Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Thanksgiving with the Master

It is when abroad that we feel notre patrie best, our common customs, our roots. How cosmopolitan and indifferent to the national feeling are we in our proud cities and how requisitely contemptuous of it in our parlours and yet how quickly the fraternal feeling comes when, after so long treading alien speech we hear our familiar accents spoken by a homesick other amidst the foreign din of the underage brothel. It was moved by exactly such a sentiment that I was drawn this past Thanksgiving to the unique and esoteric table of the Master.

The Master’s estate was legendary for its beauty before he acquired it, to the point of being a familiar trope in some occasionally anthologized verse, and a tried reference in the love songs of local troubadours: its beauty was of a feminine cast, graceful and receiving. Like all the beautiful feminine things in his possession, the Master had acquired her abruptly and unclearly, visited her with ostentatious humiliation and abuse that horrified those that loved her best, violating and using her in every possible way, until finally settling down into an apathetic neglectful stupor that led many to wonder why and how the two remained together. On my approach, I could see that much of what was said was true. Every line of the place had been vandalized, beds trampled, ponds befouled, and most terrible of all, the once great sheltering trees had become an awful spectacle of horror (indeed, when upon the drive, I entreat you to keep your gaze upon the house itself and not look up - for things, most terrible things, are caught and tangled in the now dead trees, and may have not yet rotted away). Yet, familiar with the Master’s inverse sentiments and morals, in the broken windows and torn curtains of this once beautiful place, I intuited the Master’s design, his perverse sense of beauty in his maltreatment of his estate, his Roman cruelty in so parading it before the world, the affection in his uxorious loathing.

The doors to the estate remained patrician, somehow even more so with the graffitied marks of various sigils of occult intelligence, seals and inscriptions from every corner of the world, barbaric and secret scripts, some severe, many forbidden, required only by those who would the dare to know the worst of what is generally kept silent. Fresh blood and saffron highlighted the original artful carvings. The place is a dark, close, warm scented place, with smells familiar from the temple: endless incense and stale human bodies, candles, fasting, -as well as the smell of rich but rotting food, wine, sex and the low tones of something unmentionably feculent. I am shown in by some of the Master’s initiates, most of whom are short, dark, gaunt sickly girls with a drowsy opiate manner. They are wearing the most remarkable mixture of stained bed sheets and gym socks, fine lingerie and Hanes Active wear, looking less like Pre-Raphaelites than Sophomores making their worked over way back from Greek week. If the truth be told, a lot of them are prostitutes or worse, drug addicts at the least. So I am told. I only know the Master cursorily: I am as familiar as I dare, only having his acquaintance by his passing game of chess, my predilection for the demi-monde and because we belong to the same forbidden book club. I notice a bright flicker, colored as the sun, on the bare feet of my escort as she proceeds me. I look down and I realize that it is merely dust shining the pads of her feet, dust that covers the floor everywhere in a fine sheen. A metallic dust: it is gold.

Screams are heard, but nothing serious, and soon I am given the rare honor of being ushered into the presence of the Master in the dining hall on the same day as my arrival. The Master looks ostentatiously unwell, dressed only in a shapeless robe with his head badly shaved except for a thin strip. Whichever of his acolytes shorn him knew nothing of the straight razor, and in some areas it appeared that instead of precise oblique angles, the strokes had intercepted his orb and the effect had been that the Master had at places been peeled like a wormy apple. His beard, as the papers would have it, was indeed flecked with foam, but in this case, it was just the creme of a pastry horn, which he held aloft like a conch shell, while he was engaged in spitting chewed parts of it into the mouth of disciple and largely missing, while mouthing something in barbarian Greek. The Master never hurries, but it pleased him to greet me, sliding off the riotous table, which was covered with all manner of desserts and fornications: the Master had been following his gimmick of eating dessert first, “an inversion of the normal culinary order." Around the table were the usual constellation of acolytes, followers, private school occultists, camp women, initiates, bikers, failed poets and acoustic guitar aficionados, drumming circle types gone bad, exclusive college dropouts, demimondaines, liberal elitists, genuine homosexuals, fascists, transgendered necrophiles, crossword authors, occasional tribadists, ambivalent sodomites, police informers (les doulous), Planned Parenthood board members, literary theorists, anarchists, nihilists, people who talk at PTA meetings, dog groomers, gypsies, Merovignians, Rosicrucians and Rotary Club members, circus graduates, dispossessed vaudevillians, followers of Karl Popper, Darwinians, Masonic free trade enthusiasts, New Age drug dealers, quietly depraved librarians, Sufi mystics, chess masters, various branches of this or that intelligence service, model rocketry enthusiasts, gnostic plumbers, Esperanto speakers and people ruined by Magic: The Gathering. Most of them were so enfeebled by their vices and the Master’s narcotic hospitality as to be able to do little more than pick at food or sex or conversation or vomiting, which they nonetheless did in a sort of slow murmur that almost passed for oratory in the great hall.

The Master passed among his guests and initiates on his way to greet me, passing out mouthy kisses, cruel pinches and gropes, belchy gnomic stock phrases along the way, only remounting the table once to stomp on a few creme pies and kick a defecating dog. There is a deliberate lack of care in the looseness of his robe, displaying his greenish, corpulent but smooth skin, his darker third nipple and the fact that his lousy robe came from JC Penny’s. He also has a major softie, swinging back and forth like a boom, probably also deliberately cultivated for my benefit and scandal, nursed with absent minded strokes and venomous aphrodisiacs.

He greeted me with the Handshake of the Brotherhood (which I reciprocated), the Forbidden Kiss of Bahomet (which I endured) and a little something I believed he invented, possibly on the spot, that primarily resembled someone going to town on the theme of a “wet willy” (for all his Satanic trappings, the Master might be disappointed to know that visiting him is not all that different from going to a potluck with Allen Ginsburg and The Fugs). He spoke to me in voice that was sweet with opium and sour with the trickle of vomit that still dried in his beard.

“I greet you. I thank you. In friendship. In parting. Welcome to my wedding feast. Do what thou wilt! This holiday -Thanksgiving -is a wedding feast. A marriage between the Old World and New. Innocence and Experience, that is to say a rape, A malificient rape with monstrous endless issue. A numerous as bullets! Or flies! Nam, Nam Viet-Nam -the whole world is the New World now. It began, they say, as a supreme gesture of Illumination: to prove the great circle, three ships led, appropriately enough, by a fool who did not know where he was going. Yet: the point of all circumnavigation is to return. All Movement to the South, now. The South is the West. Salute the Conquistadores: Gold, Slaves, Eternal Youth! See what is possible when your lust and cruelty, greed and ambitious appetite exceed your capacity to imagine or wonder! The Marquis understood this, at the founding of the Republic: we require that all women be submitted to our pleasure. Rape, Liberation, Republicanism, these all must advance together! This is why I write letters to Hitler. Note how the turkey’s legs are positioned upwards as horns attacking heaven.”

And indeed, upon the table was a pinkish Tom, naked as a baby. The still unerect turkey timer and the uncooked blood that pooled around it indicated to me that it was probably still quite frozen on the inside. A pair of panties was luridly stuffed in its mouth and it’s legs grotesquely splayed, posed like the last Whitechapel murder. In Hebrew on the side: The World. Otherwise, the table is quite lavish, though overtaken by a riotous confusion of vices and paraphernalia, and characteristically not very nourishing, even the cranberry sauce doctored with canthinides and -worse. The dining resembled nothing so much as out-takes from Von Stroheim’s Greed.

“To express this Black Mass properly,” the Master demurred, “I would ideally sodomize a pterodactyl.”

“Later,” he reassured me, “I will become invisible. We will become invisible. All but the gods are invisible. But my opus... I have made incredible progress. Ich weiß jetzt was kein Engel weiß. I have seen mountains. Come with me to Le Chambre Des Cauchemars . For I would...”

-And here I realized that the Master had been moving with unnatural incredible slowness (like a dancer)

“...make you immortal.”

This was the Master at his most charismatic. He would talk and talk, but the bewitching thing about him would be the three fat black hairs on his head, which seemed obscenely thick and stood up straight. Or the curious motions of his flabby skin which seemed to hang and flap in somnambulant slow motion like the skin of an elephant, or his personal smell of civet and musk, mold and ambergris, sex and excretion. Some, I told myself, some of his devout, must have begun as skeptics and did nothing more than sit in on a dinner one night, a lecture, another, here and there, until one day the Master delivers some ludicrous line, like from a Hammer movie, only on one of these confused and alternately boring and thrilling nights you have seen him assume into vapor or the shape of a bat, you have come to believe and finally find that his bite and his bed are quite real. Or so I thought, regarding two sickly girls trying to seduce the same kitten.

