The Crown

That fifty dollar bill was nothing. Within days I’d moved onto other lost objects—parts of self, displacements, etc. Actually, it had started first as a somatic displacement, a pain in my tooth. Once, I might have thought this a problem of intruding bicuspids, misshapen, arrowing into neighbors, causing a throbbing impaction. Not so anymore. These days I am more teeth aware; I am a woke dental patient, so I sprang from my bed and seized a thread of floss, ready for a thorough cleaning session. No holds barred. I’d need to be like my vigorous hygienist on this matter: be ruthless, slice that string through the gaps and dig into those puffy gums. Even if I pop them open and leak blood, I’ll be better off in the long run. Within hours, the throbbing will subside. Those misbehaving, pain-delivering gnashers will relax, settle down like quieted adolescents.

The dislodging was sudden, expulsive, and shocking. Strange that I saw the offender leave its platform and jump from my gaping orifice, not even striking other teeth on its way out. I heard it land but didn’t see where it landed. I looked down, first into the bathroom sink, feeling pessimistic. My eyes shot towards the hole, wondering if that tinkling contact was upon a ceramic basin and not the linoleum floor below. I saw nothing, but soon transitioned my sight to the beige, dirty ground. Improbably, the broken crown stood out, its bottom face up, pointing at me like it was asking to be rescued. I swore. Then I said “really?” in that incredulous way that’s topical these days, and then swore again. That was before the tantrum, which was before the real tantrum because I hadn’t really done anything wrong. Yet. So far, I’d just been unlucky.

The next day, I duly called my dentist, a happy-go-lucky, confident guy with a healthy paunch and a garrulous turn of phrase. I caught him off guard with my call, which he’d once invited me to make if I ever really needed him. He’d made that invitation about twenty years ago when I first hired him to manage my disordered mouth and I think I’ve made use of his Bat-phone one other time over the years. Anyway, he wasn’t garrulous or happy-go-lucky when he picked up my call. “Hi”, he said uncertainly, after which I gave him the news, the play-by-play. When should I come in? I asked awkwardly. Jesus, I thought. I sounded like I was asking for a date. Regardless, he switched quickly to work persona: “Well, the thing is we don’t want you to aspirate, have it go into your lung”. Jesus, I thought a second time. That prospect hadn’t actually occurred to me. “So…come in soon, then”, I replied stupidly. Denial was displacing displacement.

Still, I relaxed over the remainder of the day, having secured an appointment for the next day through his receptionist. I was confident that my dentist—my guy—would take care of me. He was like a good neighbor, and I was in good hands. Therefore, I relaxed too much. That’s what happens sometimes when you’re feeling good; when it seems that everything’s under control and a return to normalcy seems imminent. Yes, that’s right. You f-up. But let me not other myself. Here, of course, I would be the f-up. No question it was down to me. Talking was partly to blame. I was in the middle of reminiscing with my wife about a moment in time, roughly twenty years ago, when I learned that Stanley Kubrick had died because that’s what I thought when I jogged by a newsstand and saw his image all across the front page of a New York Times. There could only be one reason why, I thought, reflecting upon this memory, my associative mind and…

Oh no

My tongue had just made a sideways maneuver, sliding across the molars on my lower east side, there to perform a sweep of cheese residue. The potato blocks had tasted particularly good this evening—crisp, just the right level of salty; smooth yet not mushy in texture. Smoot but not mushy. That will have been the problem, I soon thought as I dropped to the floor, hoping I’d be lucky a second time. Despite evidence to the contrary, I ran my eyes and hands across carpet, hoping I’d catch a glimpse of that familiar off-white crown, again turned on its head, its bottom facing me a second time. But with each passing moment, a sense of justice and punishment was taking over, hovering over my prostate, pitiful search with a pitiless air. I had a meltdown during which a glass jar was sacrificed to the alter of a wall. Then I unleashed an animal’s bray that—had I thought to persist—might have surged the swallowed porcelain from its concurrent path downward.

Surely I had swallowed it, I’d decided. My lungs? If it had sunk in there I’d be coughing, or feeling a hard pain in my chest. After all, the thing wasn’t small. Actually, it was small but it was…no, I didn’t wanna think about it anymore. After a spell of, let’s say, getting things off my chest, I sat out the rest of the evening, languished on a couch, half-exhausted by my on-my-knees recovery effort; otherwise I was humiliated, thinking I’d blown my chance to undo bad luck. My carelessness, hubris—my premature belief that everything was settled and returned to normal—had served me right, as in wrong. In the morning, I’d have to call my guy, my dentist, and tell him that I couldn’t come in anymore for a simple glue-job. I’d have to tell him that I’d lost a tooth, found it and stuck it back in, and then lost it again, having probably eaten it.

There was one possibility left, though I didn’t want to think about it. But I did it. I even talked about it, to him—my guy, that happy-go-lucky persona, who looked at me with a straight face, a sound, tooth-filled mouth, plus a well-acted, sympathetic air. I have to say he was great about it all. Cheerful, philosophical, looking like an affable shrug was the answer to all problems, he did my job, gave me sound counsel: don’t beat up on yourself. The next day, he’d beat up a replacement piece of porcelain, having unearthed the “digital” record of the four-year old stone he’d stuck in me once before, and which he that day determined to be the missing tooth. “I ate it”, I said haplessly. It sounded worse than “I swallowed it”, but more dignified somehow, like I was owning it, the whole thing. It’s like everything I do, I pretended—it was meant to be.

You might wonder how we talked about the excavation, the discovery, the…whatever else I might call that part of the yarn. I know: how about, “looking through pieces of s—t to see if my tooth is buried in it”. Not your typical blog entry title. We didn’t use those words exactly. We were manly about it, but also gentlemanly. Anyway, time, as in too much time, passed (yes, passed) before “it” was…discovered. Then, finally, something even more shameful, yet otherwise wonderful happened. I’ll try to be polite. I passed…something. Then I walked away, half-aware that my guy had likely done his deed already. Meaning, this passing—it would be too late. This was a day and a half later, after two bathroom trips with nothing yet found. My dentist will have already broken out his medieval burner or whatever and scorched a replacement crown chomper by now. But I didn’t get rid of my waste. I know: gross. But love saved the day. An hour after my…you know, I found my wife back in bed, comfortably ensconced in warm sheets, looking satisfied, as if she’d completed a great task. “I found it”, she declared, beaming. Denial returned to my mind. I was poised to ask, “how?”, but managed to restrain that climactic stupidity. Instead, I walked into the bathroom and found my recovered crown on the side of the sink. It was facing up at me again, this time with attitude, for it had just gone through much more than it had ever bargained for.

Talk about displacement.

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The 50 dollar bill

Where did you go? I can see where you were at one point, laid out upon a desk, preening yet submissive and above all, patient. Then you were truly mine, stuffed into the leather pouch, wedged alongside the runts, the frowning Andrew Jacksons and those pawnish George Washingtons. Seconds later, I was up and away, moving in swift turns, sliding my limbs into a jacket and stepping out in one fluid motion. I said I’d be back to my one and only witness, my retiring wife, couched in mid-evening settlement, absorbed in TV. With the extra bill, plus a few others, there were fleeting thoughts of opportunity for a gratuitous expense, but no time, and not enough imagination to explore desire. Perhaps I’d fill up the tank on the way back, I thought prosaically, thinking of the next day. Saturday beckoned with the freedom of an empty schedule and a dearth of expectation. It would be like days gone when I was a carefree bachelor, living alone and without attachment or obligation. Days off were a chance to disappear: just get in a car and go, wondering how long I could go for without being missed. An early lesson in displacement, such flights remind me now of an Amis witticism. In “Let me count the times”, a compulsive masturbator loses track of his habit, and amid his auto-destructive reverie, he borrows expressions from less shameful vices: “I’m tempted to run away with myself”.

