1. DISSOLVING MARGINS
In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the lives of two women, sometimes friends, more often not, are charted over the course of some sixty years. Lila is the more naturally intelligent, if unstable, of the two; Lenu is the quieter, less charismatic one, who in the coming years will become a successful writer. The novels are recounted by Lenu, precipitated by the disappearance of Lila at the age of 66.
Why does Lila disappear? is the central question of the books, foreshadowed early on by a peculiar condition she experiences throughout her life, a condition which is perhaps neurological, perhaps something more mystical, and which she describes to Lenu as a “dissolving of margins”:
“The thing was happening to her that I mentioned and that she later called dissolving margins. It was—she told me—as if, on the night of a full moon over the sea, the intense black mass of a storm advanced across the sky, swallowing every light, eroding the circumference of the moon’s circle, and disfiguring the shining disk, reducing it to its true nature of rough insensate material. Lila imagined, she saw, she felt—as if it were true—her brother break. Rino, before her eyes, lost the features he had had as long as she could remember, the features of the generous, candid boy, the pleasing features of the reliable young man, the beloved outline of one who, as far back as she had memory, had amused, helped, protected her. There, amid the violent explosions, in the cold, in the smoke that burned the nostrils and the strong odor of sulfur, something violated the organic structure of her brother, exercising over him a pressure so strong that it broke down his outlines, and the matter expanded like a magma, showing her what he was truly made of. Every second of that night of celebration horrified her, she had the impression that, as Rino moved, as he expanded around himself, every margin collapsed and her own margins, too, became softer and more yielding. She struggled to maintain control, and succeeded: on the outside her anguish hardly showed. It’s true that in the tumult of explosions and colors I didn’t pay much attention to her. I was struck, I think, by her expression, which seemed increasingly fearful.”
The experience of dissolving margins horrifies Lila—it is for her a loss of physical control, similar to the dissociative phenomena classified under the DSM-5 as a spectrum of detachments from reality, but this dissolving of margins is also a kind of psychosis, where reality and one’s subjective experience of it separate violently, like pages being torn from the Book of Life. Lila’s brother dissolves; the moon dissolves; and where the dissolving happens, other stuff, “the matter…[her brother] was truly made of”, is set free, or breaks free. What this other matter is, exactly, the novels leave to that marginless realm, where language has dissolved too.
Lila dissolves from Lenu’s life, from the final pages themselves, and the novel ends when her dissolving has finished. Lila is finally gone.
These dissolving margins hooked me on the premise of the Ferrante books, which at first glance had the stuffy, enclosed feeling of familiarity, of the kind of psychologically serious, if conventional, fiction THE NEW YORKER loves to publish. But Lila’s condition, which slips between material, social, and mystical causes, showed that the novels were far more interested in delving the unnameable spaces of experience, of getting to the heart of the matter, which is no matter at all, or not any kind of matter we could ever hope to observe, much less understand.
I BEGAN TO experience my own dissolving margins in the summer of 2021. On a mountain run one particularly hot and muggy day, I’d drained my water bottle empty, and had begun to feel dizzy. I was several miles from my car, in a valley where my cellphone had no service. There were ravines filled with dark, rushing water, and the occasional, mad laughter of a pileated woodpecker. A jolt, a shock: I’d struck no root nor rock, but I felt as if I’d been thrown forward, beyond the limits of my own body. I crawled back into myself on the trail, the ferns bright among the dark trees. A glade where I’d seen a porcupine slowly escape my presence a number of times, climbing up trees to observe me from the safe heights, was filled with silent sunlight. I felt acutely that I was about to die. I was miles from help. I could go forward, and hope that I made it to my car before blacking out, or I could turn around and head back up the mountain, where I knew my cellphone would have service.
I decided to turn around, and up, and eventually my cellphone found service. I called 911. The dispatcher insisted I stay on the line with him while we waited for my rescue. He described to me that what I seemed to be experiencing was heat exhaustion, not yet heat stroke, though the boundaries of those two clinical terms I didn’t understand in the moment, nor did I have much energy left to engage him in conversation. He, for his part, didn’t know what to say to keep me calm.
“I’m still here. Help is on the way.”
It took roughly 30 minutes for an ambulance to show up, trailed by a cavalcade of eight police cars.
A paramedic took my vitals and diagnosed heat exhaustion, not heat stroke. They could take me to the hospital, or I could catch a ride with a cop back to my car.
I looked at the cops, at least eight of them, milling without masks, chatting, their chunky bulletproof vests creaking like the trees around us.
“I’ll go with the cops,” I said.
The lone woman officer opened the back door of her vehicle, and I slid in. She shut the door, and I immediately panicked, feeling something so markedly different, and yet so similar, to what I’d just experienced out there in the woods, that sensation of being thrown out of my own body: I felt, in the backseat of her police vehicle, that I’d been slammed back into my body, and locked up, quite literally. I reached reflexively for the door handle to get out, but my fingers slid across a featureless surface. Of course: no handles in the back of a police vehicle.
The AC was off in the vehicle, and this lone woman officer was in no hurry to get back in. I watched her mill with her fellow officers, chatting.
No one had offered me water.
I could see my breath condensing on the bullet-proof partition between me and the front seat.
I began to experience that same dissolving of margins, this time encircled by a dome of containment, like the concrete one that buried alive Chernobyl’s burning core. I was out of myself, and yet trapped.
When the woman officer finally slid into the front seat, and began driving, going 60 miles per hour in 30 mile per hour zones, her sirens and lights off, I wanted desperately to ask her to turn on the AC, to save me, but something like a conditioned helplessness, or perhaps a grudge, kept me silent. She eventually looked back at me and noticed something: she slid open the bulletproof partition a few inches, a baby’s breath of cold AC touching my face.
When she’d driven off, I sat in my car, the AC blasting, shivering uncontrollably.
A series of crises followed in the coming days. I was isolated. I live alone, which prior to the COVID era had never been a problem. I liked my home as a place to isolate, after I’d had my fill of social spaces. But social spaces had dissolved in the COVID era: I could go weeks without seeing anyone but the occasional hikers on the mountain trails. I stopped eating. Hunger dissolved. I stopped sleeping. Reality, so contingent on our wakeful attention, dissolved. In the photos I took of myself in July, I barely recognize the face that stares back, the cheeks gaunt, the gaze lifeless.
The ivy on my apartment windows was in full bloom, filled with bees and hornets that seemed unaware of each other as they swung from one umbrella flower to the next. The ivy was clotting out the daylight, with a kind of fairytale menace.
