H.P. Class War: Cthulhu on the Barricades

“Oh my God, terrifying vistas of reality and our position therein are being opened up to us all. This is the worst thing that’s happened to mankind and in the studio they’ve opted for a new dark age but your commentator has gone stark staring mad.” New Dark Age by Rudimentary Peni. 

Hangar Barcelona Mural
The class takes curious forms. Street art at Hangar Art Space in Barcelona. Accessed on barcelonanavigator.com.

It is fairly well-established that H.P. Lovecraft was a devout racist. The HBO adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country, an inversion of a number of Lovecraftian tropes, set many fingers to typing about the blatant and unapologetic hatred, even terror, that he felt toward black people. Therefore, it’s pretty unimportant to repeat such a widely known and irrefutable fact. But, I don’t think it covers all the bases. 

There are other currents of hatred and fear throughout his work. Like many of his characters, Lovecraft’s internal world was plagued by sinister dreams that were animated by the fears of empires long gone. He was a man of state, but the wild kind, haunted by the possibility of a radically altered world.

For myself, I first read Lovecraft at twelve. Expecting kids to be deep readers seems overly ambitious, but maybe this just reflects the low expectations, shitty education and dumb adults that I was exposed to. In a time where we consider the things people post on Facebook to be statements of unadulterated fact I think I’ll forgive myself for being blind to the hatred and fear that animated Lovecraft’s writing. Or maybe it resonated because I was being trained in the very same hatreds. 

Much of his writing is (debatably) in the public domain, which has allowed numerous editions of his work to circulate, distinguished from one another only by cover art, and the book I picked up delivered in that regard. It was a splash page of terrifying figures rendered in shades of gray and red. Odd pieces of anatomy, strange doors and stairs and windows… I was catching on, slowly, to the fact that cool book jackets could disguise shitty books, but I went for it. A family day trip to Vermont was a perfect opportunity to refine a migraine by reading in a moving vehicle, and the relief of vomiting on the side of the road and then passing out wasn’t even a thing I really disliked. 

I dug in. The book was a collection of his more refined (and probably more financially viable) stories. There was none of his bad poetry or his shit about Kadath, just endless descents into madness by various doomed protagonists and awakenings of incomprehensible beings. 

It scared the fucking shit out of me. 

It was seductive. Underneath the mounting paranoia of the inevitably white and tweedy heroes (or something… they were rarely if ever heroic) there was a love of the mystery and a fascination with the exterior. The world I was growing up in was known. The earth was mapped, the sea would be too, and space was sterile. Things were gridded and I didn’t like it at all. The beings of Lovecraft’s pantheon were terrifying, but they came from somewhere else- another dimension of space. I felt something like hope when I read about these impending nightmares. 

Regardless, after reading The Dunwich Horror the treeline became a place where indescribable creatures with frightening appetites could be hiding. Since dogs hated these things I felt comforted by the obese lab that came along, and I didn’t fall asleep until late into the night. 

I got older. An encounter with a shoggoth would have been preferable to day to day life. I didn’t reflect on the politics of Lovecraft until much later. 

Around the age of twenty I was fortunate enough to read Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. It was another book that revealed a hidden dimension, in this instance the junctures at which the people working under the various lashes of power to establish a global capitalist economy attempted to bust through the ‘strange geometries’ that so threatened the order of a Lovecraftian world. 

These people, their resistance to regimes of exploitation, and their dreams of something better circulated on ocean currents. In their lives and their deaths they were mutilated. Pirates and slaves sought freedom under threat of death. Women claimed rights so offensive that they were burned or drowned to banish them. Indigenous people fled, or hid on ships that would go pirate if only the crew would seize the captain’s blunderbuss. And ‘anabaptists’ preached the heresy of a kingdom of God on Earth, another assertion that was worthy of a violent and public end. 

In a classic fashion, the economy of the revolutionary Atlantic had brought together its own grave diggers. In their numerous manifestations they were tied as metaphor and as death sentence to the realm of monstrosity, and the hydra was the most common referent. The chief theorist of the monstrosity of the working class was Francis Bacon, who appropriated the myth of Hercules and his labor of defeating the creature, to illustrate the disciplinary project faced by the masters of the nascent global economy. 

With poetic flair he named the Hydra’s heads, each one representing a threat to order and reason: Indigenous people, steeped in tradition and landed knowledge, their relative wealth a lure to the miserable colonists; dispossessed commoners, with their own traditions of cooperation- the Irish, the African, and the travelling people; pirates were the third head- both those preying on the shipping lanes and those simmering aboard the Virginia Company ships, waiting to mutiny; the fourth terrible head was comprised of what Marx would call the ‘lumpenproletariat’- those who relied on petty crime to survive;head five, the scourge of nobles, was the assassin; ‘Amazons’, rebellious women, also required ‘putting down’- they led the bread riots that characterized the food crises of 17th century Europe, and could be witches as well, fit for burning and unfit for work; and finally, considered the most dangerous head of all, were the anabaptists, who threatened all order with talk of a ‘church from below’, where the paternal authority of protestantism would be overthrown by the urgings of the spirit. (p. 61-65)

The parallels between Lovecraft’s pantheon of Great Old Ones and Bacon’s use of the hydra as parable provide a glimpse into the mind of the reactionary, both in the 17th century and the 20th century. The people who represented a threat to the functioning of a very specific type of society take on monstrous dimensions: They are threatening, mysterious, and unpredictable. And they are everywhere.  

Lovecraft’s stories take place in numerous locales, though Arkham is his most notable setting. From there one can head on a number of directions. 

Out in the country, in the village of Dunwich (unsurprisingly the setting of The Dunwich Horror), you might encounter the Whatelys, specifically the ‘decadent’ Whatelys, the spawn of respectable farmers gone to rot. There, amid fallow fields, below stone tables upon which the otherwise invisible ‘Indians’ of Lovecraft’s world dance, Lavinia Whateley (who is, God forbid, an albino, physically disabled, and worst of all unattractive) gave birth to two children. Her father, ‘half-crazed’ but steeped in esoteric knowledge (you could call him an ‘organic intellectual’) presided over the births. 