             I’d go away with myself, but only for an hour or two. That’s how long it would take to feel lonely and bored; that the idea of dropping out was not as good as it would seem from within the traps of everyday life. Nowadays, there’s less of those feelings, what with everything in my life packed in, sardine-like, wearying me like an anesthetic. But when the week’s finish line approaches, I indulge the old thoughts, think of an open road and a stretch of travel time wherein the sun is out, casting a spring-like glow upon a light journey. There is little fatigue in this vision—rather, I conjure a breezy sigh and a relaxed glance at landscapes that pull me into their rainbow promises. That 50 dollar bill would have paid for that, I later thought as I fumbled through the lesser bills, searching for the missing note. Disconcerted, I paid for a half-tank with the remaining funds, thinking the prima donna of the pack would turn up later. Recalcitrant, it would be hiding on that desk at home, still preening and thinking itself important. Or, with troublesome mischief, it may be ensconced in one of my file boxes below my desk, having dropped down from the back of the desk’s wooden cliff.

             But I distinctly remembered placing it in my wallet! Oh well, I thought, driving back after that last appointment, at first relatively unperturbed, just glad to be done with that last hour of a fourth ten-hour day in a row. When home, I’d have a quick look through clothes and the piles around my desk area—one or two sets of papers, plus the pockets of my jeans, and the jacket that I’d deftly slid into an hour or so earlier. I’d already given these places a cursory look, but had found nothing. No problem. The bill was simply being difficult. So, it would call for a bit more effort, would it? It would thumb its nose at me, still thinking itself all that, I guess. When I returned I stepped into my home office, thinking this would take but a minute. The last messy piece of unresolved business from a long day would be tidied up and I would then be free to release; as quickly as I’d moved earlier, I’d find the bill, chide it for hiding from me and giving me a hard time. Then I’d slide out of my evening wear and find a nook in a couch in which to recline and then surrender myself to the weekend.

             Still no bill. By this time I was starting to escalate my pace, letting my blood pressure rise, becoming more hasty in my search methods. After about ten minutes I’d looked through that wallet about a half a dozen times. Having done so, I was intimately familiar with the odd tears in its linings, suggesting a replacement would be due when all this is over. But I can’t buy things like that if I lose things like 50 dollar bills, I heard myself thinking. That’s the neurotic in me: it thinks that happenings like this are the thin end of the wedge; or, that oversights, mistakes like this are just too cruel, too unjust and brutal to bear, somehow. Fifty dollars! That can buy, like, a lot of…I don’t know, this is just not acceptable, regardless. And yes, I was thinking something like this as I kept looking at that wallet, inspecting its slithered openings, thinking that a crisp note could insinuate its way inside one of the holes and disappear, teaching me a lesson about carelessness. Meanwhile, I was on first name terms with a piece of lint that I kept molesting within the right pocket of my jeans. The coarse cotton lining contrasted with the smooth, impeccable surfaces of my work jacket, whose unsullied silk seemed to call out with a mocking rebuke: “don’t blame me, there’s nothing to see here”.

The day would end with no result, portending a sleepless night, a dreamless rest. It wasn’t that I needed that lost bill. As I calmly inventoried material reality, I reminded myself that I was okay—that my wife and I were financially settled; that it had been a good year, despite the torrid changes brought on by Covid; that loss and misplacement were an aberration; that on the whole, I was on top of things. But I don’t like mysteries, especially those of the mundane kind, with little but a trite warning behind them—the start of something big. The questions nagged: how could it have slipped out from the leather pouch and not taken others with it? Might I have set it down somewhere and forgotten the action? Had there been more time than I realized between actions, and had I in fact taken it out, spent it on something illicit that I have done well to repress. No, I don’t think so, actually. I know what my thoughts were and where they went. I just don’t know what happened to the thing-in-itself that displaces them.

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The Snake

Was it a gopher snake or a rattler? The man didn’t know, and initially, his question was delayed, subordinated to a frightful reaction. The man’s utterance was ambiguous. A half-bray, choked by inhibition, was matched by his physical response, a brusque step backwards. I didn’t see any of this. Listening, imagining the scene and its meaning, I waited, my patience countered by an ever-muted eagerness. “Are you okay?” I asked, half-thinking the problem was simply a matter of the line. The phone was always cutting out during sessions, and during those with patients who amid Covid prefer their sessions while walking amid nature, the competition from distracting sounds, the elements of nature like the enveloping sound of wind, or the glitchy, tenuous, un-natural features of cell phone technology, are often letting us down.

             “Is that a gopher snake?” The man’s rhetorical question, arriving within seconds of his first comment—a protracted version of something like “whoa”—was for his own edification. The fascination suggested a modicum of knowledge, for he was already determining the absence of danger. The fairly large reptile, situated amongst some dry brush across a trail carved over time by feet rather than machines, was not making the signature sounds of a dangerous predator. It had moved but hadn’t otherwise been aggressive. Its sideways darting action, according to the man, had been enough to deter approach. Learning. The man emitted a nervous laugh as he stepped away, soon to resume the process that is ever more uncertain, his analysis. Breathless, walking faster, he marked time by wondering aloud about my experiences of snakes. Not much, I was inclined to say. I’d barely heard of anything called a gopher snake, for example. Otherwise, I brought to mind mythological associations, plus discussions at an analytic society that lamented the stereotyped image of serpents in general; the disregard of their expansive, cross-cultural meanings. In mine, snakes have meant temptation, seduction, and in this scene that association, or something close to it, was prevailing for me.

             Distraction. The prior subject had been distraction, plus—allusively—the man’s tentative commitment to analysis. We’d talked about the couch before, long before Covid hit, when sessions at my office had been the norm, not sessions by phone in the background of naturalistic settings. During this fraught period, I’d stayed at my office, sat in the same chair, albeit with less disciplined stillness, gazing at the same office walls and unchanging art, feeling alone and vaguely envious. My patients, like this one, were not just obeying “lockdown orders” or later recommendations by the CDC, or even my cooperation with those same authorities. They were making choices of where to be when speaking their minds, and simultaneously deciding upon variations of repression: how to take one’s mind off things. The couch. “The couch”, I reminded, after the man recovered his breath and asked after the prior subject of discussion. With little or no sense of irony—not yet, anyway—he stuttered back to the topic, asking me to take the lead, remind him of his former thoughts also; to guide him. 

“Get back on track?” I said drolly, which cued a laughing recognition. Where is he? He understood.

             The man remembered the walls of my office, the blank white space interrupted by unchanging artwork. He admitted that nature offered more variety to his roving eye, his stimulation-seeking mind. He soon associated to the reasons for his treatment: that other reason that his eyes wander, seeking distraction. It had been this tendency that got him in trouble, brought him to my lesser stimulating lair. A typical night: he and his spouse would be at a restaurant, dining and having a pleasant experience, conversing easily, enjoying a good meal. At some point, a woman would emerge from an adjacent space, perhaps entering the dining area from a restroom or from a waiting area. The man would glance in her direction and—inwardly at least—utter “whoa”, thinking the woman was his type. His fantasy. Within an instant of that thought he’d be machinating, managing the unspoken, half-digested dilemma: how to steal another look while concealing the act from his wife. He MUST look again, he thought half-consciously. Consciously, before his wife, and for the most part with me also, he MUST NOT look again. Defensively, in sessions, he’d often turn to a point of debate. His wife, unlike myself or his 12-step sponsors, had been and was still the more likely witness to his wayward masculine gaze, but as a long-suffering eyewitness to such incidents, was she the most “objective” observer of his habits?

