Part 1: Negligence
Part 2: Getting Stuck
Interlude: An Illegible Fog
Part 3: The Lands Between
What does it mean to be stuck? To feel that there are no good options, nor clear exits from having to choose in the first place? To lose hope in a future with any possibility, while the present chokes you with itself, endlessly?
In the summer of 2021, I decided to take my own life. I’ve written about that before, and so I don’t want to hammer again the themes of that essay. But much to my surprise in the aftermath of my failed suicide, I found I had entered a state of feeling dead all the same. Former friends stopped talking. Colleagues at the university where I work, who had once called themselves my friends, retreated to their professional roles. My capacity to write all but disappeared: I would open the draft of the novel I’d been working on for seven years, and feel nothing. I would stare through it like a window. The medications that had curbed my suicidality were double-edged: they had also curbed my desire to participate in life.
Depression is merciless, like most phenomena of the natural world, and its powerful waves push you out to sea, far enough that the people standing on the shore reason, quite rationally, it’s no longer safe for them to go in after you. You really are on your own.
I had, in a word, become stuck. I didn't want to be alone in this feeling, so I began to look for the great stuck figures of literature, the people who were alive, but not living, the ones who had retreated from society as society retreated from them.
The narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s novel Woodcutters is one such figure, being a man who attends a dinner party of Viennese socialites but sits in the corner, speaking to no one. The whole book takes place in the narrator’s head as he observes the various party guests, who are all waiting for a famous actor to arrive. The novel is unusual for many reasons—for its lack of paragraph breaks, its concatenating, long Germanic sentences, its refusal to engage with a plot—but its main interests are quite typical, as it charts the grief, but mostly the anger, of a man whose closest friends and lovers have all killed themselves in one manner or another.
Bernhard was, by many accounts, a difficult person to be around. But that kind of appraisal of a person, especially of an artist, is usually content-less: it tells you more about the appraiser than the appraised, that people like Bernhard just don’t like people who write about people like Bernhard. Thomas Bernhard didn’t seem to like anyone who was interested in writing about him, which made him a critical disaster. He was a combative subject for interviews.
HOFMANN: Is writing a kind of liberation for you or is it a protest?
BERNHARD: No, I don't protest against anything.
HOFMANN: You're satisfied with everything?
BERNHARD: I'm satisfied with everything. Completely.
HOFMANN: Well then, why do you write?
BERNHARD: Probably because I'm so satisfied with myself and happy about everything.
Compliance is an expectation of interviews: that you agree to be answerable at all. But how many good questions are there for artists? Explaining the joke, as they say, kills the joke; an artist explaining himself, in general, is the death of artistic possibility. Of letting the work do the talking for you. In one interview, David Lynch is asked about his influences for Blue Velvet, and Lynch doesn’t avoid answering so much as he avoids meaning entirely:
INTERVIEWER: It seems like Blue Velvet is an ‘80s film noir, with its passive central character, many of the trademark shots of the noir films, you have the person getting involved with something over which he has no control. Did you ever think about that aspect?
LYNCH: I love film noir, but this is a neighborhood film in my mind. It’s still dark and still deals with certain themes that noir dealt with, but I didn’t think, “I want to do a film noir kind of picture.”
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean by a “neighborhood film”?
LYNCH: It takes place in a neighborhood.
Bernhard was showered with awards during his life, and his acceptance speeches are hilariously combative. He was a literary roast comic, in other words, and in his speeches you can feel both his disdain for the ceremony, and the audience, but also his love at being the smartest, most disdainful one in the room. Where Marlon Brando would send Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his Best Actor award for The Godfather, Bernhard wasn’t the sort to cede the stage, or to miss a chance at the final word. Accepting the Austrian State Prize in 1967, Bernard’s speech is a miniature of the writer at his best:
Honored Minister, Honored Guests,
There is nothing to praise, nothing to damn, nothing to accuse, but much that is absurd, indeed it is all absurd, when one thinks about death.
We go through life impressed, unimpressed, we cross the scene, everything is interchangeable, we have been schooled more or less effectively in a state where everything is mere props: but it is all an error! We understand: a clueless people, a beautiful country- there are dead fathers or fathers conscientiously without conscience, straightforwardly despicable in the raw basics of their needs...it all makes for a past history that is philosophically significant and unendurable. Our era is feebleminded, the demonic in us a perpetual national prison in which the elements of stupidity and thoughtlessness have become a daily need. The state is a construct eternally on the verge of foundering, the people one that is endlessly condemned to infamy and feeblemindedness, life a state of hopelessness in every philosophy and which will end in universal madness.
We're Austrians, we're apathetic, our lives evince the basest disinterest in life, in the workings of nature we represent the future as megalomania.
We have nothing to report except that we are pitiful, brought down by all the imaginative powers of an amalgam of philosophical, economic and machine-driven monotony.
Means to an end when that end is destruction, creatures of agony, everything is explained to us and we understand nothing. We populate a trauma, we are frightened, we have the right to be frightened, we can already see in the dim background the dim shapes of the giants of fear.
What we think is secondhand, what we experience is chaotic, what we are is unclear.
We don't have to be ashamed, but we are nothing, and we earn nothing but chaos.
In my name and in the name of those here who have also been selected by this jury, I thank all of you.
Bernhard’s style is on full display here—the length of his sentences, the raving build of clauses that often collapse beneath the next clause, the undertow of despair, pulling you beneath the meaning, the fury at having to end, and only wanting to end to go on, to get to the next ending.
Woodcutters is the consensus pick for Bernhard’s best book, though it’s really a variation on what Bernhard usually does, like Philip Glass adding to the next wave a horn. The waves in Bernhard, repetitive as they are, are mostly good. And in this wave, the nameless narrator has been invited to a party thrown by the Auersbergers, prominent Austrian socialites. He believes they’ve invited him out of pity: encountering one another on the street a few days before the party, they mention a mutual friend Joana who has recently killed herself. “I momentarily gave way to the most shameful sentimentality, I thought, and the Auersbergers immediately took advantage of it; they took advantage of the suicide of our mutual friend Joana, I thought, to issue their invitation, which I at once accepted, though it would have been wiser to turn it down.” Using a suicide as an excuse to throw a party is shameful, if we believe the premise the narrator has laid out before us, but we are already wary of his cynicism, which is compulsive and all-consuming. When the narrator first receives the news of Joana’s death on the phone with a friend who runs a general store, he concludes she has not died, exactly, but instead killed herself, a nuance that is at once explored. “I guessed at once that Joana had hanged herself; in fact I said to [my friend], Joana hanged herself, didn’t she? She was taken aback and simply said Yes. People like Joana hang themselves, I said. They don’t throw themselves in the river or jump out of fourth-floor windows: they get a piece of rope, deftly tie a noose in it, attach it firmly to a beam, then let themselves drop into the noose. Ballerinas and actresses hang themselves, I told the woman from the general store.” The narrator’s insistence over the kind of suicide is strange but probing, which certainly goes noticed by his friend, who is “taken aback”.
Why might artists and intellectuals choose to hang themselves before any other methods? It’s not answered, though it might speak to a tribalism that Bernhard trafficked in: his books are mostly about artists and intellectuals, and so maybe what binds them in life might also carry over to what binds them in death. The Auersbergers believe they’re telling the narrator the news of Joana’s suicide for the first time, though he has already heard it—he plays dumb, which he ascribes to “ineptitude” on his part more than subterfuge, though he regrets allowing the Auersbergers the chance to be triumphant: “I ought to have told them the precise circumstances, I thought, and so deprived them of their triumph, which they were actually reveling in and savoring to the full…I had allowed the Auersbergers the thrill of being the sudden bearers of ill tidings.”
The thrill in other’s misfortunes, which is such a Germanic experience that we only describe it in German, schadenfreude, consumes the narrator. His competitiveness is practically sociopathic because he can’t stand the thought that his suffering might be the source of other people’s pleasures. As the party gets underway, he sits in a wing-backed chair, unmolested by others because of his “gift for behaving in such a way that people leave me alone whenever I wish.” Other artists mingle in the Auersberger’s home, including Jeannie Billroth, who brands herself as the “Viennese Virginia Woolf,” and whose writing the narrator finds little more than an expression of “convoluted sentimentality.” He overhears Billroth telling the Auersbergers that her next novel has “gone a step further” than Woolf, and he reflects on how Joana was a far better artist, though she had far less success. Before her death, Joana’s face was “bloated and her legs swollen” from alcohol, the narrator remembers, her apartment filled with the horrible smells of an alcoholic who is hanging improbably on to life. Joana became a drunk because she couldn’t become a success. She died because she couldn’t survive the terms of her own life. The failure of a good artist like Joana to find social success is really a failure of all of society’s, and might explain the narrator’s misanthropy, which borders on sociopathy: the market of ideas, and of fine arts, can really only support so many Billroths who claim to be stepping further than Woolf ever could. We can only support so many.
Is it facile to say that good art can go unrewarded? Surely it is, but then what’s left to do instead but go to a corner and exile yourself from all facile things? The narrator’s thoughts, so noisy on the silent page, begin to intrude into the parlor: guests overhear him muttering the expressions “the artistic world” and “the artistic life”, and they turn their heads in the direction of his muttering, though they don’t engage him. Bitterness isn’t decorous, of course, and it doesn’t lend itself to good conversation. Most people are trained in some manner or another to keep the social peace, and usually at the cost of genuine artistic expression, as the narrator might put it. That keeping the social peace extends to their art, and that their art must also keep the social peace, goes unnoticed: they believe, like Billroth, that they are stepping further than Woolf, though they forget, or worse, ignore entirely, that Woolf stepped further than them all, her pockets full of stones, beneath the flat gray face of the River Ouse. “They’re all what are termed well-known artists, celebrated artists, who sit as senators in the so-called Art Senate; they call themselves professors and have chairs at our academies; they are invited by this or that college or university to speak at this or that symposium; they travel to Brussels or Paris or Rome, to the United States and Japan and the Soviet Union and China, where sooner or later they’re invited to give lectures about themselves and open exhibitions of their pictures, and yet as I see it they haven’t become anything. They’ve all quite simply failed to achieve the highest, and as I see it only the highest can bring real satisfaction, I thought.” Artistic success involves luck, certainly, but it also involves a kind of sociopathy, masked as salesmanship: it is the ruthless selling of yourself, to cut at the value of others. When the narrator watches Joana’s burial, he is depressed at “not so much the fact that Joana was being buried as that the only people who followed her coffin were artistic corpses, failures, Viennese failures, the living dead of the artistic world—writers, painters, dancers and hangers-on, artistic cadavers not yet quite dead, who looked utterly grotesque in the pelting rain.” The artistically dead carrying the truly dead, pelted with rain, become a horrific tessellation of death socketed into death for the narrator, who watches in disgust the rain “trickling down their fur coats like so much dirty gravy.” Disgust is perhaps the quickest way to prove, for the narrator, that he is still artistically alive—his disgust wakes him from his deathly somnambulism, stirring him to mutter in his wing chair, to lift off the silence of his thinking and disturb the peace of the parlor.
