Late Drone Age Civilization: The Fossil Record
A celebrated writer regales the 92 Street Y with a wry account of his recent revisions of his early classics. He informs the younger-than-blue-rinse audience, with an adorably self-deprecating wonder that has made him beloved in all of Westchester and several parts of Brooklyn, that he was much influenced by cultural fashions “in the air” at the time he wrote those novice volumes. Today he shakes his wiser head, recalling that youthful naiveté. Not that he wasn’t already brilliant. The truth is, he didn’t realize then how brilliant he already was, and these airborne notions, political pieties, flights of surreal nihilism, and so on, crept in as crutches for his then-demure ego. Now, after two decades of being called brilliant on the many occasions when he was far from it, he felt that certain passages, even whole chapters, issued from this ephemeral takeout menu of topics and poses, didn’t adequately convey what he was driving at. He explains what he was driving at, and declares that he’s tossed the offending arabesques of verbiage out of the new editions. He wishes them to be read in the future as “stand-alone works,” to appear in the form of those wonderfully cute little items bookstores display next to the cash register.
All right. Boring enough. The maestro rummages through his published masterpieces with a magnifying glass, chortling and cackling away at his own precocious wit, his uncanny insight, his deliciously coy, tartly malicious style, and those cheeky turns of phrase that marked him from the outset as a veritable sperm whale in the mucky sea of literary arts and crafts, spewing winsomeness and wit from his blowhole. Quite the Baby Jane Hudson, really. Thanks for the memories, chum.
In the street, Tom runs into Dick, someone he considers, like himself, a “survivor” of a faraway time when life among an attractive stratum of this difficult city offered different, more intense gratifications, in other words when they were young, reckless, possessed of unlimited criminal energy and multiple circles of friends and associates. That world has dried up over time, suffered the attrition of deaths, divergence of fortunes, personal difficulties numerous and altering enough that they are now entirely different people than they were. Vaguely recognizable to each other, nominally functional, still resisting incitements to suicide, madness, or retreat from all contact with the world the city now reflects, refreshed, if that is the word, every day, with reminders that life itself is a brief scribble of being, sealed off at both ends by an infinity of eternal nonbeing. And etcetera, one could say.
Good enough. Bad enough. Nothing will ever be as it was. Nobody actually wishes anything would be. Everyone does wish it would all be something else, but exactly what, nobody can say. Anywhere but here, comes the thought, and sometimes the words, or, anything but this.
This is what we have. A lot of demanding tweaks in the scanning pattern. Conversations, not that many, marked by avoidance of depressing themes, or else by an uncontrollable leakage of them. Cargo manifests of everything that is wrong. Spontaneous, feeble theories about why things don’t connect, or can’t be rescued, or the ineluctable fact that changes beyond our capacity to adapt have occurred, rapidly. Structures once considered immutable collapsed so easily that people can only gaze at the debris in bovine disbelief, with a hollow feeling where their viscera should be.
Many wonder if they have survived, or if they occupy an afterlife, a coda, an epilogue pinned to their narratives like the tail on the donkey. Who or what wrote this sequel is an open question—not themselves, certainly, because they flounder, circle themselves, run along inescapable ruts, and muddle through forgettable days under sedation, counting out the remaining pills until a visit to the doctor levers them out of the maze again for a few hours.
“You’ll be fine again,” the doctor says, “you always are.” “You’ll pull out of this, you always do.” You’re already dead, the doctor thinks. But it never helps to say so.
Transfixed by information that carries no charge, shifts focus every few minutes or seconds, resists synthesis or repudiation—information that’s useless, metallic, inert, like a lead sinker on a fishing line dropped in a stagnant pond. Yet this information is evidence that some people, in various places, everywhere in fact, work themselves and some unimaginable constituency into a lather, strike poses of indignation, mint watery sarcasms, make shaky efforts to amuse each other, inhabit a bubble of epiphenomena that popped for the rest of us quite a while ago. Yes. There are too many people with too much to say about anything, crowding time with defective, reactive urgency, brains blazing with opinions, parsing intolerable reality like butchers slicing salami—semioticians of the random algae calligraphy on that lifeless fishing pond. If anything lives in its depths, you wouldn’t want to see it, and it wouldn’t want to see you. Some refugee phyla from the Burgess Shale, no, I doubt it, I mean you never know, but you don’t want to know, either.
The non sequitur as the standard form of communication. Two people work themselves up to an unavoidable promise to “see each other soon.” To overcome an entirely impersonal and meaningless silence, they’ve already crawled over a mental kilometer of broken glass, diluted affections dripping all over the restaurant carpet. Yet there is a real wish in there somewhere, that they lived in a world where they would, willingly, see each other, if not soon, sometime, but, how does it go: if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. I think I’ve got that right. A year passes. The ante has gone up a tick. “We keep saying we’ll see each other soon, let’s really see each other soon.” Alas, ahem, no really, I mean it.
Knowing better than to revisit other times, or imagine they would’ve been improved by a little insight, better instruction, kinder parents, different drugs. You’d still be exactly where you are now. Or else you wouldn’t be.
What kills us makes us stronger. And then kills us.
The narcoleptic who won the lottery. He couldn’t stay awake long enough to claim his ridiculously huge fortune, kept falling asleep while pinching the ticket between his fingers. As he lived alone, no one knew how magnificently rich he would have been, if he hadn’t starved to death.