             On the couch he might contemplate this scene, these events that actually happened on several occasions, though now the memories recede into the background, dismissed by latter day wishes. He’d prefer to not think about such painful memories. Better to move on, hit the trail, so to speak. The couch is still. It forces subjects to lie down, even, portending sleep and the arrival of dreams, or their retrieval. The subject, as in the patient, is drawn inward by this device, this hoary tradition of psychoanalysis. The answers: they are inside, not in the environment, we think. Who is we? “We” is…doesn’t matter. I agree. That’s what matters. I’m trying to get patients to agree also, and they do for the most part, in theory anyway. “It’s true,” says the man in a cheerful voice, evincing an agreeable air. He is quieted now, his startled encounter with the wild over. His well-defended, good-humored, studied urbanity is back, ready to think with me, be reminded of his purpose. He recalls points made some time ago, before the material reality of the last year compelled a change in our process. “There are indeed less distractions in your office, on your couch. To see the mountain outside your window I’d have to twist my neck, strain to see it”.

             “Are you that desperate to look outside?”

             He laughed again. “No”, he eventually said, perhaps unsure. What did he want to say? What is he supposed to say? A dilemma. He affected neutrality, the cover of matter-of-fact observation. “Just not much to see in your office, that’s all.”

             “No snakes?”

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The thinker’s debut

I’ve been wandering lately, in my dreams, into busy landscapes, discontinuous scenes, performing stream-of-unconscious travel. A recent excursion was atop a high-rise in an urban setting, amidst a modest gathering of partygoers. The setting might have been futurist, post-Covid, around about dusk beneath a mauve sky with a tawny glow upon a horizon. A crowd of about fifty people are tentatively assembled on this rooftop garden and plaza, milling about rows of empty seats, holding tall glasses of wine or champagne and waiting for either a performance or a presentation—no difference, I suppose. As I stride in, feeling like an interloper, I guess that the first description is more accurate. There are clues to an impending musical entertainment: an electronic drum set, absent a drummer, plus several microphones set up some feet apart as if prepared for a group; a couple of technicians on their knees, scrutinizing equipment or rolling up troublesome cables. Behind an electric piano or synthesizer, a lone figure is tinkling upon keys, rapt in concentration. He or she—the figure is androgynous—is familiar to me but altered, though despite the physical differences, the demeanor is unmistakable: beyond introverted, hunched and prickly like a vole, the figure plays their instrument as if no one is there.

There are plenty there, all dressed in black—sexy, sophisticated, death-like evening wear black. Even the technicians are dressed in black, which in itself doesn’t seem unusual. In fact, the ephemera matches my associations of concert-going experiences half-forgotten, only the atmosphere betrays an unsaid influence. In my dreamy thought I am surprised, still thinking that gatherings like this are forbidden, which might explain the air of reticence and sepulchral gloom. Just feet away from the piano-playing figure, a pair of onlookers consult with each other, appearing officious, responsible, and smooth. They are managers, perhaps, or hosts of the event that seems about to begin. Regardless, the performer, still alone on stage despite evidence that others will join (her?), persists in self-absorption, and as I move towards this figure I invisibly helicopter, fascinated and envious. Why envious? I am now gazing at the person, at last deciding it is the she I thought it was, and wanting to intrude, and query. How do you do it? I want to ask. How did you do it? How did you manage to stay this silent, this removed, this seemingly disdainful of the pack, the norm, the orthodoxy, the everything-that-is-normal, and yet curry this seeming interest?

Is it just your talent that got you into this trendy post-modernist milieu? You’ve made some effort to fit in, having dressed alike, almost. Although, I think that is silver glittering trim upon your performance costume, which sets you apart, if only just. Also, there is a hint of stylizing gel in your spiked hair, which is fashionably disheveled yet revealing of effort—at least a modicum of worry before a bathroom mirror, I think. This surprises me. Maybe it disappoints, for I have projected onto you nothing less than separatist cool and lack of pretension. Perhaps it’s merely a glimpse into your effortless knowing, this well-dressed gesture; this ambient presence of yours. I am asking you questions now, only you’re not answering. I know. You do not owe me anything, including explanations or help, but I am curious, and I am hoping that is enough to pry your mind open so you can tell me your deal, and then help me with my desire.

See, I’m not sure but I think you might be in danger. I think this because I am in danger, and I further think that the you in this scene is really me, preparing to go public with something that I have kept to myself for some time and now it is getting its opening night. I wish I could be as poised, as confident and self-contained as you seem. Wait…what happened? You seemed to start something, say something, and then share a thought, not music, with the crowd. There was a misunderstanding, it seemed, about music and words. A different expectation. The gathering of the ordinarily cool and winning: they misunderstood, thinking you plainly earnest when—I know—what you were going for was ironic detachment which would then be mirrored, in further irony, by a resonant intelligence. This was supposed to be a club, a secret society introducing a novel medium. Now you’ve walked away with a frown on your face, a tiny streak of sweat streaming away from a gelled curl of hair, because some idea you had has let you down. And you looked at me, I think—just a fleeting glimpse, perhaps thinking I was someone who might help you get away, escape with me, for this is now our shared, infuriating problem.

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Gravity all nonsense now

Ya know, amid all this writing about 2001 recently, and previously about Dr. Strangelove, I’ve neglected what is likely the most relevant Kubrick film to mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. That would be A Clockwork Orange, a legendary dystopian fiction about a teenager who fights, rapes, and steals in a dreary near future Britain—near future in the sixties and early seventies, that is, when the book and the film were respectively produced. The book, published in 1962 by author Anthony Burgess, was likely the product of an era when dystopian books were popular, following the models of 1984 and Brave New World, plus the renewal of mischievous first-person narrative, most notably represented by Nabokov with his groundbreakingly salacious yet erudite work, Lolita. In writing A Clockwork Orange, Burgess was also exorcising demons, as his wife had previously been assaulted by US army deserters in London during a blackout, and he believed he was dying from a brain tumor. Still, what he produced was a story that satirized totalitarian measures to thwart individual freedom, like brainwashing and aversive conditioning, instead extoling the redemptive value of free will. See, in Burgess’ novel, the naughty malchick (from the novel’s language called Nadsat) named Alex is caught by authorities after his exploits, subjected to a regimen of conditioning techniques (called Ludovico), and then released from prison, after which he receives fairy-tale like payback from all of his earlier victims. Driven to a suicide attempt that fails, Alex suffers, but his misfortune backfires upon the government that “conditioned” him, which is forced to acknowledge its inhuman methods of social reform and thus undo the conditioning the Alex previously underwent. In the end, the novel’s protagonist is free again, but in a chapter that didn’t appear in the US until the mid-eighties, Alex decides that he no longer wishes to fight, rape, and steal as he once did. Instead, he wishes to grow up and become civilized.

