Volunteers in Hell

At a Memorial Day service in a small town cemetery, the sheriff bemoaned the “unpatriotic media that criticizes our American values.” What should have been a compassionate speech honoring the sacrifice of our veterans was instead laced with the venom of talk radio. Standing among the flags and tombstones, hand over my heart, I shivered as he spoke of a hallucinatory war on terror, “a war which may never be won.” The message was clear: we live in a state of perma-war therefore we should not question our government. The crowd quietly dispersed for hot dogs.

Main Street at Midnight

“There are only volunteers in hell,” the radio said as I pointed the car south. Strange how many towns in the middle of America are named after other places: Lima, Sparta, Warsaw, Lahore, Cairo, Versailles, and Lebanon. Did their founders expect they might one day rival these cities and nations?

I scrolled through the vicious ecclesiastics and berserkers of talk radio, an endless opera of fear masquerading as fury. “This is a war for our souls, ladies and gentlemen, so join the conservative army—” (static) “—a Christian nation—” (static) “—where the second amendment comes first.” Conservative talk radio is the sound of hysterical white skeletons indoctrinating a cult and nudging its members toward real-life violence in the name of Jesus Christ and George Washington. There is something very rotten in Christendom today when it can be used to sanctify greed, bigotry, pollution, and guns. This is where the battle for America’s soul must be fought: against a church that provides spiritual cover for corrupt politicians and our cruelest impulses.

After sixteen hours of talk radio, interstate winds, and screaming into metal boxes for food, my grip on the world grew slippery, an effect heightened by a new chorus of voices that began flickering through the static after midnight. Why can’t we escape the earth? they asked. One caller was convinced we’re living in a dome. Another worried that humans might be a dark army for an alien force. Maybe the universe does not exist, they said. Perhaps the sun is hanging from a tree somewhere. Compared to the talking points circulating through our radios and screens, these people sounded positively open-minded.

Kristoffer Lo - Front Row Gallows View

The Black Meat | Propellor Recordings, 2016 | Spotify

Perhaps the most frequently played song in my library over the past year or two, this endless brass drone is perfect for a night drive towards a horizon dotted with the gas flares of oil refineries and the blinking red lights of distant antennas.

Gulf

Midnight in Brooklyn

You could find her near the pump island at the gas station, singing broken torch songs for anyone who might listen.

My Grandfather’s Lamp

One of the finest things I own is a lamp with a stern brass pirate, one hand on his hip and the other gripping a long sword. This pirate is a landmark in my mind, a mythic figure who haunts my first memories. For decades he stood on a spindly desk in my grandfather’s basement that smelled of spider poison and Saginaw Bay, and I was fascinated and frightened by the lamp’s strangeness, oftentimes afraid to look at it, perhaps sensing it was a relic from a different world yet unable to imagine it would one day become part of mine.

My grandfather inherited the lamp from Queenie and Hazel, his spinster aunts. They say Hazel bought it at a Detroit pawn shop in the early 1900s, but nobody knows for sure. They said a lot of things about Queenie and Hazel: that the sisters hopped a fence and walked across a military airstrip in Kalamazoo, determined to register as nurses in World War I. That when a man tried to steal a kiss from Hazel, she grabbed her rifle and chased him down the street. She even fires off a couple of shots in some versions of the tale. I only know Queenie or Hazel from their images scattered in attic boxes, their faces unseen on glass Kodachrome slides. For me, this lamp is where they live.

The pirate watched over my grandfather’s spindly desk for nearly thirty years, switched on only when he went downstairs to putter in his wood shop where he produced his vases, bookends, and chests. When he moved to a retirement home, most of his belongings were packed up, divided among family, or sold. But he took the lamp with him.

To make it easier for residents to find their rooms among the endless corridors of look-alike doors, the nursing staff encouraged each patient to place a memento on the little shelf mounted next to each door. Plastic flowers, birthday cards, family snapshots, and woodland figurines lined the halls because it’s easier to recall a photograph of your grandchild than room 27b. My grandfather placed this lamp outside his door, where it threatened the tiny shelf with its brass weight and the pirate looked as if he might murder the neighbor’s ceramic kitten. The lamp unnerved the residents and some of them complained. When he asked my opinion, I told him that I loved his pirate. “Me too,” he said with a relieved grin. “I think it classes up the place.”