I felt buried alive but also marginless, melted, burning.
It was a kind of pain I had never experienced before, and it seemed unfixable, and endless.
To bear it, I left the apartment. I was terrified of the summer heat, so I got in my car and turned up the AC. I drove around the valley. Without a destination, in circles. I got on the freeway and drove to Springfield, got off, drove back to Northampton. Over and over. All day, and for weeks. On the worst days, the smoke from the wildfires thousands of miles to the west turned the sky into a salmony spread, the noon sun the color of the setting sun, and I had to wear a mask even inside my car to not feel my lungs burning. I drove past old haunts: UMass, the house of the dog I used to walk, the houses of friends. Being close to my friends, from inside my car, unknown to them, became a passing comfort.
I kept thinking: I can’t live like this. This is unbearable. I wanted to disappear.
On the night of the 27th of July, after some two weeks of barely eating, and never really sleeping, I decided this was it: I would take my life, because it was not really a life anymore. I wrote a short note to my friends to tell them I loved them, and that I was sorry. I would get into my car, and I would drive very fast into something very solid. Marginless, margins, and a final dissolve in the space between.
I didn’t realize at the time that something similar had happened with my mother when I was eight years old: in the depths of depression, she grabbed her car keys and screamed that she’d had enough. She was going to do it. She didn’t have to say what it was. She left the house and drove off, and I escaped to my bedroom to hide beneath the covers, weeping because I felt certain my mother was speeding toward her death.
But she came back.
2. VULGAR REALITY
THIS ESSAY BECOMES, in a sense, an account of a disappearance and a return, and an inquiry into what it means to still exist when the margins dissolve.
In the months following my suicide attempt, I was encouraged by a whole team of therapists to seek out distractions. Video games, which had always filled such a role in the good times, became a lifeline of sorts. For years, I had been curious about virtual reality, and so I decided to finally give in, purchasing a VR headset.
Virtual reality, which has been hyped as the next big push in gaming, remains a largely niche hobby, and for good reasons: early headsets required you to set up sensor towers in your living space; the headsets were heavy and fatigued the neck; and the hardware required to run the games was expensive. The costs alone could easily mount to over $3000, not even considering the eyesore of your living room crowded with those sensor towers, called “Lighthouses”, a beautiful name to describe what they actually do: lasers sweeping the room to determine where you are in three-dimensional space, and to keep you, in an urgently material sense, from dashing into the rocks, or, as it were, the living room couch. But advances in the technology over the last few years, in particular through the efforts of Facebook/Meta and their headset the Oculus Quest 2, have given the medium its first real mainstream push. The sweeping Lighthouse towers are no longer needed; the Oculus headset is comfortable and light; and it runs by itself, without the need of an expensive computer.
Much of my life has been given to the virtual: I was a voracious reader from an early age, and though the circumstances of my childhood home and school were often bleak, and sometimes violent, a good book could settle over my eyes like a shimmering veil: indeed, I even loved to pull a blanket over my head to unfocus the world and sharpen the book. If one accepts that by virtual we simply mean an egress from reality, whatever that is, our experience with virtuality becomes nearly totalizing. Our lives are mostly virtual, defined by egress and escape, whether through our active participation, as when we read a book, or through our passive resignation, when our minds wander and our attentions slip. And just as we are prone to leaving reality, whole industries exist to scare us back into it; the novel, in its first few decades, was considered a dangerous new technology, the kind of thing that could derange the reader’s mind and, what’s worse, corrupt the reader’s soul. Fears of physical and metaphysical corruption always attend the new, whether we’re considering depictions of realistic violence in shooting games, or the rise of the micro, 10-second story on TikTok. Virtuality is dangerous and corruptive, and even some of the longest virtual experiences out there, like Anna Karenina, make pains to show how deeply the unreal can destroy you. Tolstoy has his knives out for opera; Joe Lieberman for Mortal Kombat.
AOL arrived in my house in 1996, toward the end of middle school. What, exactly, the digital commons would look like, or how its markets would operate, hadn’t yet been settled on. AOL in those days was, in a very (un)real sense, all frontier: the wildness of the inchoate and unexplored, and at the edges, little pockets, little settlements, chatrooms, as it were, going up as quickly as they went down. I began to frequent chatrooms, thrilled that each time I entered, I was an unknown presence, defined only by my screen name, SushiSailr. This lack of definition was thrilling, in part because I was so unhappy with the surfeit of definition I had in the real world: I was 13, gay, closeted, unathletic, fat, and beginning to bald. But on AOL, I was none of those things. I didn’t have to be.
A/s/l?, strangers would write, standing for “age, sex, location,” and my 13 year old self played tricks: I was 28, female, and living in Tokyo. Men propositioned me out in the open.
“Take it to instant message?” he says.
“Ok, but we can fuck here too,” I say, meaning the cascading chat window.
I was figuring out, in meek guesses, what exactly it meant to cyber, which corresponded with fearful visits to gay pornography sites where the entry pages warned, under penalty of perjury, that those under 18 would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. My sexual education online was worlds removed from the one we Catholic school students received in Kentucky during the Bush and Clinton administrations, which used a curriculum called Family Life that framed sex as a procreative act suitable only in the context of a lawfully wedded relationship. Our teachers never told us what masturbation was—I discovered that on my own, in a moment as messy as it was revelatory: if they were keeping this from us, what else did they withhold? Ass-eating was off the table in school, but it was online.
On one occasion, a proposition out in the open of an AOL chatroom went awry, with a chat moderator I hadn't noticed using their tools to log me off summarily. When I logged back on, I discovered, to my horror, that an email had been sent to my account, and to my parents’s and my brother’s accounts, of my offending language:
“22, female, New York, any guys want their ass eaten??” This language violates AOL’s terms of service.
I didn’t hesitate: I logged into my parents’s primary account, whose password I knew. I deleted the email. I didn’t know my brother’s password, so I had no other choice but the most extreme one: I deleted his account.
When my brother tried logging in the following day, he asked my parents what had happened.
“My account is gone," he said.
“Wow,” I said.