The more precocious (debatably) of the two boys, possessed of “thick lips, large-pored, yellowish skin, coarse crinkly hair, and oddly elongated ears”, dared seek knowledge that he should be denied. After being refused access to a book, Wilbur breaks into a library seeking said book, and is justifiably mauled to death by a dog.

What’s the ‘horror’ that came to Dunwich? Ugly people? Different people? There are several of the Hydra’s heads reared up in this story: The self-taught scholar; the rebel woman whose womb produces strange and unpredictable children; the ‘Indian’; the child who seeks knowledge above his station. Lovecraft’s villains are the victims of the revolutionary Atlantic.

Lovecraft’s most famous story, The Call of Cthulu, follows a similar course: The narrator’s uncle, a professor of Semitic Languages at Brown, dies mysteriously after being jostled by a “nautical looking negro”. As the protagonist pours over his uncle’s papers he comes upon a bas relief of a fantastical creature. Sculpted after troubling dreams by the “neurotic” son of an “excellent family” (it is interesting that the heroes of these stories can’t even stand thinking about stuff that the  swarthy, deformed and wild minds of the minor villains think about all day), the young man seeks out the uncle and delivers the sculpture. 

Later, the hero reads of one Detective Legrasse, a policeman who raided (read “suppressed”) a purported Voodoo meeting who turned to the protagonist’s uncle for information about a similar statue. Among the learned men who assembled to examine it, one asserts that a ‘deliberately bloodthirsty and repulsive’ group of devil-worshipping “Esquimaux” possessed and worshipped a similar statue. Mind-blowing stuff. It really “disclosed an astonishing degree of cosmic imagination among such half-castes and pariahs as might be least expected to possess it”. 

Then there’s an interlude of a police massacre in which 47 religious celebrants are arrested and seven killed extrajudicially by police. But because the modern world is merciful, only two of the celebrants were sane enough to be hung. The rest were sent to institutions.

The story goes on in this fashion. There’s talk of “half-castes”, “mulattoes”, “waterfront scum”,  and “negroes” throughout. Again, Bacon is summoned. The indigenous people, religious heretics, and nautical proletarians are attempting to subvert the ordered world of academics, who keep history in the past where it belongs, and police, who shoot those people who have escaped relegation to the dustbin of history. The villains are villains because they want to turn the world upside down. Their diversity makes them dangerous- the terror of miscegenation in Lovecraft’s writing is paramount. People who challenge categorization are not just worthy of distrust, but of extermination altogether. 

Lovecraft is Francis Bacon for the early 20th Century. Less respected, perhaps, and certainly less well-connected, but dreaming the same nightmare: That all those hydra heads are out there. The dockworkers, the ignorant and pitiful rural working class, the people who have failed to adequately mix their atheism with their puritanism. The opus is teeming with a desire to hang on to the power relations of the contemporary age. 

The things that are worth mentioning in regard to Cthulu are that (I’m going to assume that Cthulhu is gender-fluid and not human) it is a chimera. Cthulhu is an assemblage of animals thrown together. Cthulhu’s incomprehensible nature, the terror it inspires, the shocking thing about Cthulhu, is its size and the diversity of its elements. The second thing is that Cthulhu doesn’t die. It may be inactive for spans of time, sleeping, dreaming, but eternal. 

For Bacon such monsters are a call to action. Exterminate them or break them. It was a new day for an ascendant class and hacking heads off was just another hero’s labor, not to be shirked or shied away from. 

For Lovecraft it’s a form of paralysis. There are monsters everywhere. Fail to know them adequately and you’ll miss the moment that you’re held in their mouth; know too much about them and you might turn into one. Past and future are terrifying, as is the present, always teetering towards one or the other. It’s only the random violence of policemen’s guns that can clean up the mess.

In both men’s summoning of the monstrous, it was the blasphemous coming together of social forces that was the key threat to the societies that they envisioned as just and correct. It was, and is, the working class in all its manifestations that should be feared and, ultimately, killed. But the cosmic horror that both men face is that you can’t kill the monster. The story doesn’t work without it. 

So for the specter of class war. There are so many of us. We are so different. Our cults exist in far flung places. Our icons and our statues get torn down or buried in museums, but we dream beneath the waves, waiting for the stars to align, to once again sow terror among respectable men of state. 

We Need to Talk About Roger

“This fragile life really worries me. This fragile life, I know one day could be me and you. Do you like to feel cold?”-  This Fragile Life by Newtown Neurotics

I spent a semester and a month pursuing an MSW and I was falling down a hole the entire time. When people talk about depression as an illness I think it is easy to assume that all the suffering that accompanies it goes on in the realm of thought. Pessimism, existential dread, hopelessness that looks like apathy, these are the things that typify the condition. But it is so much more. There is a physical component that is hard to comprehend if you’ve not experienced it. Limbs feel funny, stomachs devolve into chaos, and you become a conduit for some sinister agency. It’s no wonder we either sleep all day or not at all. 

I have a low threshold for meaninglessness. I don’t like to talk about maintaining life. I want to talk about transforming it. The endless built in assumptions about ‘helping’ that get bandied about by presumably well-minded bureaucrats rarely looks like helping to me. Perhaps I’m too much of a purist. It’s entirely possible that my ideals have crippled me. In most institutions I’ve dragged myself into, I would love to feel nothing and instead I feel enraged.

During the relatively short period in which I pursued this degree I sat in a chair and felt pissed off. The lack of vision and political analysis beyond a desire to lodge centrist Democrats in positions of power was both boring and obnoxious. The lack of insight into all the ways in which social workers serve as gatekeepers and modifiers of human fragility made me feel sick. Sick with myself for participating, sick with them for white-washing. 

Coming out the other side of the experience I wish that I had advocated for a position that sounds like a joke but isn’t: Provide firearms to the unhoused if they want them. America is already swimming in guns. What’s a few more cheap shotguns and revolvers going to do?

These kinds of blunt programmatic statements are, by their nature, not well thought out. I was once fully convinced that the legalization of drugs was a thoroughgoing path to racial justice and a return to the pursuit of pleasure over power. As we ever so slowly emerge from the prohibition paradigm the use of drugs as a political piston continues. The drugs that middle-class white people do are fine. Psychedelics are okay- the tech bro overseers of silicon valley suffering proudly announce the micro-dosing psychedelic regimens that they use to become masters of the protestant work ethic. The rest of us applaud them. 