He taped my name beneath the lamp before he died. Today it sits on my desk and although I still see the stern pirate that frightened me as a child, I see many other things as well.

Scenes from America’s Taj Mahal

Big Wheeling Creek Road runs through the hills of West Virginia and dips straight into the uncanny valley where a pair of thirty-foot gurus dance against the naked winter trees. Maybe it’s their bug-eyed grins, flowy arms, or brightly painted skin, but something about these statues bothers the soul. They’re too lifelike. Too chipper. And they’ve deeply complicated my ideas about West Virginia.

Across the road there’s a massive gilded palace that looks like a postcard from a distant time and land. A life-sized plastic elephant sleeps in the parking lot. Gazebos surround a man-made pond where a sign warns about the possibility of violent swan attacks. Surveillance signs say Krishna is Watching. This is the campus of New Vrindaban, once the site of America’s largest Hare Krishna community.

Since its founding in 1966 in New York City, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has become comic shorthand for the wild-eyed ideologue you find the margins of subway stations, airports, and crowded streets. Or rather, the ones who find you. The street preacher and proselytizer, the ones who are armed with trinkets, literature, and impossible questions. Do you know the truth? Have you been saved? Where will you spend eternity? But I cannot fault their enthusiasm. Given my excitement whenever I discover a new favorite book or song, I can only imagine my behavior if I thought I’d found some kind of god. If I ever peek behind the veil and see the secrets of the universe, I’ll probably want to tell people about it too.

The woman at the welcome center caught me off guard. I expected a saffron robe and a hard-sell for conversion. Instead I felt as if I was checking into a hotel or signing in to see my dentist. “Feel free to wander around the grounds,” she said, offering a map and a few memories. “When we built this place in the 1970s, we built it with love. If we needed a chandelier, we’d go to the library and read about how to build one, and we’d make the best chandelier you’d ever seen. It was beautiful because we worked for free. Because we worked with devotion. Not like today.” She gave a little sweep of her hand, as if gathering the broken pieces of a grand vision, a tiny gesture which somehow summed up the realities of late-stage capitalism.

The temple was a vast polished floor beneath an ornate ceiling of carved teakwood. Black metal cages lined the walls, holding imprisoned gods and idols. A lion-headed Vishnu. Bug-eyed creatures like a scene from a child’s nightmare. Spangled saints, garlanded gurus, and yes, very beautiful chandeliers. All of this was monitored by a disturbingly lifelike recreation of the Hare Krishna founder, Swami Prabhupada. A gold watch glinted on his mannequin wrist.

Grinning young faces with big bright teeth fill New Vrindaban’s brochures, faces delivered straight from central casting for one of those docudramas we know by heart by now: the idealistic American utopia that veers into something much darker than the world it hoped to replace. A quick search of “New Vrindaban” is appended by words like scandal, abuse, and murder. Chicago Tribune, 1987: Murder, Abuse Charges Batter Serenity At Big Krishna Camp. Los Angeles Times, 1988: Hare Krishna Swami in Prison for Killing Serves as Guru to Inmates. The New York Times, 1998: Hare Krishna Movement Details Past Abuse at Its Boarding Schools. In the wake of two dead bodies and persistent rumors of sexual abuse and drug trafficking, New Vrindaban’s guru faced charges of racketeering, mail fraud, and conspiracy to murder two ex-members who knew that he was abusing children. After hiring Alan Dershowitz as his defense attorney (see Mike Tyson and OJ Simpson), Kirtanananda Swami served two years of house arrest. A few weeks after his release, he was caught molesting a boy in the back of a Winnebago.

Here is another tale of people hungry for meaning falling prey to a charismatic predator who stripped his flock of their possessions, reason, and dignity. Moments of violence, abuse, and exploitation are occurring right now in every corner of the world, but when these stories emerge from utopian communities, they are somehow more damning. As if proof of our nagging suspicion that there is no such thing as harmony in any society. That no matter how far-flung we travel or how ascetic and spiritualized we become, the wickedness of men will always find us. A line from Voltaire’s Candide comes to mind: “If hawks have always had the same character, why should you imagine that men have changed theirs?”

