What is an essence? Answer: the point of ambiguity at which one thing can be mistaken for another— or many things be mistaken for each other. At times, this ambiguous figure is an intentional and imaginative labor, as was Goethe’s Urpflanze, or Euclid’s Elements. Other times, it’s just haphazardly cognitive and synaptic— wild misfirings that mistake swaying bushes for burglars, wives for hats, and splotches on bedroom brickwalls for human silhouettes.
Still other times, it is both— meaning that it is poetic. As when Rimbaud says, in Une Saison en Enfer:
“Je m’habituai à l’hallucination simple : je voyais très franchement une mosquée à la place d’une usine, une école de tambours faite par des anges, des calèches sur les routes du ciel, un salon au fond d’un lac ; les monstres, les mystères ; un titre de vaudeville dressait des épouvantes devant moi. “
“I grew accustomed to elementary hallucination: I could very clearly see a mosque instead of a factory, a drum corps of angels, horsecarts on courses through the sky, a drawing room on the bottom of a lake; monsters and mysteries; the title of a vaudeville would fill me with terror and awe.”
Essence is a case of mistaken identity. Some cases only then work far better than others, as meaningful comparisons.
Kaplan Auditions. Once again in the Realm of Misunderstanding.
Yet another attempt to follow my calling as a disseminator of wisdom to the impressionable young. The world still does not have the heart to listen. I received a call-back from Kaplan headquarters and penciled myself in for an audition, in which I would give a mini-presentation, before twenty other auditioners, on a topic of my choosing. We were allotted five minutes and told that the topic should display concision, clarity, confidence and a “sense of humor.” Other topics chosen included: How to Change a Tire, How to Make an Omelet, How to Pack a Suitcase, How to Tell if Fruit are Ripe or Not.
My topic was: How to Get Away With Murder.
The reception was fairly cool. In the few minutes of squeeking out my synopsis on the dry-erase, the apprehension was palpable. They were nervous for me— if still a little entertained. The interviewers had twisted the thermostat to boiling, just to watch us sweat and break out in hives. The room smelled like a standardized test, factory-farm learning, mechanized learning. Sour grapes: is this what I wanted anyway? Would this be the dissemination of wisdom, in any perversion of the term? Not really. This is everything the Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Study would not be.
“And so you want to use cotton gloves, rather than latex or leather, because leather and latex leave fingerprints on the inside… Or make it look like a suicide or accident, by going mountain climbing or by taking a long walk over a tall bridge…Make sure you have the cement mix and lye ready-to-go, that way you won’t have to worrying about botching the job in a panic…”
The Work Self is not the true Self. The interview is the crucible, the grounds of self-betrayal. I will pursue a new form of recreation in job interviews.
The last presenter, Andy, won me over. Taking the floor in a red tie and blue suit three sizes too small, he deadpanned his way through an oratory on “Putting in Your Contact Lenses Correctly,” subdivided into two distinct sections: Conquering Your Fear and The Execution. He probably didn’t make it either— what is their ideal candidate, if not this?
Charles Cheese, South Philadelphia, a Birthday Party for Jay Purdy.
The skeeball machine was miraculously broken, giving us unlimited play. It was a waking dream. We try to perfect the motion of sinking the ball in the 5,000 basket, but it was tricky. Should I try to perfect the more manageable 4,000 points or stick to the clear winner and clean Sublime of 5,000? Whatever the case, all of my movements should tend towards some perfection of circumstance, however small.
In my dreams, with their fixed menu of motifs, I never hit the jackpot or win the megalottery or anything. This is not my archfantasy, as it is for some. Instead, I always find a little, unseen hole in the ground, or a broken vending machine, that indefinitely dispenses a handful of quarters— enough to liberate me, a magical fount, a golden goose. The just-enough fantasy of Necessity easily met. A release from worry but not from struggle.
Chucky Cheese is an excellent locale for systems analysis. Rich noted that we should use these machines for practice, as a starter kit. The coin-pushing machine accepts pennies— and the Chinese yuan coins— if jetted in at the right angle, but dispenses only tickets rather than coins. How can we turn scams in on themselves?
The automated portrait machine is an artform waiting to happen.
There are tricks to everything, and in this, there is a perfection of elements and a golden goose.
Systems analysis side, I’m intrigued at arriving at an idea of General Strategy, which can even import the vocabulary, taxa, and approaches of game theory— as catch-all terms— in order to, so to speak, solve the world. The Biblical tradition tells us to lightly distrust the clever, but I want to extol the virtue of Supercleverness, much praised by the poets. Cleverness is not the same virtue as Wisdom, sure, but it is still virtuous, a form of excellence. I’m probably cleverer than I am wise.