But the miserable masses using amphetamines to get them through the gauntlet of their days is worth a condescending tut-tut, as is the use of opiates. But only when poor people use them.

As a user of psychedelics, I think Dr. Carl L. Hart, author of Drug Use for Grown-Ups, elaborates a critique of this: Those of us who advocate for the legalization of psychedelics still recoil at the use of ‘hard’ drugs like heroin, crack cocaine, PCP and onward. We claim that our drugs are sacred and should be legal (stolen from indigenous societies though they may be) while others, used by the poor, are profane. 

That’s a long way around to the earlier point: Arming the unhoused may be wrong-headed, but these things only get analyzed in the wash. The potential is that 1) violence against this population would diminish, 2) the police would be limited in their ability to disrupt the communities that are ‘temporary’ only inasmuch as they get cleared out on a regular basis and 3) policy decisions that redistribute wealth would become a priority. 

Or maybe it would just result in more interpersonal violence. I don’t know… everything’s fucked and optimism is a bad ontological leaning. I’m sure Joe Biden will address all of our social problems. 

Part of social work education is field placement. Mine was in a public library system. The vast majority of my time was spent reading. 

On the occasions when someone needed assistance I tried my best. But my best wasn’t very good. Most of the time I listen to tales of degradation and misery and would follow this up with utterly useless attempts to secure some kind of material assistance for the desperate. 

The degree to which social services are routinely denied to the people who need them is profound. If you want a bed for the night, you already have to be freezing to death. If you want your obvious disability to be recognized, prepare for months of waiting while you walk your day away- you’re not allowed to hang out at the homeless shelter, and you’re expected to go through the motions of applying to jobs that you will never be hired to perform. The smell of desperate living is upon you and Target has plenty of people who are slightly less fucked that they can hire. 

The public library is perhaps the most important institution in the life of an unhoused person. You can hang out there all day and as long as you’re able to stay quiet you can use the computers, read, and escape from the cold of winter. There are charging stations for your phone, clean bathrooms, and an opportunity to navigate relationships with others who are in the same position. 

I tried to learn everyone’s name. I tried to shake everyone’s hand. This seemed important. Disrespect is a generalizable phenomenon for many of these men and women and these are the two acts that rise to the point of acknowledging someone’s basic humanity. I don’t know how these people survived the boring and directionless days of the pandemic- they lost the library, and surely much more. 

Upon entering the library in the morning I would ask the staff if anyone seemed like they might need help. They were there for many more hours of the day than I was and were in a much better position to identify needs. If they had no direction to provide I would walk through the library and stereotype people.

On one of these sweeps I saw a very young man staring off into space, huddling into himself. I asked him if he needed help and he said ‘yes’. We walked into a conference room and sat down. He began crying. There is nothing to do with this kind of sadness but listen. I was not allowed to touch another person in this role. If I could, I would have held his hand. 

He told me of the terminal crisis that was his life. His father had died of a heroin overdose some months ago, and he found the body. He was certain that it was not an accidental overdose. Their relationship had been frayed prior to his death and he blamed himself for this. His guilt was frantic, overwhelming him, and he had no way to make it right. I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, but I am a human and have enough experience with misery to know that no one could touch this remorse. 

Roger was homeless. He’d lived his whole life in Mastic-Shirley, a place that Long Islanders call “Selden by the Sea”, which is an ironic way of referring to this town as white middle-class and in decline, sliding into non-existence. The shelter system had removed him from this place where he knew people and the landscape to a point far West, with no resources and no hope. 

He had been banished from his family home after getting drunk, stealing a friend’s car, and driving it into the Atlantic. He was arrested and then sued, at which point his mother had kicked him out of her house. He desperately wanted to go home but his mother wouldn’t speak to him. I listened to him make calls to his brother and then to a family friend. He begged them to intervene but both told him there was no going home- he had to ‘man up’, a disgusting term people use to inform the injured, desperate and helpless that they need to function economically before they’re worthy of love, help, or hope. 

I asked if he had any psychiatric diagnoses. His affect was flat when he wasn’t crying. His paralysis seemed as though it went all the way down, rooted in his body. He told me that, at some point, by some doctor, he had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. This is a scary diagnosis that doesn’t say much. It seems like a catch-all that gets applied to people who don’t fit into the usual paradigms.

He sobbed through the morning. I gave him my sad lunch and he inhaled it, then told me that his probation officer was coming to the library to meet him. He asked if I would sit in and I answered in the affirmative, though I dreaded it. I hate cops. 

They arrived and I sat with them. I was somewhat shocked by the fact that they were kind and understanding. They seemed to be pretty hip to the fact that he was truly fucked. He was too young and too sick to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of a life on the street. He needed to access medical care that he was incapable of travelling to. He needed to make his way to a distant county social services office to maintain his housing. He needed to prove that he was looking for work, a task that he was clearly incapable of. 

They seemed sad, resigned to and regretful of the fact that he was inches away from ending up in jail, another place that would annihilate his humanity. We all discussed the need to make an effort towards getting him placed in some kind of supportive housing, a benefit that would take an endless span of months to access. 

I had an opportunity to speak to them privately. I said that I didn’t expect them to be kind. They said that they live with this hopelessness. They knew that Roger would be denied assistance that he was clearly entitled to, and that they would be unable to transcend their roles as bureaucratic robots. They were also tragic, more people broken by rules and constrained by life. 

For the rest of the day I helped him barely clear hurdles and we ultimately got nowhere. This typified our relationship. Everyone got to know him- the librarians, the security staff, the administrators. We all feared for him. 

Over and over he would disappear for several days at a time. Inevitably this was a 72 hour hold in a psych ward. He would show up, confess a sincere desire to die, and be admitted. He would be given medicine and referrals, things he wasn’t able to follow up on. I considered it my mission to get him disability benefits, but the tasks that this required were beyond him. He kept missing appointments. And he kept going missing. 

Roger’s well-being became a task that everyone who worked at the library undertook. I would be provided with status reports from the security staff. This was a melting point for me. I generally fear and dislike people in any position of authority, which is an unfair assumption when it comes to the security guards in a library. Their mission is less to enforce rules than to explain to those breaking them that they sincerely did not want to ask them to leave and needed them to adhere to some mandate of courtesy. 