When it first opened in 1979, Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold was heralded as America’s Taj Mahal. “A spiritual Disneyland,” the newspapers called it. As New Vrindaban’s membership and finances dwindled in the aftershocks of scandal, its palace fell into disrepair. The painted teakwood began to flake. The 22-carat gold leaf started to peel. Today the temple is back in fighting shape, part of an ongoing renovation funded in part by the community’s decision to lease its land for natural gas drilling. Returning to the car, I remembered the cynical little gesture of the woman at the welcome desk. Then the palace shrank in the rear-view mirror, vanishing behind a curve like something I had dreamed.

Driving out of the hills towards the interstate, the Christian mega-churches, American flags, and billboards for faster download speeds, adult videos, and all-you-can-eat buffets seemed just as crazy and dark as America’s Taj Mahal, a collective hallucination like any other. I thought about our dogged faith in the fictions of nations and money. All of it growing a bit rickety, ready to be replaced by something new.

Artificial Skies

The Temple of the Attainment of Happiness, originally built in 1398 in Nara, Japan, now at The Philadelphia Museum of Art

I get weak in the knees whenever I stand beneath an artificial sky. A ceiling painted pale blue. Diffuse lighting. Perhaps an artist’s rendition of clouds. These things trigger a warm blush of dopamine, an uncoiling of the nerves. There is nostalgia here, a smudged memory of the safety I felt doing arts and crafts in a classroom while a storm beat against the windows: a child’s fantasy of living within a diorama, of inventing better worlds without any sense of time. And I catch a small thrill in the belly because there’s the sensation of a premonition realized, of standing in the future while my brain lights up with aerodynamic phrases like Spaceship Earth, Biosphere, and the tape-recorded skies of Neuromancer’s Freeside.

But there’s also dread. I remember the illuminated photographs of cherry blossoms in the drop ceiling of the hospital room where my father lay dying. This synthetic attempt at normalcy reminded me why clowns are so disturbing: their happiness without reason, the painted smile that must conceal a terrible expression underneath—else why the make-up? The cocoon of a climate-controlled simulation promises protection from the world’s unpredictability and violence, but sooner or later you begin to wonder what might be going wrong behind its walls. A representation implies the real thing must be lost, ruined, or otherwise unavailable. And there’s a connection here that I cannot quite articulate without sounding clumsy, some deep-boned fear that the screens we inhabit today are rapidly becoming an artificial replacement for something that can no longer be salvaged.

Holy Day

Time stands still somewhere in the middle of the nation

We stopped the clock for an hour last night and even though we do this every autumn without much fanfare, it still feels like some kind of magic. The end of Daylight Savings Time is my favorite holiday because it creates more night. And if you’re staying at a motel, you get a free hour. It’s such a beautiful thing, this annual reminder that we can collectively tinker with our fictions and rules. There ought to be fireworks, parades, and gift-giving. Changing the clocks should be the biggest celebration of the year because if we can rearrange time, we can do whatever we want. Reorganize the alphabet. Invent new colors. Add more days to the week. Replace money with hugs. While we’re at it, let’s turn the clocks back to a Saturday night in 1978 and write ourselves a different future.

The Caretaker - Misplaced in Time

Everywhere at the End of Time, 2016 | More information

Leyland Kirby’s ongoing series as The Caretaker uses deeply reverberated ballroom songs from the 1930s as a departure point for a sprawling investigation into the nature of time, memory, and age that flickers between haunted nostalgia and moments of pure sonic heartbreak.

Lama Sabachthani

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Barnett Newman’s zips and fields have never moved me beyond a chilly appreciation for their role in pushing painting towards the vanishing point. Walking into The Stations of the Cross, however, felt nearly spiritual. Newman’s choice of title did most of the lifting here, juxtaposing the weight of violence and supernatural suffering against fifteen canvases of brittle monochrome. My eyes tried to map these stern lines and rectangles against the familiar scenes of bloodshed, weeping, and trembling from that day at Golgotha. But I could find no correlation, and I was left alone with that heavy title, those dispassionate shapes, and a woman sitting on a bench with her pencil paused in the air, hanging somewhere between contemplation and frustration. A security guard rocked on his heels at the edge of the room, emitting an occasional rubber squeak that emphasized the hush of the place, the secret air of an empty gymnasium after hours. I walked towards the explanatory placard on the wall and, as is the case with most modern art, this moved me most of all.