My near-outing was an early education that though the borders between the virtual and the real required an enormous imaginary capacity to keep separate, there were powerful agents ready to swoop in and punish those who attempted the cross. Perhaps my near-outing explains, in part, why I’m so drawn to the kind of vulgarity that leads a 13 year old to ask to eat ass in front of others, because vulgarity challenges the very idea of borders, which are really just political lines, as it challenges those agents who insist again and again on the inviolability of the lines. I’ll give an example: many of my friends with children at the age of acquiring language have begun to waver on the acceptability of cursing in front of them. This strikes me as an entirely virtual project, the creation of a world without fucks. Their reasoning is sound enough, since children have to interact with others, and little Jonny saying “shitass” in kindergarten will disturb some idea of a social peace. But whose social peace are we protecting? And really, why? The “We live in a society” meme, whose origins might be charted to a Seinfeld episode where the friends are waiting for a table to open at a Chinese
restaurant, is a joke on the very notion of there being such a thing as a consensus society where social peace is possible. In the episode, George tries to grab a payphone,
but a woman swoops in before him, saying if he’d been there first, he’d be holding the phone. “You know, we’re living in a society,” George says bitterly, loudly, disturbing the social peace to make a case about upholding the social peace. “We’re supposed to act in a civilized way. Does she care? No. Does anyone ever display the slightest sensitivity over the problems of a fellow individual? No. NO! A resounding no.”
Surely to live in a society includes the risk of encountering someone asking, politely enough, to eat some willing ass, or someone screaming to an uncaring room that they deserve sensitivity, just as society includes those agents, of the state or of the imaginary, who are ready to punish those who disturb the peace. In true democratic systems, these conflicting ideas of the social peace would have to be worked out, the boundaries argued over, the political lines redrawn, but true democratic systems mostly elude us.
When I describe these ideas to one of my friends with two young girls, he mentions how his mother has to leave the room if someone says a bad word like "shit." What does she do in the other room, I ask, while the party goes on? My friend doesn’t know.
VRChat WAS THE virtual reality game I knew I wanted to play first. You can think of VRChat as a natural evolution of AOL chatrooms because it allows users to create 3D worlds to explore and hang out in, cloaked in avatars of their choosing. It’s not a game in any meaningful sense (though there are games you can play within it), so much as it is a digital commons that is by any sane measure wildly unregulated. This is how you can find yourself wandering into a Hilton Garden Inn-like lounge space, surrounded by big-titted anime cat-girls, a too-long-legged Garfield the Cat, and what I can only describe as a horny Sponge Bob seated with an enormous, spongey ass, the basketball court squeakiness of prepubescent voices filling the virtual air with vulgarity, threats, and slurs. Indeed, one of the first words I hear uttered in VRChat is “fag”, floating through an unconvincingly animated hotel lobby waterfall. My first VRChat avatar has
the face of a turn of the century boxer, and the outfit of a Thighmaster background squeezer. I’m still acquiring my VR sea legs, as it were, because it turns out that the human brain initially rejects the overwhelming otherness that VR presents it. When the ground in VR tilts upward, but the floor in your bedroom does not, your brain pretty reasonably fritzes with the uncanny difference; I feel immediately dizzy, and find that I have to take frequent breaks.
But someone is still saying “fag” on the other side of this lounge waterfall. I opt to steer my avatar with “teleport” movement, which acts as a compromise with point of view, my first-person vantage point yanked from the body it lorded over, so that I’m suddenly able to watch myself, or my bubble-butted avatar, as it were, walk awkwardly through the lobby. Teleport movement solves the problem of dizziness as it introduces a fresh problem of dissociation: I feel twinned and echoed, here and there, my source signal dimmed. My brain is racing to catch up.
I walk into the main lounge, anchored around a circular bar where a Scooby Doo is “clipping” through the taps—a phenomenon where three-dimensional characters slip like ghosts through solid structures. That Scooby Doo is a real human being, I think, though they’re doing very little that reads as human, spinning in place like a rotisserie chicken. Scooby Doo stops spinning to have a look at me, and a ten year old’s voice explodes from his sloppy jaws, “ARE YOU GAY?”
A chest-burster from the Alien movie floats past my shoulder, slicked in blood and the chest-viscera of whoever mothered it, and I discover that I can copy avatars, and so become others. I copy the chest-burster avatar, who notices me becoming them, and squirms angrily in the air. “Gay ass copycat,” he hisses, floating off.
I turn to a corner, where a group of Narutos is circling a tiny cat. One Naruto will lunge forward to call the tiny cat gay, before stepping back to let his friend do it next. The tiny cat raises its paws helplessly in the air to say, “How do I mute you?”
I wander to another corner where two people are engaged in a back-and-forth of non-sequiturs. One is a blue and pink axolotl-like creature from Pokemon; the other is, well, I have no fucking idea: a duck-billed, cheetah-spotted thing. As I float over them, a tiny green frog in a sports car crashes spectacularly through the conversation.
Truly democratic spaces must have an inclination to lean toward the lodestar of insanity and incoherence.
IDEAS OF SOCIAL peace are all but absent in VRChat, and in this sense, the common space’s dangerous potential returns. No chat is off the table. The various worlds in VRChat are in constant conflicts of territorial squabbling, usually between rival gangs of teens and tweens calling each other gay, hurling racial slurs, threatening murder and rape. It is exhaustingly social, in other words, and also chaotically democratic: every voice has a voice (curiously, there are scores of VRChat users who identify as “mutes” who elect to never speak, but to hover, instead, like the noble observers of the Prime Directive in the Star Trek universe, committed to never interfering, but looking all the same very horny). Vulgarity is a shock to any system, especially to ones committed to ideas of social peace. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has argued that political correctness, which upholds the ruling class’s idea of social peace, “not only covers up the actual relationship of power but makes it even more impenetrable.” By using an example of a boss who says the right things to uphold the social peace, but who is, at heart, like most bosses, a rigid authoritarian, Žižek argues that political correctness makes it far harder to create the conditions of revolution necessary to transcend authoritarian systems. A vulgar demagogue like Donald Trump is, in other words, politically useful for leftists like Žižek because he yanks away the veil of social peace and lays bare the cruel face leering underneath, chewing its bloody gums. In other words, how do we know who our enemies are, much less fight them, if our enemies say all the right things?
I won’t pretend that VRChat becomes, then, a breeding ground for any sort of leftist revolution of thought or praxis. It is, as I come to discover over the next few weeks, a mostly vulgar distraction, maybe not the kind my therapists thought of in the first place. There are lovely moments, to be sure, as when two tiny cats meowing hornily to one another leads to me, and a half dozen others, copying their avatars, so that we create a chorus of hornily meowing lunatics, the kind of absurdist image that is pointlessly the point, and that you might find hanging in the postmodern galleries of
the 21st Century Condition. But mostly I find spaces for people to share their alienation, the signifiers pulled from anime and furry subcultures, and pointing to a whole class of people who feel ignored by reality, and empowered by virtuality. I see it again and again, in world after world: two big-titted anime girls floating in a corner, one nestled in the lap of the other, one attempting to pet the head of their friend/lover, their hands clipping into their friend/lover’s hollowed skulls.