What killed Joana, in the end, was negligence. She was neglected by everyone, including herself. The narrator can’t be stopped in these thoughts, sweeping into a rant that is, perhaps, my favorite riff on the neglected form:
I repeated the word negligence to myself several times; I kept on repeating the word—it was as if the word gave me pleasure as I sat in the wing chair—until the people in the music room noticed, and when I saw them all looking in my direction I stopped repeating it. They were all friends of mine thirty years ago, I thought, and I could no longer understand why. For a time we go in the same direction as other people, then one day we wake up and turn our backs on them. I turned my back on these people—they didn’t turn their backs on me, I thought. We attach ourselves to certain people, then suddenly we hate them and let go. We run after them for years, begging for their affection, I thought, and when once we have their affection we no longer want it. We flee from them and they catch up with us and seize hold of us, and we submit to them and all their dictates, I thought, surrendering to them until we either die or break loose. We flee from them and they catch up with us and crush us to crush us to death. We run after them and implore them to accept us, and they accept us and do us to death. Or else we avoid them from the beginning and succeed in avoiding them all our lives, I thought. Or we walk into their trap and suffocate. Or we escape from them and start running them down, slandering them and spreading lies about them, I thought, in order to save ourselves, slandering them wherever we can in order to save ourselves, running away from them for dear life and accusing them everywhere of having us on their consciences. Or they escape from us and slander and accuse us, spreading every possible lie about us in order to save themselves, I thought. We think our lives are finished, and then we chance to meet them and they rescue us, but we are not grateful to them for rescuing us: on the contrary we curse them and hate them for rescuing us, and we pursue them all our lives with the hatred we feel toward them for having rescued us. Or else we try to curry favor with them and they push us away, and so we avenge ourselves and so we avenge ourselves by slandering them, running them down wherever we can and pursuing them to their graves with our hatred. Or they help us back on our feet at the crucial moment and we hate them for it, just as they hate us when we help them back on their feet, I thought as I sat in the wing chair. We do them a favor and then think we are entitled to their eternal gratitude, I thought, sitting in the wing chair. For years we are on terms of friendship with them, then suddenly we no longer are, and we don’t know why. We love them so fervently that we become positively lovesick, and they reject us and hate us for our love, I thought. We’re nothing, and they make something of us, and we hate them for it.”
The rush and retreat of the sentences here, the tug and pull of all that hate and all that love, and the authorship of our feelings and the authorship of ourselves, all these forces become victims of and offenders to one another, negligence feeds negligence, and coherence collapses. We want people to be coherent—we want them to be continuous, we want them to be themselves, but others are also ourselves, and when we push them away, when we destroy them, we push ourselves away, we destroy ourselves. The death of an artist like Joana isn’t just there, in the coffin: it’s out there too, in the pelting rain, pooling like gravy in the dead furs of the dead people who helped kill her.
Such ideas of self require a communal sense of being, based on the notion that we do, in fact, exist in a society, and that our margins are much more porous than we’ve been led to believe. We learn more of the narrator’s backstory, and how he once was in love with Jeannie Billroth, the writer who will step further than Woolf. The narrator blames himself, for abandoning Billroth: “We spend years sucking all we can out of someone, and then, having almost sucked them dry, we suddenly say that we ourselves are being sucked dry.” To acknowledge that the way we’ve organized our communities is, in ways far realer than we’d care to admit, vampiric and practically salivary, a ritual of bone-sucking, in other words, is to acknowledge that our lives exist beneath psychopathic superstructures. These psychopathic superstructures place us in constant pursuit of and retreat from each other, just as they render accountability of any sort completely unintelligible. Who’s to blame? No one. Everyone. But really, no one. Joana is dead. We killed her, we killed ourselves. But we’re still alive. We’re still successful. She isn’t alive, she isn’t successful. We never were alive, we never succeeded.
Woodcutters reaches a climax of sorts: an old actor, who the narrator has always considered a “gargoyle,” lays into Jeanie Billroth, telling her what he really thinks of her. Just prior to his outburst, Jeannie has asked him “whether he could say, now that he had more or less reached the end of his life, that he had so to speak found fulfillment in his art.” The cruelty of her question’s framing, calling on his mortality, and then asking him to weigh the worth of his life, is too much for the actor. He screams at her, “You’re one of those people who know nothing and are worth nothing and consequently hate everybody. It’s as simple as that. You hate everybody because you hate yourself and your own pitiful inadequacy. You talk incessantly about art, without having the faintest notion of what art is… You’re a stupid and destructive person, and you’re not even ashamed of it.” As he gets up to leave the party, the narrator hears the old actor muttering to Auersberger, but more to himself, in a reflection, or perhaps a becoming, of himself, “To go into the forest, deep into the forest, said the actor, to yield oneself up to the forest, that had always been his ideal—to become part of nature oneself. The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter—that has always been my ideal, he said with sudden excitement, as he made to leave.” The narrator, who has always hated this old actor, suddenly finds his allegiances have shifted, that he now loves this old actor, if only momentarily, because he has uttered something alive, something artistically alive, in the presence of so much death. To leave society, that is the artistic imperative—to leave art, too, and take up an ax and swing it at life itself.
The narrator flees from the party, and seems to be ready to flee at last from the page. He will leave artistic society. Leave it to write about this night while there’s still time, while there’s still life, while there’s still the possibility of art: “I’ll write something at once, no matter what—I’ll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought—at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City—at once, I told myself, now—at once, at once, before it’s too late.”
But how do you flee from the party when you’re stuck in your chair? How do you move when your freedom to move has been taken from you? How do you stay artistically, spiritually alive when the world has ceased to move around you?
In their great book The Dawn of Everything (2021), David Graeber and David Wengrow propose an entirely novel approach to understanding the historical causes of our present stuckness. They argue, in effect, that we’re asking the wrong question entirely when we ask, “Where and when did inequality appear?” Instead, they propose a new set of questions:
“If human beings, through most of our history, have moved back and forth fluidly between different social arrangements, assembling and dismantling hierarchies on a regular basis, maybe the real question should be ‘how did we get stuck?’ How did we end up in one single mode? How did we lose that political self-consciousness, once so typical of our species? How did we come to treat eminence and subservience not as temporary expedients, or even the pomp and circumstance of some kind of grand seasonal theatre, but as inescapable elements of the human condition? If we started out just playing games, at what point did we forget that we were playing?”
Stuckness is, to Graeber and Wengrow, in part a condition of psychological illiteracy, a term that the sociologist C. Wright Mills defines in The Power Elite (1956) as a state in which we are no longer capable of drawing a coherent sense of ourselves that hasn’t been mediated and massaged systemically by the government, the deep state, and mass media. For Mills, we are psychologically illiterate when we capitulate to the following conditions:
(1) the media tell the man in the mass who he is—they give him identity;
(2) they tell him what he wants to be—they give him aspirations;
(3) they tell him how to get that way—they give him technique; and
(4) they tell him how to feel that he is that way even when he is not—they give him escape.
This formula is a problem for Mills, obviously, because it presents a “pseudo-world which the media invent and sustain.” Mills was writing about power in an emerging field of political study trying to contend with parapolitical forces that wielded great power, but were unaccountable to any traditional democratic institutions or structures. As just one example of the power and reach of parapolitical forces, neither you nor I can vote for David Frum to lose his job at The Atlantic, on the grounds that he loudly, and effectively, supported an illegal war in Iraq; Frum is not accountable to us, and there are few ways we can press for a regime change on the masthead of The Atlantic besides, perhaps, an influence campaign on social media. Though he never uses the phrase, Mills’ psychological illiteracy really looks and sounds like a kind of mind control that, with technological advances, is of a scale unprecedented in history. Where it took hundreds of years for the Bible and Christianity to spread its influence in Western Europe, and so change the minds of its worshippers, for Mills you could now turn on the TV and suddenly feel you needed a hamburger. In fact, you were a hamburger man. You’d been one all along. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, with the rise of mass media technologies, and their newfound capabilities to influence, that illegal, clandestine programs began to emerge like MKUltra, which used LSD and other forms of mind control on its subjects. Mind control wasn't just a trope of science fiction--it was literal policy for decades, at the level of the American state.
So is our stuckness really a state of mind control? In other words, do we feel stuck because we’ve been told to feel stuck?
Answering these questions requires a bit of a detour. In 1992, the political scientist (and, later, Iraq War architect) Francis Fukuyama published The End of History, a book that was initially received to wide acclaim, becoming a New York Times bestseller. Fukuyama argues that with the fall of the Soviet Union, we have reached a natural endpoint for human progress, whatever that means, having achieved a “remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government [that] emerged throughout the world over the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism…[L]iberal democracy may constitute the ‘end point of mankind's ideological evolution’ and the ‘final form of human government,’ and as such constituted the ‘end of history.’” Leaving aside the utter ridiculousness of the book’s conceptual foundation—History is over! Nothing left to see here!—for Fukuyama, what he calls “liberal democracy,” and which he will set out to define as a series of governmental failsafes and economic principles that others might call neoliberalism, is the most ideal, if imperfect, form of social organization. We should be immediately wary when political scientists use words like evolution or human nature, based as they are on culturally mediated and culturally specific ideas of people, and usually drawing from traditions of historiography that pick and choose the stories that suit a larger narrative, while leaving aside the stories that don’t.
We don’t have to look far for examples of this kind of pick-and-choose history-making. Growing up in Kentucky, I was aware of the Civil War. For a presentation on the war in grade school, I dressed up as Robert E. Lee, with a white beard and all, earning high marks for accuracy. Lee was something of a hero in the histories I received as a child—he fought nobly but on the wrong side, and really, who hasn’t made mistakes? In my high school, US History began with Reconstruction. What were we reconstructing? The ruins of the Civil War. Well, what happened then, what made the ruins? My US history teacher, Mr. Vale, was a libertarian with a cruel streak; in other words, a libertarian. He loved to give you detention for absent-mindedly resting your feet on the book tray of the desk in front of you. He loved to expound on the immorality of taxation, and the vulgarity of social programs. He loved to hear himself talk. Mr. Vale got to choose his starting point of history, as any historian does, and he chose to slur through the Civil War. So we absorbed the war through innuendo: it was about states’ rights, in the end, and, moreover, a fundamental goodness of human nature ascribed to no particular shade of gray or blue.
This was, of course, a farce of history-making, and of storytelling in general, and Mr. Vale wasn’t a good storyteller. He liked having a captured audience far more than he liked telling history, and his ideas of human nature were profoundly selfish and individualistic. I might have inherited these ideas of human nature, too, if not for one crucial defect: I was gay and closeted at an all-male Catholic high school, and so I understood myself to be a glitch in the system, like a virus, or a gap in the code that crashes the whole thing.
Fukuyama shares many of Mr. Vale’s qualities, though they might disagree on certain principles of economic organization. In their cosmology of human nature, however, both Vale and Fukuyama return again and again to ideas of natural self-centeredness. In other words, capitalism and the deregulation of its markets, and so the creation of private property, and all the security apparatuses needed to protect this property, present a kind of perfect state of being for the naturally selfish man. Me want castle. Me get castle. Me protect castle. Moat keep you out. Moat keep me safe. Stay out. Stay safe. We know that under capitalism not everyone gets to have that castle—but in Fukuyama’s reading, it’s the one system that provides the most castles or close-enough castles to the most people, and really, who doesn’t want a castle or a close-enough castle? Fukuyama is asking the wrong questions because his foundations are wrong: he can’t, or he refuses to, conceptualize the guy who doesn’t want the castle, or wouldn’t want it if his neighbor didn’t get one too, or finds castles totally distasteful to begin with. That person doesn’t exist, according to Fukuyama, or if they do, they’re a misguided, aberrant shoot of human nature that will never come to flower. An evolutionary dead-end.