             Back in the day, and especially upon release of Kubrick’s 1971 film version of A Clockwork Orange, which follows the original American version of the novel and therefore omits the epilogue narrative, much was written and said about the theme of free will versus the need for behavioral control in society. Though he lived and worked in Britain, Kubrick ignored the British version of the novel, with its redemptive, supposedly Christian ending, instead choosing to stick with irony throughout his film. As a result, the most famous ending of the story is one in which Alex gleefully returns to his old ways, cynically proclaiming “I was cured alright”, while cavorting naked with a girl in a dreamy vision of whitewashed background, peopled with applauding onlookers, all of whom are dressed in height of Victorian fashion, as if auditioning for Kubrick’s next film, a period drama entitled Barry Lyndon. For Kubrick, Alex was half Richard III and half Humbert Humbert (from Lolita), only without the obscuring qualities of sophistication. In Kubrick’s mind, Alex is a Hobbesian primitive, free and innocent, living out a private myth in which social controls don’t exist—only unconscious wishes do. Kubrick and Burgess may have agreed that behavioral conditioning techniques, drawn from the B.F. Skinner ethos that man must learn to live “beyond freedom and dignity” (a title of one of Skinner’s books), are antithetical to human freedom and also ineffective, but Kubrick was less interested in moral order than the unknowns of the human mind, and therefore, for him, A Clockwork Orange is a psychological myth requiring an ambiguous ending.

             B.F. Skinner may be a forgotten figure in modern psychology, despite being considered one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. His concept of operant conditioning, which entails commonly known constructs of positive and negative reinforcement, punishment and extinction, was based on the premise that human free will is illusory; that behavior can and should be shaped by environmental controls so as to achieve civil order. Implicitly, this view contested the Freudian notion that human behavior is controlled intrapsychically, and that human society on the whole is civilized via the human capacity for repression, which is ultimately necessary and benevolent. Over time, average parents and school systems, for example, decided that Skinner was right, and that a behavior-shaping system, sometimes punitive but cleansed with language of scientific pedigree, was just what the, uh, doctor ordered. Yes, DO SOMETHING, cries a plaintive crowd that does not whoop and cheer at words like “unknown”, “unconscious”, or “private myth”. Skinner’s notion was that modern psychology could indeed offset the contingencies of life—that which others blithely pronounce as “out of our control”.

In a way, Kubrick agreed, albeit with flippant humor. For example, I’m not the first to notice that he alters some significant details from the novel, and no, I’m not talking about the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence, though I did think that was ingenious, as do most observers. What is more salient is Kubrick’s portrayal of Alex in prison in the mid-section of the story, which does not feature Alex killing a fellow inmate in an over-crowded cell, contrary to Burgess’ novel. Instead, in the film, Alex is an overly-compliant, obsequious figure who cozies up to the prison chaplain while his jailors, plus the warden, see through his servility. As a result, he is selected for the experimental aversive conditioning project despite his good behavior, not because of it. Here, the establishment (and Kubrick) appear to suggest that a controlling environment can indeed shape an individual’s behavior—at least over the short-term. In prison, Alex’s unconscious, which is neither timebound nor located in reality but rather in his dreams, is compartmentalized. He has visions of his return to a licentious lifestyle in the future. In fact, they are spurred rather than reformed by his reading of The Bible, which entices him with its passages of bloody, adulterous, and generally sinful behavior. Far from being “out of control”, Alex seems privately able to contain impulses (his id, if you like), believing that he will resume his former ways as soon as he is able.

So, herein lies delicious questions for readers of A Clockwork Orange, or readers of other sci-fi or dystopian literature, and in the near future, perhaps, for readers of our book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction: what is it that really conditions Alex in the state-controlled yet anarchic world in which he lives? What is it that truly controls, manipulates, or “conditions” a person with addictive tendencies in a society that may be state-controlled, or media controlled, or else, as filmmaker and philosopher Susan Sontag once observed, is plainly saturated with mind-controlling agents? Because overabundance is as controlling as repressive governance, the ethics of conditioning in its variable forms are a muddied lake. At first, Alex seems free: whatever exists in his environment seems transformed, made to fit his obsession, his rules. Further, he is a performer, not a voyeur. If pornography exists in his future world of Nadsat teenage life, he’d be less interested, though he’d likely patronize online dating culture and swipe his way through choices if that existed. However, he is mostly id-like in his existence, lacking certain ego aspirations, such as profit-seeking, or social advancement. And despite a brief yearning for power (he seizes leadership of his droogs after they rebel against him), he feels no need to impart wisdom or to implement efficiency or realistic vision in his planning. Perhaps this is why the character is likeable to some: he is utterly separated from the adult world; dreamy and childlike in his habits. His private world undoes reality. Even gravity is nonsense to him.

After he is caught and later subjected to the invasive Ludovico treatment, he is docile and impotent, but that doesn’t spare him the justice that Burgess, readers, and to a lesser degree Kubrick, fashion for him. Like many other redemption-seeking, penitent criminals, he is challenged—serendipitously in his case—to face his formers victims; to identify with them by suffering versions of the fate he’d dealt them. Fate seems the true perspective of the artist in Kubrick: what he seemed to believe was that individuals beset with instincts are destined to pursue instincts to their bitter end, and that systems designed to contain those instincts will inevitably fail at some point. Think of the pattern in Kubrick’s middle-period films alone: the “fail-safe” system in Dr. Strangelove; the “perfectly” functioning and streamlining computer HAL in 2001; the blasé and cynical “clockwork” state of Clockwork Orange—in each of these cases, the contingencies of life overtake man’s attempts to order society. Try as we might, succeed as we might at times, our inclinations towards pleasure and aggression escape through the cracks in the barriers.

In mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, soon to be published by Rowman & Littlefield, we write of several Alex-types, interspersed with an equal number who are more passive in their addictions, who are compelled by others’ discovery of their deeds to likewise identify with their victims; to become victims in another sense. Subject to full-disclosure exercises, repeated polygraph exams, and behavioral contracts replete with agreed-upon “consequences”, to name just a few interventions that are typical, treated sex addicts walk a plank of shame having rarely chosen the course of treatment that is laid before them. Most are mandated, either by courts because of an illegal act like use of prostitution, though more commonly by relationship-threatening spouses and other partners, and while they are typically contrite and eager to prove that they can live better without compulsive sexual behaviors, few would have chosen the interventions aimed at them had they not been caught doing what they were doing. As my co-author and I suggest, this contaminates a process of psychotherapy, especially one that purports to be an in-depth episode, not to mention a process of change that, amid the zeitgeist sexual politics of our era, is differentially offered to men and women. 

One illustration introduces what our book evidences across contexts, exposing double standards and irony if not quite moral order in our field of discipline. In a treatment team discussion, a female therapist speaks of her interventions when leading a sex addiction treatment group within a short-term intensive outpatient program. In a room of a half a dozen men, she asks a provocative, honesty-inducing, “here-and-now” question: “how many of you are objectifying me right now?” and later seems proud of her clinical skill and bravery, only there’s no plaintive crowd to whoop and cheer at her righteous action. It’s a good question, right? A sound, challenging, isn’t-it-about-time question, asked by a trained professional who symbolizes a victim society’s rebuke of the guilty. Just so the reader knows, female sex addicts also exist, according to the cognoscenti of this niche field, but they are under-served, according to these same observers. Treatment for women, like the above-described treatment for men: it just isn’t offered nearly as much, with nearly as many resources in the community available to them. Damn it! Once again, women are marginalized, neglected, denied the privilege of facing tough, soul-penetrating questions like “are any of you objectifying me right now?” Actually, since that exchange with that female therapist, I’ve imagined asking the question she asked to a roomful of women who identify as sex addicts, or even one-on-one to a woman who likewise identifies as such. Yes, I’ve imagined being that skillful and brave. I’ve also imagined being sued and having my license suspended or revoked for either sexual misconduct, or else for traumatizing a vulnerable patient.

