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.
Soundtrack for leaving Iceland: the choral drift of Popol Vuh, which 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.
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 and warped by our screens, remain the same age-old conflict between fact and fear, 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 checks and balances on Trump’s lunacy. If we had a rational government or a functional press, this child would never have made it into the primaries, let alone the White House. Perhaps the only saving grace is, to borrow another term from Russell, that Trump is unusually stupid—and hopefully his lizard-brained need to be admired will lead to a swift and 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, in philosophy as well as practical matters. The inflexible views of fascists, Marxists, ecclesiastics, anarchists, etc cannot be tolerated because they would prefer to “inflict a comparatively certain present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good.” He reminds us that society is dynamic rather than static and we should always aim for “order without authority.” He tackles the perception that liberalism is too middle-of-the-road 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? How many of these unnecessary battles continue to arise through complacency, a failure to communicate rationally and compassionately, and an inability to tackle the more difficult symptoms of capitalism? People who do not feel financially exploited do not tend to respond to politics of tribalism, fear, and megalomania.
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.”
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 wandered 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 stood before a display of energy drinks as a confused adult, watching the people flow past me—men and women in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties—and the obvious fact 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, 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.
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 any public conversation of grief is 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 ones that ask questions I cannot answer.
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.
I’ve put together one thousand words and seventeen photographs from my time in Athens and Heraklion. This piece began as a brief photo-essay that juxtaposed graffiti with the ruins of the past but it quickly unraveled into a sprawling meditation on the life-cycle of civilizations—a question which seems more pressing as the world continues to flirt with authoritarian dogma wrapped in the guise of working-class populism. While the spectacle of Donald Trump’s inauguration was a hideous sight for any rational person, it was particuarly bizarre to contemplate this while standing before the ruins of the Agora. Read The Sacred and Profane.
On January 5 I walked along the sea in Crete and remembered my father who died on this day last year. The things I should have done, the desire to rewrite the past. But why punish myself with guilt? A line from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal nattered at my thoughts: “I often wonder why people torment themselves as soon as they can.” I ran my hands along the stone wall of an ancient fortress. Perhaps this self-punishment is an echo of the blood sacrifices of the past, a modern variation on the ritual of suttee or the tribes that chopped off their fingers to illustrate their grief for the ones they’ve lost, to relieve their guilt at continuing to live.
As I walked along the sea of a strange country, I recalled the day-to-day details of my last year with my father: our morning drives to physical therapy, his constant tidying of our tiny pantry shelf. The comfortable rhythms of our conversations and silences, our routines and quiet complaints. We’d built a little life together, two men living in small clinical rooms. Looking up at the clear January sky, I realized my parents would want to kick my ass if they saw me brooding like this—and I was surprised to find that I was still having a conversation with them. And I found a moment of grace at the end of a pier in the Aegean sea.
He is an old man, beleaguered and muted like the last televised days of Richard Nixon, a bleary man with washcloth skin, all jowls and inflamed joints. He is a failed philosopher, a fading gentleman frightened by the sensations of the modern world. The painful taste of breath mints, the velocity of hand dryers in the men’s room. Everything is extreme these days. But he has always been a coward. He was afraid of the sun for years and he still jumps at unfamiliar noises, sudden changes in temperature, and the sight of Antarctica on a map. Looking at all that blank land feels like leaping off a rooftop. When he had a door, he would check its lock at least three times before getting into bed. He is afraid of many things and he has imagined his death via car wreck and home invasion many times. Now he is an antique in an overheated world of plastic and pixels, a silly and superstitious man who calls the crusts of bread ‘bones’ and refuses to eat them. But perhaps his fears have kept him alive for these ninety-one years.
His lover was a dangerous woman who feared absolutely nothing, not even when they came after her with fire and guns. She once told him that she made a deal with the devil and now he believes her.
