(or two truths and a lie)
WORDS: john benjamin '16
IMAGES: dom sebastian
A WORD ON THE AUTHOR: thief.
A SECOND WORD ON THE AUTHOR: narcissist.
A THIRD WORD ON THE AUTHOR: liar.
NEW YORK TIMES, OCTOBER 17th, 2004:
Karl Rove to Ron Suskind.
“You are in what we call the reality-based community. Yes, the reality-based community… people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”
“That’s not the way world really works anymore.”
Karl Rove and I have little in common, but we have an understanding.
It took me an awful long to cure myself of post-modernity. It’s made quite a mess of things, you know? It’s fragmentary. It flickers. It burns.
To those of us with the affliction, and we number in the many millions, in the last estimate from Homeland Security, there are steps to recovery:
1. You can throw yourself in front of a train, like I did.
2. You can become.
There are two parts to this story: the first is that of containers; lids, tupperware, left-over meatloaf, humanity. The second is a love letter long lost. The second is a eulogy, because aren’t they the same thing?
CHAPTER 1: A CREATION
I realized that you see out of your own eyes when I was six. Someone kicked sand in my face. They said “Homo.” “Homo Sapian,” I managed to retort back, a vain effort by a blinded author.
Rub sand in your eyes, and it’s like a dream breaking, the grains of sand exasperating like forgotten memories. You’ll rub and you’ll rub, and there will always be something left, some small grain, but something larger gone. It’s a question almost answered. What were you, once? What are you, now? Who shall you be? There’s an absence to it, and in that absence, there’s despair. And there's hope.
There is a weight of a six-year-old realizing self-awareness, a ripple in the universe. Hell, the big bang was just selfhood and sand, after all.
I remember walking into my backyard that day. This yard runs along a nature preserve, with the non-Sherwin-Williams-friendly title of ‘The Great Swamp.’ It’s the largest watershed preserve in the Northeast. It has trails, and people who’ve been once, and people who’ve been many times, and people who’ve never been.
That day I remember looking at a bush and realizing that someone else could see it differently. That the bush could be different, could be suspect, could be something else. The bush in question was yellow. Bright yellow. Burning yellow. I stood staring, wondering deeply if someone else could see the same flame. I reached out, tepidly, afraid of getting burned, afraid of finding myself alone. I reached out and scratched my finger on a branch. I went inside to get a band-aid.
My childhood bathroom has a large mirror. It hangs horizontally across the width of the entire wall, above the sink stretching to the window. I only mention this because at the time I was too short to see myself in it. Short sighted on the part of my parents. If I stood on my toes and raised my arm, I could make out my wrist and hand. The blood dripped off my finger. My wrist hung limp. I confirmed that I was bleeding. Or, the mirror confirmed that I was bleeding. Or, you confirmed that I was bleeding. Was that you, Apian? Was that you there?
CHAPTER 2: A QUESTION
Apian and I became close away at boarding school. We were both interested in Baudrillard before we should’ve been. Jean Baudrilliard says nothing is real. Everything is image. Disneyland is there to convince us that everything is more real than it is.
We would spend hours debating that thesis. That everything is image, projection. That culture has evolved into referencing nothing real. Ambling down the concrete path by the Latin building, inside and up the roped off stairs, everything smelled like paper. We hoped this would inspire us, as it had inspired men of the Academy before us.
Apian was everything I was not. And I fell in love with him immediately.
I bought him this salmon bomber jacket. It was canvas, and it curved in the right places for his tall shoulders. Fit was important to me then. He used to wear it on warm days outside the library.
I could never describe his face. But it was good in ways mine wasn’t, anyway.
We were writers, or liked to believe we were. For him, it was everything. For me, it was something else.
He said writing was self-masturbatory, but he wanted a hand job in the back of the English building anyway. When he finished, I asked him if he wanted a tissue or something. He said you couldn’t clean things up through self-acknowledgement.
He liked to write secrets on paper and burn them. I remember once, sitting on the third floor roof of our dorm surrounded by the stubborn March snow. He wrote something down on a crumbled piece of paper, and then, he lit a cigarette. We sat there for awhile. The spaces in the snow took up our hot air, making everything more silent. He writing something.
And then, all at once, he calmly took the cigarette, lit the piece of paper on fire with the end of it, and dropped them both in the snow. Then, he stood up and crushed it all with his foot. I called after him.
“What did it say?,”
CHAPTER 3: AN ANSWER
Apian and I never said I love you. He said the sentence was self-indulgent. I agreed.
I came out my freshman year of college. Apian did not.
He began to be nostalgic for something. He read a lot of Roland Barthes. He wrote me long letters telling me about the death of the author, the death of us. Barthes argues the author, as a construct, is made up. It begins in the text, in the linguistic construction, in the reader. You can have multiple authors, multiple identities swirling in the great existential swamp. This seemed to frighten him. He once wrote, “I do not like to believe I’m a modernist, but I can’t get behind Barthes as liberating. He’s a death sentence.”
Hidden in the bathroom of a hotel, he passed me a well-worn leather flask. I took a swig of scotch, both of us pretending that we liked it because we were playing a bit. We were hiding from the debutante ball a half floor below, both of us escorting a friend to come out.
A drunken boy came in, an acquaintance of an acquaintance from Deerfield or something. He staggered, his shoes clacking on the green marble, and he thrashed to keep his balance. His arm landed on the wooden stall door, and with his wrist straight and firm, he fixed himself upright.