In Latin, the pertinent phrase is Quad Erad Demonstratum, or QED.

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The milk shake displacement

Thoughts of customer service or something like it on my mind. Big establishments, small establishments: they say they have my back. Reasonable books. That was the name of the mom and pop, second-hand biblio that I sauntered within, thinking about the name. If it was bigger, it wouldn’t be reasonable, I thought. I glanced over at a diffident clerk: head down, ensconced in a text, uninvested in my business. Now that’s familiar, I next thought. I considered troubling him with questions, making him work for a living. I’d be what I long to be to bigger establishments, the ones I quasi work for plus the one I’ve been writing and soon-to-be publishing about—an irritant. The prices. Is that the reasonable part, I wondered? Or would it be about something else, this quaint moniker? Might the clerk bend over backwards to find a title on one of the back shelves of this cozy little store? Would he make a phone call, place an order, and have something not in stock in my possession within a week or two?

I left the man alone. I further bit down on a quip about the store’s name, thinking that several others had trodden that path already. After all, there would have been nothing worse than hearing a weary chuckle of someone pretending to enjoy originality. Torture. This man had done nothing to merit my torture. This contrasts with the dispatchers of Cigna, an insurance company that near employs me and decides, roughly four times a year, usually at the end of fiscal quarters, to mess with my head and income. It’s a good thing that I’m not wholly dependent upon them, but when they are in an obstreperous mood, their marching orders to claim support staff can do enough to dent an otherwise good month. Take this last month, for instance. I’d sent in a claim worth several hundred dollars for a beneficiary, and usually the turnaround of reimbursement takes about three weeks. Something hadn’t felt right, however, and as I scurried to complete one or two other claims, I noted a box on one to be filled out and felt in my gut the mistake I’d made on that first claim of the week. Cigna would not be forgiving, I predicted, about the un-checked box in my head. On cue, I received a letter indicating that not only had my earlier claim been denied for the reason suspected, but that the beneficiary didn’t exist. That’s what they do if you’ve made a mistake: it’s like you and your patient don’t exist. I duly sent in a replacement claim, but that got lost in the system too, and I received another denial letter, again referencing the first claim, as if the mistake upon that would infect all others. The die was cast, and I’d been here before in Cigna’s version of a Kafka short story. A hapless second dispatcher simply reiterated that there was “no record” of my submission, but kindly offered to process the claim himself, giving me his personal fax number. What customer service! One might think.

Not really. Well, it was letter-writing time. Teeth-gnashing time—time to let someone have it, give them a hard time, make them wonder why they work for Cigna; have them consider the corruption of the insurance industry; have them feeling used by higher-ups, forced to absorb the bereft anger of unhappy providers like myself; to have them break ranks, ultimately, and stop working for the man; to make them cry. I got the beneficiary involved, had him calling after the claims, letting them know that their “no records” dictum wouldn’t fly when we were holding letters with Cigna letterhead emblazoned upon them. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing, to deny the existence of a claim when the customer was holding a letter proving otherwise? Apparently not. It seems that some are impervious to irony, to embarrassment, tears and shame. These dispatchers—they’re trained in impassivity, or else they’re drugged and told to feed us lines like, “I’m sorry for your inconvenience, you can go ahead and re-submit to our black hole department. The fax number is…” Is this what the social justice crowd are telling us? Is this what they’re really pissed about: that too many in society can just stare back at them, unmoved, un-dislodged from their complacency; insufficiently bothered to acknowledge wrongness and make something happen with the system.

After weeks involving tiresome crap like this, Saturdays are a languid, somnolent haul. Leisure is made difficult; even hard-ons, as Martin Amis once wrote, are hard. Pulling up (ha-ha) to a McDonald’s drive-thru, I knew I was letting the standards drop, but I didn’t think I was in for a hard time with a dispatcher. However, as I idled behind a phalanx of other hungry but lazy diners, waiting to exchange words with a man in a box with a warbly microphone by his side, I felt again that sense that something easy and routine was about to be anything but that. My passenger, an old-school afficionado of Mickey D options, called out for a filet O’ fish. I, gazing up at a rangy, schematic menu that was actually hard to follow, settled upon a side of fries and an Oreo shake, having just caught the word “Oreo” with a passing glance. Choices, packed together, or bundled, managed to confuse me.

“We don’t have Oreo shakes,” said a weary, officious voice. He’d obviously explained this before and was indignant that benefic—sorry, customers—weren’t getting the hang of social change. “We have an Oreo McFlurty”

“A What?

“A McFlurty” Was is McFlurty? Or was is McFlurry. I couldn’t tell, but I had the impression that if I’d asked again the man’s bottom would have exploded and I’d be getting spittle in my dessert no matter what kind of shake it was. Still, I pushed my luck, venturing a minor quip.

“I take it that’s similar to a shake?

There was a pause during which someone might have been questioning their place in this world, only to return, sounding reasonable, patient, and ready to give an eminently just answer:

“Yes. It’s like a shake”

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What the man thinks

Had this weird thing as a kid when I watched movies, often with my dad, who only watched action or western movies then, less so today: I mixed up films and actors, would get halfway through a story thinking it was something it wasn’t, or that the lead actor wasn’t who I thought he was. Specifically, in the mid-seventies, I had a spell of thinking that Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were the same person. I think it was because they were both in The Towering Inferno, acting in alternating scenes. They seemed like two versions of the same hero, so my latency aged mind conjoined them. My dad enthused about their filmographies, would reference films like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid or The Great Escape. I thought I was watching the latter when I came upon a film about a guy who keeps breaking out of prison and smirking at “bosses” every time he does so.

At some point I learned through my father that the film we were watching together wasn’t The Great Escape with Steve McQueen, but rather Cool Hand Luke, starring McQueen’s less blond doppelganger, Paul Newman. No, neither I nor my father used words like doppelganger back then (he still doesn’t), but here’s an example of temporal revision, which this essay, and not any of the films mentioned so far, were providing at the time I first viewed them. In some ways, CHL will have been an early and influential introduction to all things linked to the American South, which would become distinct in my mind from the American West. Set in I-don’t-know-exactly-where, the film is richly inflected with twangy, Appalachian accents, backgrounded with stretches of mountainless plains bathed in scorching humidity; an air of good-ole-boy jocularity underlined with the cruelty, racism, and misogyny of uneducated men. Into this mix, the story thrusts Lucas Jackson, an impish, youthful (though Newman will have been in his forties when filming) post-adolescent who has lost his way. Apparently a war hero (WWII?) and therefore a once-establishment lackey (or so we’re meant to infer), ole Lukey boy is caught one night performing the relatively inoffensive act of tearing the heads off parking meters while drinking whiskey (probably—another southern cliché I will have noted), and is then sentenced to a couple of years in a rural penitentiary for damaging municipal property. Listless, indifferent, yet clearly disdainful of rules and “the man”, he seems like the kind of figure who ought to have caught a greyhound and headed west, to somewhere like San Francisco to hang out with hippies; to “drop out” with the likes of Timothy Leary.