Dawn of Everything seeks to throw out all these bad questions political scientists like Fukuyama are asking. It seeks to throw out all the bad history-making too, by showing numerous examples where people, and the societies they created, went in entirely different directions that were just as natural, if we could even dare to use such words, steeped in cultural specificity as they are, and so impossible to universalize. History can’t end, Graeber and Wengrow argue, so long as human creativity thrives.
One example of such human creativity comes from the Wendat people of North America, who lived in New France, in parts of northern Michigan along the Great Lakes and in the river valleys feeding them. The Wendat were a largely egalitarian society, based around principles of freedom and equality. To the 17th century French colonists who first encountered them, their egalitarian ways bordered on a kind of cosmic insanity (and, perhaps, to people in 2022). The French were scandalized by the Wendat for a number of reasons: for their lack of prisons, and really any system to enact punishment (crimes were compensated to the victims by the family of the offender, under the principle that “the public that must make amends for the offences of individuals”); for their relative gender equality; for their lack of charismatic leaders who could issue orders that anyone would follow; for their lack of meaningful private property. To the Jesuits, the Wendat appeared not only totally alien, but in some ways diabolical—Christianity is a hierarchical faith, lorded over by a God-king; the church reflects this hierarchical order, which is deemed holy, in its own institutional ranks. The Wendat conceived of freedom as the ability to disobey orders, and so to reject any hierarchies; to go where you wanted to go, and so reject the walls of private property; and to reorganize your community as you saw fit, and so to leave the religion and find a new one.
For Graeber and Wengrow, an important chief named Kondiaronk (known to the French as “the Rat”) becomes a focal point for the Wendat conception of freedom (the Wendat did have chiefs and elder figures, but they differed from the French in that no one was compelled to obey them). Kondiaronk was famed for being an eloquent speaker, and a gifted debater, and the French were spellbound, and sometimes outraged, by the arguments he made with them about freedom. In one riveting account, as Kondiaronk speaks to a French governor, he dissects how exactly the French have forfeited any sort of meaningful freedoms. When it comes to religion, for example, Kondiaronk doesn’t understand why a righteous god would withhold the truth of his arrival on earth to a select few disciples, saying, “For myself, I’ve always held that, if it were possible that God had lowered his standards sufficiently to come down to earth, he would have done it in full view of everyone, descending in triumph, with pomp and majesty, and most publicly … He would have gone from nation to nation performing mighty miracles, thus giving everyone the same laws. Then we would all have had exactly the same religion, uniformly spread and equally known throughout the four corners of the world, proving to our descendants, from then till ten thousand years into the future, the truth of this religion.” Why would God withhold secrets? Why create a religious elite, safeguarding gnostic knowledge and divine truth, when the news should be spread to everyone?
Graeber and Wengrow consider Kondiaronk’s questions seriously, as they lay out the fundamental three forms of social power used to reduce individual freedom:
1. The threat of violence
2. The keeping of secrets
3. The use of charisma/persuasion
The Christian God, according to Kondiaronk, by keeping his arrival secret, and the knowledge of the truth to a select few elites, is effectively creating the conditions for a fundamentally, certainly cosmically, unequal existence.
Kondiaronk expands his argument to the French notion of property, saying, “I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living.” It would be unthinkable to a Wendat seeing a man begging for change on the street—unthinkable not simply because money wasn’t really a thing the Wendat used (they had wampum, which served as a kind of political currency), but because the Wendat community would never allow one person to go hungry, so long as there was food with which to feed him.
The French governor pushes Kondiaronk to think like a Frenchmen, which we can assume means to think like an elite Frenchmen, like a governor. Kondiaronk responds,
“You honestly think you’re going to sway me by appealing to the needs of nobles, merchants and priests? If you abandoned conceptions of mine and thine, yes, such distinctions between men would dissolve; a levelling equality would then take its place among you as it now does among the Wendat. And yes, for the first thirty years after the banishing of self-interest, no doubt you would indeed see a certain desolation as those who are only qualified to eat, drink, sleep and take pleasure would languish and die. But their progeny would be fit for our way of living….A man motivated by interest cannot be a man of reason.”
The society Kondiaronk proposes here, where children are raised to abandon ideas of private property, and instead to focus on looking out for each other, isn’t some kind of naive proposal, either. The Wendat largely lived under these terms, and in relative peace, for centuries (they warred with their neighbors, yes, but even their war looked different than European wars—which I’ll get to later).
What would Fukuyama say to Kondiaronk? What would you?
I propose this question to my university students, as we explore ideas of freedom in a writing class. Like the French and Jesuits, they find much of what Kondiaronk says appealing, but implausible. Their psychological illiteracy—my psychological illiteracy—renders this form of human creativity as a kind of naive insanity. They don’t think it’s possible.
“Because humans are naturally selfish.”
That word again. But Kondiaronk naturally wasn’t. The Wendat existed in nature—they were natural too, whatever that means.
“But they’re dead.”
Not entirely, no. Though the Europeans wiped most of them out.
“So being free is just one way to get yourself killed.”
I’m stunned by the idea: better to be powerful than to be free. If we are indeed trapped in that kind of psychological illiteracy, which Fukuyama would instead call the end of history, what can we do to break out? To become unstuck in our ways and imagine different possibilities? Are these the wrong questions?
Certainly, many people don’t desire the kind of freedom Kondiaronk supports, whether because they crave power for themselves, or because they seek the clarity of boundaries, of being given a limited set of things that are possible to do, by people who want to limit what is possible. Graeber and Wengrow describe the three fundamental freedoms:
1. The freedom to disobey orders
2. The freedom to move and relocate
3. The freedom to imagine new social possibilities
I see myself here. As I crawled my way through the corporate world, fleeing to academia, and then becoming a professor, I can’t help but note that one defining theme of my adult life has been to refuse being told what to do. This has created many problems for me. Well of course it would. At the end of history, we don’t have much use for freedom.
At my corporate job, which I failed to understand in ever more complex ways the longer I stayed at it, I served as a Request for Proposal (RFP) Specialist. The redundancy of the name—requesting a proposal—never failed to confuse me, but the work was even more confounding. My responsibilities involved filling out 2-to-300 page financial and legal documents seeking new business for CVS Caremark. When I tried to explain to friends what I did at work, they always looked as if they regretted ever asking. My department was mostly led by women; I was one of two men among a team of 20 (in corporate America, the women answer the RFPs while the men make war). Our Vice President always wore a chain of pearls around her neck that she pulled at like a guillotine’s rope when she was upset about our department’s performance. She seemed to be displeased by me from the beginning. I was taken aside the first week of my employment by a manager who informed me the Vice President, pulling her pearls, didn’t think I was dressing professionally enough. I was told to look at the men around me—the one man, really—for inspiration.
“Buy a pair of dockers!” this manager exclaimed cheerfully.
My slacks were gray and fashionably fitted, the sort of thing you’d see a young hip guy wearing in downtown Chicago at the time, but this was the suburbs, and things went down a little differently here, in the land of Cheesecake Factories and Medieval Times (spacetime in this land was oddly enough unstuck: I could take a five minute drive from my corporate office to see a joust).
Do you think I bought a pair of Dockers?
So began a nearly two year struggle with my managers, and the pulling of those pearls, over what to do with someone who refused. As things began to take a turn for the worse, with a boss reprimanding me for not asking for more work, and suspending my work from home privileges, I went to HR. I told them about the Dockers.
“I feel like I was targeted for being the one gay team member.”
“Did you say targeted?”
The HR lady, who was without pearls, perhaps to seem more human, jumped from her seat.
“Let me see what I can do.”
An hour later my desk phone rang.
“We’ll give you two months pay if you leave today.”
“As in, right now.”
“Okay,” I said, getting up from my desk.
I had no photos, nothing to pack up like my coworkers. I left immediately.
AN ILLEGIBLE FOG
I wasn’t allowed to go on our 8th grade class trip to Washington, D.C. The ineligible included me and one other kid, Daniel, who had been caught drinking a couple times, and who had threatened to burn the school down with the lighter he carried secretly in his pocket, and which he brandished once when the teacher wasn’t looking, trying to light on fire the ends of the long hair of the girl who sat in front of him. I wasn’t going to D.C. because I talked too freely.
To understand the reasons my teachers disliked me, or thought of me as a real social problem commensurate with torching a girl’s scalp, was to think about how power actually functioned in school. I wasn’t the sort of kid who went out drinking, or who fucked—I remember one mortifying occasion when the school counselor tried to convince a group of girls I’d been forced to sit with on the bus that I was handsome, that perhaps they ought to consider dating me.
“He’s a handsome boy,” she said. "Look at that chin."
The girls looked out their windows.
Power, according to Graeber and Wengrow, is predicated on violence, primarily, and the keeping of secrets, but also on individual charisma. My teachers struggled with me not because I resisted their power, but because I didn’t seem to even understand it—where other students would shut up at the swiping gaze of the teacher at the front of the room, I, seeing that gaze, still had something left to say. Why not say it, why keep it in?
My misunderstanding of power came to a head when our teacher Mrs. Watts, who had once screamed at me for talking too much, and, when I cried, had screamed at me more to be a man and not cry, and, when I cried more, had pulled me by the arm from the classroom to the hallway to say I needed to man up, which had made me cry even more, in any case, months later when Mrs. Watts had to take a leave of absence (second floor, staircase), a substitute teacher came in with fresh ideas of a more democratic classroom. Mrs. Pollock was one of those people who seem to have double the bones, her clothing notched with her mean thinness, who showered us all with smiles and assurances that we were to be participants in our educations going forward. She wanted us to draft a constitution for the class, wherein we would lay out how we would be governed, which included how we would be punished. When we finished, she framed the constitution in glass, hanging it above the blackboard.
Our first democratic test came when Daniel, that same boy, got in trouble for shooting spitballs at the girl in front of him. As a democracy, we would hold a trial, which meant Daniel would be able to mount a defense. He picked me to make his case.
I suppose I argued effectively—I was known to be a good arguer, I was known to talk a lot. The jury of Daniel's peers left the classroom to the hallway to deliberate. Mrs. Pollock looked confidently from her desk. The jury returned.
“Do you have a verdict?” Mrs. Pollock said.
Daniel’s spitballs were still stuck to the back of the desk where he’d shot them.
Mrs. Pollock acted quickly. She began ranting. Her bones seemed to multiply. Her mean arm looked triple-jointed as it reached up for the framed constitution, picking it off its nail. She tossed it into the trash bin, where we heard the pane shatter. A beautifully precise noise.
The democratic experiment had lasted less than a week. But then, Mrs. Pollock didn’t believe in democracy; to do so would mean to disbelieve in her own authority, and to commit to an idea of reality where she couldn’t punish Daniel at a whim. In any case, she punished him—and she punished me too, for defending him, sending us both to detention.
In an act of real rebellion, finally, I drafted a Declaration of Independence. The whole class signed it at lunch. I penned in enormous cursive the name John Hancock at the bottom of the page. We presented it to Mrs. Pollock. She read it quickly, her eyes widening. She tore it to pieces right there in front of us.