“Come,” announced the Master.

We began our journey into the depths of the “abbey”, the Master returning to his previous theme, reciting:

Es con voz de la Biblia, o verso de Walt Whitman,
que habría que llegar hasta ti, Cazador!
Primitivo y moderno, sencillo y complicado,
con un algo de Washington y cuatro de Nemrod.
Eres los Estados Unidos!

Eres soberbio y fuerte ejemplar de tu raza;
eres culto, eres hábil; te opones a Tolstoy.
Y domando caballos, o asesinando tigres,
eres un Alejandro-Nabucodonosor.
(Eres un profesor de energía,
como dicen los locos de hoy.)
Crees que la vida es incendio,
que el progreso es erupción;
en donde pones la bala
el porvenir pones!

Which was all the more remarkable for its fludity, for the Master had no command of other languages (other than Esperanto, which he used for the Black Mass). As we walked down the cold darkened hall of this improvised abbey, I shivered and felt suddenly sober, though I had imbibed nothing. The Master’s world was narcotic, distorting, intoxicating. I knew already what lay in the chamber: pornographic and grotesque murals designed to prepare the minds of novices and titillate tipsy hitchhikers. The Master performed some of his magical opus there, which probably meant for our visit the Master rhapsodizing still further about the Babylonians (where his ideas were debatable) or the Akkadians (where he was certainly misinformed), or the Canaanites, which meant that he would invariably digress onto their sexual practices (more of an polymorphous incest fantasy in sandals). This meant probably another confused and heated sexual advance, which some has described as preferable, for all its tiresome struggle, to having him bring out his poetry. Yet here I was following him, as obedient as a dream. As we went further on, it became clear that among the many notions the Master had freed himself of, the most prominently murdered was English hygiene: the low feculent smell was unmistakably that of human feces. The road to Enlightenment: a Calcutta street.

I paused to remove some of this material from my shoe, so casually and liberally offered in the hall, tearing a page from a discarded magazine: it was floral and glossy with naked forms: I regarded it: the publication was entitled “Cheeky”. The Master loved to tear out the pages of bright, festive, fleshy pornography and litter them over schoolyards. The lurid pink scraps looked bright and cheerful against the green grass of the yard. The Master liked to think of little girls and boys excited by the discovery, of chasing after each and every piece of prurient trash, of sharing and hoarding its secrets, staining their fingers, genitals and tongues black with their frenzied explorations: for the Master had dusted each page lightly with arsenic. And he liked the articles.

What a middling, vicious Satan was this, I wondered. Was this place anything other than another a cold dark, hebephrenic shooting gallery Gehenna and the Master anything other than another aristocratic “eccentric”, in a race between the ruin of his name or his money (money finally pulling ahead), a fat ex-mountaineer with a heroin habit who discovered flagellation and his own bisexuality late in life and called it Magic? Yet this place must seem like a heaven and a hell to its inhabitants, the floors coated with shit or gold, depending on one’s perceptions. And a sangha. A place of great work. The opus.

The Master, who had glided in the darkness with effortless silence, telepathically interjected: “It is indeed an allegory. You have left the warm world of the flesh to a cold and shit filled passage. You and I are, too, are shit-filled passages. To where?” he laughed, “When we are cold and dead our nails and hair will continue to grow. Does this make us alive? Warmth will begin in the soil we carry within us. In the ass. As above. So below.” “You know what I really enjoy?” he continued, “Is Nintendo. Gambling and masturbation look like Protestant virtues in comparison. It is Enlightening because it is the picture of Godhood. Particularly Tetris.” I felt as though the Master added this latter for my benefit, as if to demonstrate that he was not entirely out of touch. He might as well have tried to talk about the Oscars.

The Master then did a very human thing: he rubbed his head. I winced in reflexive sympathy. Where, I wondered was C________ ? She certainly knew how to handle a straight razor. I cared not at all for the rest all the Master’s camp of stragglers, save her company. Her reign, seated upon the drug addled scarlet beast by the Master, I thought something of a tasteful improvement over her predecessors. She was a dark haired little thing, smart, gamine and puckish, the sort of girl who would make a puppet out of her sweater, or her panties, seated at a bistro and make it discourse, in an accurate scholarly way, on Anaxagoras or the treatment of pruritus. She was lovely and lively, but she saw things: she had probably seen them. She became high all the time because she became terrified not to be. She didn’t prosper in the Master’s company either and lastly had taken to eating mice. Which was fine for the abbey, because there were plenty of them. Yet I wondered what happened to her. I asked the Master. He replied that she had eaten a sheet of acid. Then she became Enlightened. Then she became a kitty cat. He said no more for we had reached Le Chambre Des Cauchemars.

The paintings were indeed nightmares, especially if you had a prejudice for technique: the centerpiece was a Creator God after the drawings of William Blake in a sort of goatse’d pose, creating unmentionables in an unmentionable way, with an inscription by the Comte de Lautréamont. It was appropriately crapulent. Some of the other murals were more amusing such as Deaf Lesbians Strangling a Diabetic Ferret and Aldous Huxley Sodomized by an Armored Car. Yet amidst these juvenile obscenities (where the artist seemed torn between a desire to irritate or arouse impressionable minds) were the mysteries: hidden in a copied poise or the curled fingers of a depicted masturbating Eskimo were the icons and signs that indicated that the artist had seen and understood what the murals of Minos truly depicted, the relations of the dancers and the bull, the true path of the labyrinth and the stars. It was as in the ruins of the Temple of Hermes; the most obscene joke hid the most occult truth. I was gazing upwards trying to debate whether or not to take the molecular sephiroth seriously when I skidded on a slick of something: the Master caught me in a surprisingly firm and timely grip. It was not shit this time, but blood, blood and secretion.

He righted me in an avuncular way. He looked at me in that way that parsons do and asked: Do you want to be a critic or an artist? It was for those occasional beams of acuteness that I did not take the Master entirely lightly. I realized instantly: there was no mystery here, and, -the Master wasn’t going to hit on me. As though the object lesson was complete we quit the chamber immediately.

The Master slipped into one of the private apartments along the hall, and I followed. Here there seemed to be presented another tableau, for the room appeared to be nothing other than a pinkish and frilly girl’s bedroom, only in the place of the bed there was an enormous agricultural basin or tub, filled with dark water. The meaning of this place only became clearer as the Master turned to the darling vanity table, neatly cluttered with a profusion of mirrors, boxes and bottles and proceeded to riffle through every drawer and box in an unclear pattern, with a deliberate and theatrical slowness: now this drawer, now that. I turned to a sound behind me. Ripples dimpled and ran on the mirror of the water in the basin. Another droplet fell from the teat of the damp spot in the ceiling. The basin was perhaps one droplet short of overflowing. Finally, the Master found his object and packed it in a tiny pipe. After some rather temperate puffs he announced:

“We shall go further to the center of the circle”

I exhaled. It seemed that the first drop would never breach the brim of the basin. The miniature waves seemed to hug the edge and dance around it, never spilling over, defying gravity.

“We will travel there,” said the Master “magically.”

By “magically” the Master meant “borrowing his neighbor’s truck.” His neighbor seemed the least likely person to assort with the Master, or lend him anything, and yet he assented as though it were natural.

“You will find in the coming days -a union” said the Master pulling on his gloves, but the neighbor had already receded back into the glow of the television. “The Chinese hexagram for this is “Kuh” or forty” he said to me. To the neighbor’s dog he said: “I bind you thrice” and made the appropriate signs. The dog did indeed not move: indeed, it did not wake. He made me drive.

He did not really explain where we were going and on the way we got drunk. “I never have to pay when I am invisible” the Master said amicably, only he was really drunk and really visible so I ended up paying but rather expected this. The bartender looked like he was well inured to the sight of small beers drinking themselves at his establishment. “Though I am Poore in Rags, Sneeze and Freeze/ I rejoice I am not a Pekinese” the Master laughed. He threw a decent game of darts. He was interesting enough talking about mountaineering, dogs and tea, but an absolute fright when it came to politics. It was something of relief that he became distracted and excused himself. By now I had rendered enough of my own invisible to think that the Master was not such a terrible fellow. Raised voices from the Men’s room reminded me that he was.