The alienation doesn’t end inside these virtual words, either: when I take off the headset, I discover that my whole personality has been nudged from the center of my body, like a glass that has tilted off its coaster. I don’t move as quickly in the real world as I do in VR; I don’t turn as rapidly; I can’t leap on top of my kitchen counter in one clean blink. I’ve never experienced dissociation the way the clinical literature describes it, but this feels like some phenomenon close enough. The distances of my apartment feels rubbery too, as if the rooms have been stretched beyond their foundations, like a house that’s gotten bigger on the inside than on the outside. It takes roughly twenty minutes for the apartment to snap back into itself, for distance to feel distant, and for me to snap back into myself.
As I spend more time in VRChat, the dissociation upon logging off lessens; in its place, an addiction grows, the same kind that kept me logging into AOL all those years ago, an addiction that is, perhaps, rooted in an experience of nearly religious ecstasy. Whenever God or his angels make calls in the Bible, the experience is horrifying and exultant, because it confirms the existence of the divine, whose power is beyond comprehension, just as it presages some coming, and profound, personal transformation. You don’t run into an angel on the road and get to return to your day job, in other words; life will never be the same for you. As my avatars change, from Yogi the Bear to the alien chest-burster, as I become more comfortable “unmuting”, as I meow and clip through the walls and the floors, I feel less and less like myself, and more and more like others.
3. THE LIVES OF OTHERS
IN THE DAYS following my suicide attempt, my friends rushed to figure out what to do with me. My dissolving margins had become theirs, and we were all learning quite viscerally the gaps in American mental health care. I begged to not be admitted to a hospital, where I knew I’d be locked up and medicated against my will. A suicide watch was set up while options were considered, with the unlucky electing to take rotating shifts. I still couldn’t sleep, and hadn’t for over two weeks. I was so weak I could barely walk for more than a few minutes at a time. One friend drove me aimlessly around the valley, because the sensation of moving through space, for some reason, was the only thing that could set me at ease. At night, someone slept on my apartment’s couch while I stayed awake, watching episodes of Gilmore Girls. My friends had taken all my knives, and all my pills, but I had found an old leather belt at the bottom of a drawer. I tied it to my bedroom doorknob and looped it around my neck. From the floor, I leaned forward until the belt went taut, my throat closing. I gave up, returned to bed, watched more Gilmore Girls. I grew to find that belt, looped on the doorknob, as a comfort hanging in the night: I would look at it from my bed and feel a pleasant squeeze in my spine, some excited anticipation that the unbearable did, in fact, have an end.
A compromise of sorts was bargained into: if I agreed to go to a respite center, I could avoid hospitalization. The respite turned out to be a ramshackle Victorian on the outskirts of town, each room occupied by two beds, with a roommate, to deprive you, it seemed, of the privacy necessary to kill yourself. We were allowed to go for 30-minute walks outside the house, though we had to sign a ledger detailing where we were going. A staff member wrote the time you came back, threatening those who were even a minute late that they’d lose their privileges. Every hour, even through the night, someone swung open my bedroom door to see if I was still alive. An issue with my insurance meant that I was not allowed to see the attending clinician who could prescribe anti-depressants. A nurse in my primary care’s office prescribed me alprazolam as-needed, and which a staff member fed to me in a condiment paper cup. The alprazolam allowed me to sleep, though it made me feel nudged off the center of my personality. With sleep, I was regaining some of my strength, and some hold again on a consensus reality. Each day in respite, a social worker would pull me aside to chat for a couple of minutes about how I was doing, but mostly I was left to myself. I sat on the sagging front porch all day, every day, watching the traffic on the road, and when that became unbearable, signing out for 30-minute walks in the neighborhood, longing for a semi-truck to resolve on the horizon so that I might leap in front of it.
The people in respite were mostly drugged and listless; nobody really talked to anyone else. There was a group that sat on the frayed couches in the common room and watched TV, never laughing, never exchanging words about what was happening on the screen. One woman went for bike rides from the city bike dock at the library across the street, holding her face proudly high above the handlebars as she pedaled away for her thirty minutes. Group meetings in the morning and evening were short and yet somehow endless, often framed by a cloyingly positive question like, “What is something we are grateful for today?”
“Nothing,” someone would say, and the attending social worker would nod and respond, “Yes, some days it can seem like there really is nothing to be grateful for.”
“People are talking about me behind my back here,” another one suffering from paranoid delusions would say, the delusion obvious enough because no one was talking here.
The social worker would nod and respond, “That’s such a bad feeling.”
There was so much pain in these ramshackle Victorian rooms, and paranoia as well, real and imagined, but mostly real, that should we misstep in the ways we did to land us here in respite, we’d be sent to the worse place, to hospital.
One morning, a staff member pulled me aside to talk about my physical health. Whenever I strayed at all from the center of her questions to address my mental state, as when she asked how I was feeling, and I began to answer that I was still unbearably anxious, she cut me off with a curt, “I don’t care about that. Do you feel sick?”
“I guess not.”
I wasn’t allowed to communicate with my regular therapist, because insurance would only cover the cost of respite stay and not any secondary therapy, but I felt abandoned by my therapist anyway after she had surmised that the physical symptoms I was experiencing stemmed from, in all likelihood, “psychosis”. If I was no longer a reliable narrator of my own subjective experiences, it seemed, then I would have to settle into a third-person-like narrativity, with someone else telling my story for me.
Insurance would only pay for a week of respite stay, and my narrativity handlers determined that I was not yet ready to return home by myself. Some friends were generous enough to let me sleep in their basement for a few weeks, all while they tried to figure out the next steps. I still hadn’t been prescribed anything besides the alprazolam to sleep at night, so it was decided that I’d attend a partial-hospitalization program (PHP) with a prescribing clinician. I picked one called Triangle, which focuses on LGBQT mental health, conducted online through Zoom. This is how I ended up, for eight hours each day, and for six weeks, attending group therapy sessions, going through cognitive behavioral and dialectical behavioral therapy drills. I was finally prescribed an SSRI anti-depressant, after four weeks of insurance mixups, and missed clinicians.
