Please note: This piece occasionally contains strong language.
Say you were born late eighties, early nineties, of tentatively foreign parents who hedged their bets on a global future. Wherever you lived, you went to school in English. A curriculum spread wide and thin like guilt butter, and youngish left-inclining teachers who often didn’t collect the homework. It could have left you unaligned, liberally disposed. Every geography of condensed human misery seems equally worthy of your concern—for the most part you avoid these places. You’ll move to a big city and do something on the creative spectrum. You might become a painter, or a florist, some type of consultant with a penchant for nature photography, it depends on your talents and how much money you need. But slowly you give in… what is there for you.
If you’re lucky, you get into the grind. End up dealing with people. The world is made of them. Jealous people, clever people, clueless people, over-enthused, genuinely good ones, stinking of cigarettes, here on a residency, pregnant, in their thirties trying to get pregnant, in groups of three bonding over their ayahuasca experience, raving about Peru, famous people, people you thought smarter, public relationists, intellectual property lawyers, people who definitely lead better lives than you, women with good skin and ankle bearing trousers who’ve birthed three children naturally, and work for non-profits, and ride a bike to work, cheery men with broken capillaries all over their cheeks and noses, people whose name you can never remember, your mother! People you ignore, people you can’t help sucking up to, restaurant owners, playwrights, politicians, young professors on tenure track, people with dark circles under their eyes, people with dark secrets everyone knows, people you’ve wanted to sleep with for years, people who ordered the steak, short gay men in thick-rimmed glasses who need only shape their vowels to scald or blandish, well-bred ones, self-made ones, bitches, harpies, insignificant little sluts, misogynists, twice-removed cousins, coprophiliacs, commercial composers, people who showed up in trainers, people’s dogs, beautiful women, always the same really, people who smile at you knowingly from a corner because they think they’ve caught a glimpse of something unique in you, you hate these immediately (unless, of course, they flatter you), people about to leave…
On it goes… they go, all these people, self-centered, deluded with separateness, dragging around their individuality like ghost limbs. But imagine, these are only just your people, the ones you look at, eat with, smoke with, have cushy little work meetings with; whose approving nod you seek, whom you assess as liberally as the air quality. Then there are all those composing the thick of the city, faceless, unfathomable, prone to fiction; all the people being there.
Being waiters, being mothers, being children, being cab drivers, being businessmen, being tourists, being salesmen, being students, being thugs, being helpful, loud, loutish, holding up the bathroom, soothsayers, nit-pickers, electricians, cultural attaches to the consulate of Gabon. Out there waiting in queues, sleeping on the pavement, parking badly, fixing an elevator, printed on a trampled newspaper, selling useless shit to you, getting murdered, getting begotten, getting nowhere, getting cheated, getting tax refunds, getting high at ten in the morning, getting the bus to work, making porridge, making promises, making plans, making love, making ends meet…
And then, only then, the unnameable oceans of those you don’t see at all but carry around on your body like psychic baggage, like Marxist undertones, like karma. The people who sewed the hem of your dress, who glued the soles onto your sneakers, who mixed the pigment into your wall paint, who chipped out the marble for your counter, who assembled your phone, your bike helmet, supplied the material for your opinion piece last week, who picked the cotton for your panty liner, who harvested the rice you’re now digesting, who processed it, who shipped it, who grew your tomatoes, who canned your sardines, who expiated your sins, fed the pig for your bacon, and why not, why not also the clever little pig in your bacon?
Zoom in and get a set of motives, a birthmark. Zoom out… get a national temperament, a migration trend, biomass. So finally, one day, you decide to get away from it all. There is no way back in. You’re sick with detachment, a free radical. You wake up to a bitter mouth. The only person you still say I love you to without a sense of defeat is a neighbor’s blind schnauzer. You’re not sure of the neighbor’s name, but it’s been too long now to ask.
You’ve got to get away, retreat. Nothing personal. But surely you remember something else, something better, something like the curiosity of childhood. But go where? Oh God, back to school? You’ve tried that before. You should have been a physicist, dealt in the abstract, but there was that ghastly attention span —that, and you couldn’t keep people’s dicks in their pants. What about letters? Words. You liked those. More books? But haven’t all these books made your brains into mashed potatoes?