I should have known well enough that his priapic signs were on the the rise when he started on the young man at the bar: “You are a ghost,” he had told him “You died when you were twenty-eight. You hung yourself.” This conversation could go no where good, but I laughed to myself because Thanksgiving dinner was tasting mainly like juniper berries. The young man was fairly good looking, well-cared for, dressed conservatively, clearly had a job, a family, a place of worship and had never been to boarding school -in short, the Master hadn’t a ghost of a chance with him. Why the man felt incensed to assert his sexual preference by punching the Master was no mystery, nor why the Master did not defend himself. Only the man’s tears stood out as odd.

I still had money and influence at least as far as this bar was concerned, so I smoothed things out -in so far as they were going to be smooth -I believe I conflated the spirit of the Thanksgiving with that of Christmas, though I think my oratory was helped by the fact that sometime during the evening’s proceedings I had taken to buying rounds of drinks and wearing an autumnal wreath as a crown -which gave me a oratorical appearance -so and we beat it out of there. I felt remarkably well. In the warming cabin of the truck the Master seemed more thoughtful than drunk. “Lost soul,” said the Master. I was going to make smart reply when I noticed a number of scratches on the Master’s face and arms. “Oh no, not from tonight,” he said “Earlier, we had to sacrifice a virgin.” I waited. “But we had to settle for a cat,” he finished. “I am hungry,” he said. Remarkably, so was I. We stopped at a drive through. With the Master in his robe and I still wearing the wreath: we looked like a Satanic interpretation of an unrepentant Ebenezer and the Ghost of Christmas Past.

We entered into a bad part of town, I presumed to refill some vice that was running low or lacking back at the abbey -though I dreaded the thought of whatever unclean indulgence the Master could not acquire at home. We pulled into a local mission, crowded with the indigent receiving a free hot meal. Knowing the Master’s sometimes prodigious appetites, I guessed that we were here to perhaps cop another hot meal, for the Master was not one to pass up anything freely given. Indeed, much of his method was to make people regret such kindnesses for the presumption. This year, the shelter housed not a few families. The little ones played, or fidgeted while their parents cut their portions. The children seemed as though they had not yet grown to hate their stay here, or feel ashamed. I had a worrisome thought and immediately looked for my companion.

I found him in the serving line, though much to my astonishment, on the serving side. He seemed to have volunteered impromptu and no one seemed to mind: it seemed it was easy enough to help where help was needed. In this moment, I could not guess at his motives, so I joined him. When the priests came, I looked away, but the Master (who never passed up an opportunity to publicly insult one) was obedient and helpful, seemingly sincere in efforts. When the nuns came I thought I had guessed his purpose, but he hardly gave them a glance. He seemed remarkably industrious and even a little familiar with the mission.

I kept to my station and found the majority to be in a clear good cheer, most more lucid than the Master’s guests. The Master conversed, but in a friendly, common way with everyone. He propounded no mysteries, he did not deny the divinity of Christ. I half expected him to insinuate himself among the dispossessed and spread murmurs of discontent, evil tracts or at least the stems of a dime bag, but no. Worst of all, there was nothing pious or Christian in his attitude; he simply acted like he was at his job, his appointed task, remarkable for a man who, to my knowledge, had never held one.

We passed the rest of the evening so engaged. He indulged in one eccentricity: he introduced himself every where as “Oliver Haddo”, which I thought at the time a pragmatic consideration. I thought of the uncooked turkey back at the Master’s abbey. I knew that he believed in little of kindness and nothing of charity or altruism. He denied “good works” He believed only in the great work, his work.

It was only later that I realized the significance of all I had seen that night, the depth of his depravity and his knowledge, his pursuit of his most unquiet science, and for the first time, truly feared him, as one would fear a father.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Christmas at the House of Usher

If I had a choice, surely I would choose otherwise, but as I know he has no other family or friends, it is once more to the House of Usher I return. The place is impossible to decorate, and frankly, it always seems like things have been up from last Christmas, or possibly Halloween. On the drive in, you see a lot of torn plastic bags in the trees, shredded by the wind, desiccated, papery and crumbly to the touch. And oatmeal containers.

There is, of course, no real wreath and no real tree, for the odor of sap would drive my friend quite mad. Instead, there is a rather tacky store bought plastic cut out ornament on the door, that has been rather exactingly taped, with strips of scotch tape that are each exactly the same length. There are neither more nor fewer strips than would be necessary to keep the decoration up and their placement is absolutely precise. The drawing of the wreath itself is overwhelmingly crude: it cannot be drawn by anyone who has ever seen one. The treatment of the candle flames is particularly egregious. I think of the agony it must have been for my friend to extend each baying strip of scotch tape to put this awful decoration up. Perhaps Madeline helped -but no, that is quite impossible. I consider such diversions for the thoughtful duration my friend affords me before making it to the door.

My friend is cordial as always and looks surprisingly well for the holiday season; he even manages a little smile and a winsome look in the corner of his overbright and liquid eye that seemed to reflect the hopeless bleak desolation of the rank sedges, the dead trees, the black and lurid tarn, the sorrowful and cheerless landscape that stretches for miles around. Nonetheless, it is good to see him and I compliment him on his festive new dressing gown, before I realize it is the usual old one, just covered with a lot of dandruff. This is a hard season for my friend, so it is not too difficult to change the subject. We are headed to the parlor, but my friend is so easily distracted that we end up in the kitchen. There are a lot of plastic bags there, some from shops that no longer exist.

The holidays are a stressful time for many, even more so for this last branch of the Ushers so afflicted: Roderick suffering from a preternatural actueness of all the senses that rendered the mildest stimuli painful and poor Madeline prostrate to a settled apathy and indefatigatble wasting away; so perhaps that is why a fevered anxious note seemed to break through my friend’s usual demeanor of frenzied nervousness. I could not make out if much of his remarks applied to the past, the present, or dreadful, ineluctable events yet to come. I could but share a few confused and elliptical exchanges with my friend when it was time to dress for dinner. We took our whispered leave of one another and I began the long trying journey up the stair one step at time, knowing that my poor friend was already weeping into his earmuffs, beneath several cushions in his library at the thunderous onslaught of my tiptoed ascent.

It goes without saying that the rules of hospitality always forbid that one should notice such things, especially here, but I could not help but regard a instant too long, a minute spot, barely detectable, yet surely there, above the central archway. Over my dressing could not avoid considering it: Had the minute yet contiguous fissure, almost invisible, yet traceable zickzack, threatening to divide the house finally made it’s root to the inside? Was it a spot of the curious and pervasive fungi that seemed to grow as one enormous corporate being upon the estate, webbed like mad locks from the eaves? Was it –and this was beyond considering -Mistletoe?

I thought with some trepidation upon the demands of yuletide and hoped, impossibly, that Roderick might have forgone the implacable courtesy of getting me a present. I remember one Christmas that I had received what looked and felt like a violated clump of earth, wrapped carefully, so very carefully, in a soft dark cloth. From the fruitcake Roderick had exactingly gouged out each of the candied fruits and nuts –otherwise, he would have not been able to keep it in the house. I looked over its darkish and irregular mass, but briefly, horrified by the receiving stare of the empty orbits and sockets left by the excised sweets. It was also a little damp, for Roderick had no doubt resorted to wetting the cloth, when the stinging odor of cinnamon grew too much.

These curious gifts were even more difficult and painful to reciprocate; I had once provided my friend with the softest, mildest slippers I could procure, only to be later greeted by my friend at the door in a painful hobble, his ankles violently bruised and clipped by the fluffy ears of the lapine styled slippers he had so thoughtfully insisted on wearing to greet me. This year I had grown weary of wrapping the usual familiar cadeau of an economically bale sized portion of cotton balls (which I have to repackage, the plastic bag being trying beyond all measure for my friend) and had finally settled on the gentle novelty of a new specially designed blanket for premature newborn marsupials: it was blue in color and of a tenuous consistency, weightless and delicate as spider silk: the material floated in your hand, as spectral gossamer, not unlike the weblike hair of my distracted friend. This, and a slender volume I had found on reduction, that I thought would suit his artistic interests: Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne, an essay by the author of our much beloved Les Histoires Extraordinaires.

Roderick and I shared some considerable convivial time before dinner, in the soundless comfort of our dinner slippers, my friend recalling with some fondness (in that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation —that leaden, self-balanced, and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement, -which marked his better moods) the occurrences of our childhood, the boon my friendship represented, the kindness of my visit, and his interesting natural theory that the vegetable spirits of the miasma of the tarn were alive and conscious and the certain doom of he and his line.

So diverting was this maniacally animated and terrific conversation, that it was sometime before I noticed that some hours had passed, as indicated by the blanketed grandfather clock, and that the much beloved lady of the house had still not yet appeared. Nor had my genial host related much of her recent welfare: on this he had been quite as silent as the tomb.