That summer, my parents took me to D.C. They could see that I wasn’t a problem in the way of Daniel—I didn’t threaten to burn the scalps of my classmates, after all, but I did present a threat to the incoherence of the system, and to the psychopathic superstructures we all live inside. What I call psychopathic superstructures are really just the violent ways we’ve committed to organizing our communities, a social organization that is paradoxically, and deeply, antisocial. Mrs. Pollock wanted to continue being a sovereign—what she was doing with our democratic experiment was trying to hide her sovereignty in a diffused fog of illegibility, in a community of violence. She believed the community would do what must be done, which was her will, in the end; they, not Mrs. Pollock, would punish Daniel. When the fog of illegibility broke, and when we could see Mrs. Pollock for who she was, and what she thought herself rightfully to be, the violence of the system broke too. It had made such a beautifully precise noise as it broke.
In D.C., rather than explore the Smithsonian with my classmates, I wandered ahead of my parents, mostly alone. At the Holocaust museum, I got a ticket telling me who I was. A Jewish boy named David. As David, I walked in total silence toward my death. I died in Dachau.
When I tell this story to some friends on a group text thread, we’re deep in an argument about the future of American democracy. I say that the Democrats are decorum fetishists, committed only to the preservation of the system as it is, rather than as it could be. And this sense of decorum extends everywhere, as it keeps us from speaking, shuts us up when we have something to say.
At what point do we say the psychopathic superstructures we live inside are too psychopathic, too irredeemable? And at what point does being stuck become not just a personal crisis, but an existential threat for whole communities, for the world?
THE LANDS BETWEEN
1. Aesthetic Malpractice
Bernhard couldn’t breathe. That was the first source of his pain—his lungs were used up. As a child, he’d contracted tuberculosis. He was sent off to the Grafenhof Sanatorium for two years. Later in life, he developed sarcoidosis. But how did he die? Writing for The New Yorker in 2006, Ruth Franklin calls his death an assisted suicide. Well, it must have been: have you not read the man’s work?
Bernhard’s half-brother, Peter Fabjan, a physician, would write in a memoir years later that he’d died, not from an assisted suicide, but of a heart attack. An artist obsessed with suicide shouldn’t be able to fail at killing himself; failing to do so constitutes a kind of aesthetic malpractice. Franklin’s mistake in The New Yorker could be forgiven, perhaps, on the grounds that Bernhard’s writings on suicide feel entirely admissible to the case: prose so insane must come from insanity. There could be no natural end for a writer like Bernhard that wasn’t unnatural, authored by the author. In that same memoir, Fabjan calls Bernhard a “demon” and a “vampire”, though he served as Bernhard’s personal medical attendant, and was with him when he died. Maybe Fabjan wanted to be there when the vampire expired of natural causes, like a Van Helsing with no follow-through. Whatever his intentions, which include profiting off the memories of his half-brother, Fabian denies an aesthetically consistent end to Bernhard’s life. His heart stopped, he didn’t stop.
2. Room Service
Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain takes place in a lightly fictionalized tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, where the protagonist, Hans Castorp, goes to visit his cousin Joachim, who is sick. What is meant to be a short visit turns into a seven year stay—Hans becomes sick himself, and he comes to find the limbo existence of the sanatorium to be both peaceful and, more curiously, intoxicating. Disease has its addictive qualities, of which many are social: there is community in suffering, and, if you’re lucky like Hans, there is room service too.
3. That Whiff of Spookiness
Hans Castorp is stuck. We like him, because he’s easy to be around in that way of the charmingly open, but his openness is really the same as a lack of development: he doesn’t fully know his tastes, for one, and he doesn’t even know if he’s sick. He has to be convinced to stay by the director of the sanatorium, after producing a small cough, and the X-rays of his lungs are never quite definitive, unlike his cousin’s.
When the two go to have their X-rays done, Hans is astonished by this new technology that “peered inside him.” As the director looks dryly over Joachim’s scans, Hans “was preoccupied with something that looked like a sack, or maybe a deformed animal, visible behind the middle column, or mostly to the right of it from the viewer’s perspective. It expanded and contracted regularly, like some sort of flapping jellyfish.” The director tells him this jellyfish is Joachim’s heart, which makes Hans immediately emotional, seeing at last that sentimental organ, as if through a window. The director scolds him to not be so sentimental, a funny moment, and Hans’s feelings shift to “doubts about whether it was permissible to stare like this amid the quivering, crackling darkness. A deep desire to enjoy the indiscretion blended with feelings of compassion and piety.” There is pleasure for Hans, of course, in seeing what has been rendered invisible by the heavy cloak of reality, but there is also reverence for a grace that allows him to be stuck, here at the sanatorium, rather than dead.
When the director turns to Hans’ X-rays, “for the first time in his life he understood he would die.” Hans’ scans don’t show the distinct signs of tuberculosis that Joachim’s scans do; aside from his terror, at facing his own inevitable death, Hans feels sort of bored. He “made the same face he usually made when listening to music—a rather dull, sleepy, and devout face, his head tilted toward one shoulder, his mouth half-open.”
Where Joachim’s case is far more definitive, Hans’ case is stuck in an illegible fog. The rays can’t pierce it. He is probably sick, we think, but we don’t really know. We’ll have to wait until we know more. A diagnosis for Hans, in this configuration, becomes a kind of freedom, even if it means death, because even death is movement, something to do. He doesn’t want freedom, in any case, at least not now. He wants simply to be with his cousin.
The director interrupts Hans from his sleepiness to say, “Spooky, isn’t it? Yes, there’s no mistaking that whiff of spookiness.”
4. The Half-Lung Club
Bernhard couldn’t breathe.
Joachim couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t breathe.
My parents are rushing me to the hospital. I am 9 years old. My mother, a physician, suspects I am having an asthma attack.
I had wanted asthma. In The Goonies, a chintzy Spielberg-produced kids film from 1985, the hero Mikey, played by Sean Astin, is afflicted with asthma. He wheezes in nearly every scene, sucking at his inhaler, taking in big gulps of albuterol as he and his friends race ahead of some Italian gangsters trying to find a pirate treasure. I was in love with Mikey. At that age, I understood love only as a kind of becoming, and not anything like a negotiation, nor a trade for pleasures: if you loved someone, you became them. Loving someone meant giving up yourself. I loved Mikey so much I wanted to become him. I didn’t want to be me, so long as Mikey was out there.
So I tried to make myself wheeze like Mikey. I practiced wheezing alone in my bedroom. I didn’t tell anyone, because I sensed, without ever being explicitly told, that loving another boy like Mikey could mean death— but a death where you became no one, and where you just became death. It was impossible to understand, it was impossible to explain.
If I tried hard enough, I could make that same rattling lung sound of Mikey’s. I could make my breathing sound like someone trying out the reed of an instrument for the first time. It could really feel like I was choking.
As Joachim gives a tour of the sanatorium, Hans is startled by a woman who “whistled at him, but not with her mouth; her lips weren’t puckered at all, were tightly closed in fact. The whistle came from inside, and all the while she stared at him, with her doltish, half-closed eyes. An extraordinarily unpleasant whistle, harsh, intense, and yet somehow hollow, an extended tone, emerging inexplicably from somewhere in her chest and falling off toward the end—it reminded him of the music you get from those inflatable rubber pigs you buy at a carnival, the way they wail mournfully when you squeeze the air out. And then she and the rest of her party had moved on.”
Hans has just been pranked by a woman whistling with her chest. Joachim points out the clique the whistling woman has returned to as the “Half-Lung Club”, their leader “Hermine Kleefeld, because she can whistle with her pneumothorax—it’s her special talent, it’s certainly not something everyone can do. Not that I can tell you how she manages it, she can’t explain it clearly herself.”
There is community in being stuck—stuck in dying, stuck in not knowing, as Hans is, stuck to a breathing machine in a Louisville emergency room. I am breathing in and out, my mouth cupping an artificial lung, as a strange chemical fills my lungs. It’s almost sweet. I begin to shake uncontrollably, which the attending doctor says is normal.
“Right now, he’s feeling what it’s like to use an inhaler for an hour straight,” the attending doctor tells my parents. “The shakes will go away.”
I’m sent home with what I wanted: my first inhaler, its plastic case the color of seafoam. But when I use it, I still feel so far from Mikey, and so stuck in myself.
I never tell my parents that I lied about having asthma. In the end, the lying doesn’t matter: I develop it anyway, or the lying, and all the faking it required, shreds my lungs enough that the difference is negligible. I became it all the same.
5. The Slamming Douche
The first tuberculosis sanatorium is thought to be the Brehmer Sanatorium at Gobersdorf, established in 1863 by Hermann Brehmer, who believed that high altitude, clean air, and mountain water were all beneficial to the treatment of phthisis and other consumptive diseases. Under Brehmer’s supervision, patients at his sanatorium were fed rich meals, which included Hungarian wine with dinner, and French cognac before bed. The patients spent most of their time at rest cures, usually seated on porches exposed to fresh air, even in the depths of winter. Mann devotes a lot of space in his novel for these therapeutics, with many of the patients eager to share with Hans their ingenious methods for cocooning themselves in heavy blankets.
Sanatoriums could be beneficial for patients with mild cases, like Hans’, but they also served as hospices for the far more serious cases, like Joachim’s. In a sense, the tuberculosis sanatorium was a mingling space for disease and relaxation, which would be unthinkable to most readers these days, when disease is kept so hidden from the rest of society. At the sanatorium, some lived, many died, and they all ate the same rich, julienne soups, sawed from the same pot roasts, drank the same Kolmbach beer, finished off with the same buttery tortes. You might not have known which you were when you arrived, if you were there for rest or for death, but you knew that you would spend most of your time waiting, perhaps watching from your balcony the teeming city in the valley below, filled with people free to come and go, no one down there in the valley floor stuck waiting to see which they were there for: resting or dying.
There were stranger therapeutics too. Brehmer’s patients were also expected to undergo his douche therapies—led up the mountain trails to crashing waterfalls, where they were instructed to stand for a specified amount of time beneath the pummeling water, the force of which could be so powerful that it knocked the newer patients off their feet.
6. The Seeds of Degeneration
Joachim is dying. It comes gradually. He begins to have trouble eating. The light in his eyes changes. His mother is summoned up the mountain. He’s told to stay in bed. The director tells his mother that “his passing will nevertheless be swift, imperceptible—it won’t even matter much to him, you can be sure of that. It’s always that way, really. I know death, I’m one of his old employees. He’s overrated, believe me. […] We come out of darkness and return to darkness, with some experiences in between.” As the narrator wryly notes, “this was the director’s way of offering consolation.” But the director, in his cold, Germanic practicality, turns out to be mostly correct: Joachim seems to finally become unstuck, between rest and death; he is finally moving toward a becoming. Hans notes sadly that “[Joachim] had a heavy beard that grew rapidly, nothing had been done about it for eight or ten days, so that his waxen face with its gentle eyes was now framed by a full black beard—a warrior’s beard, the kind a soldier might grow out in the field. It looked handsome and manly on him, they all said. Yes, the beard—though not it alone—suddenly changed Joachim from a youth to a mature man.” Time begins to accelerate, it too becomes unstuck, as if thawing from a deep mountain freeze, rushing now, “[l]ike a clock whirring too fast, [Hans] had been living rapidly, galloping through each stage of life that time would never allow him to reach.” Time slams into Joachim like that slamming mountain waterfall douche, seems to knock him from his feet. He tells Hans and his mother that everything will be fine, which puzzles Hans. “‘What he meant by “everything would be fine’ was not exactly clear—it became quite evident that his condition tended to create ambiguities, and he expressed himself equivocally more than once, seemed both to know and not to know, and at one point, apparently overcome by a wave of approaching devastation, he shook his head almost in remorse and declared that he had never felt this bad, never in all his life.”