Unlike the respite stay, Triangle was filled with people who wanted to talk. Though all our meetings occurred in virtual space, I felt so much closer to the Triangle community than anyone with whom I’d shared an actual room in respite. We were encouraged to frame our discussions around “I-statements,” as the therapists called it, in a rhetorical move that seemed to take back our stories from the narrativity handlers. This rhetorical move also limited us from surmising about the inner lives and motivations of others, but then we were gathered to focus on ourselves. I stayed silent for the first few weeks, simply listening: I listened, and I discovered that what was happening to me was happening to others. My inability to make my own meals, to do laundry, to answer texts from concerned friends, whose concern, in my silence, was waning—this was a pattern for many of the people in Triangle. What had seemed to me to be outrageously exceptional failures of the self, and that had been shameful to admit to the social workers at respite, much less my friends, were, in fact, quite commonly shared. We had trouble cooking. We had trouble washing. We had trouble getting back to our loved ones.
My assigned therapist at Triangle was like every therapist I’d had before: nice enough, concerned enough, and startled enough by the content of my mind, but trained under libertarian ideas of pathology, rooted in the belief that you have to pull yourself up, from the muck of your mind, by your own bootstraps.
When I told my Triangle therapist my reasons for attempting suicide, he wrenched back in his chair in the tiny Zoom screen, pausing, considering, finally saying, “Wow, that is really dark.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” I wanted to say.
But instead I said, “You’re right.”
4. VULGAR FUTURITY
WHERE ONE-ON-ONE therapy had failed to fix me for years—I was still anxious, I was still depressed, I was still thinking of killing myself—my time in Triangle was markedly different. I was still anxious, I was still depressed, I was still thinking about killing myself, but I had become aware of my own pathologies being shared in a community of suffering. I began to wonder why I’d been told for years to fix myself, and not, quite reasonably, to work to help fix others.
I’m an adjunct professor of writing at a small liberal arts university in Massachusetts, taking on contract work semester to semester. I do the dirty work that the tenured professors in my department want to avoid, teaching mostly composition courses to freshmen. Every spring for the past seven years, I’ve taught a literature course on the weird literary tradition, pulling from books, video games, and movies those stories that break with the vulgar realism of the everyday. I have my students play, collectively, a game called Inside, developed by the Danish studio Playdead. Inside is a side-scroller in the Mario Bros. tradition, with the player leading a fragile child through an increasingly dangerous landscape. One student is the “Control”, wielding the controller to make the child jump and run, while the rest of the class shouts encouragement, ideas, and solutions to the various puzzles that impede forward progress.
Inside’s conception of futurity is bombed out, irradiated, diseased; it depicts the tail end of the Anthropocene, whose beginning is proposed to be the Trinity test in 1945, and whose blinding plume David Lynch’s camera fearlessly plunged inside of in Part 8 of Twin Peaks: the Return.
Death, decay, disease—these are the rules, not the exceptions, of Inside’s world, and it is the player’s task to navigate the irradiated ruins. Inside tells a wordless story—no one speaks—of profound alienation from the environment, which is destroyed; from labor, which is brutal; from our neighbors, who are our enemies and accusers; from the self, which is entirely fungible. The first time my students witness the child destroyed, which will happen many times to come, their small body strangled by a masked adult in a dark forest, the class lets out an inevitable, collective gasp, because though our world is brutal, it still remains a vulgar taboo to show that brutality enacted on the bodies of children in popular media. As the child is destroyed in ever more vulgar ways—electrified, mauled by dogs, exploded by a sonic boom—they stop gasping. They become numbed to the vulgar horror.
Because Inside tells its story entirely through image and sound, it is up to the player, and so my classes, to piece together its meanings. The first clues of what Inside is up to occur early in the game: a puzzle requires the child to fire the bodies of small, chirping chicks at a hay barrel on a rafter beam, to push it off so that the player can use it to climb out of a barn window. When they realize what they have to do—endanger the lives of these innocent beings—there is always at least one student who says, exasperated, “Oh no!”
The chicks are fine; they bounce back up, all of them, except one…the neon yellow of its tiny body burning through its stillness.
I ask, “Is it okay to instrumentalize those chicks to keep going, even if it means one chick will stop moving?”
My students usually find themselves in disagreement over what exactly we owe that one baby chick. Burgeoning Kantians say it’s never okay, the good laws can’t be broken, all baby chicks matter; burgeoning utilitarians say the good of the many outweighs the good of a few, and that sometimes you have to break eggs, or their cargo, as it were, to make an omelet.
When the game introduces a VR-like helmet, which the child puts on, granting him the power to control moaning and gurgling zombie-like people who populate the world, Inside’s ideas of futurity become ever more prescient, and practically contemporary.
These zombie-like people are both funny and tragic, moaning as you manipulate them, as their too-pliant, too-plastic bodies snap back and forth. They are dead labor made literal, made personal, a natural endpoint for the future of neoliberal markets, and which Marx described as labor embodied in machines and commodities. The perfect worker is someone you can control totally, and without pay, their margins stripped away, mined for value. Maybe they will moan, but so what? Where the dead baby chick so naturally moved my students to a catharsis of concern, the zombified workers don't really provoke a similar response: we're accustomed, after all, to the deadening labor of contemporary life.
Inside is one of those rare works of art with a climax that is genuinely startling and unexpected, just as it seems, upon reflection, crushingly inevitable. As the child delves deeper into the world, entering a facility where experiments on the zombie-like workers become more and more brutal, he comes across a giant tank that a group of scientists are peering over. My students are always horrified by what happens next, their numbness shocked again by the utter vulgarity of what plays out: the child swims toward a writhing, many-limbed biomass, an uncanny…thing. As the child tries to free this thing from its restraints (which, curiously, are the same VR-like helmets used to direct the zombie automatons), an arm shoots out from its quivering surface and snatches the child, pulling him inside. When they discover that they now control this quivering, many-limbed biomass, and not the child, my classes react with a revulsion bordering on loathing. Some cover their heads. It turns out it is still possible to shock the numbed.
Named the “Huddle” by the Playdead designers, the player must use their monstrous new form to crash through the facility, mowing down the scientists and experimenters, the guards and bosses, and so the tyrannical ruling class, crushed into bloody pools beneath your heaving, moaning mass. The game cleverly signals this shift in power, of moving from the ruled to the revolutionary: where you spent most of the game moving from left to right, now you move right to left; where you once cowered, you now crash mightily through. The moans of the Huddle, and the sounds of its bare, slapping foot soles, struggling to keep up, belie the awesome new power you wield: every fall, every crash, elicits a sound of pain and fury from its rippling, quivering, fidgeting, many-faced surface, with your arms and legs popping off, wriggling on the ground where you leave them behind. No matter: there are so many more where those came from.