When the series was first displayed in 1966, Newman said these images were based not on the flagellation and martyrdom of the crucifixion but Jesus’s cry of lema sabachthani: Why hast thou forsaken me? “This is the passion,” he said. “Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.” And for a moment I felt it, a sense of utter vacancy, an emptying and hollowing of thought that left space for…something. In my notebook, I quickly scribbled this sentence: Aesthetic alienation leads to a desperation which leaves one greedy for any thread of hope, no matter how brittle. This felt like a profound insight at the time, one of those camera-flash thoughts that comes on bright and quick before fading away forever. Artists like Newman and Mark Rothko insisted their blank fields of color were not academic exercises but spiritual statements. Although I feel lucky to have caught a brief sense of this, I also left the room wondering if you can nail any damned thing to the wall as long as you attach it to the bloodshed and drama of myth.

Mono No Aware

The original Blade Runner was a rare gift of pure atmosphere. Since 1982, Ridley Scott’s dark and overheated Los Angeles has been steadily rearranging the furniture of the modern psyche when it comes to imagining the future. We envision fires in the sky, broken weather, and sprawling fields of scrap. And we can be pretty sure that no matter what the future brings, elaborate advertisements will leer overhead while we fight, haggle, and jive beneath neon lights at the foot of buildings heavy with memory and rot. And all of this is a strangely beautiful sight. For me, Blade Runner is the cinematic sensation of laying on a bed in a dark motel room while listening to distant traffic speeding through the puddles of a rainy street: a poignant concoction of nostalgia, dread, and the possibilities that live in the margins. But above all, Blade Runner is a story about god, a fever dream about grabbing our creator by the throat and asking, “Why did you make me? And why must I die?”

The new iteration of Blade Runner is one of the few beloved things to reappear three decades later in better than expected condition. I won’t discuss the details of the film—not because I worry about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet, but because things like characters and plot are peripheral elements used only to generate a mood. Nearly every scene in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel looks like material scraped from a dream, a Surrealist fusion of our synthetic world and ancient myth. At first I craved the clutter and heat of the original film’s vision of a scuzzy and polyglot tomorrow, for the landscape of 2049 is remarkably monotonous and arid. But its bleak architecture and sterile streets are probably a more accurate rendering of the future as our democracies calcify into corporate aristocracy and our cities become increasingly homogenized spaces which cater to the individual rather than the crowd. Beyond this resonance, however, most of 2049 stands outside of time like one of the eerie monuments in the front yard of the Bradbury building.

I couldn’t help but snap this photo during the film. It’s on par with a Dali painting.

If the first Blade Runner was about confronting god, 2049 attempts to calculate the value of the soul. If artificial intelligence can become so self-aware that it is capable of feeling flawed and lonesome, does being human mean anything beyond legal ramifications? This question was first introduced when Roy Batty shed his iconic tears in the rain; the sight of a robot weeping at the impermanence of existence left us wondering if mono no aware is a uniquely human feature—or bug. (Mono no aware is such a beautiful term for the pathos of things, the recognition that all things must end; see also lacrimae rerum). 2049 extends this theme by pondering our hardwired desire to feel unique. We follow a humanoid’s search for meaning and connection as he ruminates about miracles and wonders if he might be special. At first he is frightened by the possibility, then energized. Perhaps here is meaning at last. The action circles a vague notion of finding purpose through sacrifice for others, but the bigger question of what distinguishes a human from any other mechanism capable of brooding hangs in the haze without answers, evaporating into the haunted scenery of an utterly misanthropic world where morality is garbled by the ways we define us and them.

When Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford race towards a speedy-looking vehicle, 2049 seems destined to careen into the usual Hollywood showdown between good and evil. Instead, Villeneuve unexpectedly downshifts into the register of Bergman or Antonioni, leaving us with an extended meditation on cosmic-grade isolation that favors archetypes over characters and events. Rather than worrying about the bloodied hero crumpled on the floor, the camera is more interested in watching a black dog lope across the screen; instead of savoring the vanquished foe, our attention is directed to the mindless pounding of the surf. There is no good or evil here, only ghosts in the machine and glitches in the sublime. 2049 is not a perfect film, but it is another rare gift.

