Chris R. Morgan's new collection of essays, "Northern Aggression," deals with football, bad writing, and self-immolation.
Biopsy is a bilious, ironclad literary periodical published by a monkish recluse named Chris R. Morgan who lives with his father in suburban New Jersey. It also bears one of the most cold-blooded subheds in journalism: "America’s Last Magazine"—Biopsy consists mostly of grim, contrarian essays written by Morgan himself. The mag owes an enormous debt to the influence of H.L. Mencken and The American Mercury. Morgan has just published a short e-book collection of his essays titled Northern Aggression in which he takes his scalpel to a selection of broad targets: Thanksgiving, Jimmy Carter, football, bad writing, and self-immolation. I reached him by telephone on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
VICE: What is the title Northern Aggression about? You’re Northern aren’t you?
Chris R. Morgan: It extends from my years-long interest in the Civil War and American history. I’ve always liked the term “War of Northern Aggression.”
In the first essay, “The New Spinsters,” I love this line: “The best writers are the worst communicators, crossing off resort after resort until one is left with two final resorts of writing or arson.” Do you think there is a link between being a good writer and a good talker?
For me the written word is much more significant than the spoken one. It’s very rare when you have people who communicate effectively in writing as they do in speech. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a good speaker. Neither was Otto von Bismarck. I’ve always appreciated federal judges because being an appellate judge is akin to being a professional writer. They just write opinions and defend them. One person I really appreciate is Richard Posner, in the 7th circuit of Chicago. He writes his own judicial opinions and hates the fact that so many judges have their clerks write their opinions for them.
Your essays are the literary equivalent of grindcore. Tonally, they are harsh, cruel, almost bulletproof. You never use the “I” pronoun and allow virtually no sunlight to come through. What are your antecedents and influences?
People who know about Mencken will say it’s a Mencken rip-off. They might say it’s a Swift or Bierce rip-off and you know what, they’re pretty much right. I discovered punk rock in high school—Big Black, Negative Approach, Converge—all these bands that had a searing quality to them. I find that making essay versions of those songs is my way to contribute to the culture.
I like some stuff by Willmoore Kendall. He was William Buckley's professor at Yale. He was known for being, if not a raging lunatic, at least very confrontational. Everyone at Yale hated him and they bought out his tenure and contract to get him out of there. He had a very interesting writing style that educated and offended people at the same time. Murray Rothbard called him “The philosopher of the lynch mob.” He was a majoritarian which means, whatever the majority says is orthodoxy. He said you’re free to go against it, but whatever happens is on you. He was an eloquent defender of Joseph McCarthy. Those kind of high stakes positions really impress me more than what's going on in the current scene today, where people wave a blunt stick around without really hitting anybody.
You seem to be pretty interested in the William F. Buckley tradition of conservatism. How do you define yourself politically?
The first piece I wrote about conservatism was in Biopsy one. Basically it just said that conservatism was not the worst thing in the world. It was your pretty standard contrarian Slate-type piece. I do like people like H.L. Mencken and Murray Rothbard, and to some extent agree with them.
I generally describe myself as a libertarian for lack of a better word. I like William Graham Sumner, and Frank Chodorov. I think it helps that they’re all self-taught autodidacts and I’m self-taught too.
In your essay about Jimmy Carter, you write, “He was the loser we all knew ourselves to be deep down in the recesses of our souls.” I couldn’t tell whether you admired Carter or hated him.
The essay stemmed from reading this old book called The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in the Age of Dimming Expectations by Christopher Lasch. That book is huge and tackles all sorts of subjects from cop psychology to sports to irony in the workplace. In one part in the book he laid out the plot for The Office thirty years before The Office was created.
Some people in The White House lifted aspects of it for Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech. I loved this guy making a speech from The White House about turning the thermostats down, saving gas, sacrificing more. Not a lot of people were happy after the Nixon era and I thought this was an interesting route for him to take. Especially since it’s our president’s job to err on the side of optimism. Barack Obama is not going to put his ass on the line to make a speech like that.
What I try to say is that Reagan offered good feelings but didn’t offer substance. Would I have voted for Carter? I’m not entirely sure. I think he was a bit too conservative for my tastes. His liberal image mostly comes from the stuff he did after he was president.
What kind of life do you think a writer should lead? Do you think it’s admirable for writers to suffer in solitude and toil in obscurity?