Seneca says to young Lucilius, don’t read all those books at once, dear boy, for it will turn your brains into mashed potatoes. Stick to a few great men and drink from their wisdom. But what if you really were born in the nineties; try learning to read when you can watch a girl getting fucked by a turtle on any house computer. Talk about cloying the appetite, talk about a weak stomach. Besides, there are no wise men in my times, they’ve all been proven wrong because they’re men, and dead, et cetera, et cetera.
All those tidbits of ness, tits, Plotinus and Porphyry doling out fragments, Benjamin and Abellio sweeping up gravel. Then the media all mixes in with the words, so you can’t distinguish… Foucault grinning on YouTube beside the juicer tutorial. Take this lady here, a laconic type, dead thirteen years and still yakking away like someone’s asked her— she lives off in the desert drawing very straight lines, ever so lightly, and says you mustn’t think of anything at all when making a painting, and how could she be wrong with that canonical haircut and demeanour of a fat prune? How can she not be speaking the truth about producing beauty? Don’t, don’t get me started.
The art. Look here, this one paints with guts and feces because he’s from Vienna, and this one paints black scrolls on discarded jute sacks because she is ethnic, and this one doesn’t paint at all, he makes daguerreotypes of digital cameras, then burns the images, and snorts the ashes, and blows the snot out onto the lens of a videorecorder, and projects the video of the dribbling particulate ooze onto the pristine gallery wall, titles it Dialectic; and this young lady here has a sense of humor, she made five curators sign their names on canvas with their ink-dipped cocks, she’s funny, people love her. The beauty of it, ladies and gentlemen, the beauty of the matter is that they all make a living! Mutual flourishing, we call it. Well then, let them have it, let them flourish. I for one will curl up over here and fester in my cold, malignant, everlasting spite.
No, but really, it is tiresome, blocking even some of it out. Your mailbox bombarded with confetti from the archives of literary reviews, your cereal box quoting the Bible. You never asked. Still. It finds you, through the bag lady’s radio, on the screens of people beside you on the subway, in the tipsy chitchat of the kid you’re trying to fuck; it’ll stick to the soles of your feet, to the roof of your mouth.
Where do you hide? Where can you go if not into your very self, right there waiting, just like everyone else. But when you finally go do that, no, not you, fuck you, when I finally went off to do that, just do my thing, out there in the wilderness: A cheap little house in the middle of nowhere; make it the tropics, yeah, lots of big leaves to eat up the sun. Beautiful: roosters cockling away at all hours of the day, hot peppers growing in the garden, palm trees towering above whose shadows keenly efface my pretensions with every tilt of the earth. Whatever, it needn’t even be exotic.
Give me some valley deep in America, something that freezes over in winter and smells of rotten flesh in summer, or a prairie by a lake, in Romania, a naïve little fishermen’s village where you don’t speak the language, and all the fish have died and the fishermen have gone to work in the nearest city and the women are shipped to brothels after their first period or when they’ve weaned the last baby, so that there’s only old people left, and children of un-fuckable ages, equally inoffensive to my enterprise. You know what? It needn’t even be picturesque, just a grey industrial outskirt, by the bricklayers for the bricklayers, where there are barely any trees, and the sun, if it shines, is white and damp.
And now, now I’m ready, in my log cottage, in my zinc shack, far-far away. Where I can tend to my hampered mind and venereal diseases, where I have birds to announce dawn, rain to announce rain, appropriate heating and/or ventilation because I’m not a masochist… relatively easy access to cooked food and beer because I am not a monk. Where I have Internet of course, because there are no libraries where I’ve gone, that was the whole point, right?
In the empty hours of mellow longing I’ll often think of Leonard Cohen, but notice that in my imagination his face is morphed with Philip Roth’s, so I won’t be entirely sure who I’m thinking of. One day I’ll have a great idea, that God, God is a literary device, not any old device but the greatest one ever conceived. That all I need to do is figure out how to use it. And I’ll pace in my cabin until I need to pour myself a glass of water. But gradually, thankfully, thoughts like these stop. It takes three weeks to recover years of lost sleep. But the rest… that’s a different story, for stomachs, as you know, aren’t clear of seasickness the moment they’re clear of the sea.