An Ode to the Tollbooth Operator

His heart went out to the tollbooth operators, the grizzle-haired men and women with cigarettes nodding on their lips, their left hands forever clutching a quarter and a dime in change. They were the interstate’s guardians, unmmoved movers amidst the relentless current of people going someplace else. After looking into the eyes of thousands of travelers and handling their crumpled bills and sweaty coins, these cashiers probably understood the mood of the modern world better than anyone: its reckless teenagers, hungover commuters, and road-ragers; the cheating spouses and insomniac prophets. They peered into the lives of the broken-hearted and the hopeful with their belongings jammed in the backseat, their plastic-wrapped suits and blouses pressed against the windows like ghosts. Perched in nests of space heaters, thermoses, and radios, the tollbooth operators watched the taillights of desperate vehicles red-shifting through the night, darting across state lines in search of fresh lives, hoping to give Plan C or D a shot. And each time they told him the fee for a six-axle vehicle, he thought he saw a flash of compassion in their eyes, a look that reminded him of his mother’s cool hand against his forehead when he had a fever. They saw him for the man he had become, just another soul searching for deliverance beneath the highway lights.

Pantheon

The Roman Pantheon

I gazed up at the oculus while families and lovers whipped me around as they snapped their self-portraits. Soon I was dizzy and stupid with tears in my eyes because I could not begin to comprehend how such a dome was constructed back in the year 120, and I mourned because such a sublime thing would never be built again. We no longer build to humble our pride.

We Need New Gods

The world is overheating, its seas rising while corporations prey upon the sick and weary. Pent-up vibrations of war fill the air and we have a vicious idiot in the highest office, determined to hold our thoughts hostage until some bottomless void is filled. Meanwhile we fight amongst ourselves, slinging hashtags and hysteria. As our cruel politics and callous technologies lead us to become ever more factionalized and tribalized, we need new unifying myths—and quickly. Give us new points of worship beyond the rickety fictions of free markets, nations, and garbled gospels. New gods. This isn’t a terribly original or feasible idea, but for a moment it didn’t seem so improbable when the first track on the new album by Leyland Kirby drifted into my headphones.

Here comes a heartbeat drum, thumping in the distance like a half-remembered b-side by The Ronettes or The Crystals, a vintage rhythm slowly falling to pieces in the ether while plaintive strings rise, as if mourning the death of reason. Like a heavily sedated love song from the hit parade of a more dignified age, Leyland Kirby’s We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives is a reassuring soundtrack for these undignified times. Dig that title. This album is an unexpected reminder that music can harmonize with—and perhaps even momentarily sooth—the crazy thoughts we’re forced to carry these days, if only for a moment or two. The dark yearning of a track like ‘Consolation’ leaves me thinking of a phrase from Will Durant: “We are choked with news and starved of history.”

Saturday Night

Half-past midnight on the edge of the Salton Sea. “Everything is a mystery and I’m just a small part of it,” she said. “Maybe that’s all I need to know.”

The Stellar Sphere

Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? As I sought out the belt of Orion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations, the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I cannot help but search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought. Here is a sublime image of the afterlife from Posidonius, written two thousand years ago: “The virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round.”

There is also consolation in the words of Plotinus, who believed the soul joins the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.” Plotinus was one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind. “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” writes Bertrand Russell. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times can lead to otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of the divine, said Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of opinion, snark, and outrage, these spiritualized encounters are often rare glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its strictest sense: ecstasy as a Greek word that describes standing outside of one’s body. To be elsewhere. To escape the self. And once freed, where else would you go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, their desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky and rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens provides one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered. In our rare moments of communion with the stars, he says, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I do my best to listen to these echoes from the ancients who knew how to listen to the sky. I’d like to recover some kind of wonder in the digital age.


A stately soundtrack for contemplating the dark from Leyland Kirby’s Eager to Tear Apart the Stars.

Between the Stories

What is the role of fiction in an age of perpetual outrage, engineered distraction, and vicious governance? After returning to the monochrome worlds of Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 in the wake of Trump’s installation, I began re-reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which might be the most urgent dystopian vision due to America’s increasingly empowered ecclesiastical hatred of women. Written in 1985, Atwood’s novel describes a militarized theocracy built from the dogma, rituals, and prejudices of the past and present. Women are stripped of all rights and some are rendered into, in the recent words of one Oklahoma lawmaker, ‘hosts’ for the unborn. Science is rejected. Writing is banned. Yet the most chilling dimension of the novel might be the narrator’s account of how this oppression and violence became the status quo while everybody was asleep at the wheel. What fills the vacuum when the institutions of democracy become feeble, when we prefer to focus on the self? “Whatever is going on is as usual,” says Offred, shortly after seeing the bodies of doctors dangling from the city’s walls. “Even this is as usual, now.”