Being in lifelong proximity to NYC, the Brooklyn literary lifestyle is never far from my mind. I live with my dad, partly because I don’t necessarily know where to go next—I don’t really want to go to the city. The truth is, I never got on with a lot of the people I met in Brooklyn. I wanted to meet new people so I would have a place to go, but they liked to party a lot and the work always seemed secondary.
My approach is more like Franz Kafka who also lived in his parents place until he was like 30. He had a demanding day job, but wrote intensely, sincerely, and informally. He said the best way to write was overnight in one long epic session with as few interruptions as possible.
Do you think a “community of writers” is possible?
I’ve never attempted to be part of a “school of writing” or a “generation.” It’s probably one of the other reasons I always liked Mencken. He was around the same time as the Lost Generation—Fitzgerald and Hemingway--but was very much separate from those people. He worked out of the house where he grew up in Baltimore.
How do you make a living?
I don’t. I just got let go from my job. I’ve been interviewing for various media and ad conglomerates—I don’t care about the salary, I just want those insurance benefits!
Chris was kind enough to let us publish one of his essays from Northern Aggression. Apparently, if you've ever met Chris he has probably thought about murdering you.
"AFTERWORD: (A) MURDER (B) MASTURBATION"
It is no secret among those I've met -- either compulsory or independently; fleetingly or intimately -- that I've dreamt of killing no more than 75% of them, through a variety of means, giving me great satisfaction at their expense, often serving a far more profound purpose for me than they would have in the mundane chores of friendship or other types of association. Certain occasions call for certain methods of course, and as I don't discriminate in my meeting people, so, too, do I not discriminate in the methods I use to craft my fantasies. It is no problem for me to envision me using strangulation, immolation, attack dogs, battery acid, pipe bombs, nail bombs, or pretty much anything endorsed in John Yoo's memos to a close personal friend or a mild acquaintance. I have made no effort to procure these items in reality, let alone learn how to make efficient use of them. Most of the people I've met over the years are still alive, and if any of them are dead, it was the result of an ugly fate that was far removed from me.
Rage is a common enough emotion. Though generally put through sensational rings it is no stranger to the average person, it is no killer who comes in the night a small fraction of the time, but rather an irritable, sweaty thing that, if truly personified, would be 5’1”, with an ambiguous bulk, and it would sit stiffly, quietly in the same position, never moving until something comes too close to it be it with explicit intent to do so or by pure flight of oblivion. It is often sitting directly across from a spirit of a similar ugliness called Lust who would have a near-identical appearance and social skills, but a temperament with noticeable lightness that only borders on pleasant. Though we treat people on a day-to-day basis with a deeply instilled sense of courtesy and good cheer, reserving the stronger passions for only a minority of those people, they can, at the will of a given individual, be subject to living in one's mind in a certain context that would not cross their own in any real-life circumstance. We often talk about getting the feeling of being undressed and roundly fucked with one's eyes; but what is often skirted over is whether one has ever sensed that one was being roundly pummeled with a blunt object -- and maybe also undressed in the same fashion. It is a perfectly reasonable feeling that is crucial to the human experience, though it would be all too personally revealing, I suppose, to inquire if it is more pleasing to oneself to be so attractive to the people around you as to be masturbated to or to be so infuriating and unseemly to the people around you as to be at the center of their blood fevers.
Murder, to be sure, is an activity where, in almost all cases, the prospect of fun is satisfied most consistently and most thoroughly. So fun is murder to people that, like voyeurism, torture, drunk driving, dropping LSD in a small town's water supply, and certain types of gambling, it shall remain illegal for an indefinite period, its position in society being hoarded over by several different types of law makers and upholders who will never waver on it. Like the most effective sex, the most effective killing is done when one person comes in close proximity to another, moved by one's blind desire to make one's existence more known in another's. From there happiness will come when one is satisfied that they have moved the other to a height not previously experienced. The encounter is very physical and requires a climatic release of fluids from one or both bodies in order to get the substantial sense that something has been done. Experts and lay persons alike bicker endlessly on certain details that they feel contrast rather than compare sex and murder, but the fact that someone's life is ended in murder and not in casual sex does not deflate, in any way, the fact that the impulse indulgences and adrenaline rushes for both actions are equal in intensity.