10/17/10

High Theory: Accessible at Last!

The prose style of what is known as literary theory -- a hodgepodge of German metaphysics and French gibberish spun out by a loose coterie of gay continental philosophers, post-gendered beard-strokers, half-mad babblers, and the odd full-on hypocrite -- is about as preposterous as a three-legged triceratops gouging with its horns at a whirlwind of duck feathers. (Witness, for instance, Judith Butler's infamous Bad Writing Contest-winning sentence for 1998.)

This style is adopted, argues evolutionist-cum-jester and disliker of theory Richard Dawkins, by "intellectual impostor[s] with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life." In a legendary depantsing of theory, reformed hoaxers Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont declare that a work of uncut Theory-with-a-capital-T is lucky to squeak out "a handful of intelligible sentences -- sometimes banal, sometimes erroneous" -- like so many pearls cast before, gobbled up, and shit out by swine. Semifamous (serious) philosopher Thomas Nagel isn't sure which piston drives theory's engine more forcefully: "invincible stupidity," or "the desire to cow the audience with fraudulent displays of theoretical sophistication." In fact, no one seems to be sure whether theory is the work of a dangerous cabal hellbent on undermining the very fabric of intellectual discourse, or a b-squad of Mr. Beans whose ineptitude would almost be charming only they could stop drooling all over their MedicAlert bracelets that warn of allergies to peanuts and lawn-grass.

Indeed, the rage for order shared by these unmaskers -- this desire for words to make sense -- wouldn't be nearly as interesting if the venom wasn't in part meant to conceal the deep anxiety that perhaps there exists an almost-unimaginable third way, somewhere between diabolical evil and developmental disability -- what if this theory stuff isn't total horseshit? What if it's brilliant and I just don't get it?! When it's invoked, this anxiety is brushed aside with a mirthful chortle, as if these hatchetmen were conceding, as an afterthought, "Of course, everybody knows it's true that OJ Simpson is technically innocent, according to the Constitution -- but come on."

Noam Chomsky, who has had Serious Documentaries made about him and is referenced in Good Will Hunting, and whose intellectual credentials are therefore unimpeachable, has offered the most concise example of the confused combination of rage and insecurity, condescension and defensiveness that characterizes any really rollicking anti-theory screed: "No one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of 'theory' that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out." It's a dazzling rhetorical strategy -- Chomsky plays the wide-eyed naif who is loathe to think an entire international industry of professional writers, thinkers, teachers, and students is... well... it's too horrible even to say!

But if he is capable of scoring from the goalie box, he is also adept at playing offense-as-defense, crossing and striking so as not to be struck. Of seminal theory bigwig Jacques Derrida, Chomsky says, "I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain." You see? Even as a baby -- or close enough -- Chomsky would have been hip to the con. Derrida's work is appalling. Pathetic. A failure. Unless it's actually really good. Doubt it though.

This dexterous double-doubt -- "is it good or does it suck, and either way, why am I so mad about it?" -- wobbles on the crux of that age-old problem, the problem which is very nearly theory's only subject of concern: Is the meaning of a given statement comprehensible in all its facets and tints, or does some of its significance evade ready comprehension? Put another way, "Does this here word-caterpillar mean something smarter than what it looks like?"

Well, in a half-assed attempt to clear up this confusion, to tear down the language barrier between self-evident Dawkinsian or readily-intelligible Chomskese and the Nonglish of English departments worldwide, I have gone beyond the pale and violated the unspoken pact that binds all of us who make our living, no matter how obliquely, through the incantations and ululations of the unkempt and savage hobo-philosophy known as high theory. I have taken it upon myself to Benedict Arnold the whole theory enterprise by translating select paragraphs by certain theoretical luminaries -- without losing an iota of intended meaning (jk lol) -- into voices that might be less alien to those casual readers repelled by theory's uncircumcised pomp and smooth-shaven circumstance. In so doing I hope to allow self-loathing positivists, pragmatists in the throes of a dark night of the soul, and scientists on their brain-period to accept the brilliance, profundity, and salubrious revolutionary power of theory, as God intended, or to reject it wholesale once and for all, without the self-conscious pussyfooting of men wearing skirts for the first time publicly.