It was through the problem of Roger that I came to not only understand, but in some senses to love, these big, strong men. They wanted to protect him. I did too. 

In an instance that still makes me cry, I learned that the director of security had been picking Roger up on the weekends and bringing him to his house. Roger and this man’s children would do yard work, and not in a laborious way. He had pictures of his two boys and Roger smiling, diving into piles of leaves. Then there were photos of his family, plus Roger, eating at one of Long Island’s ubiquitous and interchangeable diners. Smiles all around. Then they went to the movies, and again, his boys and Roger posed outside, smiling. No more flat stare. No more tears. 

The next week Roger went missing again. At this point it was a sincere worry we shared. Where did this tragically innocent child go? Was he alive? In jail? In the hospital? We never found out. His phone was off. The men he’d slept alongside had heard nothing. The same for his probation officers. His fate is a mystery.

These absences hurt. He was, and hopefully is, a child that made us more human both to ourselves and to others. These points at which we realize the fragility of life usually pass us by. Sometimes they hit us head on. 

One for Sorrow, Two for Mirth, Three for a Funeral and Four for Birth

Photo by Ellie Burgin on Pexels.com

June’s life was very hard. Her mother was sick, and this sickness made her cry all day. It made her have to lie down for long hours, staring at the ceiling. June’s mother dragged herself through life, from the food pantry to their little apartment and, once a month, to the doctor, a man who either changed nothing or everything depending on the day. 

June took the bus to school and the other children teased her for her dirty clothes. Once there she could not concentrate on the teacher’s voice. She was hungry and full of worry and she was reprimanded for this. June didn’t know that this was unfair because most of her life was unfair. She had nothing to compare it with. She thought she must truly be bad for things to have turned out this way. 

When she arrived home she would trudge to her bed with her head held low. She would fall upon her stomach with her clothes on and push her face into the pillow. She felt a sadness that she couldn’t put into words and realized that this feeling was what her mother endured, day in and day out. With this terrible realization echoing in her mind she fell asleep. 

She dreamed. She was in a cellar that she knew to be far beneath whatever building pushed down upon it. She had been digging a hole in the hard-packed dirt floor. Her clothes were damp with sweat and she could feel dirt when she mopped at her brow with her forearm. Something small waited by the side of the hole, wrapped in white linen, as still as the grave. She looked at it for a time, and though she didn’t know what it was or how it had become her responsibility to bury it she felt a deep sense of shame that gradually mounted to panic. The only thing to do was to keep digging and so she attacked the hole with the shovel’s blade, ignoring the sweat and fatigue.

Suddenly, a rapping from above intruded on the rhythm of the shovel. A blade of fear pierced her. She knew that she had to answer, that waiting would only make things worse and so she dropped her shovel and with her heart fluttering in her chest she walked up the cellar stairs. She stood before the door. The rapping had become thunderous. She became certain that she had done something horrible and that her punishment waited outside. 

She reached for the door, ready to unlock it and embrace the reality of the dirty thing that she was- and then she snapped awake. There was still a sound, a persistent rapping, something hard upon the glass. Light pooled on the floor below the window and a shadow was framed in its center. She forgot her nightmare for a moment. Was it an angel she saw there, winged and graceful? She had always thought that perhaps one would come for her one day. 

Again there was that insistent percussion and she looked to the window. Not an angel then, but a crow dressed in its black plumage. As her dream threatened to rise up again her curiosity overcame it. She walked cautiously to the window. She was afraid that it would fly away. She had no friends, no pets, no family beside her mother. The crow might not be any of those things, but it was paying the kind of attention to her that didn’t hurt. 

She stood before the window. The bird did not move. It cocked its head and met her gaze. Another series of insistent taps upon the window pane. She unlocked it and pulled it open. The crow hopped through the portal between inside and out. It looked at her for a very long time while she stood motionless. She wondered what was happening. Was she being assessed? Evaluated? Diagnosed? She hoped that among all the possibilities that she was being seen. No one ever saw her. Not really. 

They stayed that way for some time, gazing, and though she had to pee after so many hours of sleep it was more important to have this encounter. As she stared her mind slipped into a state of non-being and though the memories of her life and the knowledge of who she was were still there they simply didn’t matter. 

It was a Friday morning. She kept a clock in her room. Her mother couldn’t be trusted to wake up, or to wake her up, and there had been visits to their apartment by a social worker. She had seemed like a nice woman, but they wanted her to go to school, and in the nicest way possible she had told her and her mother that there would be consequences if her attendance didn’t improve. She didn’t know what those consequences would be, but her mother explained later that she would be taken away. She would live with another family then, or in a place where other girls in the same circumstance lived.

None of this sounded any better or worse than her current circumstance, but it scared her all the same. There would be no hiding then. No secret moments of grief. They would see the hollow place inside her and try to fill it with things that she wasn’t sure she wanted. So she set her alarm every night and dragged herself from her bed every morning. It rang. The crow flew. The spell was broken. 

She rushed to the bathroom and not for the first time thought that relief was better than pleasure. She brushed her teeth and ate what there was to be had in the kitchen. Peanut butter and some white bread. She opened her mother’s door. She was not asleep, but had an arm raised. Her forearm covered her eyes, but she could see tears running down the side of her face.

She crawled into bed beside her mother and held her. The flow of tears from beneath her arm increased. After a time she pulled her arm away and kissed her on the forehead. She told her that she loved her. That she was so sorry for not being better. June knew that she would be late for school, but this seemed more important. 

She walked down the stairs of their building through the smell of mildew. It was late fall, growing chilly. Her eyes felt swollen and she knew they were red. It would be one more thing about her that was worthy of comment by the other children. She took a moment to breathe. She felt as though she forgot to sometimes. 

It wasn’t until she arrived at the bus stop that she realized she had missed it. There were no other children, no parents in their huge cars, idling fumes into the lungs of the children not similarly cared for. There was only what she could assume to be that same crow flying above here, speaking it’s strange language. And she realized that it was not just the one but many. She felt as though they were calling to her. Then she noticed. 

