The other night, in the continued struggle against the Lull, we left my apartment, each carrying a roll of toilet paper and a spray-bottle of 409 All-Purpose cleaner. Not long into our search— only halfway down 15th street— we stumbled upon the perfect object for our intents and purposes. Behind an apartment dumpster, sat a large recycling bin, whose off-white fiberglass surface was soot-black with the tar, grime, and scum of the earth. We spent three hours spraying it down with All-Purpose cleaner, chiseling into it with sticks and icescrapers, giggling, with gallons of elbow grease— until the task was complete, until we had cleaned exactly half the bin to a spitshine. Three hours and the precision of the dissecting line made it somewhat difficult, from a distance, the see the two sides as one object. It was threes hours spent to conquer and complete the patently absurd.
One point in the process reminded me of the whitewashing scene in Tom Sawyer. The long-and-short of this scene, if you remember, was that Tom, condemned to whitewash the fence on a perfectly good Saturday morning, tricked his fellows into doing it for him by cunningly blurring the Play/Work distinction in the minds of his playmates. And not only did they complete the chore, they actually paid the little spin-doctor for the honor in the currency of marbles and applecores.
Well, lo and behold, a half-hour in, and we were approached by two mystified drunks, who asked what we were doing. We responded that we were “cleaning.” After a few failed taunts and questions, their suppressed giggles seemed to give way to envy, and out came: “do guys mind if we try?”
Cleaning the recycling bin was absurd, maybe, but no more absurd than any of the weird, rootless desires we earthlings seem to get ourselves into; like Tetris marathons, oral sex, box seats for the Sugarbowl, symmetrical hairdos, ferris wheels, love, music, or self-preservation— none of this stuff gets us any closer a natural grounding or foundation for human desire than the others. Nor do any of them— the recycling bin included— contradict any principle in Nature, Law, or Logic. There is nothing irrational about them; just as there was nothing irrational about cleaning half of the recycling bin for hours on end.
Hell, even beyond its novel and immediate pleasures, the recycling bin most certainly had its origins, its roots. Two nights previous, I had cleaned a perfect two-by-two square into the filth on the Redhouse kitchen floor, underscoring the filth through negative space, realizing then and there that “cleaning-as-vandalism” would always remain well beyond the prosecution and comprehension of the law. It defies its logic. And in this case— as in most cases— the creation of novel desires frustrates everything forensics can tell us about human motivation, especially when it comes to these somewhat lefthanded acts of good will and “pro-active non-destruction.”
Another origin was the slightly more earnest “free-labor” tactics I had employed before to throw off the economy of the world. The supply-and-demand, if you will. Washing dishes at parties, straightening and arranging the product at Nordstrom’s and Food Lion, raking leaves on public grounds, playing Mr. Plumber with winecorks and coaxial cable, and alphabetizing the “Magnetic Poetry” on the refrigerators of unsuspecting party-throwers. More generally speaking, free labor plays a lead role in my utopian future of aggressive generosity, tenhour workweeks, and ex nihilo desires; and lies at the very heart of my personalized notion of “the Gift,” which might be best explained like this:
I realized that, in a fully democratized world, a world with a closer rapport between the individual and social will, the duality between altruism and egotism would not make quite as much sense as it does now. The reward of any action would no longer be thought of as exclusively altruistic or egoistic; either self-ish or self-less. Citizens would think it was obvious that both the part and whole benefit from a gain in either. The steps I’m personally taking toward that utopian vision involve funneling middle-class boredom into a communitarian impulse; steps greatly aided by a fuzziness in the Play/Work distinction. Tricking would-be vandals into “nice gestures” and “community beautification.” This demands enough whitewashing scams and enough widescale confusion to splinter the certainty with which we once pursued some desires and avoided others. Yes, I look forward to the day when I can hear the question “Brandon, am I having fun?”