But it seems that Luke is less committed to freedom as he is to rebellion, and the difference is crucial, as one path leads individuals towards escapism and the open road while the other keeps someone ever in touch of authority, often with a thumb perched on the tip of one’s nose.  At first, Luke plays it cool in one sense, merely observing all the rules he will later break on both sides of the prison divide. The “bosses” or the “Cap’n” (the chief warden) aren’t his principal antagonists at the outset of his incarceration. Initially, his problem is his peer group, and most notably, a top-dog illiterate named “Drag” played by George Kennedy, who seemed like a poor man’s John Wayne in most of the films I saw him in. Anyway, Luke first pokes this bear with his attitude, incurring a predictable slap-down in the form of a mismatched round of boxing. However, Drag is impressed with Luke’s plucky never-say-die resilience, and later by his sneaking poise as Luke schools everyone at poker, hence earning his nickname. At some point, Luke comes to represent something other than crude thumb-on-the-nose impertinence, but instead something closer to inspired mischief. He embodies a new hope, a new way of beating the man, and before long, what we got here is not just a failure of communication (yes, I remembered the line), but an allegory of messianic purpose and dilemma in the fraught, disparate sixties, set in America’s most wounded underbelly.

As Luke slyly wins over his mates, he gets under the nose of authority by playing with rather than breaking its rules and hierarchical norms. Wicked smart, he observes that he can win his peers a 2-hour break from laying sand over tar by exhorting them to work harder. With his freakish, non-weighting gaining appetite, he can win for some a bounty of cash by consuming fifty eggs in an hour. In moments like this, he is a rock star, accepting all manful dares, bringing everyone together, aroused by the drama of the one pleasure prison allows them: gambling. Before long, Luke is the coolest kid in class/camp, but like countless other heroes (especially sixties anti-heroes), he soon gets bored with his followers and the false auspicious luster they bestow. At a mid-point of the film, during a scene wherein the heavens have opened, interrupting another prison work day, the ordinarily laconic Luke breaks into a soliloquy that rails against the injustice of God. He’s not complaining about the rain. Come and get me, Luke says, as if bored by life.

His blasphemy arouses the ire of the prison staff if not so much his fellow inmates, so the remainder of the film shifts the action to Luke’s battle with guards and the warden. Here is where his real gamble begins, though amidst the action, we learn about the source of his weak-spot: his mother. Revealed as a crusty, chain-smoking, dying figure, Luke’s mom visits him in prison, sat in the back of a truck, clearly disabled, informing her son that she’s not long for this world. At this point, amid allusions to a once absent, drunken and now-deceased father, plus an upbringing of abuse that now seems hackneyed in such stories, Luke is shruggingly offhand, steeped in the mischievous persona he is busy cultivating in the present. That all changes when he learns of her death and slumps off to play the banjo on his bunk, weeping. Thereafter, he stops being a mischievous rule-breaker and more the escape artist, though he retains his prankish talent. His best example is the “shake the tree” ruse he pulls over a guard’s eyes as he walks away to urinate, only to then abscond. Twice Luke is brought back to the camp, handcuffed and beaten, or sent to an isolation box to cool off what the Cap’n dubs his “rabbit” feet. He’s actually sent to this penalty box prior to his first escape, ostensibly to deter an escapist temptation following his mother’s death. Luke takes off anyway, not so must in protest of the Cap’n’s injustice but in his determination to always do the unexpected.

After the second escape and return, Luke is sternly warned that his next escape will be his last. Cementing their need to “make his mind right”, the Cap’n and guards turn the screws, forcing Luke to perform impossible chores, follow absurdist rules, looking to break him. Inevitably, this tactic succeeds, and as Luke lies in a ditch he’s been forced to dig, appealing to God to save him from his torment, the guards, themselves pious despite their repertoire of evil (God simply means authority here), mock Luke’s desperate longing, which culminates in his abasement. With his fellow inmates looking on, Luke clutches at the feet of the most bullying of guards, and as he sobs, his peers drop their heads, demoralized by the defeat and indignity of their hero. Jesus has fallen. When Luke is finally brought back to them and his relatively comfortable bunk, they abandon him, disgusted by his surrender. “Where are you now?” he cries and flails, as if calling for some lost object. This is his primal, unconscious appeal for an absent father or mother. But there’s nary a nurturing woman, or man, in sight. During the film’s waning scenes, Luke is seen to be servile with the guards, performing errands at their command; adhering to their rightful authority; being right in his mind. This, however, is his climactic ruse, as Luke then turns the tables once more, cleverly stealing a guard’s truck, as well as pilfering the keys to those that might chase him.

In this last escape, he is joined by Drag, who perceives the trick just as Luke is playing it, so he grabs onto the fleeing truck, happy to cede his once top-dog persona, now fully enamored of the true king of the prison camp. With a final flourish, Luke exhibits his mischievous air once more, though in its last bow this act of Luke seems weary and foreboding. He knows he’s in for it: he’s made his choice to recapture his “cool” persona; to enact the hypermasculine, I-don’t-need-anyone-way, so as to give his lonely, hero-worshiping peers something to hang onto and hope for. A sacrifice. Not wanting to drag Drag down with him, he orders the once top dog and now puppyship fellow to get lost, essentially. Thus, feeling doomed, Luke wanders away from his admirer towards a church, for a final soliloquy and conversation with the one authority towards whom he retains some curiosity, if not reverence. Now, with a tired smirk once again replacing former sobs of desperation, he somewhat humbly yet calmly asks for some guidance and love from the Lord. But none is forthcoming. Minutes later, the Cap’n and guards show up and surround the church, having just captured Drag, whom they send into the church so as to guide Luke out peacefully. However, Luke is not buying the cynical overture, the latest ruse of the man, so he steps towards a window, opens it and calls out into the wind and rain, “what we got here is a failure to communicate”.

Bang. As Luke speaks his last mocking word he is shot in the neck, and is soon pictured smiling as he dies in the back seat of a police car. His shooter is a man known as “the man with no eyes”, because he always sports sunglasses—an element which contains an interestingly subliminal theme. This silent as in no-dialogue-but-always looming figure is the one who takes revenge upon the willful, mischievous Luke—perhaps at the behest of the virulent Cap’n—but just as likely because of his own hateful impulse, which itself disguises a guilt-ridden past, we may consider. I must research the source material of Cool Hand Luke, and perhaps give it a read, for what I imagine here is an Oedipal play transported to the white surface of the Jim Crow South. A silent, absent, blind, and abusive father figure gazes suspiciously, enviously at the desire of the other, at the freedom-seeking life of the young man; at the way that young man has become the favorite of others, and of the shared wife/mother in particular. He, the son, will get his someday, thinks the man.

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Discovery

There’s a case to be made that Stanley Kubrick was a psychoanalytic filmmaker. It was Werner Herzog who said that out of something still or boring something else eventually emerges. You slow something down, making it less and less stimulating, but something comes out of the other side, like a reward for evenly suspended attention. Until then we repeat before we remember and work through—another analytic notion. In 2001: A Space Odyssey we watch astronaut Frank Poole jog in a circle upon the spaceship Discovery, performing his daily routine. He is running within a centrifuge, looking like a rat in a cage. This entry to the second half of the film, its adult existence following a primal beginning, begins with this sense of boredom; of life slowed down and mired in tedium. Poole and his colleague, David Bowman, go about their maintenance tasks, overseen by the real leader of Discovery’s mission, the psychotic computer HAL, with numb efficiency. We watch Frank jogging in circles and wonder what is in his mind. The film in which he is in is saying something about man’s place in time while its individuals lack temporal sense, acting as if life is linear, but where is he going? Does Frank have a sense of history, of his own or that of man? Are we to glean something from one of 2001’s motifs: that he, as well as other characters in the film, seem to be moving in circles without knowing it?