On the ground were two fledgelings. Too old to be chicks, too young to fly on their own. They were doomed, and she felt a kinship with that. She forgot about school. She forgot about the social worker and her scary way of helping. She took off her vest and approached the two grounded birds. As she thought about how best to approach them the birds flying above landed on the ground, one by one, until they formed a semi-circle that enclosed both her and the fledgelings. 

She knew that all this was curious but none of it felt strange. The sadness that she carried with her was not gone, but it receded. She knew what to do where before she had harbored only doubts and uncertainties. She knelt down, removed her vest,  and gently prodded the birds into it. They looked to the other members of their murder. June felt the emotion and images pass through her mind. The mother bird had watched her while she dreamed and tasted her sadness. She had glimpsed those parts of her that were not human, that had been thrown away or eaten up or had simply died and June knew that those absences made her safe and pure.

The walk back to her house was delicate. She looked down at the young birds and they looked back. She felt seen, observed, evaluated and, ultimately, accepted. She walked up the stairs of her building. Mr. Reyes was hurrying down. He said hello but did not spare her a glance. As she made her way up and stood at her door Miz Lightfoot left her apartment for her morning walk. She looked down at June, at what she was carrying. 

Miz Lightfoot was mysterious and very old. She was always kind. No one else in the building had ever been inside of June’s apartment. One day her mother didn’t wake up. All her pill bottles were empty. June had shaken her mother as hard as she could and yelled in her ear. She had picked up one of the phones that they had gotten in the mail but it was not charged. Neither of them ever thought to call anyone because there was no one to call. The phones would get lost for weeks at a time and it didn’t matter. Mail would pile up on top of them. When her mother rose from her bed long enough to force herself through the motions of cleaning they would be resurrected, plugged in and charged. For a day or so they would be useful and then the cycle would begin again. 

When that most terrible thing had happened June ran to Miz Lightfoot’s. She had a phone that did not travel with her and this struck June as a very strange thing. But it worked. Miz Lightfoot had stood with June as the ambulance traveled to them. June always felt lost but especially on this day. As the large men rushed through the apartment and did things to her mother that June did not understand, another thought intruded: What would happen to her? She knew little of what happened to children in such a situation, but she did not think that any of it would be good. 

Miz Lightfoot had drawn her near and pulled her against her side. No one asked anything of her, even as the tears and mucous had run down her chin. As her mother was lifted on to a gurney, Miz Lightfoot approached a woman who had arrived and explained that June was her granddaughter. She lied well. The woman seemed satisfied that somehow this white woman with an accent that evoked headwraps and long winters could be the grandmother of this little brown girl. Miz Lightfoot walked her across the hall and into another world. 

Her apartment was shielded from the abrasion of light. Dark furniture and countless plants in pots. Jars on shelves filled with different hues, roots and leaves hiding within. It smelled clean, but in the strangest way, as dust was clean. She was guided to the couch and Miz Lightfoot laid a heavy woolen blanket over her. She sat above her knees and stroked her hair as shock turned to sleep. 

She woke in the night. Miz Lightfoot knelt before her. Her eyes were closed. She held a bundle of plants, smouldering. The smell was soothing. In her other hand she held something stranger than the smouldering plants. It was a bundle of feathers and two delicate bones tied with a ribbon. She held it to her forehead and whispered something, over and over. It was not English. She felt that perhaps she should be scared but she did not. She felt safe and loved. 

In the morning she sat at a table across from Miz Lightfoot. They ate boiled eggs on toast. June did not know what to say. Miz Lightfoot looked at her. “You are thinking about last night.” She stated. “It was a thing I did to ask for protection for you. You deserve it.” 

June finished chewing her toast. She stared at the table. “Was it magic?” June knew little about magic. 

“Yes.” Miz Lightfoot said. “I was talking to someone for you and asking them to guide you on your journey.” 

June nodded. This made sense. She wished that someone had done this for her before. 

After a few days her mother returned in a cab and life continued. Miz Lightfoot was a kind presence in the stairwell from then on, but nothing more. June did not understand. She wanted to be friends but Miz Lightfoot had become a mystery once again. 

But on this day, as June carried the two birds, Miz Lightfoot spoke again. “Do you remember what I did for you that night that your mother left?” 

June nodded. She felt protective of these birds and pulled them closer to her. 

“These are friends to you, June. They heard me ask for help and they answered. If you care for them then they will care for you. They will guide you to where you need to go. Know that they will eat most things, that they are clean birds, and that they have incredible memories for both friends and enemies.” 

Miz Lightfoot knelt and hugged both June and the crows and went on her way. 

June entered her apartment. Her mother did not respond. June checked that she was breathing and when she was satisfied she returned to her bedroom. She put the birds on her floor. She did not want them to fall again. She built a nest around them with her clothes. She lined the inside of the nest with her only clean sheet. In the kitchen she found little. There was always peanut butter and white bread and so this is what she fed them. 

She stayed with them all day. They were so smooth, so dark, and in their eyes there was something like understanding. They looked like Miz Lightfoot if Miz Lightfoot was a bird. They seemed unafraid and she began to stroke them gently. They leaned into her fingers and ruffled their feathers. They rubbed their heads against her hands. 

She did not go to school the next day. Her mother had only moved from her bed to use the bathroom. June saw that they did not have enough food. She ate cereal with water and gave the fledgling crows the last of the peanut butter and the shattered remains of a bag of corn chips. 

She had no money. Miz Lightfoot was the only one who might help her but she was embarrassed. These birds were hers to take care of. In the early light of the following day she left her house with plastic bags around her hands. On the street was a squirrel, run down by a car and left to die. She picked it up, hoping that no one saw her, and walked back to her apartment. 

She cut into the squirrel’s stomach. It was not yet stiff, still supple, its fur so soft, and she felt sad for it but knew that this was the way things were. She had never been told why things were this way and she did not feel that she had the tools or words to make sense of it. 

The birds were glad for the gift. They pecked at it. June did not watch but felt she should. These birds were hers. If there were things to be learned from them then it was her responsibility to do so. She sat on her mattress on the floor to watch. 

They ate its eyes. Their sharp, smart beaks moved into its mouth to tear loose its tongue. They pulled the strange lumps and strings from within its gut and they ate those too. June tried to learn. What was the lesson? 