“Madeline, Madeline will join us” Roderick said again, again unbidden, though less certain this time. Knowing the largo of the evenings here, I nodded and tried to stay awake amicably by doing quiet exercises, having exhausted the company of the decade of pellucid eggnog that I had been nursing, that, though omitting the traditional and disagreeable ingredients that would have made it a menace to my friend, such as eggs, nutmeg certainly, and milk -being basically an anemic and translucent porridge of bleached soggy rice, though with an extra yuletide squirt of more water, still managed a deeply phlegmatic recalcitrance to stay in the cup.

We passed some more agreeable hours together, Roderick lost in one of his monomanical states regarding the flame of a smothering candle, I flexing and stretching myself with quiet vigor in a spirited attempt to regain some small tactile feeling as will occasionally be absent in the outermost extremities in the pervasive chill that comes on in the hours after midnight. Finally, Roderick awoke from his catatonic reveries with the carefree and casual sentiment that we might begin to wake the staff again and begin dinner “before it got too cold” (though it had, in fact, reached a kind of gelid equilibrium with the rest of the dark frosty room sometime after the fire died) and gallantly proposed that perhaps Madeline would join the holiday feast in medias res as it were.

Dinner at the House of Usher is a stately, even sepulchral sort of affair, the pacing of the service and even gustation set by the need to traverse the multiple courses of the meal without the dissonance of any audible sounds or the noxious effluvia of any smells. The table, too, is dark, though lit by multiple scentless lamps with heavy leaded shades whose wan and distant crimson beams disclosed only the vaguest continental outlines of tureens and goblets, while casting the most fantasical and monstrous shadows over all. It was meal negotiated by sensitive touches and a difficult waiting posture on furniture that managed to be somehow both too soft and too rigid. I had a particularly hard time of it, having gallantly commandeered an abandoned swivel chair to sit at the table (the Ushers usally not having usually to seat for more than two -the omission of a third chair and setting being a singular and curious solecism on the part of Usher's household) not realizing, at the time, the reason for its abandonment being its singular lack of comfort and its status as being entirely broken and profitless as a chair. Indeed, though it was entirely useless for the purpose of resting one’s frame, it did still retain the capacity -I would say even the caprice -to swivel, which it did, as unpredictably as a landslide or a frightened charger, to the painful and, for my friend, agonizing screech of its corroded mechanism, which can only be compared to the despairing yawp of a train full of despised unbaptized orphans derailing into an unhallowed gorge. Still, it was no problem, so long as I remained absolutely still and vigilant throughout the meal and took some care to cantilever my weight so that it rested entirely on my feet, while maintaining the pantomime of sitting comfortably in the chair, while steadying the chair itself as best I could with my lower half to prevent its own spontaneous rotation. This I did passing well for the most part while maintaining an amicable and diverting whispered dinner conversation.

In addition to being some of the most solid and quiet hours one will ever spend, meals at the House of Usher are also one of the most highly consistent experiences one can have, being entirely composed of the aforementioned porridge, which, however, in the vivid imagination and talented hands of Roderick’s kitchen staff and gros bonnnet (and in accord with his physicians strictest prescriptions) is deployed in an splendid diversity of wildly different containers of all kinds of shapes and sizes, and nuanced with degrees of vaguest tepidity and infinitesimal sapidity that only Roderick’s preternatural palate could truly appreciate. Indeed, for this holiday feast the porridge had been given the raucous addition of faint festive greenish hue, as though lit by a willow th’wisp, almost undetectable, save in comparison to the white of the enshrouding linen or my genial host’s lips, certainly tasteless, and whose savory abstention was complimented by the distilled water quite nicely.

Having feasted on the delightful cold saturnalia set before us, I proposed to my host that we try to warm ourselves and alleviate the inevitable frosty headache and distracting bodily chills that follow such a meal with the pleasures of music, the only audible sounds whose harmony Usher found tolerable, and thus resume our vigil. If there is one unqualified pleasure in visiting the House of Usher, it is the fervid improvisations, the thrilling fantasias that my friend created in rhyme to his own nippy accompaniment, along themes suggested by the season, some of which, in their cheerful frenzy (rivaled only by an impertinent storm without), were hard to recall, exactly, but one of which featured the sonorous holiday imagery of bells prominently. The other that I can only vaguely recall:

Well, the Weather outside is Fright-fulThe Night is Black and Night-fulBut Since we’ve No Place to go
Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

It was, indeed, a tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night, and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty. A whirlwind had apparently collected its force in our vicinity; for there were frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds (which hung so low as to press upon the turrets of the house) did not prevent our perceiving the lifelike velocity with which they flew careering from all points against each other, without passing away into the distance. I say that even their exceeding density did not prevent our perceiving this—yet we had no glimpse of the moon or stars—nor was there any flashing forth of the lightning, nor holiday lights. But the under surfaces of the huge masses of agitated frosty vapor, as well as all terrestrial objects immediately around us, were glowing in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion in a sort of winter wonderland.

Yet so delightful and astonishing, more than virtuoso, even diabolical, were my friend’s impromtus, as to exceed the infernal Paganini; a little steam escaped his lapels at the end of his furious pluckings, in the chill of the parlor, like a heated charger, and beneath his wet locks, his eyes regarded still some empyrean scene. I begged leave of my friend to go and get some refreshments from the kitchen (a copious sleet of sweat sleek on his brow, and a mild froth winking in the corners of his lips), though in his agitated state, he implored me not to leave him alone, on this night of all nights. Knowing well my friend’s agitated state on this eve, I reassured him that I would be right back, and yet that he might be constantly comforted by my presence, by my recitation of a favorite poem. This was something of a sad jest, for there was nothing in Moore’s plagarized rhyme to equal my friend’s sublime and elevated tastes, but it was to hand and so I proceed to recite:

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the houseNot a creature was stirring, not even a mouseas I gently receded out of the room to the nearby kitchen.

I continued the poem as I went about lighting the feeble stove to thaw some ice, propaedeutic to making some sort of hot beverage. I then quietly rotated to gently open the icebox to regard the solid stocks of ready porridge stacked there like ingots, confirming the absence of any alternate foodstuffs and briefly bask in the mild rush of warmth provided by the electric light within. My surmises confirmed, I gently closed the heavy door of the ice box only to be greeted by the most arresting image:

It was a child’s drawing of a child or macrocephalic; a scrunched and humpbacked midget of a dwarf, done in vast smearing of brown and black silent wax crayon; the forehead was enormous and lunar, beneath which lurked a demented and diabolical crest of a brow that was furry and overwrought with satanic passions and barely tolerable animalistic lust. The eyes were worst of all, unspeakable, monstrous in sized, communicating something, some mad and terrible thing no child should know. Beneath the forks of its legs, it’s name was crudely, but affectionately sketched in a wax of a different color: rorderik. It was, as I have said, extraordinary. For who could have drawn it? It could only be from their sad and isolated childhood together, here still magnetically pinioned to the metal door. But the paper did not seem at all old.

The water having changed it’s state as much as it was wont to under the influence of the wan flame, I began to look about as best I could for some soundless cups and saucers -hoping for the convenience of some edgeless sippy cup or insulated travel mug (the Ushers having retained in all their glory many, if not all of the containers provided by fast food or convenience establishments -from some ancient phase of greater mobility -containers not intended by the establishments to be reused, but here collected, regardless of age or status) when I came across a set of tiny candles in white box. I first thought they were birthday candles, but the strange and ancient forms of the blue script on the box soon disclosed to me that they were intended for another purpose. I thought of my friend’s fine features and graceful nose in the Hebraic mold. Still, he had never alluded to any such ancestry, or spoken of such things and I realized that I had wholly left off reciting the poem during my perhaps impertinent reconnoiter of my friend’s cookery.

I raised my voice in its best melody as I reentered the salon, to cover any possible sound of the slush sliding around in the cups, placed the cups and sat, delivering this familiar holiday benediction to soothe my friend:

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

At the termination of this sentence I started, and for a moment paused; for it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me)—it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very clatter Moore had so particularly described. It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention; for, amid the rattling of the sashes of the casements, and the ordinary commingled noises of the still increasing storm, the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me. I continued the poem:—

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roofThe prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

Here again I paused abruptly, and now with a feeling of wild amazement—for there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did actually hear (although from what direction it proceeded I found it impossible to say) a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound —the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the magical equipage of this eve’s mythical visitor.