The slowness of the days on the mountain, so slow, in fact, that time itself seems to have gotten stuck, has been a comfort for Hans and Joachim. To see time let loose, to see it move, is to finally let death into the sickroom. And so Joachim dies.
In one great passage, Hans reflects on the mystery of time:
“What is time? A secret—insubstantial and omnipotent. A prerequisite of the external world, a motion intermingled and fused with bodies existing and moving in space. But would there be no time, if there were no motion? No motion, if there were no time? What a question! Is time a function of space? Or vice versa? Or are the two identical? An even bigger question! Time is active, by nature it is much like a verb, it both “ripens” and “brings forth.” And what does it bring forth? Change! Now is not then, here is not there—for in both cases motion lies in between. But since we measure time by a circular motion closed in on itself, we could just as easily say that its motion and change are rest and stagnation—for the then is constantly repeated in the now, the there in the here. Moreover, since, despite our best desperate attempts, we cannot imagine an end to time or a finite border around space, we have decided to “think” of them as eternal and infinite—in the apparent belief that even if we are not totally successful, this marks some improvement. But does not the very positing of eternity and infinity imply the logical, mathematical negation of things limited and finite, their relative reduction to zero? Is a sequence of events possible in eternity, a juxtaposition of objects in infinity? How does our makeshift assumption of eternity and infinity square with concepts like distance, motion, change, or even the very existence of a finite body in space? Now there’s a real question for you!”
If time and motion are inseparable, how does that fit with ideas of eternity? In eternity, where time is rendered irrelevant, even meaningless, meaning ceases to render at all. Hans loves Joachim because he can lose him, because Joachim is losable. Hans has gone to the sanatorium to visit his cousin. He has practically tried to become his cousin, in a manner of speaking, joining him in sickness, in stuckness. You cannot really love something that can’t die, something that exists outside of time—love is a part of time, and it must die too.
The last thing I said to my mother was this: “I love you.”
The next day, I received a phone call that she was dead.
I loved her so much. Surely, I was dead too.
They place Joachim in a metal coffin. He sits for two nights, lit by candle light. Hans seems dead too, seated beside his dead cousin, though at last something is able to shake him from his death, “to convince Hans Castorp to detach himself emotionally from this shell and leave things to the professional, that offensive guardian of piety. Joachim, whose expression so far had been earnest and honorable, began to smile under his beard. Hans Castorp could not help admitting that this smile bore within it the seeds of degeneration—and it filled his heart with a sense of haste.” The decaying body’s lips have tightened into a smile. The horror of this image moves Hans. He becomes unstuck. He feels he is no one, perhaps dead like the cousin he loved, but all the same compelled to get moving, and with great haste.
He kisses his cousin’s brow, then leaves the room.
7. The Soft End of History
In the months following my suicide attempt, I became stuck. Stuck psychologically, of course, but also stuck physically. I could barely move. The weight of my thoughts had transferred to my body. I had to force myself to do anything. I felt like I was being pinned to my chair by a mountain waterfall.
All around me, the world seemed stuck too: a pandemic whose mounting death toll people had stopped feeling; a government that could not render a coherent emergency response to various states of emergency; and an economy that needed to be artificially destroyed to spare its oligarchic elites.
Chair of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell announced in August of 2022 that interest rates would be increased to address an inflationary crisis: “Reducing inflation is likely to require a sustained period of below-trend growth. Moreover, there will very likely be some softening of labor market conditions. While higher interest rates, slower growth, and softer labor market conditions will bring down inflation, they will also bring some pain to households and businesses. These are the unfortunate costs of reducing inflation. But a failure to restore price stability would mean far greater pain.”
The passive clauses here constitute a meaningful part of the grammar of the psychopathic superstructures we live inside. The system is psychopathic, certainly, and raising interest rates will mean “some pain” for the millions who lose their jobs, but the subject in these sentences can’t be located. The subject is missing. There will be softening. Who softened it? Softened how? Softened? At the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama configures it, we have reached a perfect state where crisis of any sort is met with a whole matrix of failsafes and emergency protocols that seem to be activated by the matrix itself. It’s iterative, systemic, and internally coherent. As Marxist economist Richard Wolff points out in a debate titled, hilariously, “Is Capitalism a Blessing?”, the system has “produced an economic downturn, on average, every four to seven years. A recession, a depression, a downturn—a lot of words for this because it has traumatized every society where capitalism has settled.” Wolff shares the debate stage with former CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, who, when asked by an audience member about the enormous gap between the wages of a cashier at his stores and his own compensation, answers that he’s been paid a dollar every year for the last thirteen years. Mackey frames this dollar a year compensation as a form of “conscious capitalism”, a term he swings at any critique like a soft hammer covered in foam, but he doesn’t say that he compensated himself so well, and for so long, that he never has to make another dollar again.
Professor of economics George DeMartino’s latest book The Tragic Science, seeks to provide some clarity to the subjects of these death sentences, arguing that economists like Fukuyama are directly responsible for enormous quantities of human suffering. What, DeMartino asks, accounts for the excess 10 million deaths of Russian men, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the neoliberal privatization of its markets? “In just three years, from 1991 to 1994, life expectancy among Russian males fell from sixty-four to fifty-seven years…Catastrophes of this magnitude typically occur only during pandemics and wars.” DeMartino attributes this excess to “alcohol poisonings, suicides, homicides, injuries, and heart attacks.” An economist like Fukuyama might respond that, sure, there were excess deaths, but the causes, you see, are unknowable; yes, they happened, but we will never know why they happened. Under President Boris Yeltsin, massive, quick privatization of this scale required what economists call “shock therapy”—which, in practical terms, meant transferring 120,000 firms to the private sector in less than two years. “In the context of severe economic turbulence, the new owners stripped the assets of unprofitable firms and laid off workers by the million. Entire towns were wiped out economically. In short order the economy collapses. The Russian government reported that by 1995, one-quarter of its citizens were living in poverty, while independent researchers put the figure at over 40%—up from 2% in 1989.” Moving from 2% poverty to 40%, in less than five years: that will cause something, surely. And cause it did: as DeMartino puts it, these excess deaths were “deaths associated with despair—stress, social isolation, poverty, and desperation.”
For Powell, and presumably Fukuyama, the “softening” will bring about “some pain.” Powell doesn’t dare say what kind of pain, and he even softens the blow by using that word. Soften. These psychopathic superstructures, which include the pillowy discourse of economists like Powell and Fukuyama, soften the blows, in a manner of speaking that is diabolic. Powell and Fukuyama try to render it impossible, through an illegible fog of language, policy, and history-making, what is actually happening, and who is actually doing it. Economists are doing it. Governments are doing it. Powell and Fukuyama are doing it. But if history is over, and this is as good as it gets, we might as well learn to take a soft blow when it comes our way.
8. What the Fans Deserve
George R.R. Martin is feeling stuck.
Martin likes to say that there are two types of writers: the architect, and the gardener. The architect is diagrammatic; he makes elaborate plans before building anything. The gardener is far more intuitive and reactive; he responds to what grows and what doesn’t. When Martin identifies as a gardener variety of writer, he is telling his fans he doesn’t have a diagram. Martin’s writing process might be the most pored over of any living writer. The millions of fans of his fantasy novels The Song of Ice and Fire, and the millions more who got there through its HBO adaptation, have been waiting eleven years, as of 2022, for the next of two planned sequels. Many believe Martin will never publish it, and that his story has spiraled out of control. And so an entire discourse of anxious fans has emerged chronicling Martin’s health, with many noting that a man of Martin’s size is far likelier to die prematurely than, say, a wraithish writer like Joan Didion. These fans want to know what the plan is, should Martin expire. The death of the author can’t mean the death of a beloved series. For literary fiction, it would be unthinkable to imagine a ghost writer stepping in to complete Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or to give us Anna Karenina 2. But in the fantasy genre, this kind of passing of the literary torch has precedent, with writers like Robert Jordan, who wrote eleven of The Wheel of Time books, ceding control of their series to ghostly amanuenses who went on to finish their work.
Martin is in an impossible creative space, it would seem, having witnessed the HBO adaptation of his work race, and then beat him, to the finish line. We know how the story ends, just as we know that Martin revealed the ending he had in mind to the show-runners, as part of the negotiations for HBO picking up the series for a first season. Why did Martin give his ending away, before he’d even gotten to it? Certainly, the money helped, but even likelier Martin figured, through some rudimentary calculations, and maybe even more some artistic desperation, that he’d get there first. Surely, he wouldn’t be stuck for the ten years or so it would take for the show to catch up with him?
For years, Robert Jordan was adamant that he would never let anyone else finish The Wheel of Time for him. In a letter to Locus Magazine, he announced he’d been diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare and deadly blood disease, writing, “I am going to finish all those books, all of them, and that is that.” Some of Jordan’s fans were far more worried about the death of the series than the prognosis of its creator. One named codman25, writing in the replies of Jordan’s blog, writes, “"Of course you wouldn't ever wish a possibly terminal disease on anyone. But what happens if he doesn't finish the book?"
As his disease progressed rapidly, Jordan seemed to have something of an authorial deathbed conversion, becoming, as it were, unstuck from his bullish idea of finishing the series himself or never finishing it at all. Using a tape recorder to get down the final chapter, Jordan signed away the rights to his wife, Harriet McDougal, who was also his editor, and who had played an enormous role in getting the first book published. After Jordan’s death, McDougal picked another fantasy writer, Brandon Sanderson, to finish the series. In a video posted to Sanderson’s YouTube channel, Sanderson discusses his hesitancy to complete the dead writer’s work, wondering if “they just shouldn’t be done.” But something other than the soul of the writer stirs in Sanderson: his fandom rises to the occasion. “The fan in me is like, ‘No, someone is going to write them. It’s going to happen. And the fans deserve to have the ending.’” To imagine that fans deserve anything is to imagine a servile relationship between artist and audience, where all production, which must include the artistic, is a function of and a response to the insatiable needs of the market. Sanderson gives himself away here: he isn’t an artist, he’s an errand boy. He tells us that Jordan resisted the idea of letting someone else finish the series for years, saying that “if he didn’t finish the books, he’d order his hard drives bulldozed, and that would be the end.” Of course, that wasn’t the end, and Sanderson would go on to write three more books in The Wheel of Time, bringing the series to an end. The fans got what they wanted.
Another fantasy writer did pick up the bulldozing idea. At his death from Alzheimers at the age of 66, Terry Pratchett asked that “whatever he was working on at the time of his death to be taken out along with his computers, to be put in the middle of a road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.” The hard drives were crushed two years later.