My thoughts keep returning to one particular line: “The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.” This sentence nags in the margins while I compulsively scroll through the day’s digitized outrage, perplexed by the dogged faith that these technologies are doing us any measure of good. The words of Ray Bradbury’s fire chief in Fahrenheit 451 come to mind here: “Chock them so full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”

Atwood extends this idea of ambient distraction into tragedy. Not only is information overload a means of social control, it is a privilege that is often not recognized until it is too late, until it becomes clear that our fates are inseparable from the victims in the day’s headlines: “How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable,” says Offred, remembering the days when she had the freedom to spend her mornings in bed, lazily flipping through the newspaper’s reports of murder and terror. “They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

Perhaps the task is to close the gaps between these stories.

Choral Drift

Iceland at 35,000 feet

The choral drift of Popol Vuh’s ‘Aquirre I Lacrima di Rei’ sounds like glaciers, mist, and devotion. After listening to this song six times in a row it occurred to me that the word ‘theology’ means the ‘logic of god’—which seemed rather profound at 35,000 feet.

Popol Vuh - Aguirre I Lacrima di Rei

Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Ohm, 1972 | spotify | More information

Some Excessive Humiliation

Meanwhile the president’s seething need for adulation continues to blow through the nation’s skull like a playground shriek that will never end. “Usually the megalomaniac, whether insane or nominally sane, is the product of some excessive humiliation,” wrote Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness, a meditation on the anxieties of modern life first published in 1930—and a reminder that today’s agitations, while amplified into a blinding glare by our screens, stem from the age-old conflict between fact and delusion, whether in our private lives or on the public stage.

Russell’s diagnosis of a creature like Trump is unnerving: “Since no man can be omnipotent,” he writes, “a life dominated wholly by love of power can hardly fail, sooner or later, to meet with obstacles that cannot be overcome. The knowledge that this is so can be prevented from obtruding on consciousness only by some form of lunacy, though if a man is sufficiently great he can imprison or execute those who point this out to him. Repressions in the political and in the psychoanalytic senses thus go hand in hand.”

Although there are slow-moving rumblings of buyer’s remorse and investigative committees, there are no constraints on Trump’s lunacy. If we had a functional government or a press that did not rely upon clickbait, a cruel toddler never would have made it into the primaries, let alone the White House. Perhaps the only saving grace is that Trump is uncommonly stupid—and hopefully his need to be admired will lead to a magnificent unravelling before he becomes ‘sufficiently great’.

I find reassurance in another passage from Russell written shortly after World War II. In Philosophy and Politics, he outlines the insanity of any kind of fanaticism, no matter how well-intentioned. The inflexible views of fascists and ecclesiastics as well as communists and anarchists cannot be tolerated because they prefer to “inflict a comparatively certain present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good.” Reminding us that we should always aim for “order without authority,” Russell tackles the perception that liberalism is too squishy to succeed against the ferocious single-mindedness of conservatives:

“It is commonly urged that, in a war between liberals and fanatics, the fanatics are sure to win, owing to their more unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause. This belief dies hard, although all history, including that of the last few years, is against it. Fanatics have failed, over and over again, because they have attempted the impossible, or because, even when what they aimed at was possible, they were too unscientific to adopt the right means; they have failed also because they roused the hostility of those whom they wished to coerce. In every important war since 1700 the more democratic side has been victorious. This is partly because democracy and empiricism (which are intimately interconnected) do not demand a distortion of facts in the interests of theory.”

Liberalism and reason may indeed triumph in the long run—but at what cost today? How many of these unnecessary battles persist due to a failure to communicate rationally and compassionately, and a refusal to tackle unchecked capitalism and the legal obligation to maximize profits at the expense of citizens? People who do not feel financially exploited do not tend to respond to strongman politics of tribalism and fear.

I no longer understand the daily shock and anger towards Trump or the Republicans who pretend the emperor is clothed. They are the viper in the fable and it is useless to complain about being bitten. The ire and energy of anyone who cares about decency should be directed towards the Democratic Party; its refusal to articulate or support a  coherent liberal vision created this breeding ground for America’s most self-destructive instincts.