Oppressed, as I certainly was, upon the occurrence of this second and most extraordinary coincidence, by a thousand conflicting sensations, in which wonder and extreme terror were predominant, yet commingled with a childhood glee of impossible anticipation, I still retained sufficient presence of mind to avoid exciting, by any observation, the sensitive nervousness of my companion. I was by no means certain that he had noticed the sounds in question; although, assuredly, a strange alteration had, during the last few minutes, taken place in his demeanor. From a position fronting my own, he had gradually brought round his chair, so as to sit with his face to the door of the chamber; and thus I could but partially perceive his features, although I saw that his lips trembled as if he were murmuring inaudibly. His head had dropped upon his breast—yet I knew that he was not asleep, from the wide and rigid opening of the eye as I caught a glance of it in profile. The motion of his body, too, was at variance with this idea—for he rocked from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway. Having rapidly taken notice of all this, I resumed the narrative of the woken Moore which proceeded:—

As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a boundA wink of his eye and a twist of his head,Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

No sooner had these syllables passed my lips, than—as if some nocturnal visitor had indeed, at the moment, fallen into the mouth of the fireplace to collide into the grating —I became aware of a series of distinct, hollow, metallic and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberations. Completely unnerved, I leaped to my feet; but the measured rocking movement of Usher was undisturbed. I rushed to the chair in which he sat. His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity. But, as I placed my hand upon his shoulder, there came a strong shudder over his whole person; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence. Bending closely over him, I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.

“Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard his first feeble movements - I heard them —many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak! And now—to-night —Santa —ha! ha!—the clattering of the reindeer’s hooves, the prancing and pawing, the visions -ha! -of sugarplums and dancing sweets —say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! Oh, whither shall I fly? Has she not seen me when I am sleeping? Does he not know that I wake? Does she not know whether I’ve been bad or good? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of his heart? Madman!”—here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul—“Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”

As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell—the huge antique panels to which the speaker pointed threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust—but then without those doors there did stand the jolly and rounded enshrouded figure of Old Saint Nick, in the furred and bearded transvestite person of the Lady Madeline of Usher. There was soot and blood upon her costume, cobbled out of a soft roseate robe, my friend’s ever ready supply of cotton balls and a poorly tucked pillow, which seemed grotesque strapped against her emaciated frame, dislodged as the evidence of some bitter sepurchal chimney struggle. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold, clutching a ruptured garbage bag from which issued the leaves of festive torn paper and cadeaux shredded on her rough descent —then, with a low, moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the holiday terrors he had anticipated.

From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its icy wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued, the Ushers (for reasons now obvious) having no Christmas lights; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red Yuletide moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder -the ground shook like a bowl full of jelly —there was a long tumultuous crashing sound like the hooves of a thousand tiny reindeer —and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”


God Bless You, Rene Descartes

Dear Humanist Listeners, Fiedeists, Deists, Epiphenominalists and readers of Spinoza,

Though all the material on The Encouraging Voice is new and prepared specifically for you, I have been prevailed upon by my brothers in Freemasonry and other apotastic freethinkers to celebrate our recent satanic triumph over the Word by republishing here a popular seasonal work I orginally wrote last year for another godless Crookedletter Cabaret benefit show in Gainesville, Florida.

Whether you celebrate the best of this season by defying God by attending lesbian weddings or reading Stephen Jay Gould, by the pagan doctrine of heliocentrism or idolatrous General Relativity, we here at the proscribed Encouraging Voice of the Labyrinth urge you still further on, to the realization of your most profane holiday dreams and unquiet science.


dramatis personae

“Eben”, Ebeneezer Scrooge, manager in a progressive, nameless non-profit
Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s employee
Alfred Jules Ayer, deceased logical positivist
René Descartes, founder of modern philosophy
Galileo Galilei, astronomer
Socrates, Greek
Donald Rumsfeld, ambitious politician
Mar-tha, Cratchit’s partner
Differently-Abled Tim, their child
President Arnold Schwartzenegger, robot from the future
Tim-Bank, future child of Differently-Abled Tim


Well, as you all work in the non-profit sector there’s something wrong with all of you and I don’t really have to treat any of you well, provided I represent a good and hopeless cause. There will be no holiday bonus or time off for Hannukah or Christmas, because there is no time off or bonuses when you’re fighting to blah, blah, blah (makes scare quotes) “Bah Humbug” okay get out of here into your tiny pot-smelling fuel efficient cars or “car pools” and be back here early -and somebody move the sign in...

But Mr. Scrooge...

You can call me Eben-what is it? Cratchit?

Eben, what about Humanlight?

Humanlight? What’s Humanlight?

It’s a seasonal celebration of the values of rational inquiry and secular humanism. It allows free-thinking humans to enjoy the holiday season without bowing to the primitive idols of illogical supernatural occult religious beliefs. Instead, we honor the humanist vision of a happy, just and more logical entirely materialist world with positive intellectual contact in a conducive environment. It’s sorta like Kwanzaa for progressive liberals of non-color.

When is it?

It’s tommorow, sir December 23rd.

Why the 23rd?

Because, it’s near the shortest day of the year, but it’s not.


Well, the solstice is just as irrational a day to celebrate and all the other days are taken by other irrational holidays. So it’s on the 23rd.

Where is this stuff coming from?

Um, it started in New Jersey about three years ago...

Well Cratchit, I respect your diversity and your views as a secular humaninst. But I don’t really respect you. Get out of here before I smack you with this Utne reader.

But, it’s Humanlight, sir. And what about differently-abled Tim?

I am opposed to violence. But this issue of Counterpoise isn’t.

Ow! Ow! Ow!

SCENE 2: Later that night at Eben’s collective farm

Well, here I am, sound asleep in my fair trade organic hemp sleeping cap I bought at Bonaroo at my thrifty multi-purpose cooperative farm and empowerment center

Ebeneezer, Ebeneezer...

Who’s there?

It is I, the ghost of Alfred Jules Ayer. As a logical positivist, I denied the existence of an afterlife. Now, after my death, am condemned to walk the earth.

If you’re walking the earth, in what sense are you dead?

I am a ghost

There’s no such thing as ghosts. Either I am hallucinating, having a dream or you are just a person who has broken into my house and “talksss likeee thisssss”

Well, that’s an excellent point. Well taken. I commend your clear rational critique of misleading and confused superstition. Let’s say I am the specter of Humanlight past.

Specter, ghost -listen, is Frege there with you?

No, no, a specter in the the sense of “there is a specter haunting Europe. The specter of communism”, a historical specter in the sense of the collective effects of the unintended consequences of human action over time.

So you’re supposed to be some sort of trans-historical phenomenon that is some how also historically bound and materially constituted...

You’re having a dream, a crazy, crazy dream

Alright, alright, what is it you want to show me?

Well, what makes you think I’m here to show you anything? This is a crazy dream. Anything could happen. We could just start kissing and stuff.

I don’t think so

I mean, it could be what you really want, I mean, it’s your dream, right?

That’s not going to happen.

It could be a really sexy dream

Would you roll the clip, or whatever.

[Spooky voice] Sexxxyy hottt dreeaam [Eben gives Cratchit a look]...Ahem ...we’re going back, back, back to the early days of humanism, where brave thinkers struggled to let shine the human light of reason against the darkness of religious dogma, superstition and prejudice to the very first Humanlight....

SCENE 3: The First Humanlight

Merry Humanlight, Rene Descartes!

Merry Humanlight, Galileo Gallilei!

What’s this?

It is a little something I made for you. It is a little sweater and on it it says that the possibility exists that events of the natural world might be the product of natural causal laws and not created moment to moment by divine intervention.

It’s so beautiful and rational. And bold!

Yes, you can wear it inside out. On the outside, it says that this is only a hypothesis and that in reality a benevolent God who is Catholic, male and white is the immediate cause of all things.

Why Descartes, you sly old dog! I could kiss you!

No, don’t the Inquisition will burn us.

Oh damn the church! The sun! The earth revolves around the sun, the sun you bastards!

I know it does

(Putting the moves on Descartes) And yet it moves...

Don’t. Socrates is coming. And Surak of Vulcan.

Hey you crazy kids! My inner daemon to told me to get ouz-O for you-zO!

Wait a minute, wasn’t the first Humanlight three years ago in New Jersey? And these historical figures are separated by over a thousand years? And didn’t Socrates believe in some sort of divine god?

Your dream presents thing in a kind of synoptic view, while not historically accurate, or true at all times to the established views of the people represented, is effective from a dramatic perspective

Yes, but was Descartes really gay?