9. Seventy Perverted Years
Bernhard had no love for his homeland, Austria. In his will, he made it clear he wanted to ban the staging of his work, which included all his plays, in the country for 70 years. That number, 70, strikes me as deeply funny: Bernhard didn’t want any of his peers, really anyone he had a chance to know, and anyone who had a chance to slander or annoy him, of ever getting the chance to profit materially or spiritually from his work. Franklin, writing in The New Yorker, describes Bernhard’s final act as “disposing of his estate in as perverse a manner as possible”, echoing Sanderson’s idea that the real perverse thing for an artist to do is deny the public what they are owed.
But the dead author is finally powerless, and his executors don’t like being stuck themselves in a bad deal. In 1999, the half-brother who had called Bernhard a “demon” and a “vampire” was finally able to get the ban annulled. You could see Bernhard in Austria again.
10. A Perfectly Greased Slide
For a writer feeling so stuck, George R.R. Martin turns to other technologies. The novel has failed him, so why not try something else?
On his blog in 2019, following the end of the HBO series, Martin makes a cryptic reference: “And me? I’m still here, and I’m still busy. As a producer, I’ve got five shows in development at HBO (some having nothing whatsoever to do with the world of Westeros), two at Hulu, one on the History Channel. […] I’ve consulted on a video game out of Japan.”
This video game turned out to be FromSoftware’s Elden Ring, which released to near universal acclaim in February 2022. Eiichi Nakajima, a business director at FromSoftware, had reached out to Martin in 2019, expecting no response. But Martin, who was feeling stuck, did something unexpected: he responded.
A meeting was arranged between Martin and Hidetaka Miyazaki, President of FromSoftware, and by all accounts the company’s creative and spiritual director, producing its most famous series, Dark Souls, which I’ve written extensively about here. [link] Miyazaki told IGN that he loved Martin’s writing, particularly Fevre Dream, a vampire novel that Martin describes as “Bram Stoker meets Mark Twain.” Miyazaki would recommend the novel to new employees at the company, providing a moody lodestar for the kinds of games the studio liked making.
In their initial meetings, Miyazaki proposed that Martin not write the game’s story, but its mythos: “Storytelling in video games – at least the way we do it at FromSoftware – comes with a lot of restrictions for the writer. I didn’t think it was a good idea to have Martin write within those restrictions. By having him write about a time the player isn’t directly involved in, he is free to unleash his creativity in the way he likes. Furthermore, as FromSoftware we didn’t want to create a more linear and storydriven experience for Elden Ring. Both issues could be solved by having Martin write about the world’s history instead.” Miyazaki’s proposal appealed to Martin greatly—rather than be restricted by the ethos of modern game design, he would be free to write outside game design entirely.
I like to imagine modern game design as a perfectly greased slide, almost entirely free of friction, that barrels the player through a series of dips and turns so swift, and so pleasing, that the player feels like he’s sliding on the slide, rather than the slide is sliding him, the subjects and their objects become a swift blur of motion, all while the player is kept from flying out of the bounds of the encounter to a catastrophic and painful landing. Most modern games don’t care about choice, nor do they care about contingency—their events are unearthed by the player like heavy fossils, and their worlds have been set like aspics. We tend to think of games as a technology to assert our free will, and to explore choices, especially when compared to technologies like the novel, where the most we can do is throw a lousy book at the wall in disgust, but in most games free will is illusory, and any meaningful choice has already been made for us. We’re just sliding along.
Miyazaki asked Martin to write the history of Elden Ring, while he and his staff would come up with the game events. The collaboration seems to have freed Martin and Miyazaki both, resulting in what is, by my mind, one of the great works of art of the last decade. Elden Ring is a colossal thing—a game so massive, so cosmologically expansive, that I’ve thought about it, and obsessively played it, more than any other game.
It should be no surprise that Elden Ring is a game about being stuck: a stuck world, stuck at the end of history, when life itself is no longer worth living, and yet life is still lived all the same, if you could call it living. The end of history doesn’t mean the end of experiencing the end: Elden Ring shows us what happens to the people left behind, in the crumbling villages, in the smoldering ruins, in the rotted heart of a dead empire. It presents a ruthlessly bleak vision of what happens when history becomes stuck, and the hope of new social possibilities becomes stuck with it.
11. Towering Above Our Thinking
The Lands Between, they call it. In the center reaches the Erdtree, so massive its branches spread over the peaks of the snow-capped mountains to the north, over the foggy bay that divides the highlands from the lowlands, over the lake lands to the west. There is no point in the Lands Between where the Erdtree’s scale can be fully comprehended, no place where we can see its highest branches. It towers above our ability to think. It is beyond us.
The Erdtree gives off a golden light brighter than the sun, the knotted center of its canopy blinding white. It fills the nights with gold. Its fallen leaves float like burning embers on the wind. From certain angles, at certain times of day, its trunk goes gauze, like a purely aesthetic curtain, or a wedding veil, and you can see through to the other side.
Is the tree an illusion? Does it exist at all in the physical world? Does it matter if it exists, if it towers above our thinking?
12. Evil Weather
Miyazaki and Martin make an unlikely pair. At his best, Martin is a gifted practitioner of third-person, psychological narration set in coherent, sociological systems. The Game of Thrones novels are told from multiple points of view, alternating by chapter, with Martin making great use of psychological contrasting—the villain of one chapter becomes the center of the next, our understanding of their villainy shaded in, nuanced, perhaps even destroyed by the ways in which we see the systems perverting them, or forcing them to make a series of impossible moral choices. That asshole sister-fucker who pushed a kid from a tower window? We grow to love him. Martin seems to perform these feats like magic tricks, when they are really only the natural ends of any psychologically serious examination; true evil isn’t psychological nor sociological, and it has more to do with the weather than with human experience. That the books and the HBO adaptation began to falter when they introduced truly evil characters, in other words, true psychopaths, and real magic, was both a testament to Martin’s earlier character work and a portending of how stuck Martin would become with the final two books. A psychological writer, interested in sociological systems, shouldn’t be stuck writing about the evil weather.
13. The Nearness of Soup
Miyazaki is an entirely different kind of storyteller than Martin, his work drawing not only from literature but cinema. Operating with the principle of imagistic montage, meaning in Miyazaki comes from nearness. The Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov famously documented this montaging phenomenon, where meaning comes from nearness, in a short film featuring matinee idol Ivan Mosjoukine. Using the same footage of Mosjoukine’s face, a neutral, nearly blank stare, his thin lips pulled at one end into a gray smirk, Kuleshov cuts to a bowl of soup.
In the second montage, using the same neutral stare and that same gray smirk, Kuleshov cuts to a girl in a coffin. Kuleshov understood that audiences, faced with these nearnesses, would craft the connective story for him. That hungry man, only wanting a spoonful of soup? He’s inconsolable now, his daughter destroyed. A third montage introduces a beautiful woman, reclined like an odalisque, and the hungry, grieving man becomes suddenly, as if by magic, horny. Hitchcock demonstrated this phenomenon of nearness as well, noting wryly that it could turn him from a grandfatherly sort into a “dirty old man.”
Storytelling principled around nearness, where you assume the audience will connect the frames, and close the nearnesses, requires a faith in intuitive forms of meaning, and so a belief in your audience as participants rather than captives.
Much has been made of Miyazaki’s influences, from old Dungeons and Dragons campaign books, to manga like Berserker, to collectible card games like Magic the Gathering, but over them all hangs H.P. Lovecraft.
Whatever his faults as a writer and as a person, and there are many, Lovecraft came to define a literary movement of weird storytelling that remains influential today. In “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft writes: “I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” Lovecraft’s stories develop an entire cosmogony premised on the indescribable, on creatures who destroy rationality and coherence, who tower, like the Erdtree, over our thinking. The archetypical Lovecraft story makes the reader a participant in this breakdown of coherence and meaning, which in the unbecoming becomes, as it were, a state of pure horror. There are so many indescribable gaps in Lovecraft, and in Miyazaki, that the rush to fill them makes the act of storytelling a kind of rescue, with the reader or the player sparing the creator from a fate worse than being boring—we hope to spare the creator from having made something meaningless.
14. The Lasso of Trauma
The Lands Between are stuck.
Queen Marika has shattered the Elden Ring. To understand Miyazaki and Martin’s cosmogony is to fill in some large gaps, to connect the nearnesses where we find them, to rescue meaning. You see, the Elden Ring isn’t a physical ring, just as the Erdtree might not actually be real, but is instead an ideogramic rune of enormous power that represents the Golden Order, a religiously infused form of social organization, as if capitalism was not only a system of production, but also a system of demiurgic meaning (which, to its practitioners, might be the same thing in the end). The Golden Order, which towers imagistically over all things in the form of the Erdtree, has been shattered; the Erdtree still stands, though its leaves are falling. A narrator whispers, “The falling leaves tell a story.” The Tree, and so the Golden Order, seems to be dying.
In the game’s first minutes, we see Queen Marika take a hammer to a golden light, slamming the light to pieces. Her sons and daughters and distant kin, demigods themselves, have seized shards of the shattered rune for themselves, retreating to their castles, keeps, and lairs. The war seems to have already happened, and no one seems to have won it. The world is stuck in stalemate, in betweenness.
Like Game of Thrones, Elden Ring is a succession story, framed with supernatural elements. But where Westeros tracked the legible lives of mortals, time in the Lands Between is far stranger, as it must be for gods and demigods who can’t ever really die. When we arrive to the Lands Between, it is not at all clear how long ago the Shattering occurred, nor how long the stalemate has lasted between the warring factions
In the game’s first few minutes, the player opens a door, stepping outside into golden, autumnal light. We see signs of collapse all around: a bridge in the distance severed in several places; a modest country church with no roof; stranger still, enormous slabs and broken off chunks of some larger structure that seem to have slammed into the ground from…where, exactly? The sky…? The architectural styling of these ruins is far different from the modest church’s, ornamented by expert stoneworkers. The path to the church is lined with crucified corpses, hanging from half-crescent gibbets (those crescents—they look, in fact, like the crescent shards of the Elden Ring). We know that something momentous and violent occurred here, but the crucified look very dead, dried out and leathered, and the lands teem with life still: herds of wild lambs roam the grassy hills, rabbits dart from the bushes, eagles land on the rocky points.
All these nearnesses. The modest church, made of simple stonework. The far more elaborate, fallen slabs. The crucifixes. The lambs and the eagles. And above them all, that alien, glowing Tree.
Miyazaki wants us to start telling his story with him. His games rarely make use of cutscenes to deliver exposition (Elden Ring, which takes over 100 hours to complete, probably has no more than 10 minutes of traditional cutscenes), and instead rely on the player finding the nearnesses, connecting them, reassembling them, rescuing the meaning. A common criticism leveled at Miyazaki’s games, beyond their infamous difficulty, is that their systems and stories are frustratingly opaque, and that the experience of piecing them together produces an uncomfortable amount of friction for the player. The slide of modern game design should be heavily greased, after all. What happens, these critics seem to be asking, if we go down the slide the wrong way, if we get the meaning of the whole thing wrong?
An anxiety of misreading might be one of the more powerful currents of modern storytelling. All characters should have backstories, and preferably ones centered around coherent, legible traumas; this is why Ted Lasso’s chipper attitude can’t be self-producing but, instead, seeded by the sudden death of his father in his childhood, as we learn in that TV show’s disastrous second season. Call this the Lasso of Trauma: running your hands down a single, taut rope to find the source of dysfunction, the bucking muscles of all conflict.