The boy introduced himself, and Apian introduced himself as me. I stood silently, wondering his game, wondering if I should tell the boy I was Apian or let the game continue. They exchanged pleasantries, as one does. They filled the room with hot air, talked of bowties, of girls, of society, of winter coats, of containers.
He told us that he had tripped acid in the Hamptons, and it had changed his life. He said he saw, “I am that I am,” written in the sand. He felt more complete, he said, more cohesive, more ready for his internship in insurance. “Most of my family’s in insurance,” Apian said, “It’s a bit of a nightmare. Tremendously risk averse. Hate any negative externalities. Like myself.”
The boy stumbled to the sink. He washed his hands. He gargled some mouthwash. He combed his hair. The modern luxuries of the bathroom at his disposal, he cleaned himself up, he washed away questions.
After the boy left, a deep silence ensued. Apian opened a window and began smoking a cigarette. The smoke hung in the air, made visible by the cold night. The space between us filled with grey matter.
“You know you should quit.”
I curtly asked Apian about his decision to be me. He did not take this lightly. He said he was joking, that it was all game. He said I’d changed. He said I’d lost touch. He said I know longer knew who I was, who he was, how to play the game.
I told him I didn’t think that was true. He started pacing around the bathroom in a drunken fury, muttering at me of Barthes and Butler. I wasn’t moved.
His tone changed; he became manic. He said he was in on the joke, didn’t I understand? He was playing, writing himself new lines. He knew this wasn’t real. He hated the boy, hated all of that.
“He is who he is, eh? I proclaim him douchebag. His name is his name.”
I stood silently, looking distantly into the mirror, seeing straight through myself in all the smoke and mirrors. This killed me.
“Come on,” he looked pleadingly, “Yahweh, no way.”
He made a poor pun, and he knew it.
He took his notebook from his jacket pocket. Taking the cigarette from his mouth, he opened to the first page and pressed the end of the cigarette deeply into the center, stabbing the words and burning their edges. The paper smoldered as the cigarette went deeper and deeper into the notebook.
CHAPTER 4: AN INTERVIEW
In a coffee shop on Grand Street in New York, at the wooden table in the corner underneath the skylight:
JBR: Why did you kill yourself?
APIAN: I always act on impulse.
JBR: What happened then?
APIAN: A train.
JBR: Before that?
APIAN: Air, thick with sweat; perhaps a delusion of freedom; a brief, terrible thought that Adele was stuck in my head; resignation. A poem came into my head:
“I ran screaming, dying,
into the flaming night,
hoping to be lost in the streetlamps,
to be made to feel real in the yellow light.
the anthem of a generation
who were told never to say sorry
the air; thick
the mind; thick
the diptych; the dick thick nonsense
the train moved
the train always moves
the poet in you”
JBR: Why did you do it?
APIAN: I didn’t feel real.
JBR: Did you think of anyone else?
APIAN: My mother.
JBR: What about her?
APIAN: Something she said about death in an opera. Apparently, there’s always an aria and then death.
JBR: Did you have an aria?
APIAN: Of course, the Myth of Narcissus.
JBR: What's that?
APIAN: Absorption with self doesn’t simply destroy you; it destroys the self as well.
JBR: If you had one superpower, what would it be?
NEW YORK TIMES, OCTOBER 17th, 2004:
Karl Rove to Ron Suskind.
“You are in what we call the reality-based community. Yes, the reality-based community… people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Rove paused. “That’s not the way world really works anymore…. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality- judiciously, as you will- we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
CHAPTER 5: A REALIZATION
At first, I felt liberated. I was robbed at six. Apian was a compromise, a monopoly I didn’t agree to, a poor pun.
I took a train back to Connecticut a week later, back to that playground of a school where’s everyone’s always trying things on and taking things off. I expected to feel more authentic, waxy and aflame. One candle shining in the window of the night. Isn't that selfhood?
But instead, I felt empty.
I suppose I should feel relieved. Apian is dangerous, I think. Realities are equally dangerous, I think. History tells us so.
I watched the leaves blow on the track, a hundred leaves blowing in the wind. Swirling up and around and down in the late afternoon light, each in conjunction with each other, closed circuitry, giving and taking, something I can’t explain but you’ll know it when you see it.
I realized my childhood did not have enough band-aids. I always ended up having to make do. It was one of most conspicuous absence, for my sandwiches always had the crusts cut off. I guess my parents thought we would never get hurt.
I think I’ve only recently forgiven my mother for it.
In a note to her on a napkin in the back of this terrible Korean restaurant I recently tried, I wrote: “I bleed, and pressure helps. But it’s always a bit of smoke and mirrors that stops the blood.”
O you youth, you Western youth, you poor, poor Western youth.
Whitman would disown us. Thoreau would only hang out with the Divestment crowd. Hell, Ginsberg would just have said he saw it coming.
Except for you. The survivors. The avant-garde of Instagram. Those whose cover photos say something and nothing. Those who generally are something and nothing. The millennial paradox: www.blowme.com.
Post-modernity has made quite a mess of things. It’s fragmentary. It flickers. It burns.
Don’t try too hard. They say the world’s going to end. They say Venice is going to sink. What will happen to all the masks? Everywhere else will be burning parchment paper. “That’s why,” a friend said, ”I’m a hedonist. You have to be flexible.” I realized that’s smart. They say Caligula, emperor of multiplicity, suffered from carbon dioxide poisoning. They say he wrote a tragedy about one collapsing in on itself. How post-modern.