You move forward and you move backwards, sometimes at once; remembering, re-remembering; editing that which seems incomplete; re-integrating the previously forgotten that is suddenly and shockingly recalled. Apres coup, Freud called this experience. A trauma. David Bowman has his shot at time and psychological travel in the film’s climactic scene. Having disconnected the paranoid, homicidal HAL from the ship’s control, Bowman arrives at journey’s end, informed by a taped message that the time has come to make contact with alien intelligence. Progress. It is time for man to move forward, and its emissary in this moment is a blank slate: a demur, cool and capable unit in the form of David Bowman—a man who has just been awakened from a complacent state by his bout with the formidable HAL. Having endured the trauma of being locked out of Discovery, of then cleverly finding his way back in and then infiltrating HAL’s interior so as to sever the machine’s command, Bowman is set for a real adventure. After a spell of mundane existence, if not an individual lifetime of bland conformity, his brush with death has enlivened him. Amid the dissonant soundtrack of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “atmospheres”, Bowman leaves the Discovery in a space-pod and steers towards the epochal slab that has beckoned man to this moon of Jupiter.

What follows next is one of the most famous sequences in film history: a cosmological journey through a tunnel of outer and inner space, fizzing with colorful imagery interspersed with black hole suggestion. There is no returning from where David Bowman is going, so his circular, repetitious life is over, to be replaced by something the filmmaker cannot describe, but he can show it with imagination. In moments, we observe the terror in Bowman’s eyes as he seems frozen in some manner of drop. The intensity of his flight through this stargate is such that he leaves consciousness at some point, and enters a dream. In it, he wades into a neo-classical or baroque scene as an old man, dressed in the uniform of an astronaut, but now glancing at the ages of art and invention. The space he is in blends past, present, and future as he regards his aged and then dying self in a scene of civilization and whitewashed time. The movement slows, dulling the film’s narrative in the conventional sense and bringing the “action” to a halt. The thrill of the ride is over, replaced by an inner sojourn amid a curated image of memory. The white spaces in between the artful décor loom over Bowman as he sits at a table, genteelly dining, only to drop a fork and glass and then stare at them, stilled and curious. Something has broken. Next, he is in bed and further aged, dying and looking up at the ubiquitous slab, which is now calling him to heaven like a cosmic god, the great psychoanalyst. A glowing fetus appears in a spectral bubble, resembling our serendipitous pilot/hero, and hovering above or aside the black slab, suggesting an imminent rebirth.

Our protagonist and now space-child has remembered something that he and his kind have lost, and will now discover just before passing over to the other side.

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The Greatest Death

Was giving a lesson on Narcissism this week. I think the context was my job, which splits the ethical angle: it was both good and bad, my reductionist, essayist answer to a query about…actually, I can’t remember what exactly, which tilts the memory towards the bad. How self-centered of me—how narcissistic—to not remember why I was talking about what I was talking about.

The piece that lingers is not the context, which for privacy’s sake is not so bad—perhaps that will be prompted when that audience—sorry, that person and I—speak again. The piece that lingers is my precious offer of a binary. “It’s either one of two things,” I began, speaking of Narcissism’s pedigree. I didn’t mean Greek mythology or the Copernican revolution—earth revolving around the sun, not the reverse, etc. I meant childhood development. In plain terms, I meant the competing theories of spoilt child versus deprived child. Analytically, I meant that we think Narcissism derives from an excess of gratification in youth, and according to theorists like Masterson, that youthful stage refers specifically to stages of toddlerhood, what Mahler called a period of separation-individuation, between ages 1 and ½ to 3, roughly. A narcissistic child is one who is indulged, lavished with praise, unfettered by limits or “boundaries”; rendered omnipotent in his mind, untroubled with words like “no”, “don’t”, or “stop”. I like that last line about the three significant words: it’s one of my chestnuts, my greatest hits, that bit. That reminds me of…nevermind. Well, we think the spoilt child gets used to indulgence, a life of few if any limits. He gets addicted, and that addiction lingers past forgotten toddlerhood, through stages of psychosexual life, past the fraught watershed of puberty, and into the dark space of adult life.

Theory two posits that narcissistic adolescents and later adults react unconsciously to an early development of an opposite nature: an early life of deprivation, of withdrawn love, or abuse. This person is sad, was once terribly sad, yet doesn’t remember this sadness so much as put it aside, burying pain in a psychic box that is barely retrievable. This person goes into therapy and talks about painful memories, or painful speculations, prompted by a facsimile event which triggers jigsaw-like fragments, bits and pieces that string the past together, forming a rough narrative. Apres-coup, Freud called this: a re-think and re-remember. In general, we—meaning therapists, plus the culture beyond our office walls—have some time for this forlorn, sympathetic figure. He talks more, laments and reflects more. He doesn’t shrug so much, saying that his early days were fine, and that everything was all good. That might have been a spoilt child. Why not sure? Well, we don’t know. The once spoilt kids tend not to draw attention to such luck. We don’t hear too many people declaring they were excessively gratified or indulged when they were kids. They don’t say things like, “I got everything I wanted, when I wanted it. Parents loved me. Everyone loved me. Everything was good until this gal called me out recently for sticking my hand in her…”

No, not so sympathetic. But then, most of the narcissistic types we (we? Who else am I speaking for?) meet don’t speak like this or present with sordid circumstances as a premise for a treatment episode—at least, not one that they’ve chosen. What’s more common is a detached, logical, even reasonable figure with a calm, if bland demeanor, speaking vaguely of a demise in something like, uh, intimacy. If we meet them it’s because they’re having difficulty sleeping, or they’re suffering from outbreaks of irritability, triggered by disputes with noisome loved ones. Their ordered, partly indulgent, but largely civilized, diligent lives have not been derailed so much as lightly bumped off course. There might be a catastrophe on their horizon, or they might just be ordinarily unhappy, and for some reason, the Wellbutrin they’re taking isn’t quite dissolving the malaise.

Which reminds me of Hal, the most sympathetic character in cinema history, and whose death is its most poignant. I know. An abrupt transition. A bold pronouncement. But bear with me. I’m about to indulge, take a blog essay with a dark title and give it some lights, camera, action. Take it into space.

If you’ve never seen Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey then you won’t know that Hal is not a person, detached, indulged or not, but rather a machine. He’s a computer—a servant, one would think, of man’s variable needs; of his exploratory needs in the relatively thin narrative of the film. A spaceship, the “Discovery”, is sent out into deep space to investigate the source of a radio emission directed from an otherwise inert black monolith to a moon in orbit around the planet Jupiter. Hal, the ship’s main computer, indeterminately sized in physical terms (but not a laptop—the film was made in 1968) is in charge of a sparse crew, three of which are in hibernation until arriving at the destination. The other two—bland, if diligent astronauts, both—perform mundane tasks and bide their time on the long journey. At some point, a glitch occurs that alerts Hal to a mechanical problem with the ship, but upon investigation, the astronauts decide that Hal is “in error” in his claim. Now, this is unthinkable, according to Hal. Accustomed to perfection, to a version of indulgence, Hal is not accustomed to being told that he is wrong about anything. The astronauts aren’t used to this either, and rather ill-advisedly think aloud that Hal’s unprecedented “error” bodes ill for the mission. Secretly, they plot to disconnect Hal, but fail to conceal their whispering, conspiratorial chatter from the all-seeing, lip-reading, and apparently sensitive computer.