“The shadow of mortality that falls over the prose of writers who’ve lived much longer than the authors of yesteryear”—paraphrase of a review of our popular, high-middlebrow writer who has revisited himself yet again in the course of an inexorable procession of LOL articles, a body of work remarkable for its tendency to feature the same unappealing, reputedly hilarious real-life characters from one piece to another, reviewed by another writer who has outlived the median age of writers 100 years ago, just like the writer under review. Two hardy relics enjoying their good luck, and complaining about what good luck it isn’t.
The graphomaniac who came to dinner. She wrote an entire bodice ripper on her napkin, a genre she publishes under a pseudonym—or whatever one calls a name before which the author’s real name appears, “writing as” the other name. Some have said this nuance comprises the graphomaniac’s major contribution to the literature of our time.
“No contact with savage Indian tribes has ever daunted me more than the morning I spent with an old lady swathed in woolies, who compared herself to a rotten herring encased in a block of ice: she appeared intact, she said, but was threatened with disintegration, if her protective envelope should happen to melt.” (Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques)
Gogol and Lermontov. Lermontov could never have written "The Nose," but Gogol would have turned "A Hero of Our Time" into a really brilliant farce.
Bassett went through medical school and trained as a neurophysiologist, but avoided getting licensed to practice medicine in New York state. He'd learned he didn't like poking in anyone's brain any deeper than its outer container. He also recognized that his occasional need for Schedule III substances was judiciously met by knowing someone else with a prescription pad, and suspected this would change dramatically if he had legal carte blanche to write his own. Not being financially ambitious, he managed to live well on what he earned. His fees were reasonable. He carried just enough of a client load to leave some free time during the day.
Bassett had written several books, published many articles, traveled on his own dime three or four times every year, usually to countries new to him. He was often a paid speaker at conferences too. He bought more books than he needed, gave a lot of thought to office supplies and dishware, and sometimes purchased small works of art. He ate in very good restaurants. He gave dinner parties three times a year. He preferred the company of escorts over more time-consuming personal relationships. He enjoyed being alone, and never felt especially lonely.
Karen had intrigued Bassett since her first appointment. She tried several analysts she knew she couldn't talk to after one session, before she remembered a friend from college she ran into in front of Bergdorf’s had mentioned Bassett. His name hadn't stuck, but she found it in her diary. She had diaries that went back to age nine.
When Bassett asked who recommended him, Karen told him she would rather not say, in case things didn’t work out. She had, she said, read one of his books, and got a strong feeling from it that he was just the person who would help her. She hadn’t read one of his books, but knew a little flattery goes a long way, especially with writers.
Bassett didn't mind not knowing where she came from. The little Karen said before he asked about it convinced him she would be a reliable long-term client. In case she needed more than his half-listening ear, he sent her to a psychopharmacologist, who took a blood sample and prescribed a cocktail of three medications.
Well, that’s a lie. He didn’t take any blood sample. He wouldn’t have had the faintest idea what to do with it. No one would, psychiatrically speaking. He prescribed this and that, weaned her off one thing, boosted dosage on another, dropped in new pills, subtracted old ones, observing how she behaved from one appointment to the next, for his own amusement. Or to enhance a feeling of doing something important, but never mind. He discounted his ineptitude by reminding himself her insurance covered prescriptions. She had to travel across the city to see him, and these trips, by subway or cab, were absolute torture for her. “I hate this person,” she realized. “I especially hate coming all the way over here.” Finally she dropped him, and only went to Bassett, after her internist confided that psychopharmacologists are full of shit.
A number of Bassett's clients terminated at the same time. Over the course of a month or so, he mentioned to all of them that he was writing his "farewell to Lacan” in the form of a short story he hoped to publish in the Paris Review. He was rather surprised that ten patients dropped him immediately. Bassett called it "the great die-off," as if they comprised a species of elephants or dinosaurs. They had sought him out because he had audited Lacan’s seminar 27 years earlier. He had assiduously inflated this ever since, eventually becoming known as Lacan’s favorite disciple. They had believed they were undergoing "Lacanian analysis." Bassett had never employed any of Lacan's methods in his practice. But he’d let them think so, since saying “Lacan” gave them a vicarious feeling of exclusivity and importance, as it did Bassett himself. They felt betrayed and swindled when he abandoned techniques he had never actually used. Karin stayed, she was in love with Bassett and didn’t know who Lacan was anyway.
Item. Item. Item.
The parts he removed from his masterpieces distracted from the great author’s theme of—oh, for fuck’s sake, all this and I can’t even remember what it was—if I say “betrayal,” I could be confusing it with “blasphemy,” or mixing it up with “barratry,” for that matter (you know, deserting a seaworthy ship)—what a twit I’ve become, just when a pinch of sincerity would probably go down well. We will only know for certain when those deleted passages are published separately, what the point of him actually was. And when they are, you can bet I’ll read them, because he’s an important writer. An enduring writer. A classic who has passed the test of time ever since 1997. Important enough, anyway, to revise his old chestnuts and get some sycophants to write about it as a cultural milestone, and it is, everybody says so, and everybody can’t be wrong.
Everyone can be wrong, of course, but in that case there wouldn’t be anyone to say so, in the same sense that all Cretans are liars including me, a Cretan, and things would follow their anointed course, as they do anyway, without interruption or wayward obstacles, world without end, and so on, and so forth. I would add, Amen, if I actually knew what that means.
Previously - A Stone for Michael Stewart
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