(A vulgar aside: a sex toy company's version of the Huddle might be one of the more hilariously tasteless example of commodity culture missing the point, or getting it too well.)
The Huddle is one of those images the filmmaker Werner Herzog warned us we needed more of when he said, “Our civilization is starving for great images.” We are oversaturated with content, surely, in an age that has created an entirely new class called the “Content Creator”, but content, for most of us, is filled with the familiar and the echoed, the already done to death and yet somehow still alive, or in some suspended animated stage between. It is hard not to feel anything but numbness when picturing the future.
That Inside ends with an act of solidarity made flesh, of bodies merging, blending, crosshatching, suggests that resistance isn’t futile so much as it is its own kind of horror of becoming. How do we change ourselves, much less the system, from the inside? Not without sacrificing the self, it would seem, for some greater, social good.
5. THERE IS NO SOCIETY
FOLLOWING MY STAY at Triangle, I was startled by the resistance of certain friends to my evolving ideas of the Therapy Industrial Complex. I’d just gone through hundreds of hours of therapy, far more than most people will see over the course of a decade, but who was I to speak critically of the thing? I needed to keep up with the talk therapy, these friends said, though a Triangle bill for $5,000 was sitting on my dining room table.
I joked that I’d been in therapy when I tried to kill myself, so it might be fruitful to see what happened outside of it. But I discovered that trying to kill yourself actually killed, in many senses, your ability to deliver a mordant punchline: irony belongs to the healthy and not to those damaged souls who can’t keep a minimum safe distance from the abyss of a dark joke.
When I posted an image to Instagram about the predatory practices of the online therapy giant BetterHelp, which are well documented, a friend of a friend messaged me to chastise me for even thinking to critique talk therapy. In this way, we do the policing for the industrial complex.
The efficacy of talk therapy is a continuous debate, though various studies seem to suggest that it helps about as many people as anti-depressants, roughly in the 25-30% range. A tool that helps 25-30% of those who use it can't be discounted, but what, then, do we do for the vast majority of people, some 70-75%, who see little to no results?
I thought of the Triangle therapists, who conditioned us in group therapy to use “I-statements”, and who could never resolve the larger questions any of us had about the social causes of our pathologies. Whenever someone brought up how society made them sick, the therapist would offer pat words of condolence before moving on, back to the self.
“I agree that society is brutal, but we’re here to offer practical…”
I noticed that whenever we brought a political dimension for our pathologies into the discussion, as when a session about the DBT concept of “radical acceptance” turned into an ad hoc struggle session about the many political realities we refused to accept, like militarized police, or the military industrial complex, our therapists acknowledged that these problems, of course, made us sick, but they were structural problems, and we were here to figure out practical strategies to help ourselves.
This came to a head in a Triangle session on boundaries, a concept that I’ve always struggled with, since it strikes me as one tool control societies use to alienate us from each other, while reducing pathologies like depression to a phenomenon of the individual. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze describes “control societies” as differing from the “discipline societies” Michel Foucault charted in Discipline and Punish. According to Foucault, institutions like the prison, the school, and the factory were organizing principles of a disciplinary society; for Deleuze’s control societies, the corporation has insinuated itself into all aspects of our lives, into an Internet that presaged the actual Internet: “The disciplinary man was a discontinuous producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network.” Control societies need continuous networks, for the WiFi to always be on, so to speak. For Deleuze, the relationships between the prison wardens/bosses and their prisoners/workers, have been exchanged for the relationships between creditors and debtors, dealers and addicts. We increasingly don’t own any of the content we consume—we stream it, we subscribe to it, we pay Netflix for the pleasure. Addiction is the corporation’s best tool for control: we become accustomed to these packets of pleasure, fed to us in our social media feeds, in amuse-bouche portions: TikTok becomes a near-infinite scroll of relentlessly wise and relentlessly horny, bite-sized content.
The promise of talk-therapy is paradoxical, because it is structured on a dealer/addict relationship that can never be transcended: therapy will heal you, but you can never stop being healed, so come back next week. In this way, therapy becomes a lifetime’s pilgrimage, a holy site that can never be reached, a vital subscription like your Netflix account, and it becomes unimaginable to go a week without complaining to your therapist, just as it becomes unimaginable to go a week without the next serving of relentlessly British, relentlessly pastoral baking shows we’ve come to not love, necessarily, but to…need.
As our Triangle group discusses what boundaries are for, I tentatively jump into the conversation to ask, “What if your boundaries are in conflict? Say, for example, you need more from a friend, but they say they need less of you? Whose boundaries do we respect here? How does this boundary stuff ever get resolved?”
I was thinking of how a friend of mine had said, when I revealed my reasons for wanting to kill myself, that my reasons were, to use one of the overdetermined words of the Therapy Industrial Complex discourse, “problematic.”
This friend wanted to institute boundaries for how I could engage them in the coming weeks, and I was begging them to reconsider. Boundaries, after all, had been one of the great drivers of my crisis: their dissolving, yes, but also their unbreakable solidity, in the ivy closing over my apartment windows, in the friends whose houses I could no longer go inside for fear of COVID, in the large gatherings that almost never happened now.
Boundaries seemed like useful tools for someone experiencing acute psychosis, or reeling in the penumbra of trauma, but they also seemed like ways for a control society to render it impossible to find solidarity, and to locate the causes of our pathologies beyond the self. Your therapist, after all, has an autopay option.
In the essay “A Future with No Future: Depression, the Left, and the Politics of Mental Health,” Mikkel Krause Frantzen proposes a revolutionary reappraisal of mental health, writing,
Contrary to mainstream psychological and psychiatric discourse the reason why you can’t get out of bed is not because you have a bad attitude, a negative mindset, or because you have somehow chosen your own unhappiness. Nor is it merely a matter of chemistry and biology, an imbalance in the brain, an unlucky genetic disposition, or low levels of serotonin. More often than not it is a matter of the world you live in, the work that you hate, or the job that you just lost, the debt that haunts your present from the future, or the fact that the planet’s future is going still faster and further down the drain.
When I told my therapists that so much of my unhappiness and discontent stemmed from my adjunct work, from my low pay, from my dissolving social spheres, they quite reasonably had no advice to give beyond the obvious: keep coming back now, ya hear?
