubbles today, old girl—ay? So many rumpty-tumpty waking dreams, n’est-ce pas mademoiselle Charlotte? What do you say? Speak up! Hopeful I think—what, what? And, I daresay appealing—because this hodgepodge farrago all seems to spring from a place of such winsomely intrepid curiosity and imagination, of naked availability to the world—wherever that is deep inside the deepest depths of me… But also rum, you know. Quite rum: I’m sure it hasn’t escaped you that, more often then not, these manifestations also express an intense, anxious, insecure, grasping preoccupation with finding solace and connection. And that my sane, bright-eyed inquisitiveness keeps getting twisted askew somehow—deformed by the forlorn energy of a diffuse and inordinately powerful field of existential trepidation. Just sing goddamn, damn! And if you could tune into my channel, right this minute, you would probably get some boringly disjointed and compulsive inner monologue. Sing goddamn! And you might perceive the raw, seemingly arbitrary strings composed of words and images and feelings and moods, iterating over and over—for a while, the same bits and pieces, but every time in slightly different configurations: “because that’s where it is… beyond the walls that encircle each one of us… and there must be a way… of course there must… I mean, as forbidding as they seem… they must be, after all, at least to some extent, permeable… because otherwise, we would be locked in, wouldn’t we? I mean, stuck in private realms of illusion… and… and I would just much rather not…” You could observe from the shore as relentlessly, the thoughts kept gushing. Words, words—there are always too many words: “—to not be alone… to feel part of something bigger, so that I could borrow its strength… is a plan of sorts… actually, maybe a good one… to be invested with the power of the multitude… because you really don’t have to be a cannibal, I mean to take in the might of your companions… you don’t have to eat them… which is lucky for all the vegetarians… you just have to get it right… the dance, the skillful gesture, the taiji chuan of life… and maybe I will someday, even… and I’ll be happy and enlightened… but probably, you know, not by this afternoon…” And so on, and so forth: sing goddamn, damn. Sing goddamn!
“I mean we’re just drowning in this shit—”
Bubbles: I suppose, in various ways, from various angles, all I’m really doing is simply noting that between us sentient anthropoid beings, signals need to be exchanged and interpreted; suitable levels of interpersonal proximity set; decorous orbitals of civility and communicative availability established and measured; real and imagined antagonisms resolved; hierarchical positions secured, affirmed, or contested. And I note that I’m noting it; and I note that I’m noting that… And, as usual, I get caught up—because, of course, it’s always just turtles all the way down.
“—I mean these noob fuckers submit huge fucking divs—”
And so, complete with an incessant and amusing and exhausting inner chorus of slightly unhinged hermeneutic commentary, the humdrum pageantry of everyday life materializes before my eyes, from moment to moment, and falls away again—with the many costumes, the wily camouflage, the partly spontaneous and partly conditioned demeanors, the alternatively stereotypical and guilelessly unschooled language of the body, the here tacit and there explicit social games of distinction and conformity, of solidarity and exclusion, of domination and subservience, of sympathy and aversion—with the unacknowledged or alternatively bluntly affirmed norms governing our public existence and the whole overwrought political economy of our interactive contiguity…
“—like a whole fucking menagerie of random divs with crazy tangled code, crazy logic, huge functions, tons of ‘if’ statements all over the place, random helper methods everywhere—and the fucking project managers actually approve this shit, so then we’re stuck with it down the line…”
Bored and frazzled at kitchen party, crowded with strangers; sinking into yourself at a business meeting gone wrong; raging with a furious, rioting mob; waiting at a restaurant for a friend who never comes; wandering in a daze on the second floor of a suburban shopping mall as closing time nears; holding hands in a public park with someone who is not yet a lover; dancing at a disco in an exhibitionist simulacrum of ecstatic abandon; exposed in an empty street on the wrong side of town as dusk settles into night; riding on the S train one rainy morning—pensively slipping into the overwhelming tide of words words words words words that just won’t stop filling my stupid—
“And now, cherry on the cake, this so-called ‘priority response queue’ clusterfuck—”
A bevy of bubbles… A galaxy of them, fizzing past…
“I’m telling you I’m sick of these fucking power trips: these fucking useless, counterproductive, frustrating, bullshit ‘best practices’ seminars… and not just that but—”
We are all perpetually modulating our own expressive surface and monitoring other people’s. We are finely tuned to their accents, to the inflections of their voice, to their telltale mannerisms; our spontaneous theory of mind is pragmatically removed from any speculative skepticism: other minds exist out there, and they are knowable. We spontaneously sound out their intentions, gauge their emotional color, reckon their level of self-awareness, and alternatively heed or try to ignore our visceral response to the quality of their presence. Unconscious calculations calibrate our reactions—and these signals shape our interactive improvisations: to approach or to flee, to smile or to frown, to speak or to shut up, as tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps… What strange and curiously eloquent animals we are! But also what curious flesh puppets; what uncanny contraptions, mindlessly moving to serve the designs of our genes—these unconscious, impersonal, inanimate masters… How arbitrary to find ourselves just as we are, and no different—stranded, as it were, in this particular configuration rather than that! What would it be like, I wonder, to be able to casually change sex at will, or to slip on a new skin every morning? What would it be like to live forever? What would it be like to be a tiger? Or an amoeba? Or an artificial intelligence that suddenly awakens to self-consciousness? Or some sentient alien goo that can divide itself into a swarm of smaller blobs, each with its own personality and soul, but then recombine again at will into a larger entity with a single integrated mind? Or perhaps to be an angel? Or the Spirit of History? Or the breath of the Almighty? Truly, we are the apes with the most imagination.