Riot and Devotion tells the story of two people who respond to national anxiety in very different ways. After a senseless act of violence in his youth, Giraffe has become a timid man. He is a truck driver who is afraid of the sun, a failed philosopher unable to resist the current of breaking news and grisly headlines. Unsettled by his addiction to the nation’s chatter, he wanders the halls of museums and makeshift desert towns, determined to extract himself from the babble of modern life—until he begins to suspect the woman he once loved might be responsible for the riots spreading through the nation’s discount department stores. As the threads of her past draw him into furious crowds, reenactments of celebrity car crashes, and a world in which sound itself becomes a danger, he will be forced to reinvent himself if he is to find her and maintain his humanity. Riot and Devotion is a contemporary fable about violence, compassion, and faith in uncertain times.
The book is 84,572 words and I am currently seeking an agent or publisher.
Finally tracked down a clean hardcover copy of Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy, which might be the book I return to the most. Something about it feels like home. Aside from elegantly navigating the depths of Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer et al, Durant might be the most kind-hearted and humble writer I’ve ever encountered. A valiant warrior against the incomprehensible language of academia, he seeks to “break down the barriers beyond knowledge and need,” arguing that the academic’s “barbarous terminology” has forced the world to choose between “a scientific priesthood mumbling unintelligible pessimism, and a theological priesthood mumbling incredible hopes.” Instead, he is on the side of warmth and humor, “not only because wisdom is not wise if it scares away merriment, but because a sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other.” And all of this is in the first three pages of the preface.
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? Suddenly I was 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 overlook the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I 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 sky, 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.”
Hearts will be broken and cities may crumble, but the sky will always go about its business. Sometimes this can be a reassuring thought.
There is also comfort to be found in the words of Plotinus, who believed the soul is immortal and joins the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.” Bertrand Russell writes wonderfully about Plotinus, 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,” Russell writes. “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 produce otherworldly philosophy.
To know the mind of God, says Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of opinion, snark, and distraction, these spiritualized encounters are often all-too-brief glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its original sense: a Greek word that describes standing outside of one’s body; to be elsewhere. The escape the self — and once freed, where else would one go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, the desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky, of 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 yields one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered: In these rare moments of communion with the stars, 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 try to tune in to these echoes from philosophers who listened to the sky while contemplating their souls. I’d like to recover this sense of wonder in the digital age.
‘Heavenly Music Corporation’ is the glorious sound of power lines humming on a Saturday night long before the age of pixels and screens. Robert Fripp suggested naming the track ‘The Transcendental Music Corporation’ but Eno worried this would “make people think they were serious.” An interesting point, that ‘transcendental’ is chained to fuzzy and oftentimes sanctimonious New Age jargon whereas there’s a wink behind ‘heavenly’, an acknowledgment of its impossibility that lends itself to irony.
I remember driving down Interstate 75 just before dawn with the Detroit skyline on my left while a muddy cassette filled the car with reverberated drums. I remember believing the world would make sense when I grew older. Twenty years later, Basic Channel’s Inversion remains the most melancholy machine music I’ve ever heard. This is the sound of industrial decay twinned with a very human longing for faith. These are eighteen minutes of the most nostalgic head-rush music that I’ve ever heard.
Published in Moscow in 1918, this document first thrilled me as an undergraduate when I began drifting from my studies in film towards graphic design. Its optimism is infectious—and heartbreaking, considering the shadows gathering in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.
“Comrades and citizens, we, the leaders of Russian futurism–the revolutionary art of youth–declare:
- From this day forward, with the abolition of tsardom, the domicile of art in the closets and sheds of human genius – palaces, galleries, salons, libraries, theaters—is abrogated.
- In the name of the great march of equality for all, as far as culture is concerned, let the Free Word of creative personality be written on the corners of walls, fences, roofs, the streets of our cities and villages, on the backs of automobiles, carriages, streetcars, and on the clothes of all citizens.
- Let pictures (colors) be thrown, like colored rainbows, across streets and squares, from house to house, delighting, ennobling the eye (taste) of the passer-by. Artists and writers have the immediate duty to get hold of their pots of paint and, with their masterly brushes, to illuminate, to paint all the sides, foreheads, and chests of cities, railway stations, and the evergalloping herds of railway carriages.
