November 2020November 2020
This a story that, bleary in lost morning after red-eye, ravels across a graying field being swallowed by a sea. Early in quarantine, I am isolated in a coastal forest haunted by roving free radicals. I read a post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son trying to make their way to the ocean because the ocean is all that is left. The television news only tells me everyone is at risk.
With no place to go, I doomscroll for hours through stories about an erratic affliction of disaffection that, paradoxically, unites a certain strain of the same ignorance lurking outside my window here in America’s umbrage. A month goes by without a change. Write, I tell myself, but nothing seems right.
Two months now I’m here. Half of America’s body politic dons red caps. Every religion, I tell a friend on the phone, has its hat. How easy it has become to imagine a few hundred proud disciples online for a big cup of pernicious red Flavor Aid. One in a state-issued uniform murders an unarmed black man. The leader, never one to miss an opportunity, holds a bible upside down and calls his loyalists to parade.
Protests form against the self-absorbed cortège. The protestors are murdered. Gunned down on my television. Outside, an old man plows a field while my peers are gunned down in a newsfeed. Dust kicks up. We don’t speak. Every day the violence gets more brutal, but the old man and I don’t speak. Maybe get out of here, I think. Go see without putting him at risk. Needing answers, I drive the hundred miles to the only open bookstore. The books I request are left outside.
Blurry as in mysteriously hungover on bright May-day beach. Squint at pages. Lascivious bodies are forced to sit far apart. Americans wade in the gauche flotsam of some brats’ beach party. The pages are no help. A refrain floats around as if to offer a little comfort: this is not normal. Still, no answers come. Only an uncanny sense that there is no sense. Slow wave after slow wave sloshes against cold skin.
The sun doesn’t sway. This is not normal. I keep repeating (only to myself, for now) a few lines from Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts:
The Leopard of Discontent walks the streets of my city; the Lion of Discouragement crouches outside the walls of my citadel. All is dissolution and vexation of the spirit. I feel like hell.
I feel like hell. West’s protagonist, Miss Lonelyhearts, is fed those words by his supervisor, Shrike. Miss Lonelyhearts is to believe he is unreasonably depressed and should enjoy his role as advice columnist to desperate readers. He is, he’s told, in need of relaxation. Harold Bloom posits that Shrike, who will exploit anyone to sell more newspapers, is an allegorical Satan. Bloom is mistaken. Even the Devil has his reasons.
It’s hot here. It could be worse. The Devil is a liar, and it could be worse. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt sets as a defining characteristic of bullshit its being “short of a lie.” A liar conceals facts in an effort to evince a different reality; lairs are active against actuality. Bullshitters though have no concern with the substance of what they push.
A bullshitter’s spirits may be “the world’s finest super premium” or his vessel full up with Russian thistle. His hooch might be special or “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color”—terms I hear months later in cafe-male parlance as the mansplainers flog each other with their new knowledge that it’s marketing. Could the line-lifters evolve from recitation to reconstruction I might find hope. All that matters is belief. Each cycle deposits more trash than the previous, yet the growing cluster is increasingly less surprising. Junk rattles.
Ostentation without pretension, the pusher gold plates his world to play king yet lacks the decorum to make anyone bow. His speech is so false that it cannot judge, for judgement needs truth. Tired arrives the everyman, weary and wanting for a little relief. Ready for a blank savior in whom anything can be imagined. A quotidian glass bottle I see online provides evidence: the perceived power imparted by its adoring gilded “T” commands seven hundred dollars. It’s empty. This is religious fetishism writ large.
Change the channel but the news doesn’t change. Leave the state but the feed is the same. Was it mass production that precipitated this bathos? A repetitive stamping of weighty press beating into obscurity what West calls, “the rhythms of an old, old work.” Is my life too easy? I will never have need to recite sacred stories or sit in the tranquility with a quiet mind. My plentiful leisure time is easily consumed with bemusement. The great hand tends towards of ease of use.
The election comes and goes. The news doesn’t change. The loudest noise is still white. My aggie allusions seem more and more only atavistic romanticizing: I am not cold; I am privileged. As winter approaches I know I should have grown something yet keep staring nonplussed at the flood, and to ask what one has accomplished trudging through the mud of this endless fall is rude.