At a job interview for the local Apple store, I’m asked why a professor of college writing would be applying for more work, and at a retail store of all places. I stumble over an answer, “I’m part-time at my university, and I could use some additional work.”
The boss gives an unreadable expression before leaning into his next question: “What is the most important thing for a retail worker to do?”
“I suppose…well, I can give you an example. At my old Barnes & Noble job, it was important to know books. Customers would ask us for recommendations all the time, and the more familiar you were with the publishing world, the better you could steer—“
But he cut me off, shaking his head no.
“Wrong. It’s about relationships. Relationships are all that matter.”
He wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t wrong either. And yet, while I’d impressed my first two interviewers, the boss wasn’t having it. I didn’t get the job.
When I tell my therapist this story, he reiterates some earlier advice to me, that I should try blogging.
As Frantzen notes, depression seems to be on the rise, its causes varied, just as SSRI medication sales near $14 billion globally.
“The claim: Depression makes manifest the contemporary subject’s alienation, in its most extreme and pathological form. As such, the psychopathology needs to be related to a world of capitalist realism, where there really is no alternative, as Thatcher triumphantly declared, and the future seems frozen once and for all. The crisis embodied by depression thus becomes a symptom of a historical and capitalist crisis of futurity.”
For Frantzen, “The importance of arriving at a political understanding of depression cannot be overstated. If the reader only takes one thing away from my text let it be this: depression has a set of causes and a concrete context that transcend any diagnostic manual, as well as the neoliberal ideology of focusing on subjects, not structures; personal responsibilities, not collective ones; chemistry, not capital.” This focus on subjects, rather than structures, is the sort of thinking that my Triangle therapists, who exist in a control society, can’t allow to disrupt the group sessions; structural focus would necessitate an examination of Triangle, and the broader Therapy Industrial Complex. Understanding depression as a political phenomenon, and not just a neurological one, would undermine the neoliberal project of the Therapy Industrial Complex, which stands to make billions every year from our suffering.
Frantzen draws his analysis from the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, who summarizes the aims of the Therapy Industrial Complex concretely:
The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation.
Fisher, who one can't help but note killed himself in 2017 after failing to find adequate therapy, is most famous for coining the term “capitalist realism”, which circumscribes the idea—and not the reality—that capitalism is inevitable, and impossible to imagine an alternative for. As Margaret Thatcher infamously said, "There is no alternative" to capitalism, capitalist realism is the belief that there is nothing left for us to do, when it
comes to organizing our economies. We’ve beaten the final boss and saved the princess, by eternalizing bosses and princesses. Thatcher also infamously said,
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society.
Do most therapists recognize that they are channeling Thatcherism in their relentless focus on the self, and the avoidance, which is functionally the same as a refusal, to acknowledge that there is, in fact, such a thing as society? Capitalism, for Frantzen, “inflicts a double injury on depressed people. First, it causes, or contributes to, the state of depression. Second, it erases any form of causality and individualizes the illness, so that it appears as if the depression in question is a personal problem (or property). […] If you had just lived a better and more active life, made other choices, had a more positive mindset, et cetera, then you would not be depressed. This is the song sung by psychologists, coaches, and therapists around the world: happiness is your choice, your responsibility.”
I think of how when I drove around the valley, preparing to kill myself, I was drawn again and again to the homes of my friends. I wanted to be near them. I wanted to be near others I cared about, and that possibility was denied by my own neurology, certainly, but also by a pandemic going into its second year, under a new presidential administration that had promised to right the wrongs of the previous one, but was now saying that there was no federal solution, and working to manufacture a consensus futurity that we all had to look out for ourselves. There is no such thing as a society.
The Therapy Industrial Complex is fundamentally committed to a neoliberal conception of organizing economies, whether of the political, material, or social, where all that’s left for us is our purchasing power as consumers, and our politics is reduced to a politics of personal catharsis. We are still allowed to feel, and really, that’s all that’s left: our feelings, which circumscribe our increasingly isolated, socially curated bubbles, drip-fed to us by the invisible algorithms of the system. Most of us are “at capacity”, it would seem: we understand that dysfunction now defines the modern condition of the developed world, and that institutions like Congress, put in place to address our great structural problems, are completely impotent and corrupted. We are all probably depressed to some degree when we consider the future, and fearful that our depressions can become viral, passing from one friend to another. This is why the TikTok DJ can say that healthy people surround themselves with healthy friends: those who don't suffer from depression believe in the social causes of good health, but refuse to see the social causes of bad health. The pamphlet for a crashing airplane tells you to put your mask on first, before helping others; it doesn’t tell you that you’re all still going to die.
Since we’re all a little depressed, we go now to a whole professionalized class of talk therapists to discuss our feelings, when feelings should belong to the domain of those who cause them, our feelings, and who share them, our feelings. When my friends tell me that they feared that they would do and say the wrong things, and that I needed professional help, I’m left to ask: what professionals? I think of the professional at respite who didn't care about my anxiety. I think of the woman who rode away on her bike, her face brightening the further she pedaled from the house that enclosed us. We’re all in the dark here.
Frantzen ends his essay by trying to sketch an alternative future, based around what he calls “alliances of care”:
The point must be, rather, to destroy the material conditions that make us sick, the capitalist system that destroys people’s lives, the inequalities that kill. Thus, creating another world together. But to do that, to get to where that becomes possible, what is called for is not competition among the sick, but alliances of care that will make people feel less alone and less morally responsible for their illness. In alliance with each other, people might eventually be able to get up and throw some bricks.
It turns out that a society that is overworked, over-extended, over-parented, under-paid, under-educated, and under-insured is incapable of taking sickness back where it belongs, back into the social domain. We owe each other better care, and we are failing others terribly. I include myself as part of the problem, certainly. But none of this has to feel inevitable, nor immutable.
6. THE THIRD IMPACT
Lila disappears, never comes back. The Neapolitan Novels end obscurely. Lenu writes,
“What is the point of all these pages, then? I intended to capture her, to have her beside me again, and I will die without knowing if I succeeded. Sometimes I wonder where she vanished. At the bottom of the sea. Through a fissure or down some subterranean tunnel whose existence she alone knows. In an old bathtub filled with a powerful acid. In an ancient garbage pit, one of those she devoted so many words to. In the crypt of an abandoned church in the mountains. In one of the many dimensions that we don’t know yet but Lila does, and now she’s there with her daughter.”