Maybe death was nothing to fear. Maybe spirit lived inside all that confusing flesh. She had been told about Jesus, long ago, and how his body was bread and his people ate this bread. Maybe this squirrel was like Jesus. Maybe this was the worship of the world. There was an endless passage in which death became life became death again.

She watched for a long time. She was very hungry but the sun had gone down. The electricity had been turned off and she lay on her bed until sleep came upon her. 

She had a dream. She was gliding high above a frigid city. It was neither beautiful nor ugly. It was just the world. 

A thick fog drifted upwards from many places. Here and there gold ascended in a reversal of rain. Her eyes were sharp. At her right and left two others like her were exalting in their freedom. They flew downwards in a gentle circling and she followed. A man in a blue uniform sat in a car and the gray poured out. They flew low and heard his cursing. They saw the gnashing of his teeth. 

She and her companions circled lower. They made a vortex of the gray and it spun faster and faster until it was a thick and concentrated line. It no longer drifted to fall upon the ground or penetrate lungs. It grew denser until it was a pebble that fell to the ground. She landed beside it and her two friends joined her. 

She understood. She picked it up in her beak and ate it. It was the only way to remove this dangerous thing. It did not hurt her. She saw how this man’s life was full of rage and disappointment. The things that he desired had not come to pass and the things that he used to fill the gaps were not good enough. The understanding of these things was painful but she felt as though she was built for this- just as this body ate the fallen dead, it ate dead feelings. 

They took flight again. A shower of light was rising from beneath a bridge. There was a man there, cold, red-faced and harried by a life too unfair to survive. Again they circled, but this was a circle of joy, not of duty, and when their dance was done a shining bauble was all that remained. Again, she ate of it and knew the man, but this time not his sadness, but instead his freedom. There was love inside her, the joy of friendship, and the sadness of these things coming to pass. She saw that he was beautiful and that he was holy and that his freedom was necessary to balance all the grey that drifted skyward. 

She woke and it was still dark. She had fallen asleep face down but felt warmth pressing against her legs. She rolled over slowly and gently. The two foundlings were beside her. They stood and opened their wings. They flapped them and hopped into the air. She saw that they could fly, that they were ready to go about their work in the world and this hurt her, though she wanted them to be free. 

It was almost dawn. Soon the sun would crest the horizon on a cold day. She would not know what to do or where to go. There would be nothing but her uncertain life. Her charges hopped toward the door. They both rapped their beaks upon it. She did not know where they wanted to go. She opened the door and they jumped and flapped towards her mother’s door. 

Within, she saw the gold rising. She could not say ‘no’. She could not beat the ground. There was no one to see or hear these things. She was too empty to sob, too lost. Her stomach, her chest, her throat all tried to register this thing, this worst thing. 

She crawled into her mother’s bed and held her. She was still warm but something was gone. She cried tears that had been ripening for so long, sobs that should have been heard around the world and when that wasn’t enough she cried more. The crook of her mother’s neck, her soft shoulder, this body that had been so lost for so long was free and she was scared. And her friends… she could feel them beside her. 

As she cried she felt something deep inside her brain pop, some kind of death that was only partially completed, and time changed, moving so slowly, and she was in two places and she was two things. She was above the body that was once her’s. The gray poured out of her but it was parting- there was a light emerging from the fog and it became insubstantial as it rose. Her friends were beside her again, making awkward circles in the small room. Miz Lightfoot was there. 

She knelt by June’s body and checked her pulse, then stroked her hair. She looked to the birds as they flew their hampered flight. She looked both happy and sad. 

Miz Lightfoot spoke to the room, her eyes closed. “June, you have a choice now. You know what it is. I want you to know that none of it was ever fair, but few things are. There is not much that ends in this world, or any of the others. Just as you’ve had your measure of sadness, you will have your measure of joy”. 

June made her decision. 

She flew with her friends. The gray and the gold were married and after some time they were gone, leaving only a small bauble, crystalline with a fault in its center. June landed. She took the bauble in her beak. It tasted of sadness and love and at the end of those it tasted of freedom. She swallowed it and then she was born anew. 

Miz Lightfoot opened the window and the three young crows flew out, a day of sacred duty before them. She left the window open. She rolled June onto her back, crossed her arms across her chest, closed her eyes, and walked across the hall to use the phone. 

Portrait of the Artist as an Obsolete Asshole

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Note: I should revisit this. I missed some points but it is already too long and my body and brain are on fire. It takes quite a while to get things done when this is happening.

Dramatis Personae

Walter Benjamin: Dead person. A theorist of art and society. Deliberately overdosed on heroin rather than be captured by the Gestapo (fucking A right).

Karl Marx: Dead person. Storied theorist of capitalist society. Impregnator of maids. Afflicted by boils. Doubtlessly a genius, most likely a total dick. 

Rush: A rock band consisting of Geddy Lee, notable for his piercing voice and cadaverous appearance; Neil Peart, acclaimed drummer and dead person; and Alex Lifeson, notable for his relative invisibility contra his bandmates. 

Ayn Rand: Dead person. Miserable human. Author of bad novels. Champion of capitalist individualism.

Piotr Kropotkin: Dead person. Anarchist saint. Russian noble. Geographer. 

Glossary

Fixed capital: Machinery utilized in the production process. Transfers ‘dead’ human labor into products. Incapable of producing profit. 

Variable capital: Human labor expended upon raw material. The only facet of the production process that is capable of producing profit. 

Commodity: A thing that both satisfies a human need and that has an exchange value in which it has equivalence with other things through the medium of money. 

Capitalism: The water that we’re swimming in. Representative of all your hopes and fears. Engine of misery.

Ayn Rand is one of those authors that you try to read in high school because you think you’re smart. After a day of effort you realize that the book, whether it’s The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, or Anthem are painfully boring and largely pointless. I was such a young person, drawn to things that were reputed to be intelligent and still ignorant of the fact that my high school teachers were profoundly stupid. 

I fucking hate South Park. While there is an appeal to watching characters bounce around on their gigantic testicles or witnessing penises take flight and explode, at this point it’s an unavoidable reality that the creative team are nothing more than alt-light trolls who shit on people with enough conviction to try to improve the world. 