“I mean, where are Yuri or Tom or Hao Ran when you need them? All these fucking people who should never have been hired in the first place, let alone promoted to tech lead, but start calling their own shots anyway because of all the fucking political maneuvering and, you know, general incompetence and whatnot?”
Breathing space… Fragments of a tedious conversation between two indelicate strangers standing over me manage to crash through the torrent of my increasingly manic speculative riffs and take over the suddenly available, finely receptive expanse of my attention:
“They’re fucking gone, and now, of course, I have to clean up the mess. I’m under pressure. Like my team doesn’t have enough shit to deal with?”
I sneak a (Holmesian?) diagnostic glance in their direction, careful not to catch their eye: workmates, technical types from the sound of things, each exuding his own characteristic form of dour anti-charisma, like a faintly repulsive force field. One is stocky, balding, pallid, homely, bespectacled; he’s holding a black plastic briefcase between the grimy white sneakers that poke incongruously out of his dress pants. A shapeless zip-up windbreaker completes a display that somehow manages simultaneously to give off a sense of slovenly carelessness and an uptight, defensive conventionality. It would seem that, of the pair, he’s the alpha—or at any rate, he’s the one engaged in performing the exhausting pantomime of virile dominance at the moment: dig the ungainly bluster, the studied disregard for his colleague’s personal space; note how he towers over the other man, gesticulating with an obnoxious, freewheeling exuberance—using what I can’t help but notice are repulsively plump fingers, whose fleshy overabundance seems to choke the tiny nails stranded helplessly at their tip.
“I mean: don’t ask me for my opinion if you don’t want the truth. Because I’ll fucking tell you—”
The shorter man is rail thin, weasel-faced, and sports a dense ponytail of prematurely grizzled hair. He is better groomed then his partner, and projects a low-key but mildly kicky “young urban professional” vibe—with his hiking shoes, his skinny jeans, his mod duffel coat, and his thin single strap backpack.
“…no professionalism, you know, no respect: that’s the way I see it… They’re all in the same fucking bag.”
Now, at first, Ponytail seems content to weather the overbearing onslaught by doing a lot of fidgeting, of impatient grimacing, of nodding mechanically to suggest longsuffering tolerance rather than approval. He keeps looking away sullenly—perhaps because he resents having to look up at Fat Fingers while that splendid specimen of humanity bloviates with what must be his customary abandon. But then, just as I start to feel some sympathy for the shorter man’s predicament, his impatience seems to boil over, and, abruptly, he interrupts his esteemed colleague—jamming him up by unleashing a gushing word torrent of his own, in a loud, rasping voice.
“Obviously, you know, they are choosing styupid option. They cannot hyelp it, of course—because they are garbage, and garbage people of course always choose styupid option. Honestly, it make me want to throw up the vomit.”
Revealing a hitherto unsuspected vigor, Ponytail’s eloquence delivers a gross and unintentionally amusing discursive mixture of whining self-pity, contemptuous captiousness, and extreme, over-the-top Eastern-European accented vulgarity with great zing. Ponytail, it transpires, likes to make a point. Beyond simply complaining about everybody and everything, he seems to feel duty-bound to impart what he deems are valuable (if objectively demented) life lessons to Fat Fingers—or perhaps to us all—in the form of bitter nuggets of caustic homespun “wisdom” wrapped in aggressive invective.
“I say to her: this is not facking backend problem, so why you are talking to me? Backend is backend. I mean styupid beetch, OK? She doesn’t know even from which department I am belonging and she is syupposed to do syupervision? Fack off! Eat my shit! Fat monkey pig! Are you kidding? Just absyalutely fack off!”