Modern storytelling is uncomfortable with nearnesses to a neurotic, perhaps even erotic degree, which might help explain why we rarely see sex scenes anymore in popular media. We are forgetting what to do with ourselves, and with meaning, near other…things, yes, and people too. What’s the point of misreading something, or someone, these critics seem to be asking, when instead the author could just tell us how to read it for them in the first place? Why should we accept the chance of being wrong, when the answer is so obviously there?
George R.R. Martin has gotten stuck with a related question: why should he have to finish Game of Thrones, when the reader already knows how it will end? For Martin, there are no nearnesses left, and so no mysteries, and certainly no potential to be surprised by new meanings. Perhaps the collaboration with Miyazaki excited Martin because it meant avoiding this kind of modern storytelling, with its lassos of trauma catching meaning tight by the throat, instead allowing Martin to embrace a far more intuitive, and so far more social, kind of storytelling.
15. The Radical Left
Elden Ring was a gamble for Miyazaki and FromSoftware, known primarily for the Dark Souls series: could the meticulous, hand-crafted designs of their levels translate successfully to the suburban sprawl of an open world? The “open world”, as it is known in video game discourse, is itself a misnomer, suggesting as it does radical freedom to go anywhere, to do whatever you want, to make meaning in the ways that make sense to you. Imagine if Mario could go left, and in so doing find something other than a kidnapped princess there—that’s the promise of an open world, the promise that you can go right or you can go left. The freedom is yours; there will always be something meaningful in either direction. In an open world, there needs to be a reason for your direction—surely, you must provide the reason, but the world shouldn’t surrender itself to you either. It should still go on being a world. If Mario goes left, and finds that the vicious turtles thin out, the challenging jumps flatten to a smooth, formless plane, and that the distant horizon promises nothing but uniform smoothness, well, what is Mario doing here? Mario was made to jump, to crack turtle shells, to slide through sewage pipes, to save princesses. Open worlds need to give you the choice to make your own meaning, but they still need to be interesting. They still need to resist you in the way that real worlds resist you: with rivers, with bad weather, with glistening teeth just beyond the firelight.
When No Man’s Sky released in 2016, its creator Sean Murray gushed to a naive press how there were more than 18 quintillion planets for the player to explore in his spaceship, each the size of actual planets. No Man’s Sky was truly open in one sense: going left promised a practically infinite horizon. You could go left forever. How cool is that?
Like many gamers in 2016, I was sold on this radical promise of a truly open world, a truly open universe. I played the game the day it came out. And certainly, there was a thrill to boarding my dinky spaceship on my first planet, lifting off, pointing it up at the sky. The cockpit rattled as flaming light filled the spaceship’s windows. Then, radical, black vacuum. The windows filled with stars. I pointed my ship toward a distant planet, and sped forward. More fire. Rattling. I landed on a new world. I got out of my ship. I started walking.
The planets in No Man Sky aren’t truly planet-sized. Conor Kearney, whose YouTube channel is premised on walking end to end the maps of open world games, recorded himself walking across one planet. He made it halfway, after 11 hours and 50 minutes, estimating the diameter of the planet to be roughly 74 miles. So the worlds weren’t planet-sized, but there were more than enough of them to fill an entire life of walking, should you choose to waste it.
Design on this scale requires procedural generation; an algorithm for topography; for the plant life; for the cave systems. It is all so inhuman, so devoid of life. Even the life is so devoid of life: procedurally generated creatures bumble around the landscape like teenagers on drugs in a mall. In this sense, No Man’s Sky perhaps successfully simulates most of the universe—the dead parts of it, all those negative spaces, but it really only offers the player the freedom to walk through death, through negative space.
As I get further and further from my ship, I have the sinking feeling that I am getting further and further from meaning of any sort. What am I doing out here with all these dead, silent rocks? With all these stupid creatures who can’t do anything, who interact with nothing, not even with each other, who just seem to exist to gesture at existing?
There is always the risk that a truly open world will render itself meaningless. No Man’s Sky achieves this at a universe-sized scale. It gives you the freedom to go left, but going left is an infinite slog. And as it turns out, most open world games don’t even want you to go left, or they are filled with Missions and Waypoints that scream at you to go left. Resource Chest to the Left. Enemy Camp Needs Clearing to the Left. To the Left, a Sexy Fairy. So you go left, because you’re being screamed at, and what you find there is really what you would find going to the right, it’s just more of the same, in all directions: the same pits to jump over, the same enemy camps to clear, the same sexy fairies, but with different haircuts.
16. Easy Style
But how does it feel to play? Elden Ring is a fighting role playing game, which means the ways in which you interact with its open world are, to its critics, practically commiserate with the real crimes of settler colonialism—you explore, you make contact, you destroy. But critiques like these, disregarding their hyperbolic moralizing, tend to confuse a narrowing of aesthetic principals with a narrowing of artistic possibility, when it is often the opposite. We read Cormac McCarthy precisely because the aesthetic principals have been narrowed to a crepuscular, dying redness in the west, so to speak; we pick up the next Thomas Bernhard knowing we’re picking up a ranting madness; and we play a Miyazaki game knowing we’re going to be punished by enemies who resist us.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Miyazaki considers the punishing quality of his work, saying, “I die a lot. So, in my work, I want to answer the question: If death is to be more than a mark of failure, how do I give it meaning? How do I make death enjoyable? […] I do feel apologetic toward anyone who feels there’s just too much to overcome in my games. […] I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship.”
The joy that Miyazaki speaks of is one that comes from rupture and catharsis—the break and release from being stuck. Miyazaki’s games understand that being stuck is a punishing, joyless experience, but for joy to be legible, for it to be felt at all, the player is grounded in a state of perpetual punishment that he then rises out of. Surely there are other ways to experience joy in games, whether they be creative or expressive, but Miyazaki wants us to come up against an enemy we can’t beat with just luck, or just random inputs. In these games, churlish button-mashing only ends in more failure, more death.
Of course, this is all so difficult. The discourse surrounding the difficulty of Miyazaki’s games becomes exhausting the more you follow it, and the more you write about it, myself included, with many critics arguing that Elden Ring needs an Easy Mode. These critics like to reference accessibility features in other games, like color blind modes, or subtitles for the hearing impaired, as also encompassing difficulty: surely, the critique goes, difficulty represents an impediment to players of different skill levels, with varying reflex speeds, and so on. But so much criticism is premised on the notion that art is a commodity first, with its consumers getting to control the inputs and outputs of its production, and that the artist is merely a bureaucratic agent in the creative process, there to refill your coffee when it gets low. There is no Easy Mode for The Woodcutters: what would that look like? Would such a mode break up the enormous, hundred-page spanning paragraphs? Would it shorten Bernhard’s rambling sentences? Would it neutralize the acidity of his narrator’s insights? Would it remove entirely the triggering references to suicide? Just as the many impediments in Bernhard are Bernhard, the difficulty in Miyazaki’s games is Miyazaki. The Miyazaki style is alienating, certainly, and sure to push away as many players as it pulls in (though Elden Ring, as of August 2022, is the second best-selling game of the year). But it is his style.
When I was first beginning to write, I worried endlessly over my style. What was it? Did I have one? Why, when I read writers like Bernhard, did my style shift to theirs? Why did I feel so false, feeling like others? Surely the true me, and so my true style, was elsewhere, hiding outside of others?
At the University of Montana MFA, a friend trying to identify my style told me I was a “taker-outer” kind of writer.
“You write too much. With you, your style is taking out stuff.”
This style came to a head when I turned in a massive, 50-page short story to the writer Kevin Canty’s workshop, with dozens of characters, some real, like Nikola Tesla, and some imagined. I’d been reading and failing to finish Thomas Pynchon; I’d been reading and finishing Alice Munro. Why couldn’t I combine these two, unlikely styles?
When the workshop met, a refrain emerged: this is a novel. If we take out all that needs taking out to make it a short story, we’ll take out most of it. So write a novel. Your style is hidden over there, my readers said, outside the short story. The short story can’t contain it. When I wrote an 800 page novel for my MFA thesis, my readers told me it wasn’t there either: this is too long, too sprawling, too unreadable. Your style is somewhere else.
I came to realize that style was really another form of stuckness, and I could see it in so many of the writers I loved: in Haruki Murakami, whose most recent novels had become stylistic parodies of his earlier work, of too many horny men cooking spaghetti while jazz played; in Stephen King, who could almost never stick the landings; in George R.R. Martin, who got stuck describing Dornish snake stew. They’d become stuck in their ways, in their styles.
Style, it seems, is what they bury you in.
17. The Nephewing of History
The anthropologist Gregory Bateson coined the term schismogenesis in the 1930s as a way to describe how people defined themselves against one another. In a sense, schismogenesis is definition through nearness—through contact, and then, crucially, retreat. You are what you aren’t. You can see this phenomenon of social organization and definition at the level of fandom, where Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans meet and part ways.
I grew up watching both Star Trek and Star Wars, loving both, and finding their differences fundamentally irreconcilable. As a child I preferred Star Wars, because it worked like so many of the other mythic stories I knew—a lonely hero saves the world, with a little help from his friends. As an adult, my taste shifted to Star Trek, because its post-scarcity futurity was a vision of all my political hopes, with little of my political cynicism.
As a teacher, I’ve seen the line where schismogenesis seems to happen, at the level of individual expression. My middle school students are true eccentrics. When I give them a writing prompt, they struggle to contain themselves. They write freely, and at great length. When I tell them time is up, they often complain that I’ve not given them enough of it, time that is, to finish. But my high school and college students are entirely different. When I give them a writing prompt, they struggle to write at all. They want to know what, exactly, it is that I want them to write. Eerily, when they do write, they all write similarly, and they write about similar subjects. There is something eerie happening at the level of individual expression. My high school and college students have chosen conformity, at the cost of individual expression. Social possibility seems to contract as my students get older, even as they might claim to know themselves better. Seventh graders are, in my experience, better writers than high school and college students. What is happening here?
On a certain level, my students have figured out what they aren’t. They aren’t free thinkers, generally, or radical creatives, because the educational, religious, political, and cultural systems that traffick them don’t grant them freedom, nor do they ask them to take creative risks. This all takes time to figure out—schismogenesis takes time to set, like a wobbly pudding.
In the Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow apply this concept of schismogenesis at a macro level, moving from individuals to societies. This should make a kind of intuitive sense for most readers: the Germans are coldly efficient bureaucrats who keep the trains running on time when compared to the French, who are horny layabouts, when compared to the Italians, who are less horny but even lazier. These divisions at the level of society are wholly unnatural, of course. It takes a lot of work, whole societies putting in the hours, so to speak, to make these divisions stick. Graeber and Wengrow use the example of two Amerindian groups in California and the Northwest Coast to show how schismogenesis works. The Yurok rejected the forms of chattel slavery their northern neighbors practiced, despite the obvious advantages slavery introduced to modes of production (you can depend on a slave in a way you can’t depend on a free agent). So why didn’t the Yurok take slaves for themselves, seeing their neighbors to the north? Graeber and Wengrow believe that “[e]ach society performs a mirror image of the other. In doing so, it becomes an indispensable alter ego, the necessary and ever-present example of what one should never wish to be.” In other words, we get stuck near each other. Nearness, stuckness. For Graeber and Wengrow, getting stuck becomes a choice for whole societies, though that choice is diffused and channeled through cultural frameworks and norms that develop over time, through incalculable interactions, discoveries, and mistakes. And all of this happens on the chaotic plane of history. Or as Marx puts it, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
That heavy nightmare on the brain of the living, for Marx, led him to one of his great asides about the repeating cycles of history: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” When history regurgitates, as it seemed to be doing while Marx was writing about the 1848 French revolution and Napoleon III, with nephews replacing uncles, the very culture seems to be perverting itself. For every shrewd H.W. Bush, there’s a slack-jawed son to take his place in ever more stupid and destructive ways. The end of history is fractal, in this sense: an end that can’t end, an ongoing climax that feels nothing like a climax.