Ubiquity and Lunacy

A powerful meditation from Andrew Sullivan on the nature of freedom and the psychic beating that comes with living in Trumpland:

“With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements—each one shocking and destabilizing—round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.”

“One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent—and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you—to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves—to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago.”

She said, “Looking at this makes my heart black.”

Midnight in Heralkion, Greece

Candy Chang and I recently collaborated on a mural in the Lakkos neighborhood of Heraklion, Greece. Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed combines a short meditation on mourning with a retooled collage of the Pietà. The title came one morning while I wandered the strange region between wakefulness and sleep, surfacing from another dream of my parents, their faces before me and very much alive yet I could only say you’re not supposed to be here. I do not know how to grieve. Without faith in an otherworldly logic to the universe, two options present themselves: wallowing in pity and guilt, or moving forward with my chin up and the sensation that I’ve buried something.

One particularly hard day, I was wandering through the supermarket, lost in a dim memory of childhood shopping trips with my mom, remembering the way she held my hand as we scrolled down the aisles while I gazed up at the fluorescent lights, wondering if that was heaven. Now I was a confused adult, standing before a display of energy drinks while I watched the people flow past me—men and women in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties—and the obvious finally occurred to me: Everyone here has lost somebody too. Or they will. We are all carrying the ghosts of parents, lovers, and even children. Why should I feel so alone? Perhaps this is why grief often feels indulgent, even shameful: if everybody else seems to be carrying on happily, why can’t I? As I passed through the sliding doors, the city’s billboards for widgets, entertainments, and endless youth felt particularly tone-deaf that night.

Six weeks later, Candy and I began spreading black paint across a wall in Greece. I had reservations about the project. Was the word ‘grief’ too obliterating? Was there anything to say about the subject? After we pasted up the text, an elderly woman stood before me with a passionate expression, her arms outstretched as she spoke to me in Greek. “She wants to know if you wrote the story on the wall,” someone explained. When I nodded, the woman clasped her hands together and her eyes went damp. The translator continued: “She says she just lost somebody too, and you describe her grief very well. She thanks you.” This moment made the project worthwhile.

The next day a woman with a stern ponytail told us the mural was horrible, that it was not art and, to be clear, she absolutely hated it. “Looking at this makes my heart black,” she shouted as she walked away. Part of me agrees with her, for I remain uncertain about whether a public conversation about grief can be constructive—or if it is too dark, a wall that forecloses discussion. But we have received several extraordinary responses from people who have lost fathers and godmothers, wives and sons. And I must remind myself that the only things worth making are the things which ask questions I cannot answer.

The Woman in the Dunes

Published in 1962, Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is pegged to a single bizarre image: a man trapped in a sand pit with a mysterious woman. Their survival depends upon shoveling the accumulating sand each night, a metaphor for the labor of existence which the man alternately resists and accepts. Does shoveling an endless pit of sand make him any less free than his former life of paperwork, obligations, and bills?

He meditates on the reasons the mind craves routine: “It goes on, terrifyingly repetitive. One could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.” Yet what else is there? This question becomes more difficult to answer as the man contemplates the woman’s resignation to this strange life. Shoveling gives her existence as much meaning as any other activity might. Meanwhile, villagers peer into the pit to ensure his compliance. “More than iron doors, more than walls,” Abe writes, “it is the tiny peephole that really makes the prisoner feel locked in.”

In the vein of Camus’s stranger, Abe analyzes human behavior with the detachment of a scientist observing an insect: “Repetition of the same patterns, they say, provides an effective form of protective coloring.” Yet routine offers no shelter from spiritual loneliness, and his description of its effects reads like an epitaph for the digital age: “Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion. And so one bit one’s nails, unable to find contentment in the simple beating of one’s heart…one smoked, unable to be satisfied with the rhythm of one’s brain…one had the shakes, unable to find satisfaction in sex alone.” Although an extension of Camus and Kafka’s absurdism, the surreal society formed by Abe’s dunes transforms this philosophy into myth. This story has seeped into my dreams, grinding at my thoughts like sand in the teeth.

Hymns for the End of the World

Midnight in Athens

Slow-motion strings and liturgical drones from Athens, Greece. Mohammad’s latest album reaches toward the sublime in its strictest sense: wonder coupled with dread, the jittery thrill of the dark and unknown. Now available as a digital download and triple 10″ vinyl from Antifrost.