I will make an exception as to the ideology espoused: At the conclusion of the ‘Chicken Fucker’ episode, Officer Barbrady finally reads Ayn Rand (and thereby conquers his illiteracy) and concludes “Yes, at first I was happy to be learning how to read. It seemed exciting and magical. But then I read this: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read every last word of this garbage and because of this piece of shit I’m never reading again.”  

That’s pretty much how I felt, though I did continue reading. The Cliff Notes version of her work is basically that there are people of vision and genius who need to transcend the grasping fools who would impede their aggrandizement. 

If such a thing strikes you as gross and stupid, it is. One of Piotr Kropotkin’s lasting gifts to nascent radicals is the assertion that there is nothing that ‘great men’ do that is not born of the sweat and technical skill of the lower classes. Without the weaving of children they would go unclothed. If not for the yeoman in the field they would have no food. Nor would they have the necessary raw materials to depart the masses and found a territory of brilliant and talented individuals (yes, this is indeed a plotline in Ayn Rand’s work) without the misery of people laboring in mines. Capitalism doesn’t need an ideology, and if it did it surely wouldn’t be this drek. Its total penetration of human life appears to be natural and that pretty much takes care of its ideological needs. 

It’s a somewhat embarrassing fact that I like Rush. And it’s not an attempt to be ironic. Whether it’s familiarity or just their technical skill I get pretty stoked when I hear Red Barchetta. I’m keenly aware of their politics too. Somehow these people who basically mastered the complicated skill of crafting radio hits were dedicated Randians, and you don’t have to dig too deeply to become aware of this. 

They are painful in their devotion and stupidity. For instance Anthem (from the admittedly awesome record Fly By NIght) is an immediate call back to Ayn Rand’s novel of the same name.  The verses of the song are a testament: “Live for yourself. There’s no one else more worth living for.  Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.” You could compose these lyrics by printing and cutting up any three comments on the Fox News website, throwing them in the air, and rearranging them randomly. The song concludes with a lyric so silly that I almost feel pity for them: “Well, I know they’ve always told you selfishness was wrong yet it was for me, not you I came to write this song.” 

Okay, sure. In a sense this is true. Neil Peart wrote the song so he could make some money. Definitely for him. But any capitalist, beneath their bluster, needs a consumer. If a prog rock radio hit falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear Geddy Lee scream then you’ve just got three nerds without a pot to piss in hanging around and talking about aliens. No one does anything in our society simply for themselves, as much as people love to barf up Milton Friedman for Dummies soundbites. 

There are plenty of songs in a similar vein, from the anti-union ballad The Trees to the outright statement of dislike of their fans voiced in Limelight. These kind of elitist assertions of derision for the rest of humanity by the glorious ubermensch artist happen, but nobody takes them very seriously. 

I never really got into Walter Benjamin. I certainly admired him. Just the fact that he overdosed on morphine rather than be arrested by the Gestapo earns him a statue as far as I’m concerned, but his work was in the vein of the Frankfurt School which I’ve never liked all that much. This might be intellectual laziness on my part. They were working during a time of great danger and attempting to grapple with the rise of fascism in Europe. While the fascists ultimately lost, they’d done a great job of exterminating the people on my team and they probably deserve my attention. 

The only essay of Benjamin’s that I’ve read is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The thrust of the essay is that (in 1935) society had reached a point of development in which art was being produced on an industrial scale. His assertion was that in earlier societal development the work of art had an aura, which was itself socially produced. It was housed in a place of worship or on display in a gallery. There was only one such thing, unique in all the world. David or the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel were not things that could be reproduced. In part their singularity was their value. 

But a new thing had occurred. Processes for mass producing images and sound had developed and they suplexed this prissy sculpting and painting from the top rope of the ring. The eye behind the camera lens was the eye of a technician. The portrayal of reality became a simulacrum of discrete moments assembled for presentation to a mass audience. So it was that before Fordism the mass production of images became accessible to all. The reality of the theater captured perception. 

This is all very smart and very important. But there’s a Marxian concept that doesn’t really get deployed in the essay. Value theory, the core insight of Marxian economics, doesn’t get played around with and I think it has a lot to say. 

As Piotr Kropotkin would assert, there is no one who is great (though there are plenty of heroes). Artistry under capitalism is a complicated thing. For one, what the fuck would we even call art? Do the ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ posters you can buy at “Bed, Bath, and Beyond” qualify? I fucking hope not. 

Or perhaps the disneyfied photographs that appear alongside captioned platitudes on bus shelters and billboards rise to this level? Perhaps it’s comforting to the pensioner fighting frostbite to be reminded that Frederick Douglass existed and has some wisdom to offer her as she sits in the cold, waiting to be ferried to some futile doctor’s appointment. Is the new season of Vikings art?  Or is it a way of insulating the world from some sort of refutation of the terminal boredom we live with? 

We’re in a post-propaganda world. The weaponization of images, words and sound isn’t something that we’re likely to recover from. You can’t believe your lying eyes, but you very likely want to. We know that underneath it all is an engine, some diabolical vitamix, liquifying us in furtherance of some impulse or dark dream. 

There is a duality to the use values of the cultural commodities we consume. They satisfy a need, and I’m completely honest about the need they satisfy for me: I’m fucking pacified. Television is a drug and I’m an addict. Even the most puritanical modern human shoots this heroin into their eyeball. It’s what we talk about, where we go fishing for identities that we’d like to try on, and the neurological sedative that we return to at the end of a day. 

On the other end of things it provides a means of social control and it doesn’t even have to be designed to accomplish this goal. It’s enough that it transfixes. There’s no need for a government to coordinate it: The Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to continue its grand enterprise of apologizing for imperialism without a bit of prodding from the state. 

And of course these things are a means of accumulating capital, but I really don’t feel qualified to speak to the economy of television and film. It’s a collision of advertising, sexualization, ticket sales and kitsch that is beyond me at the moment. 

Music functions similarly. I spend a lot of time in doctor’s offices. Mostly there is a pleasant vacuum of stimuli. The background noise of humming HVAC provides just enough audible fuzz to allow me to space out and simply stare. It’s heaven, to be in an in-between place at an in-between time. Thought disappears. Sweet relief. 