In a flash, I glimpse the fortune I could make printing t-shirts displaying ironically illustrated quotes of Ponytail’s savage poetry (“Is she fucking retard? Of course yes! Only mongoloid assfuck beetch with wood head come to machine learning guy for UI shit! Can you believe?”), if only I could keep him as a pet for a while, to have unfettered access to this marvelous treasure trove. Backend is backend is backend… loveliness extreme. Startlingly callous, his words bespeak an aggressive zest indicative of a fine sociopathic disposition. By way of illustrating this attractive trait, he soon zeroes in—with an admirably single-minded misogynistic verve—on the topic of the many and sundry egregiously unsatisfactory female colleagues he is sick of having to put up with, most notably “these pretentious fat slime pussy slag beetch from 17th floor, who should facking know their place, OK, in Darwinian scheme of things.” As always: l’enfer, c’est les autres. Conveniently for my sleuthing, I belatedly notice that both Fat Fingers and Ponytail are wearing clearly legible plasticized ID cards on their belts… Although, for an evanescent beat, I consider the possibility that, taking advantage of the city’s anonymity, etc., they might in reality be supremely capable international men of mystery/spies/criminal masterminds in an elaborate disguise—all the available evidence does seem to point to the boringly mundane conclusion that I’m merely in the presence of a couple of IT plonkers, out for an early lunch. Elementary my dear Watson! And so much for the suspense… Do observe, however, the suspicious discoloration on Fat Fingers’ trousers: it leads me to believe that, whatever else he is, at any rate, he is also an enthusiastic, if regrettably sloppy on-the-job masturbator. Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details… And be quick, before your quarry vanishes: as more people get on the train, Fat Fingers and Ponytail will soon get shuffled away forever, back into the anonymous urban wilderness of perfect peace-parted strangers.
always come correct—”
More people, more thoughts… There is a perilous threshold beyond which external stimulations become difficult for me to process. It’s influenced by what’s happening “out there,” of course; but mostly, it depends on my own fluctuating sense of composure. When my guard slips and I let in too much for too long—too many perceptions, too many feelings, too many thoughts—I struggle to keep up with the flow of what’s actually going on. Things seem to become decoupled from the concepts that are supposed to map them, and they just sort of float. They stop making sense. It sneaks up on you, and then there it is: this eclipse, all of a sudden, this helpless disorientation. Words keep multiplying, until they fill your whole mind up—until there doesn’t seem to be room for anything else but words. And they fly around wildly because they’re not weighed down by any meaning: they have no heft. They’re just patterns among all the other patterns: the sounds, the images, the feelings you can no longer name. It’s hard to describe: quite scary, but also thrilling somehow, because the limit between things, and between things and the words that are meant to represent them—they just seem to fade away, or anyway to become tenuous and irrelevant. Untamed mindscapes burst into the familiar reality that, only a minute ago, appeared so stable, so solid and coherent, but now takes on the ambiguous quality of an overexposed picture—of a scene awash with light, just drowning in it. And you discover that people and things that were just a moment ago unremarkable, have become alien, spooky, and mysteriously vital. Something shifts, and you become convinced that the boundaries between all the people and all the things and all the words in the world are growing more permeable—are, in fact, dissolving. Your alarm and your disorientation grows, but then so does your sense that it’s all so beautiful—so awfully, so painfully, so confoundingly, so triumphantly beautiful.
if you wanna sex
those big booty bitches
in the bickidee-back of the Lex—”
I do sense the imminent risk, but also the dangerously seductive exhilaration, of again finding myself untethered: of losing the command that keeps me safe within the bounds of myself—but also pitiably small and separate from the glorious oneness of all things.
and you get the honey
that’s how it be, homey—”
And now, all at once, I’m very aware of the appearance of this threshold on my internal horizon, as still more noise fades into the absurdly cacophonous megamix that my quiet trip to the Commonwealth Library and Archives seems to have morphed into: to unfavorable but mostly wincingly unexpressed reviews, a discourteous—or perhaps just overly enthusiastic and verbally incontinent—pillock seems have taken upon himself, with however an undeniable sense of impromptu showmanship, to serenade the section of the train immediately adjacent to mine. As if overcome by the Spirit and compelled to speak in tongues, a tall man in a baby pink tracksuit is rhythmically bobbing up and down and “spitting rhymes” with gusto—singing along to the (immortal, nonpareil…) hip-hop anthem leaking thinly from his oversized headphones.