What then? Silence, cycles, seasons. Where to begin? My breathing? The ant crawling over my forearm, cracks in the walls. There is an old journal I don’t touch, like an old crone of a wife… and assorted notebooks, and loose pages. And my computer, without a backup, so it feels fallible, more companionate.
I notice things. I have wrinkles on my face, around my mouth where I used to smile, between my eyes where I used to concentrate in public places. Obscene amounts of tissue and kitchen paper pile up in my bins—the main trace of my doings. So that’s the way most white pages go.
I take walks, same time, same place, do something safe like buying coffee, coffee that I soon stop drinking because in this new quiet state my thoughts embarrass me when caffeinated. Then I venture out further, try hard to walk for the sake of it, long walks… wherever I go, I run into people getting on with their day as if nothing. I feel icky and exposed, like the soft pink body of the hermit crab out of its shell. They glance at me sideways, a passing stranger.
Whenever I must leave my hut, I shudder in anticipation of the grey lady with bulging eyes and red flaking hands, endlessly sweeping the same corner (I want her to think well of me). I never know how or if to greet them, the locals, so my walking face in town becomes something like a beatific squint, like there is too much light in my eyes but I’m still grateful.
Sometimes I walk into an eatery where there sit a few toothless old men drinking, a couple of boys with the same downy lip buying cigarettes at the cashier. Toward the back a family sits finishing their meal, unhurried and solemn as those who eat the same thing every day. The door slides shut behind me and they all look up at once. My stomach knots. My forehead feels cold… I feel the scrutiny I’ve never felt at a smart party, amid the critical and discerning, who, as it would now appear, were only really looking at themselves. I buy a lighter I don’t need and leave. On the way home, I light a cigarette I don’t want and throw it after a few drags. I feel bad for littering, littering! In the middle of the fucking Mongolian steppe. So, I turn around, pick it up, ditch it immediately and try to ignore what just happened.
One night walking back home I realize the power is out and all the town lights off. Only a full moon illuminates my path. I look up at it, eager, even if only for the ransacked poetry of something as familiar and strange as walking in the moonlight… it looks clinical, so much like a glaring white bulb that I have to avert my gaze. I may be close to despair, but the sleep comes back like a cloudy boon.
I’ll make adjustments that I feel good about. I only need one meal a day, I can spend an afternoon looking at a backlit branch in the window, I am comfortable with my own voice in private. Every night I fall into a black dreamless sleep that breaks off in the morning, leaving me unchanged, starting up the same place I dropped off… I wonder, worry even, why don’t I dream at all? But slowly I do fall into a spare rhythm, if not peace it is at least regular, like the sound of a neighbor’s old engine igniting through your hangover as he sets off for work at eight: one watery coffee, one walk, one meal, one pencil, a few lines rolling off the page like spittle.
And surely enough, the lines do come along, and the words follow each other, one after the other—nothing especially desirous, more of a mild syntactic pull that keeps them rolling, spiraling outwards, so consistently, it would seem they are wrapping themselves around a little kernel. And like this, day after day, I trace the perimeter of my little kernel, filling one soft-cover notebook, and then another, and eventually even develop an appetite, and walk into town, at ease, where I greet, and wave, and eat, and drink beer, and say please and thank you, loudly, in English, without a second thought. And when I come back home, I feel like typing.
So, what is it I set my unburdened little mind to? What is it I do with all this freedom, on the highly powered machine glowing expectantly at me? It’s worse than porn, far worse. Starts with a search, something chronological, that I don’t really need to know but that gnaws at an old nerve… a simple biographical detail about… let’s say… Hemingway, and out of desire to read a good face, I indulge in an image search. But the devil is waiting on his haunches, and immediately you hit upon a snapshot of Margaux dancing with her tits out in Studio 54. It’s her birthday! And for a moment you’d trade the entirety of her daddy’s drunkard prose, forever, to have a face like hers for the evening.
And just like that, boom, lust overthrows me. Hearty, frothing lust. The people. Suddenly all I want is to be surrounded by them, babbling. For them to know my name. Oh God. Maybe, if I do manage to focus, keep my head, come back with something really good, then they will love me, finally, once and for all.