It’s your dream. Do you want him to be?

I know that I am a thinking thing. But is what I am coextensive with my physical body?

I could show you

Maybe we could both show you
(They all start touching and kissing, the scene begins to fade)

This is not my dream

Oh no? Isn’t this like that scene in that gay porno you rented, The Erotic Adventures of Lewis in Clark?

I’ve never seen that movie.

Oh? (embarassed pause) Oh hey, you want to look at, uh, the whole Humanlight present thing?

Isn’t that a different ghost?

Yeah, whatever, look we’re here anyway...

Wait isn’t that him? Are you the ghost of Humanlight present?

No, I’m Don Rumsfeld of administrations past. I’m from a different parody. I’m on my way to visit George W. Bush of 2001 in his dreams to tell him about my visit to Saddam Hussein in 1984 and how we knew he tortured and raped people and had weapons of mass destruction then and how we looked the other way.

Yeah, that’s old news. We invaded Iraq already. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Then we tortured and raped people. He got reelected anyway.

Really? What kind of a fucked-up dream is this? Do I still have a job?

For a little bit.

Holy crap, is that Rene Descartes taking it from Galilleo and Socrates?

Could be

That is hot. I am on it.

That’s got nothing to do with me

(slicking hair back to go on over) You’re unconscious, it’s all good.

I don’t want to see this

Man, Abu Ghraib was no accident, look at him go. That mother is one bad apple...

Hey. Hey. HEY!

Okay, we’re going to see the evil effects your selfishness and tight fiscal policy are having in the present. We are flying through the air, over these crappy houses to visit the Cratchit home, were Bob Crachit lives with his partner and child even though they are not married and sometimes a roommate....

SCENE 4: Humanlight Present: The Crachit Squat

Mommy care giver, what’s a bull?

A bull is a word people use to describe cows born with pensises, testes and a y chromosome. Like the words “male” and “female” these are prejudicial, bigoted words of oppression and patriarchy that reify artificial notions of “gender”. Plus, people raise cattle under unholy conditions where they are unable to move and painfully milked all day long, before they are shot and eaten and skinned to make holsters for guns. It’s little better than the holocaust. Do you remember what I told you about the holocaust?

That it’s the on-to-log-ical basis of our civilization?

Differently-abled Tim, Mommy caregiver and I have some serious adult talk to discuss. So we want you to listen in and facilitate.

Darling, Scrooge wouldn’t give me a Humanlight bounus. And we don’t believe in consumption or monogamy. So for Humanlight, I cut my hair and gave it to cancer patients.

Oh but honey, I gave the money I save by not buying tampons or deodorant to cure cancer!

Oh that is so sweet. And thoughtful, in a socially aware sense.

Let’s renew our commitment by having a threeway with a pregnant woman

What is it with the sex in this moralizing dream?

I don’t know, man. When’s the last time you got any?

When’s the last time you got any, dead white male?

SCENE 5: Humanlight Future

(dodging) Hey, look where we are, we’re in the future!

Wow, the future looks great. People are driving hydrogen cars Drugs are legal. Look, those people are naked! Wait, are we in Europe?

No, no, this is America.

You can buy Tofurky legs on the street... The sex industry is legal and clean... There all these alternative wind-powered schools.. You don’t need a license to practice medicine...Why this is wonderful! And so progressive! I don’t see anything wrong with this.

This is your libertarian President, Arnold Schwartzennegger, as presented by Lowe’s. I am pleased to announce the 3rd annual winners for the Ayn Rand Prize in Extreme Selfishness, Suicide and Gay Marriage.


But first, we look at outstanding work in Child Labor. What do you do, little boy?

I clean floors because Work Schooling helps my family and it’s wrong to keep my family from making money. Also I’m an organ bank for my big brother!

And what do you want to be when you grow up?

I would like to sell myself to Starbucks! Because my Home Room Barista says that it’s the bestest place to work as a neo-indentured servant.

No, spirit no! Let it not be! Take me back, back to my own time! Or perhaps further back. Back to 2000 when I voted Nader. Or back in the 70's, you know, before the whole AIDS thing, Or when Oingo Boing was touring. Could we go back to Roman times?

It is forbidden to interfere with the laws of time.

You’re making that up.

I’m A. J. Ayer, not H. G. Welles! We shall return to your time, to your own bed, it’s easier.

Oh come on!

(Lies down)

SCENE 6: Humanlight Day, 2004

(Wakes up goes to window (audience)) (“Lt. Kije Suite” plays)

...Boy what day is it? Shut up! It’s Humanlight day, the day we celebrate the light of human reason. Here, go buy yourself some condoms. And go tell your friends: There Are Alternatives to Teen Abstinence!

Why Martha, that Tofurky smells wonderful!

I know. That was the best organic dumpster, ever

Oh hey, it’s Mr. Wheezy from work. Hey, uh “Eben” we’re totally smoked out here...

Shut up, all of you. Merry Humanlight! Celebrate the light of human reason!

Wow! You switched my long distance to Working Assets!

A membership in the Civic Media Center! Now I can stop stealing those Howard Zinn videos!

Tank you for doning the NPR

I was wrong to ignore Humanlight, Bob. Without Secular Humanism all is darkness. Also, I realize I am somewhat attracted to you, you remind me of René Descartes. Merry Humanlight Everyone!

May reason guide and critique us, every one!



Monday, December 12, 2005

Today's Coffee

Today’s coffee is Sumatra Sinatra; it is mild, woody with a hint of iron; it comes from mysterious Lake Tonga... nobody knows what really happens at Lake Tonga. The natives are not forthcoming. You call them on the phone, you ask for somebody: instead of answering you hear the sound of an animal or someone making an animal noise. Music or large machinery dances in the background. Somebody says “okay, okay” and you hold, but you don’t hear anything. Then you listen: the sound of a child breathing: Hello? you ask, are you still there? You feel certain that the child is just standing there, holding the phone. You chide them, or no one. You want to yell at them. Perhaps you do. Or perhaps you lash about like a frustrated dreamer, touching nothing. My life is not like this, you plead, there has been some mistake. Later you count the crows sitting on the wire outside the Police Station and you realize: no mistake has been made.

This is the coffee of the day, Sumatra Sinatra, from Lake Tonga and it cannot be decaffeinated, because the waters of Lake Tonga are dark and show no reflection.


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Nine Changes to the Eighth Wonder of the World

There is a flash back to Kong’s early childhood, which explains everything. The flashback is in black and white. In fact, it is Mighty Joe Young , a film made after the original King Kong, but before the remakes. The flashback explains everything. Kong was discovered earlier as a child talent and brought to New York. He fell in love with a blonde ingenue. He was betrayed. He died. This all happened before. What happens now, in the new movie is all a recapitulation for Kong, a compulsion to repeat, an eternal return, a temptation to try and relive and master certain pivotal experiences. In this light, Kong’s fall resembles that of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo and engages similar themes.

There is a further flash back to Kong’s earlier childhood. He’s just a little massive baby, a cute little boulder with little black dots for eyes. His parents stand above him, massive trunks of black fur. We can hear them talking but cannot make out what they are saying. The father is louder. The mother seems to reply in calming tones. “King of the Jungle!” “King of the Jungle!” the father seems to be repeating, though it is not clear if it is a question, a sneer, a boast, a blessing or an affirmation. His legs seem to sway a little. Is he drunk? We don’t learn that much about Kong’s parents.

Kong’s best friend growing up is a dinosaur named Harold. We see them playing together, the cute little gigantic monkey and his enormous reptile pal. They play tricks on one another. They get into trouble. They have adventures. Harold likes being groomed like a little bird. He affectionately pecks at things in Kong’s fur. They share a piece of jungle pie. “Do you suppose there’s something out beyond Skull Island?” asks Kong. Harold doesn’t know. He’s too busy working on his muscle car.

This background gives a great deal of depth to the scene in the movie where Kong and the dinosaur fight to the death: the action is sudden, violent, and senseless. Why does Harold attack? Anger at some falling out that we have missed? Did they become rivals or enemies at one point? Or lovers? Is it jealousy? Does Harold know what will become of Kong and Skull Island now that the White Man and Sexy White Woman have arrived? Is Harold’s action a political action, an act of resistance? A final gesture of friendship, of love for a world they once shared? The picture does not answer these questions.

In the context of the new film, it is clear the woman, Ann Darrows, has a “jungle fever” thing. The point is made subtly: the World Wildlife Federation tote bag, her musical tastes, her speaking Spanish, her DVD collection including Gorillas in the Mist and all the Planet of the Apes movies, her string of exotic boyfriends who she clearly fancied, but couldn’t connect with. She is also the direct relation of Clarence Darrows, of the Scopes “Monkey Trial.”