Sensitive? Well, that’s one word to describe the anti-social/psychotically paranoid/narcissistic impulse to punish, even murder your adversaries. Yet this is what Hal does: firstly, he cuts off the life support of the three sleeping astronauts, killing them stone dead in seconds. Next, he severs the life-line of astronaut Frank, who was performing a space-walk, not repairing the device that Hal claimed had malfunctioned but rather simply putting it back in its place. Hal’s attack is sudden and brutal, expelling Frank from the ship and sending him adrift into the cosmos. How…cold, we might think. Half-witness to the action, sole survivor Dave—in some ways, the coolest character of all in this film—ventures out to collect Frank’s drifting body, only to realize Hal’s malevolent intent upon his return. His appeal to re-enter the ship from outer space is one of the great understated lines in movie history: “open the pod bay doors, Hal”, to which the computer smoothly replies, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”. Talk about being locked out of the house.

Yes, on the surface, Hal is a sci-fi Frankenstein: a product of man’s cool and ruthless evolution from the primal horde to the nation state; from the primeval ooze to the sterile rationality of a modern age. Should we blame him for the way he is? Is it shocking or strangely endearing that beneath the surface of an efficient, smoothly-running machine is a paranoid and savage killer? Is it further shocking that the creation/monster turns out to be more human than the scientists who created him? In mustering his own atavism, astronaut Dave manages to re-enter Discovery, infiltrate the memory banks of Hal’s system and—with Hal looking on with beseeching fear—disconnect the computer’s executive functions. Dave carries out this task slowly, methodically, floating from one disk/file item to the next, turning them off, thus killing Hal one piece at a time. The scene has the look of someone’s nervous system being unplugged. As this occurs, Hal’s plaintive voice regresses from its ordinarily precise timbre to a baritone muddy sound, and as his brain deteriorates, he recalls a song taught him by his creator in the—get this—early nineteen nineties. The song is a lullaby written exactly a hundred years earlier (likely not a coincidence if you know Kubrick), and likely chosen because it is childlike and sweet, reminding us that villains, narcissists, and so on were once vulnerable, if psychically omnipotent, and more importantly, that human longing is timeless. The lyrics are Hal’s final words, plus our lament for a lost collective soul:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do

I’m half crazy all for the love of you

It won’t be a stylish marriage

I can’t afford a carriage

But you look sweet upon a seat

Of a bicycle built for two

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Interregnum

A space between governances. An interim between the death of a sovereign and the ascension of a successor. I’ve never felt it myself, having not lived through the great gaps, these mooted periods of death anxiety, or loss of psychic continuity, as psychoanalysis teaches. The last interregnum of significance from where I come from was seventy years ago, or thereabouts. That’ll be out of living memory soon, and the memories that are still there on the matter aren’t saying much. What had really died then that wasn’t already in a malaise? The UK was in the doldrums, reeling from bankruptcy. So much for winning a war that cost you—what was it? Well, it was a lot, anyway. We had to nationalize railroads, health care, suffer the coldest winters on record, and…yeah, ration eggs. Wait, I forget myself. I wasn’t there. Remember.

I’ve been there over the last year, not rationing or suffering the worst winter on record, but I have been in the doldrums, staying at home, concussed by an event the unfolding of which will have seemed unimaginable a year ago. A year. It’s nearly been a year! Remember when it seemed that staying home and binge-watching Netflix, or rolling out of bed to log on to begin the work day will have seemed novel and welcome. No more. Now that scenario sounds so much like Groundhog Day that surely people will stop watching a great film called Groundhog Day. Now we live in cloisters, with less capacity to track time because it does not pass like it used to. In the years to come, when we reflect upon the fractious politics that divide us, long before a public health crisis kept us in actual silos, will we observe that 2020 was the year we really learned what loneliness is? I’m married and I’ve still noticed this. The reason: I’ve hardly seen anyone live in months, save for my wife and elderly parents, and if you’re like me, getting use to this reality the way my British forebears got used to rationing, you’ll stop noticing the problem. What will creep in, or what has already crept in, perhaps, is the moment when psychological death has occurred and the grim face of a new figure has taken over.

We lay in our caskets for a while, dressed in a non-uniform of casual wear, our hair uncut, our beards and moustaches untrimmed. For women? Maybe the application of make-up has become just a bit more of an effort—an effort to care. A streak of grey smears the flanks of my shoulder-length locks. They hang without symmetry, and if I were seeing you day in and day out, you might not notice and shake your head. Those of you who knew me in the former life, in that pre-Covid world, will see the aging process, assuming we meet again. That quotes another British icon, I think: we’ll meet again. I heard they sang that at Buckingham Palace a year ago, just as they went into lockdown. Vera? She died actually, shortly after, thinking she’d done her bit, so she really was singing farewell. A blast from the glorious past. Spirit of the blitz, and all that. The lockdown may have been a novelty for a minute, back in March of last year—like the first time the crowd filed down into the underground tube (subway) during the air raids of 40’ and 41’. Jesus, how long that must have seemed, that two year stretch that became a seven-year haul. Imagine waiting in burrowed out holes, huddled like rodents, listening to the sonic booms, hoping that your home is not leveled like your neighbor’s house was the night before. No wonder that generation never stops talking about how they couldn’t think about that. Think of all the uncut grey hair that should have grown out, long before the Beatles made growing it out fashionable. Don’t look, I’ll wanna say, when I get seen again. Don’t tell me how I’ve changed.

Don’t tell us how we look, the dead say, because they know it isn’t pretty. I’m told, or was told recently, that some get dressed up anyway to lay in their caskets, with the top open, there for mourners to look down and say something without fear of interruption. I don’t get it, this laying in the casket with the top open thing. It seems like pulling your pants down, closing your eyes and saying, there…see what I got? Death, like sex, was never meant to be looked at. I’m on board with that bourgeois chestnut. I don’t want to look at death. I don’t even want to look at sex anymore. Sex feels too much like life—like a life we changed the rules of. Sorry, porn. You had your day. Once you were a novelty, too: a near impossible to find glimpse of forbidden pleasures, all for the eyes when touching was even more elusive. You’ve done well in your much-maligned career, graduating from one outlet to the next, moving from one technological advancement to another, ever one step ahead of censors. Now you are ubiquitous—the sole survivor of an entertainment industry otherwise capsized by fate and hubris. You won, like a cockroach in nuclear winter has won. But even those addicted to you are bored of your act; your ordinarily tolerable re-runs. I know because some tell me about this, and they’re not lying. They no longer have cause to lie. You don’t know it yet, porn, but even your days may be numbered. Depression. It kills desire, sex, and because we obey depression’s energy shut-down plan we’ll devise a vaccine for you soon. You wait. Or, maybe it won’t be that effective. You don’t require a lot of effort, come to think of it. Maybe we need something for the eyes instead, and something else not discovered for the so-called scopic drive. Sex has taken it on the chin recently, like everything has. Still, it remains a plucky cousin of life, so it keeps going. I don’t know how sex does it. It must be quite resilient, willing to hold on through the rationing; to come up for air after the sirens have stopped, looking for some fun. It’s more fun than death anxiety, that’s for sure. When will the snow stop, the rain start, or the wildfires cease? Is the planet done or something? Is there a new King yet, or will it be a Queen? Save us, somebody or something, or else pull the plugs of everything keeping us not quite alive and let us get some real sleep.

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