18. Already Dead
I didn’t—I don’t—feel alive anymore. I don’t mean this metaphorically; I mean this socially and spiritually, the meaning of which I can’t dodge around with metaphor. It is not like I am dead. I am dead. Mostly. On the magic mountain, the doctors talk about the dying tubercular patients, how they often try to get out of bed: there is a feeling that I should get to arrive at my death, before it arrives at me. So what had happened? How did I come to be like this?
I no longer went out in society. It had been months since I’d been in a room with other people, with friends. I didn’t really have any friends, at least the ones who checked in on you every day. I hadn’t fucked anyone in years. I hadn’t been touched by anyone in years. I had stopped writing. I hated having to eat, it brought me no pleasure (and I could no longer afford the kinds of food that make you feel alive). I no longer read my email. I no longer read the messages people sent me on social media. I no longer listened to voicemails. I hadn’t heard from my father in over a year. I went whole days without hearing my own voice.
Under what definition of the living was I alive? I only saw in myself the biological definitions. The ones that used words like “teeming” or “swarming.” I was teeming with life. My cells swarmed. They pooled and swam. They divided and raced. I was somewhere else.
At the end of a class I was teaching, my department head walked in to ask if I’d gotten her last email.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, we’re wondering what your plan for the fall is? Should we be looking for someone else to teach these courses?”
I’d gotten out of the habit of conversation with others—I barely remembered what it felt like to be asked something, or to be expected to answer in time, and in kind.
I looked at the floor.
“I’m really struggling,” I said.
This was true. I hadn’t paid my rent in two months. Was I going to be evicted? I didn’t know, because I didn’t check my voicemails or read my emails. My full-time professorship had gone away the previous semester. Funding had switched to the STEM departments. My pay had fallen over 60%, though I was only teaching one less course per semester.
I looked up, finding my department head’s expression confused. She hadn’t been looking for an excuse for why I wasn’t emailing her back. She had been looking for an answer to the question she had originally asked: would she need to find someone else?
Her confusion changed to embarrassment.
“Oh,” she said. “Well, I know there are jobs postings in other states. How do you feel about moving?”
“Moving,” I repeated, not looking up. “I guess I don’t know about moving. I'm sort of stuck.”
“I know it’s hard,” she said, “and the humanities are suffering.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said, trying to rescue the original question. “But will you let us know when you know?”
Could the already dead cause scheduling problems for the living? Could the already dead occasion an increase in inter-departmental emails? I remembered an old professor in the department, who’d died a couple years ago. He was an alcoholic. He'd stopped showing up to teach his classes, but they couldn’t fire him because he had tenure. They could only complain about having to cover for him—one colleague, who’d once been a friend, and was now tenure-track, bitterly described having to step in to teach his classes. The problem had solved itself in the end: that professor, who was already dead, in the spiritual and social senses, had finally, and totally, died.
I had taken a seat in the corner of the living. At the muttering edges, where maybe I could be overheard muttering, if someone cared to overhear me. Nobody cared. They needed to know if I’d be using this chair in the future.
19. Deathbed Companions
Caelid is already dead. The land looks killed. Flayed. When you first gallop into Caelid, the rolling green fields of Limgrave peel, like skin, to an under-flesh color. The hills and valleys are the color of meat that’s been sitting out all day. The sky, red like an infected eye.
But there is teeming and swarming. Massing. Clotting. A great swamp in the center of Caelid is filled with an oily pus, a pinkish effluvium speckled with lily pad-like melanomas. Geysers discharge this pinkish pus into the air. The undead roam the valleys. Enormous crows, their beaks rotted through, roost on the cliff ledges. Centipede-like men menace the roads, their dozens of hands wielding horrific polearms. To the north, a field is littered with diseased dragons, their skin grafted to the mushroomed loam. The music playing over these images sounds like a hive of insects that’s being drowned; it sounds like millions of poisonous things trying to escape their fate.
We learn that Caelid wasn’t always like this. A conflict between two gods, the siblings Malenia and Radahn, vying for pieces of the Elden Ring after its shattering by their mother, made Caelid this way. You see, Malenia was infected with something called scarlet rot, and during the battle with her brother, she finally succumbed to the infection. It took her over. It spread. It became on top of what already was.
These themes of death and decay, of becoming on top of what is already, represent an eternal recurrence in Miyazaki’s games. In Dark Souls, you play as “the Chosen Undead”; in Elden Ring, you play as a “Tarnished”, another not-alive, not-dead being, cursed with the powers of the undead. You can’t be killed, but you can also never be alive. Games have always struggled to explain their fail-states: when Mario falls into the pit, he’s not really dead…is he? But most games slur through their own contingencies, confident that the player will settle into an amnesiac state of annihilation.
But in a Miyazaki game, every death really did happen. You did die. And you were cursed to come back. These are somber games, sad games, depressing games. They are games that understand that failure changes you. It infects you. It gathers in your bones and joints. It takes your spirit and changes it. It becomes you, on top of you.
Is there any comfort to be found? Any hope? In Elden Ring, there is Fia. She is what is known in the Lands Between as a Deathbed Companion, a kind of mortality amanuensis. When you first meet her, she asks if she can hold you. If you agree, she slowly welcomes you into her arms. You receive a blessing, which is, it turns out, also a curse. “The favor allows one to forget any aches and pains. In Death, there is only peace, for in Death, there can be no sensation.” Your maximum health decreases, while your poise (a trait that allows you to take damage without being interrupted--think of high poise like a giant runaway truck pancaking waves of police, unable to stop it) increases. We learn that these deathbed companions are a whole caste of religious mystics who comfort those who are dying. The nature of this comfort is left deliberately ambiguous, though there is some implication that it is also sexual, perhaps even necrophilic. The purpose of a deathbed companion like Fia, in a land where nobody can die anymore, is obviously denuded. Fia wants to reclaim her purpose, and so bring death, and the comfort of oblivion, back to the Lands Between.
If you follow Fia’s story through the game, you can achieve an ending known as The Age of the Duskborn, the meaning of which remains elusive, true to Miyazaki’s preferred forms of storytelling. In this ending, we learn that the rune of death has been restored to the Golden Order. What could this mean? Two possible theories: one, that death will become a part of the natural order of things; two, that the undead, who we see persecuted throughout the lands, strung up on crucifixes, enslaved to do hard labor, will be freed from their persecution. The peace of oblivion. The peace of community. Staying or going.
20. The Taunting Tongue
Already dead, the Lands Between becomes, for me, a kind of purgatory. A magic mountain. A waiting space. My muttering chair in the corner of the living.
I become obsessed with the player-versus-player (PVP) elements of Elden Ring, a competitive mode where you summon other players (or are summoned by them) to fight. Most of any sociality I entertain happens here, in the Lands Between.
All told, I’ve spent over 1,000 hours fighting for and with other players. Weeks of not really living, in the Lands Between. Charges that Miyazaki’s games are unfair actually do apply to the PVP elements: where the enemies are finely tuned to provide challenge, despair, frustration, Miyazaki’s gifted programmers can’t tune the idiosyncratic play styles of actual players. What this results in is wild imbalance, frankly laughable unfairness.
“Invaded by dark spirit X”, the message reads.
You find that you can no longer rest at sites of grace. You cannot even shut off the game (the save features, when you scan your menus, are grayed out). You scan the horizon for them. This dark spirit. When they appear, their forms are neon red, lit from within like hot coals. Their purpose is simple: they need only destroy you.
These invasions have long been a hallmark of the Souls games, dating back to Demon Souls, when the promise of always-online gaming systems was becoming something of a reality. If your game is online, there is a risk that you might be invaded. I remember my first invasion in Dark Souls. The panic, but mostly the confusion. What the fuck was happening? A red-glowing figure was racing toward me. He behaved not at all like the familiar enemies: when I attacked him, he did truly unpredictable things, feinting, running away, hiding, returning. I sensed an intelligence at the other end, like placing your hand to the glass wall of an aquarium and feeling something powerful on the other side, the muscles of real intelligence, something thrashing beyond the glass walls of your experience.
I died, of course. I had not yet accommodated my play style for the living. The truly, not artificially, intelligent.
I think Miyazaki must allow these invasions for precisely this reason: they bring human cruelty into the design.
In any case, human cruelty was something I could wrestle with, to at least feel life on the other side of my enclosure. Life not in the muttering corners. Where many of my friends who play these games tell me that they would never consider committing to the PVP elements, the PVP elements became the game for me. Of course, I was lonely. Before the pandemic, when I felt lonely, I would go to coffee shops, just to be around others. To feel the ambient heat of others. To hear their ambient chatter. The pandemic had destroyed that synthetic tonic for loneliness, or at the very least revealed it as being synthetic: this was disingenuous connection, wasn’t it? Or it had been mostly chemical—heat near heat, matter elbowing matter. There was no exchange of intelligence, nor of spirit. But the danger of transmission, of matter elbowing matter, had rendered that synthetic experience too chemical. Too toxic. I no longer went out to be near others.
But now I could be near others, and actually be shaken in my chair by their intelligence. I used a “Taunting Tongue” to lure invaders into my world. They arrived predictably, every few minutes. The norms governing these invasions varied wildly. Recall that iconic scene in Lawrence of Arabia, where two characters wait at a water well while a notion, a dark spirit, undulates in the virtuality of the deep horizon.
This notion, this dark spirit, becomes a man, who fires on Peter O’Toole’s Bedouin guide because he was forbidden from drinking at the well. However, the assassin treats O’Toole with utter kindness. In Elden Ring, invaders might sneak up on you to slit your throat. Or they might call to you from the distance, bowing an Arthurian bow, before engaging you.
To add to the sociality, on Xbox you can message the people who’ve invaded you. This proved to be too tempting. I got into hundreds of heated exchanges with random gamers across the world. If I felt they abused a particular weapon that was over-powered (“OP” the shorthand in the community), I might send them a message.
“you sure know how to use that pole, bruh,” I might type.
“U mad????” they might type back.
“nah, just admiring your pole work.”
“Ur mad lmao”
Once, I encountered an invader named Kafka, my favorite writer. He was using an exploit in the early game that allowed him to infinitely heal. No matter how much I damaged him, no matter how many times I brought my great sword down on his head, he would keep healing. It began to feel, indeed, like a Kafka parable, like a man waiting outside the locked gates of the law. Like a man waiting for real justice. I messaged him.
“Not how Kafka would play.”
“Lol cheating too. You defame my man Franz’s name.”
“Read more Kafka, tho. He’s legit.”
He finally wrote back, “Whos Kafka?”