Kong asks a lot more questions in the new version. Not just “What is that?” and “Where are we going?” and “What time is it?” but also: “Is this New York?” “Is he kidding?” “How do you tell if a girl likes you?” “Do I have to wear I tie?” and “Is that the tallest building?”

In an intense confrontation scene, Kong meets bad, bad Leroy Brown.

Kong cries. As he climbs the Empire State, Kong realizes that she doesn’t love him, at least not the way he wants to be loved and that his desire, his need for this love has taken a destructive turn for them both. His tears make the sound of bombs falling on the way down; people and cars bounce around like ants in rain. They talk about it. “I loved you more ” says she. She is always saying that. Kong finally thinks about it. In what sense is this true? Considering all that’s happened. Kong wonders what she means and why it’s important to her, but before he can finish the thought, there is the sound of biplanes.

Kong sings. Not a lot, but over the end credits.

I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
and the flames jumped higher
and it burns, burns, burns
the ring of fire
the ring of fire

Monday, November 28, 2005

Holidays with Van


Different things make a holiday authentic for individuals. For some it’s a particular dish or climate. For me, it’s a person. And that person is James Bond. It’s just not the same without the James Bond marathon.


I grew up learning to cook for Thai people and what I have learned is this: approach seasoning as though you were doing the musical score for a big, big Hollywood movie: in every part, in every mouthful someone should be saying something like “This time it’s personal” or “When you disintegrate a man, you’d better disintegrate him good” or “Topless Pizza Party! Whoo-hoo!” and then there has to be a whole orchestra backing that sentiment up and this has to be so monstrously, transparently clear that 13 year olds, sullen adolescents, jaded posers, tired parents, retards, the elderly and people who ride the bus can understand, as well as their counterparts in Jakarta, Belgrade and Siberia. It has to be obvious, because it has to be part of an international auxiliary language of sequels and t-shirts. This is how to have to season the food: not too much, but constantly, like you were putting make-up on a gaping wound.


I don’t know about your Mom, but my Mom likes to play classical music every holiday, or when she’s cleaning, which is every holiday. By “classical” music, my Mom means what most people mean, plus orchestral music generally: it all tends to be pretty and pretty familiar: Beethoven’s Ninth and “Lark on a String” inhabit their orbits in the carousel of the CD changer with a certain regularity rivaled only by their celestial counterparts. It’s also a little indiscriminate, so over Thanksgiving and Christmas, I typically can slip a few other CD’s in, including Messiaen and movie sound scores. I particularly like to put on Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho , because it’s frantic pace insures I get a lot done and I like to pretend I am Janet Leigh trying to scoot out of town with a purse full of bank money and a massive rack. The trick of every holiday meal is timing, so I try to tent the turkey in foil if it is browning too quickly and I take it out for an hour before carving to firm up and to dress it before bringing it out to the table. Then I excuse myself to the rest of the waiting table to get changed out of my cooking clothes before the carving. I come back in a dress and a wig. I wait for my cue. Then I rip off the foil in one movement and start stabbing. Then I say to the guests: I live with my Mom.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Turkey as Social Ornament and Installation

The turkey is the monumental sculpture of cooking: it has a monstrous scale, it is heroic, it has to please a lot of different people. Like bridges and libraries, it’s real function is ceremonial, the carving of the turkey and the cutting of the ribbon being roughly equivalent; after that, it’s just a large nuisance that people drive past that might as well just be gathering pigeon shit. Like monumental public sculpture, no one expects it to be really any good, just iconic and hard to miss.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Stories I Wrote for Girls Who Never Wrote Back I: The Caligari/Hitler Express


I, Cesare, somnambulist and slave to Caligari, sleep like a mannequin full of hay. The old physician’s hands pass over my face, my only dream, and I awaken to the scent of laurel. I am in a coffin.


-Cesare, how do you like these curtains?
-They are fine, Master.
-You sound less than enthusiastic, Cesare.
-I am a somnambulist and slave to Caligari.
-Yes, yes, but what do you really think of these curtains?
-What do I really think? There’s not much to say. They’re black curtains. Enormous black curtains.
-So, what are you saying?
-I am sure that they will go with the black throw rug and the black Chenille throws on the black sofa.
-So I know what I like. Is that a crime?
-Well, it should be.
-Cesare, I don’t quite care for your tone. In fact, I command you to like these curtains.
-Master, I just love these curtains.
-Very good, Cesare. These Are nice curtains. (To sales person) I will get these, please.
-Yes, Cesare?
-Master, how do you know I am not just saying I like these curtains?
(Pause. The doctor waxes very darkly.)
-Cesare, somnambulist, slave, you like hot dogs, don’t you?
-Yes, Master, I like hot dogs well enough.
-Then you will hate hot dogs. Really. After you eat ten thousand of them.
-Um, Master...
-You will not actually eat all then thousand. After the first two hundred and fifty I expect you to pass out from the pain.
-Master, how can I pass out if I am already asleep?
(This is a dark, vexing day for Caligari)


-So my problem, Doctor, is that I can’t seem to remember the plot of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” It’s sort of like a dream.
-I see.
-I watched it once while getting high. Could this be part of the problem?
-Do you feel you have a drug problem?
-No. Also, since seeing the film -what I remember of it -I have this incredible difficulty trusting Doctors. Specifically, psychiatrists. In fact, it’s remarkable that we’re talking now.
-Why is that?
-Well, for one thing, psychiatrists ask a lot of questions. No one who asks a lot of questions can be trusted. Particularly if there’s a pad involved. If there’s a lot a questions and things are being written down, things aren’t going well. That was true even the schoolyard. Remember that cootie catcher?
-Tell me about it.
-No, I just asked you about it. If this were a normal symmetrical conversation you would now tell me something yourself. You see what I’m talking about? Besides, there’s nothing to the cootie catcher, that’s the whole point. You’re whole profession, in its classical form, is dominated by the myth of origins, the myth that the genetic origin of things explains and gives understanding, that somehow its discovery and our knowledge of it will have an emancipation effect. And what did it do for Oedipus?
-It’s never the knowledge that does the harm, as much as how we come to know it or ignore it.
-This reminds me of a book I read once. Well, I didn’t read it, but I read about it. It’s called “From Caligari to Hitler” by Kracauer. Kracauer’s argument was that the rise of Nazism was foretold in the movie. In the original script there is no framing device: Dr. Caligari really is corrupt figure of authority who is capable of Mengele like experiments for the purpose of psychological manipulation to the point of murder . He’s arrested. In the final film, he's not: the whole thing turns out to be the narrator's psychotic phanstasy. This framing device, making the whole plot a matter of Francis’ sanity, represents an inward psychologistic turn that neutralizes the critique of authority implicit in the plot. It turns it inward. It’s this way with the whole of modernism: psychological bourgeois narratives, narcissism, rather than critique, transformation, ecstasy!

The doctor snaps his fingers and there is the scent of laurel, then blackness.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Chinese Optometrist

At one or the other unexpected event during one or the other unexpected stay, I somehow lost my glasses -so after explaining what I could to the harbor authorities (it wasn’t much of an explanation) I had to visit the Chinese Optometrist. The waiting room was one of the most peaceful and harmonious places I have ever been, nothing fancy, just a very quiet garden framed with the traditional red gate and Koi pond, reminiscent of the Slow Pavilions, with an excellent selection of cranes and magazines.

I fill out the appropriate forms, exchange pleasantries with the receptionist and put my name on the list. Soon, at the appropriately auspicious hour, to a strike of the gong, the Optometrist himself appears and makes a decorous bow. “Shur-Shur-Shurr” he says. This as good a time as any to mention that I do not speak Chinese. Also without my glasses, I cannot see. In fact, it is only by a series of highly logical, yet fallible inferences, that I have concluded I am at an optometrists at all.

Nonetheless, I like his face. He reminds me of my father. I find my father inscrutable, remote and ruthless (in a word, “asiatic”, “oriental”). He was a doctor, too. It must be the white coat. He gestures sociably. I want to make him happy, to please him. To cooperate.

It’s just like a visit to an American optometrist -only instead of an eye exam where you read the eye chart aloud and the optometrist rotates different lenses in and out of the phoroptor and you answer whether you can see “better” or “worse”, at the Chinese optometrist all wrong, incorrect or hesitant answers are requited with a sharp rebuke from a supple stick kept within easy reach in the little office. It doesn’t seem like such a bad stick -it has a pleasing finish and seems actually quite delicate in the optometrist’s strong surprisingly rough hands (toughened and coarse, as though the good doctor, an older gentlemen, had done hard labor early in life), but personified with an elastic quality that made it quite piquant. The blows are not administered maliciously, but seriously and regularly.