Lenu, the writer, discovers that the story she’s telling must have an end, and it isn’t the one she, the narrativity handler, wants.
“I wanted Lila to emerge from stairway A or B or from the deserted porter’s room, thin, gray, her back bent. I wished it more than any other thing. […] Here’s what [Lila] had done: she had deceived me, she had dragged me wherever she wanted, from the beginning of our friendship. All our lives she had told a story of redemption that was hers, using my living body and my existence.”
These dissolving margins of Lila’s have not just been a Lila-problem, after all: Lenu, we learn, has devoted most of her life to trying to be like Lila. Lila’s disappearance is a rejection of herself, as any suicide is, but it is far more social than that, since Lenu is Lila too; Lenu is gutted, destroyed, disappeared as well, and yet somehow still there, searching through the rubble. She is incomplete, at the very point where the story must find completion. It is a death rattle, a painful end. “Unlike stories, real life,” Lenu writes, “when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity. I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.”
What are we to each other, in the end?
It’s a question I ask my students, when faced with that moaning, gurgling, writhing mass called the Huddle in the video game Inside. Faced with a monster whose monstrosity comes not from a lack of humanity, but a condition of having too much of it, I ask them to try to define a person, drawing upon the work of the philosopher Derek Parfit and his seminal book Reasons and Persons. Parfit is quite careful in his approach to figuring out what a person is, explaining what he calls the "non-reductionist" approaches, which incorporate metaphysical concepts like the soul to define identity, and the "reductionist" approaches, which settle on us being, in the end, writhing balls of biomass not unlike the Huddle.
Parfit writes, “Even if we are not aware of this, most of us are Non-Reductionists. If we considered my imagined cases, we would be strongly inclined to believe that our continued existence is a deep further fact, distinct from physical and psychological continuity, and a fact that must be all-or-nothing. This is not true.” Most of us, Parfit guesses correctly, believe we are more than our bodies, and that we are soulfully, uniquely, one of a kind. Parfit isn’t convinced in souls, nor in our uniqueness. My students tend to find Parfit’s conclusions depressing, perhaps because he rejects the capitalist realism of the primacy of individuals, which is all my students have ever really been trained to know about themselves and others. We don't live in a society, they want to say. But Parfit disagrees. If we aren’t unique, and we do live in a social web of ever-changing connections and transactions, well, then, what are we?
“Is the truth depressing? Some may find it so. But I find it liberating, and consoling. When I believed that my existence was a such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.”
Partfit’s ingenious move comes in the idea of what he calls "Relation-R", which you might think of as that phenomenon where a good friend tells you a funny story, and years later you find yourself repeating it to others as if it happened to you. Maybe you remember this slip; maybe you don’t, and the story becomes yours, the story becomes you. We infect each other with our personalities, our stories, our jokes, our manners of speaking; we are always copying each other’s chest-burster avatars; we are always leaking into one another; we are always dissolving our margins, and becoming over the rubble. Such a reconfiguration of identity shouldn’t be a surprise to those lovers of great works of art, for whom the dead speak all the time, from the terrible beyond: those dead exist in us, precisely because our margins aren’t so airtight, after all, and because the book never ends when you close it. It keeps on going, in the virtual space where stories mostly exist.
IN HIS MONUMENTAL animated television series Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno draws the dissolving of margins to their nightmarishly apocalyptic ends. The series follows Shinji Ikari, a 14-year-old boy who is forced by his father to pilot a skyscraper-sized bio-machine called an Evangelion to fight giant monsters called Angels that are attacking Neo Tokyo. To do so, Shinji must slide into an embryo-like VR-like cockpit filled with primordial soup, his mind and nervous system dissolving into, blending with, becoming that of the Evangelion bio-machine’s. The series is a heady, ludicrous mixture of Jewish mysticism, kaiju battles, VR, and teenage angst, anchored by the metaphor of Shinji’s depressive tendency to detach and run away from his problems. One of the series’ most apt metaphors is that of the AT Field, or “Absolute Terror Field”, which is a psychologically-instantiated force-field that both Evangelions and Angels can generate to protect themselves, and which becomes a visual echo throughout the show of the psychic barriers we project to protect ourselves from ever coming into contact with others.
And Shinji is wretched, depressive company, as many who suffer from depression can probably confirm: our pathologies, whatever their causes, alienate us from the social world at precisely the point we need the social world most.
But what are those Angels up to? As it turns out, two competing agencies—the paramilitary NERV, which Shinji’s father runs, and SEELE, a cyberpunk NATO, are trying to set into motion the Human Instrumentality Project and trigger the Third Impact, which would mean the forced evolution of humanity, and, in effect, the end of the world as we know it. And Anno’s vision of a world-ending is both terrifying and revelatory, the kind of image Herzog might say we’ve been starving for. As the frighteningly cheery-sounding song “Komm, Susser Todd” plays, Lilith, the second
Angel, bows over the planet Earth, her beatific face betraying nothing of what’s to
follow, the NERV agents scream that all AT Fields are in danger of collapsing, and that “individual entities will be unable to maintain their separate forms.”
Lilith sprouts wings, while a choir of seraphim impale themselves at her feet. Every
AT Field does, indeed, disintegrate, dissolve, and every human is reduced to an orange goo, what the show's canon calls LCL, or “link connection fluid”, or, most tantalizingly of all, angel blood. Anno does not waver in his imaging of the terror of these final moments: hallways streaked with orange; two friends cowering beneath a desk, hugging each other as one bursts like a juice orange from her shirt, and the other collapses with her. Nothing about the modern condition under neoliberalism could prepare us for this kind of solidarity, or liquidarity, as it were; that the two agencies who want to render us like fat into a kind of collective tallow, are nothing more than Kabbalistic mystical fanatics, goes unremarked. In the end, Shinji, through reasons too complicated to summarize, alongside his fellow Evangelion pilot Asuka, stand as the last two living beings whose Absolute Terror Fields have not dissolved. Their identities remain intact, and separate. They no longer live in a society.
Shinji and Asuka are the new Adam and Eva, washed on the shores of a primordial sea, made of the billions who just perished, perhaps granted the grace to start us all over, perhaps, this time, in a better direction. Shinji, always pleasant company, begins to strangle Asuka. She reaches up, to touch his cheek rather than to stop him, which leads him to weep. Asuka, defiant as ever, says with bitterness at this weeping, pathetic boy hovering over, “Disgusting.”
Cut to black. The end.
HERE AT THE end, I am thinking of my mother, who came back. And myself. I came back.