but these shorties be bangin’—”
What vexatious prophesies are these? What voice dares to shout over desert of our indifference? Our interconnection is sometimes manifested in such frustratingly fragmentary and only partially decipherable signs—weak, clumsy, non sequitur, ambiguous, tenuous, intermittent. Once in a while, I simply feel unequal to the task of making any sense of the manifestations in front of me—or even just to face their reality; I feel they are cues intended for others, or perhaps for no one—scrambled by random turbulence, by my aversion, by my unsettled, shifting, self-protective inattention. And all the while, it keeps growing—the disarray, the deliciously giddy daze, the momentary slumped exhaustion that I know will soon transmute itself into an unstoppable energetic rush. But I can still pull it back: all I have to do is decide. I can still just shut it all out, provided I don’t wait too long. Literally and metaphorically—I can get off the train. But is that really what I want: to be safe? to shut out the sirens and their songs?
nigga, respect the game”
Everybody is an actor, and everybody is a spy, but, most of all, everybody is a beacon: casting out their own ambiguous messages into the ether, hurling them out—their desire for connection, for recognition, for acceptance with a kind of desperate abandon—without any of the constraints of self-consciousness: simply a potent, impersonal animal instinct staking its claim. Our appetites, our prosaic requirements, our thoughtless, naked, feral presence, our desire to exist and to keep going, our pressing need to fulfill some genetically programmed mission—one that feels as urgent and necessary as it is in reality foreign and arbitrary: it all shines out of us, with the dazzling intensity of tiny captive suns.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game
Don’t hate the player, hate the game—”
It occurs to me that there’s been a glitch and, although it appears as if almost no time has passed, I know that now the scene has changed: some continuity has been broken. While I wasn’t paying attention, the set was rearranged, and some of the bit players and the extras replaced. I’m disconcerted by how easily I keep disengaging from what’s actually happening around me—over and over, ejected from the “now” by battalions, by divisions, by whole bristling armies of invasive thoughts: voices speak, shapes cohere and fade away, and always the words keep crowding in. People step into the field of my intermittent awareness before fading away into limbo again: a bearded homeless man politely refuses a falafel sandwich offered by a well-meaning hipster—“that stuff, it just doesn’t agree with me, that’s all”; a heavily made-up lady wearing too much scent sits nearby, impregnating the train with her cloying counterfeit redolence, like a misguided offering; a trim young man sizes me up and soon dismisses me as insufficiently attractive to covet; his girlfriend gets between us to block his view anyway.
I can never seem to find the right proportion, between too much feeling and not enough: I just lurch from one to the other. I just can’t swing equanimity on most days—but I’m pleased to think that lukewarm indifference is always attainable. Perhaps settling for it can be a respite of sorts, even if it does come at the cost of disconnection and a kind of winter of the soul. If only I could be less reactive, and stop letting all the people and all the things call to me without discrimination… Indifference, inattention: at times, I’m convinced these can be positive signs of mental balance—of courtesy even, in some situations, of urbane refinement. But then again, they so easily decay into coldness and disregard—and thence into rejection, into the curtly dismissive negation of other people’s right to be as they are, or perhaps even simply to exist at all:
to seek peace at your own peril
for soon callousness
will be your coffin.
@Charlotte Minkowski #EnlightenedMaster
Did I really just tweet this sterling aphorism? You’re welcome. Truly, rubbish pseudo wisdom and sanctimonious cant à propos nothing are my bounty. Silly cow! But, beyond my desperate need for attention, I am serious, and genuinely distressed by how it really can all turn dire—and deadly even, as indifference slips into aversion, and aversion shades into contempt and hate… Of course it can: the occupying army has issued directives… All the so and sos are to be singled out… At all times, in public, they are to wear the mandatory identifying marks: the prophylactic signs of their infamy… And later, they will be quarantined… And later still, dispatched to the mysterious destinations from where no one ever returns… There will be many witnesses, perhaps, but these will be numb, or too weary to react, or complicit… They will be crippled by their detachment, by the barren inner buzz of their wounded withdrawal into narcissism… In the right conditions, would I participate in such a crime? Passively, I mean: conventionally, without bloodlust—and not out of any positive conviction, but out of paralyzing, defensive, self-serving inhibition. Maybe, at some level, when it comes down to it, we’re all secret fascists—because even that’s better then drowning, unloved, in an inner sea of meaninglessness and futility and fear and white noise. Or maybe it’s just me.