I miss the Charles Cheese of yesteryear— the dark background laid over with disturbing circus colors. Today, everything is white, pink, and yellow. The soft, safe colors of a Pediatric Clinic. Blah: everything is safe. Kidnapping is impossible. What ever happened to the real Brothers Grimm tales, when children were tortured and eyes were gouged out because they were pretty? I think children these days need and want more of those old-fashioned bogeyman fantasies and a little less Teletubby re-assurances.
New York City. Family Vacation. Early Christmas. Our father spoiled me, my brother, my mother, Leslie, and my brother’s friend Sabrina. New York with sufficient money in the equation. New York is ideal for Christmas, as well, a megadose of Christmas cheer, that would do me well for the season.
The Cloisters were a world apart. Fort Tryon was dusted with snow, and beautiful. The Palisades, across the river, seemed almost Russian. Hard to believe this was still New York. The urbanite only needs a getaway, a glimpse of Nature. Much like Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, which might as well be the Black Forest, for all the mystery it holds.
Inside of the Cloisters, there hung a set of tapestries depicting Medieval Man discovering the Unicorn. In the first tapestry, they discover this rare and precious animal. In all the following tapestries, they capture, attack, and slaughter the animal. The allegory eludes me.
If the Unicorn was, as Les mentioned, representative of bachelorhood, why was it cornered and hunted down by men, rather than a wild pack of nags or bacchae? Other sources tell me that it represented the persecuted Christ, but then why is he penned in captivity after resurrection? Talk about putting all the metaphors in one big blender.
We need a shining white symbol for bachelorhood and bachelorettehood, something precious, rare, sweet— a innocent liberty that marriage pens and slaughters. Unicorns could and should represent a fantasy of perennial bachelorhood, only they’ve been coopted by ten-year-old girls and noise bands.
Christmas has passed us, and the True Cold is here. Cold in the human sense. In January begins the bleak season. Everything is stripped down to its barest facts. But this year, my attitude has changed considerably. For the past six years or so, my approach has been to milk the Christmas season and lament the bleakness of January, often times escaping to warmer climes in South America. The Christmas season— the solstice celebration that counters the Cold and all the bare, existential facts— has passed and I welcome the pale cold. I want to engage it more.
In an old psychology textbook I used to read, there was this picture of Admiral Byrd, during a polar expedition, holed up in a tent, with a pipe in one hand and a calculus book on his lap. The Antarctic air promised such clarity, just as the desert inspired its own Quranic episodes of total revelation. This is what I want to emulate.
With occasional nights spent at the Institute, and temperatures dropping, I really absorbed the lesson. To exploit the virtues of the season, and the transitions— Giordano Bruno was dead right when said that joy was always in the transitions. The lessons of seasons. Pipes. A large percolator. Thermal underwear. Books. Solitude. Smaller spaces. Sitting in darkness at the Institute. Sleeping bags. Thera-flu. Concentration. De-pussification. Good shoes. Good coats. Things done right. The sound of cold wind. The regulation of energies. Leaveless trees. Floor rugs. The cabin, the Icelandic aesthetic. Winter holds; Summer flows.
Have I finally become a Yankee, and lost my Southern blood? To enjoy the Cold so much.
Whenever Matt Barian invites you to participate in something, be wary, be informed, but accept the invitation nevertheless. In the end, it will be good for you. Last year, while performing a dinner ceremony over my chest, he left first-degree burns all over my stomach, to his dismay. This year, at another housewarming party, he and his friend Frederick invited me to try suction acupuncture— or suckupuncture, as we called it. Basically, a welt machine in a backgammon case. And always a champion of bad ideas, I volunteered to be the first one to have the clear plastic bulbs suck out the blood through the skin of my back.
Excuse me, suck out the toxins through the skin of my back. I dare anyone to explain the physiology of that device, or even the metaphysics. I accept acupuncture generally, but not philosophies of health that revolve around the expurgation of “toxins.” Substractive philosophies of Purity and Exorcism. But to eat with unwashen hands defileth a man not, says St. Matthews.
The body is a very complex machine, filled with necessary toxins, one even toxic to the next, but in its whole, the body works together harmoniously. After the suckupuncture, I looked like I had been attacked by a Man-o-War, covered with giant purple-black, tennisball-sized welts. I resembled some monster from the Dark Crystal or the Songs of Maldoror.
What I’m singularly most afraid of, in these non-traditional therapies, is that they might give me inner tranquility, now or down the road. Or, worse yet, a sense of all-enveloping peacefulness. Better would be a therapy that injected your Being with absolute urgency. An herbal infusion or scented oil that made you want to build the Tower of Babel.