You might think that this places an undue pressure on the patient to perform or try to guess the right answer or otherwise cheat to avoid punishment, but from the Chinese perspective there are billions of Chinese, and almost all of them myopic and therefore simply no time to waste on a few malingerers who would otherwise clog the process. Almost everyone cheats. Charts and cheat sheets are easily bought and sold in the marketplace for memorization the night before. The receptionist will sell you one. These cheat sheets are also in Chinese. They are no use to me, even though I bought a laminated “For Dummies”-styled one. I do understand that Chinese is a tonal language, though, so I try to answer each stinging interjection of the stick with a different pitch. I am an instrument. I am being tuned. I have faith in the process even though it is painful. I have faith in the process, perhaps because it is painful. I believe that the tears that spill from behind the mask of the phoroptor are tears of growth, painful growth, because I am being taught a new language, because I am at last being made to see.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Nightlife in The Forbidden City

The number of rooms is given at 9999. But this is a mistranslation, or a euphemism. The number is, in fact, infinite. The Emperors never died. The Dynasties never vanished. They never even moved away, but still persist, in some farther courtyard, some older wing. All of China’s history recurs, eternally, simultaneously in the infinite space of the Forbidden City. From the perspective of the window farthest to the east, the Great Wall is still being constructed. From the farthest west, it has already crumbled, as have the pyramids and the last of the new glaciers. From the farthest south, the Great Wall has not yet even been conceived of. From the north, it cannot even be concieved.

For this reason, the wisest of Emperors have always kept birds and creatues with finest senses, who can catch the most distant scent of gunpowder or trechery, burning silk, from chambers yet to be inhabited. It is in this sense it is completely accurate to say that the Forbidden City is haunted: but haunted only by the present.

The business of the the great Celestial City is the same as in the heavens in whose pattern it is cast: a series of messages sent across its infinite expanse, from one gallery to another. But the messages take so long to travel that they are invariably misunderstood, beyond all hearing, their authors long vanished, their addressees faded into the palimsest of the Middle Kingdom itself.

The gift shop is also infinite and features and amusing puzzle that allows you to build a scale replica of the Forbbidden City at home. The replica is also infinite and consists of an infinite series of identical unique pieces that are each used only once and can occupy only one and only one place in the structure. Each piece is effectively a hologram containing all the information present in all the other pieces. As the model is itself infinite, the souvenir has an added shelter value as it is possible to live in it. It is also quite possible to get lost.

So when touring the Forbidden City, if you get seperated from your tour group and know the short cuts -if you can walk a little farther and faster than the rest -quite a bit faster, but only a little faster than your own relection, you may yet overtake Marco Polo, himself awaiting his first exaggeration. If you run, you can escape the time of the Mongols entirely, though you should slow down and catch your breath before you run through the pearl curtain, for great and subltle events are attended by the First Emperors: here, the first presentation of the novelty of tea. To entirely unjaded ears the first notes of music. To unreading eyes, the first brushstrokes of writing.

But the true function of the Forbidden City is its nightlife; this is the only time the palace appears to everyone as it actually is, infinite. For just as the palace was constructed on the patterns eternally sketched in the constellations above, so too, was it built for the same purpose: as the setting for desire, forgetting.

My Game with Lo Pan

The SS Blessed Pensioner, having made an unscheduled detour into Drinking Horse Gorge, is compelled to make a further unscheduled stop

-Lo Pan, most wise and most generous, when will the people be free?

-Freedom is not possible as long as belief in individuals or collectivities exist.

-No, I mean the hostages, when will you let them go?

-If neither individuals, nor collectivities exist who can I be said to be holding? If freedom is not an impossibility, and there is no reason it should not exist, how can things be other than free?

-I mean the hostages from the boat. Is it your plan to eventually let them go?

-Chance and design are simply words we use to describe the same thing depending on how we are feeling. So it makes no difference whether I make the wisest choice, the kindest choice, the most appropriate choice, or if we were to throw dice for the souls on the boat, like in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

-These dice are labeled in Chinese.

-Yes, I know. Oh, look: today you are not lucky.

And a thousand slimy things
Lived on;and so did I

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Captain's Table

meanwhile, back on the Yangze, aboard the SS Blessed Pensioner

I am at the Captain’s table.

“I invited you here” said Captain Shan, “because you are the only passenger with a dinner jacket. The fact that no one dresses for dinner is proof positive that Americans have no civilization and, worse, have been able to get along fine without one. Civilization is a thing of the past.”
“Yet” said the Captain settling down, “I have utter contempt for you. You seem like a fellow who has never finished anything.”

I could see that the Captain and I were going to get along fine.

The rest of the meal passed amicably. The Captain’s remarks to me were unheard, or simply did not admit of a conversational follow-up. Some of the other guests included some of the few younger or more attractive passengers of the boat, which was a great blessing for me, though young and really pretty people generally don’t have much conversational skill. The remainder seem to have been chosen at random and passed the fish course talking about giving their dog shots. The Captain remained silent for the rest of the meal, the dishes passing silently, unremarked and untouched before him, like offerings to an idol in dress whites, a part that suited him well, as an obviously seasoned and older man of the sea, the crooked angle of his head unmoving, his thoughtful Ahab-like glare, focused at infinity at the edge of a wine glass. Somewhere around the sesame-seaweed tiramisu, the Captain began speaking again, in a quiet uninflected way, and I, as his immediate companion and being more in the neighborhood of the direction of the crook of his neck, took the posture of his interlocutor.

“You must pilot the Yangtze for fourteen years before they will allow you a Captaincy. The Three Gorges were historically an impassible and treacherous stretch, full of whirlpools and cataracts. The Three Gorges Dam...”

And here the other diners perked up, because we had all been to the Three Gorges Dam site.

“The Three Gorges Dam will change things even further. It will drown this whole area to the depth of over 100 meters. Everything. The Three Gorges. The Shibaozhai Temple. Fengdu, the Ghost City. 1.3 million people to be relocated.”

Someone commented on the power generation of the future dam and compared it to the TVA. Shan did not appear to hear them. It was time for coffee and liqueurs anyway.

This is the one field where I actually have knowledge: I was going to propound some suggestions to my more lithesome companions, but they had some twentysomething thing to do like go smoke. I thought about going with them. Maybe I sighed. The Captain spoke again:

“Men will sometimes say to another man: ‘She’s not all that attractive.’ Sometimes this is true, other times it is just to keep the sheer terror of the thing at bay, like when we say ‘it’s not so bad’ or ‘death will release me.’”
I keep hoping that Shan is drunk, but he has not touched his goblet. By now there’s a little collection of white moisture collecting in the corner of his mouth.
“The sad and horrible thing that you eventually realize as a man is that all of your human feelings are in your balls. Chinese Medicine teaches us this.”
Shan reaches for his tea cup. He picks it up. He holds it. Then nothing seems to happen for what in tea drinking terms is a long, long time. The sequence seems to have somehow failed or been forgotten. It goes on long enough for me to seriously consider joining him, out of courtesy, in some sort of weird frozen toast.

But Shan relents and puts down his cup, somewhat naturally.

“Our deepest sadness -our loneliness, comes right from the muscles of the sac. And our compassionate moments.”
The Captain rearranged himself. I stole a glance at his dress whites. It was hard to tell if it was just a fold of the napkin, but for an older gentleman the Captain seemed to have an enormous erection.
“Our compassionate moments are when a cool breeze is blowing on them. It seems improper for an old man to leer.”
“But that’s when a man really knows he’s done for, that he’s going to die and not come back. When he’s somewhere and there are all these young women.”
Shan paused. I was immobilized.
“And he realizes” Shan continued, “that he will never equal his imagination. That he will never know or catch up with his possible desires. This is -how to put it -totality.”

“Tomorrow’s drink of the day,” said Captain Shan “is Daiquiris.”

Captain Shan did not seem like the sort of man who drank Daquiris.

“Tomorrow,” said Captain Shan “I think I will pilot the boat into Drinking Horse Gorge, to demonstrate my understanding of totality. And compassion.”

Why do such men always find in me a confidante?

“Not all will die,” added Shan “some will survive, despite many injuries.”

“I find the idea of all these countless Daiquiris spilling into the muddy yellow Yangtze appealing.”