Yeah, and don’t forget my muthafuckin’ name—”
The people on the train, they work in offices; they obey rules; they consume food; they breathe; they cycle through physiology’s intricate processes; with a lovely self-assurance, they convert chemical potential energy into kinetic energy and heat; with fevered delight, or dutiful application, or distraught consternation, they fuck sexual partners; they produce offspring or pilot warplanes or cry at weddings or learn salsa dancing or rip off pensioners or operate petrol stations or pick up stamp collecting; they find their place within our complex primate pecking orders; they love; they get sick; they grieve; they lash out; they seek comfort; they dream dreams—until, scandalously, revoltingly, unacceptably, but also inevitably, IT ALL COMES TO A END FOREVER.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game
Don’t hate the player, hate the game—”
Everywhere people make decisions. Everywhere, they tend to think of most others as remote abstractions. We all float along human currents in social topographies we only very imperfectly reckon, in a universe that is almost completely bewildering and mysterious, and which we can never fully understand or account for. Around us, words are exchanged, inboxes checked, numbers dialed, faxes printed, lunch served, TV shows watched, stomach knotted, secrets kept. Around us, hearts beat and files go missing, souls are bared and bank accounts credited, requests dismissed and comments posted, campaigns devised and “deliverables” delivered. Everywhere, glowing screens dot open plans like spring flowers, desire is misdirected, and thwarted ambitions turn to loathing. We keep fanning the flames of desire.
but now I’m ghost, I’m outta here—”
And with desire, we keep stoking fear. We erect our own gated communities of the heart—with barbed fences and high walls, as futile bulwarks against meaninglessness, and loneliness, and suffering, and death.
the truth seekers, the real niggas.
Don’t never forget… Peace!”
At Central, the train disgorges most of its passengers, thinning out the crowd, and I can once again enjoy an unobstructed view out of the wide Plexiglas pane right across from me, revealing the dark, caliginous, steeply crenellated silhouette of the city, like a monstrous saw lacerating the sky in the middle distance. And just like that, without warning, for no special reason, my mind settles, and the inner pressure that had been so portentously building simply dissipates. As I look out, the parallax of buildings near and far momentarily creates the illusion that it isn’t the train that’s moving, but rather that the city itself is shifting its configuration—uncoiling like an immense, restive creature. In one of my father’s stories, of course, it’s at this point that a cute and conveniently observant little girl would have noticed the mysterious flashes in the sky and cried out: “Look mommy! What’s that?”
EXT. DAY — NEW ATLANTIS
As more and more people look up, the realization sets in that there’s definitely something strange going on. At first, all people can discern is a swarm of dancing lights on the horizon: erratic but also somehow purposeful, and they seem to be closing in fast.
CUT TO: somebody shrieking “Oh my God!” just as the vanguard of the ALIEN FORCE suddenly swoops down and starts to open fire, releasing glowing ballistic blobs of plasma that smash into buildings with sickening force — tearing them apart and making them burst into flames. The first explosions shake the ground violently, and without warning, a shockwave of destruction engulfs the city — vaporizing people and walls and cars and food carts and terrace houses and magazine stands and dog runs and bicycle lanes and traffic signals and ATMs and office chairs and vegan soap gift baskets and delivery trucks and forgotten lists of New Years’ resolutions and luxury bags and half-filled Styrofoam cups; it throws up huge clouds of dust and debris into the air, which soon obscure the resulting picture of tragic devastation.
Only then does the huge MOTHER SHIP finally come into view — casting a sinister shadow over the carnage, as, after the initial stunned silence, a desperate collective wail rises up to greet its ominous form, and the panicked scrambling begins…
Mercifully though, at Calcutta Station, the elevated train plunges back into the earth, and I’m spared having to witness the city’s (imaginary) destruction. Casually apocalyptic moods come and go all the time: my emotional weather is tiresomely grandiose and unreliable. I must say, do find it quite exhausting. In any case, I feel relieved when the vast, open urban panorama gives way to blind walls and sodium lights rhythmically flashing past. And I’m grateful to find myself swaddled in the pacifying whoosh of the train’s clamor, as it speeds through a labyrinth of underground tunnels. The noise and the confined space shelter me somehow, and drown out the stray, jarring notes of voiced human utterances still floating around—disembodied now by my inability to focus. Something has shifted in me, and I just can’t be bothered to deal with them anymore: the people, the souls, the dizzyingly overwhelming networks of interconnection, as we hurl through the darkness and I become lost in increasingly formless emotions and disorganized snatches of thought. Islands of light punctuate our progress: Quebec House, Megiddo, Blenheim, Golden Temple, Independence, Zoological Gardens, Wellington, University College… Maybe I will get there eventually—wherever it is I’m going. Right now though, I just need to close my eyes for a moment, and let myself fade into the blank hum of the electric motors.
Somebody close by says something that sounds like: “Give me shelter.” But I suspect that, as usual, I’m just imagining things.