“From now on, let the citizen walking down the street enjoy at every moment the depths of thought of his great contemporaries, let him absorb the flowery gaudiness of this day’s beautiful joy, let him listen to music—the melody, the roar, the buzz—of excellent composers everywhere. Let the streets be a feast of art for all.”
“And if all this comes to pass, in accordance with our word, everyone who goes out into the street will grow to be a giant and in wisdom, contemplating beauty instead of the present-day streets with their iron books (signboards), where every page has been written on their signs by greed, the lust for mammon, calculated meanness and low obtuseness, all of which soil the soul and offend the eye.”
Tied together by their laces, the shoes are flung at wires or branches until they catch and hang. Very few people have seen these shoes actually thrown and of the twenty-eight witnesses who have been surveyed, their reports vary as to the average number of attempts before the shoes find their mark, ranging from three to fifteen. This practice is more frequent in urban areas, although this may simply be a function of population density rather than any fundamental difference between the psyche of the city and the country. The style of shoes and their arrangement, however, are worth noting. Lone sneakers are common in the city, but when shoes appear in rural areas the formations are much more elaborate. In the Mojave desert, work boots are clustered in dead Joshua trees. In Oklahoma, black army boots hang from irrigation pipes over neglected crops.
Some say that a pair of tennis shoes draped over a telephone line indicates a place to buy drugs. Often referred to as ‘crack tennies’, they serve as a storefront shingle for the local crackhouse. They may also mark a shooting gallery where heroin is used, a reminder that once you get hooked you can never walk away. These theories, however, do not explain the shoes that hang on remote county roads or beneath the highway overpasses where even drug dealers won’t go.
Many of these shoes once belonged to children. Seeing a toddler’s shoes dangling over a bottle-strewn alley or swinging from a lonely tree bothers the soul, calling to mind Hemingway’s famous six word short story: For sale: Baby shoes, never worn. Some say these abandoned shoes memorialize a site where a child was murdered or possibly a gangland killing. Others believe they mark the sighting of a ghost. More levelheaded folks chalk them to up to run-of-the-mill bullying in which a kid steals another kid’s shoes and tosses them beyond his reach.
If any of these theories are true, there are an awful lot of victims, ghosts, and bullies in the USA.
Look at that face with the Valentine eyebrows and pin-up girl pout, her little ribbon mouth blowing a plume of smoke like come here and give me a kiss. Nobody could smoke a cigarette like Linda Darnell. And here she is at forty-one, curled on a friend’s couch in a Chicago suburb, lighting up a long Pall Mall while watching one of her old movies and thinking about her strange relationship with time. That’s what happens when Life magazine calls you ‘the most physically perfect girl in Hollywood.’
After twelve years of bombshell service in romance, noir, and adventure films, Twentieth Century Fox let her go, citing concerns about her weight gain and heavy drinking. “Leaving the studio was like leaving home at twenty-eight,” she said. “I’d been there since I was sixteen.” She patched up her life with more booze and more men. When she was nineteen, she eloped with the camerman. He was forty-two. Then came Mickey Rooney and Howard Hughes and a dozen scuffed-up footnotes on Hollywood and Vine. There was the screenwriter with the yacht and the powerful director with rough hands like an ape. Yet the only man she truly loved was her high school sweetheart, a quiet Mexican boy who was terrified by her fame and moved away. She took her broken heart to Rome and did spaghetti westerns and opened an orphanage. “At thirty-two, I can see tell-tale marks in the mirror,” she said, “but the ravages of time no longer terrify me. I am told that when surface beauty is gone, the real woman emerges. My only regret will be that I could not have begun it earlier, that so many years have been ruined because I was considered beautiful.”
She dozed in the warm living room, listening to her younger Star Dust self say “Do you want to kiss me?” Maybe her Pall Mall dropped to the floor. Perhaps it landed on the script she was studying, a play at the local theater. The fire bloomed fast. Afraid to jump from the window, she tried to make it to the front door. The doorknob was too hot to touch and the flames took her as she heard herself on the television saying, “Now this is romance.”