I remember a line from De Sade’s The Misfortunes of Virtue; where the marquis had noted that the satisfaction we derive from helping others is still a personal satisfaction; a cynical flipside formulation of the “virtue-is-its-own-reward” bit. Once this “ulterior motive” was revealed, De Sade thought that the bottom had dropped out of altruism. He thought he had unmasked altruism for what it really was: just another, perhaps more publicly acceptable, form of selfishness. But I disagreed with his arithmetic and took the thought another way. I thought to myself “that means that if altruism is properly selfish, it becomes a win-win situation for everyone involved.” I needed a way to hook altruistic acts into egotistical drives. And to get the ball rolling, I’m casting good deeds in the shape of a practical joke; trading public welfare for private self-amusement. Unsolicited gifts of love or labor whose completion truly is their own reward, their own end, their own entertainment value. So, arriving late for a wedding reception at Tokyo Rose, Tyree and I began clearing and sweeping confetti, plastic cups, kitschy banners, and all the festive trash you’d expect at a post-punker wedding-gig. And although we did receive an unexpected reward— a five-pound bag of animal crackers, stockfeed for the next two weeks— the true motivation was “fun,” or more precisely, the ambiguity of “fun.” In the meantime, I even begged Amy Briggs for the opportunity to give her kitchen a scrubdown, for our own amusement, before her roommate stole my thunder and dustpan. Ultimately, I’d like to become a free-agent superhero— anonymous, caped, moving baby-carriages from the path of eighteen wheelers, opening bottles, lighting cigarettes, chasing down drivers with their forgotten gascaps. But, I still need to work out the kinks and quirks; like squaring my anonymity with my endless but good-natured bragging; or washing spandex; or catching bullets in the cavities of my teeth… Those kind of things.
The superhero is an altogether better poeticization of altruism than the Good Samaritan, I think. Much catchier, flashier, and without the humorless Calvinist smack. And it is the superhero, rather than just the superman, who is the model citizen of my crackpot democratic utopia. A superhero who does all the right things for all the wrong reasons. This future society of superheroes would not be necessarily be conscious of their altruism, as such, they would just be trying to fill up time in their fiveday weekends. And why would the world be so freed from necessities as to only need a tenhour workweek? Because it is filled with superheroes. Does this make any sense? Perhaps I should underscore my demands:
1. It is not unreasonable to expect everyday to be Christmas.
2. Free labor reduces the sum total of necessities in the universe. Never mind who the chores belong to.
3. Favors are best when unsolicited: do not ruin the surprise.
4. The bombardment of gifts can precede merit. It overcomes a simple reward-system. It works in terms of surplus. This is the original Christian message from your original Anti-Christian. Take the mother-goddess of Charlottesville, Elle, whose aggressive generosity and affection melts even the hardest Charlottesville leather-rockers into blushing children. You rarely see the “utopia of love” captured so wholly in a single individual, but Elle is a rarity, an anachronism from the better times ahead.
5. It’s okay— and even preferable— to trick someone into receiving a gift. This way the algebra of obligation is lost in the confusion of finger-pointing and blind anger.
6. The gift can be an object, but is best given, like Santa Claus, in stealth and while wearing a plush red jumpsuit. A good example would be delivering hundreds of liters of orange, grape, and apple juice to the thirsty Charlottesville populace, by leaving the crates on their porch in the dead of night. And if you fail to mention that the largesse came from an industrial dumpster, just hope that the recipients understand that Santa Claus is not made of money.
7. Drink deep. This whole spiel is not just simply about the communitarian impulse. I want the living opposition of the “ascetic ideal.” The “ascetic ideal,” as I mean it, is the umbrella term for all of the life-denying forces and sadomasochistic impulses at work in Western Civilization. The ascetic ideal tries to share the misery rather than spread the joy. The ascetic ideal wants to ensure selflessness in others. The ascetic ideal is anorexia in the body-politic. It is the impulse towards control over happiness that our superheroes will hopefully have difficulty grasping and accepting.
8. Sometime before you die, anonymously pay a restaurant bill for a group of strangers. Not random strangers so much, but strangers chosen because you can see their hearts glowing from across the restaurant. I think you’ll discover, when you’re grinning or giggling yourself to sleep that night, who the favor was really for…