But sometimes they play music and I take umbrage at this. This isn’t fucking Walgreens (where I am under the impression that they play Sting just to hurry me through the store). The worst, the very worst, was an office where they played modern top-40 country. I developed a deep antipathy towards everyone who worked there and decided that they were, if not bad people, dangerously stupid. 

Joseph Goebbels would be hard-pressed to develop something more diabolical. The only difference is that the end-goal of this shit ear garbage was to inspire either drinking, fucking, or (ideally) both, in a particularly dumb, armed, and trucked package, instead of facilitating a genocide and the construction of a war machine dedicated to global conquest (it’s already been accomplished).

Is it art? I guess so. So, having established that I hate everything, let’s talk about Rush some more. 

That they consider themselves to be artists is abundantly, grossly clear. It’s in the lyrics. But this is capitalism. If you’re an artist then you’re an artist for money and if you’re doing something for money then it’s your job. So, Peart, Lifeson and Lee are workers, but they’re workers in a music factory. 

Working in the music factory takes some skill. Depending on what exactly you’re trying to accomplish it can take years of training with no compensation (although it is true that you can be utterly talentless and be a musician- go ahead and listen to the Misfits). So, you first have to make yourself. 

This likely requires hours of practice and in some instances schooling in a conservatory. Following on that you need just enough of an input of aspirational ego not to jump ship on the process and start selling guitars at a music store. 

Following this there are the weird tasks of forming a band. Since most people are horrible this can take a while. Hats off to whoever made Cream come together. Eric Clapton is an asshole, Ginger Baker a psychopath and Jack Bruce (was) an alcoholic. 

It’s possible (likely even) that this work process requires that you have a powerful addiction to a mind-altering substance. It’s part of whatever remains of the ‘aura’ Benjamin was speaking of. Tragedy is part and parcel of all of this. We like our artists troubled and it helps if it’s the kind of troubled that they somehow survive and talk about in Rolling Stone. 

So, our rock stars have been produced. The value embodied in them by numerous drugs, educational processes and egoism are moved into a recording studio where a recording engineer, who has way less capital crammed up his ass then the musicians, works with them to get a perfect cut for consumption by the masses. This is a process that involves a lot of machinery, from the mixing board to the guitars to whatever other shit ends up in a recording studio. Chips? Beers? 

From there the master tape moves to pressing. WAY more fixed capital involved here. The fixed capital embodied in the recording is distributed across however many CD’s, tapes, vinyl records, whatever. They’re sent to market. Apparently some UPS guy moves them around unless there are strategic air drops of Rush records in counterinsurgency campaigns. Otherwise a tragically stereotypical salesperson sells these recordings in Sam Goody to the sad fuckers buying the music. (Yes, I realize that this is no longer a way that people access music, and it will be acknowledged several paragraphs down).

It’s probably a thing that the musicians go on tour. This appears to be some sort of homage to the reliquary of authenticity. It fulfills the yearning for nostalgia of weekend warriors to hoist a beer and sing along to the verses they know. They confirm that Rush isn’t a clever artificial intelligence kicking out radio hits for the mullet set. They’ve imparted a facsimile of aura to the plebes to get ready for another day running the gauntlet with a morning dose of Spirit of the Radio

I went to a Rush concert when I was 13, accompanied by my drug buddy cousin and my psychotic uncle. It was the “Test for Echo” tour, which is definitely one of their more forgettable records. We were in the cheap seats. I was supposed to be enthralled by the image of Geddy Lee prancing on the stage and Neil Peart playing an obligatory drum solo on his ridiculously overbuilt set. There was even a laser light show component. I was still bored out of my mind. 

So these are the inputs: Highly capitalized living labor; stacks and double bass drums, a recording engineer and mixer laboring away on expensive equipment to assemble the cacophony into something digestible; the marketing geniuses responsible for convincing people that this music is indeed something worth buying; the road crew committed to creating a sufficiently seamless tour for their pampered charges; and the poor schleps who produce the music as a consumer product and the bitter nerds who sell it. 

This is a formulation that mostly applies to a brief period in history, just a passing phase as music passes through a progression of production processes. I’m old enough to remember Sam Goody, (which I’m pretty sure means I’m on my way to ancient). but an interesting thing occurs on the way out of this particular era of production: We transition to music that is primarily distributed via the internet. 

This is an interesting passage. The living labor embodied in music is ever more infinitesimal. CD’s get tossed in the trash because who fucking needs them? They’re delicate, it’s too fucking easy to lose the liner notes, and who wants to have one of those tacky CD towers? We’ve got an endless array of computer programs and streaming services that are infinitely more durable. Some of them allow us to circumvent the commodity form altogether. Shazam and Napster (and whatever other services allow you to download stuff for free) allow us to access music without paying for it. Regardless of the streaming music services that make an effort to monetize the last live Rush show, the commodity transitioning to a different economic form is essentially free. Has it transcended capitalism? 

Probably not. It’s definitely rendered lyrics about the ‘art’ being performed by the musician themself a joke. It’s definitely for us, not Neil Peart (or his ghost? Kids? I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know how this shit works). We don’t have to pay. The most that all but the cheesiest musicians can hope for in terms of payment is some ‘tip’ money via Venmo or the purchase of a t-shirt when they’re on the road. Otherwise you might get some praise or some respect (which are indeed rare in the life of a laborer).  And unfortunately praise and respect don’t get you paid. How are you going to spend months in a farmhouse being a fucking genius when no one has to buy your records? 

To wrap up, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction might, instead of losing it’s aura, has nothing else. The extent to which digitization has shifted the balance between living labor and machines is profound. The incredible productivity of the reproduction of images and sound may have pushed the work of art from the commodity form out of the realm of exchange value to nothing more than a use value. 

This was an assertion of autonomous Marxist collective Zero Work- that capitalism had reached a point at which there is so much amassed ‘fixed capital’ that there is no longer any value being created and that we are transitioning to a post-value world. Work, in this society, is simply a means of social control. 

Maybe contemporary art is just this: A mechanism for social control that is no longer a bearer of value. Drive your Tesla through the homeless encampment while your Spotify account queues up Red Barchetta. Instead of dodging air ships you can run down the people that remind you of the inevitability of death. Sure, the song doesn’t really mean anything, but what does?