On with the show. First, the abstruse theoreticians in their own words. Next, their words banged and yanked into the everyday speech of unicorns and pegasusi.

  • Theodor Adorno, sourpuss: "Cultivated philistines are in the habit of requiring that a work of art 'give' them something. They no longer take umbrage that works are radical, but fall back on the shamelessly modest assertion that they do not understand. This eliminates even opposition, their last negative relationship to truth, and the offending object is smilingly catalogued among its kind, consumer commodities that can be chosen or refused without even having to take responsibility for doing so."
  • Theodor Adorno, as translated into an embittered-but-lazy art school traditionalist: "Posers who say they care about art but really don't care about art, man, all they want to do is take, they don't want to give anything back. But they're too stupid, or too scared to be wrong, even to be mad that this gallery is showing poop sculptures and blood paintings. They just stand there looking at some installation, like some mobile made out of used tampons glued to turtle bones, and they're all, 'I don't get it.' They don't even call bullshit. They're just like 'well, that's not really my thing.' That's bullshit, man. They don't even take a stand for anything. That's why the art is dying."

  • Giorgio Agamben, crypto-fascist: "Being in force without significance:...What, after all, is the structure of the sovereign ban if not that of a law that is in force but does not signify? Everywhere on earth men live today in the ban of a law and a tradition that are maintained solely as the 'zero point' of their own content, and that include men within them in the form of a pure relation of abandonment. All societies and all cultures today (it does not matter whether they are democratic or totalitarian, conservative or progressive) have entered into a legitmation crisis in which law (we mean by this the entire text of tradition in its regulative form, whether the Jewish Torah or the Islamic Shariah, Christiam dogma or the profane nomos) is in force as the pure 'Nothing of Revelation.' But this is precisely the structure of the sovereign relation, and the nihilism in which we are living is, from this perspective, nothing but the coming to light of this relation as such" (Homo Sacer, 51).
  • Giorgio Agamben, as translated into a caricature of an Appalachian wingnut: "The gubmint just do what it want for no good reason. The gubmint always hangin' 'round behind you, but you can't see it, you don't know when it be making you do something and you don't even know it's making you do it. Everybody in the world being run by gubmints, and gubmints don't care none 'bout people -- just suck us dry. Everywhere in the world, Muslims and liberals and fascists and pinkos, all the same. They take away your freedoms. Gubmint's the enemy of the common man. It don't care none. Never did."

  • Walter Benjamin, tragic tramp: "What does language communicate? It communicates the mental being corresponding to it. It is fundamental that this mental being communicates itself in language and not through language. Languages, therefore, have no speaker, if this means someone who communicates through these languages. Mental being communicates itself in, not through a language, which means that it is not outwardly identical with linguistic being. Mental being is identical with linguistic being only insofar as it is capable of communication. What is communicable in a mental entity is its linguistic entity. Language therefore communicates the particular linguistic being of things, but their mental being only insofar as this is directly included in their linguistic being, insofar as it is capable of being communicated."
  • Walter Benjamin, as translated into a stoned dude who just put down an acoustic guitar at 3 in the morning: "It's like, we think we say stuff with language. But what does language say? What if what language says is itself. Like, do you ever feel like when you say something, it's not like you're talking with language, it's like language is talking with you? Like, what if language is like, this body, and we're all just like little cells in it. No, think about it -- like, sperm is part of us, but at the same time sperm are these little animals in our bodies. What if we're just language's sperm? So like, what we think we mean isn't really what we mean, because like we're just on a mission for language, and we can't see the bigger picture. So like, when we say stuff, we mean what we think we mean, but we also mean, like, way more. Because, like, language means all this other stuff, too."

  • Paul de Man, Nazi-sympathizer who Jews sympathized with, fan of irony: "In the study of literature, the question of the self appears in a bewildering network of often contradictory relationships among a plurality of subjects. It appears first of all, as in the Third Critique of Kant, in the act of judgment that takes place in the mind of the reader; it appears next in the apparently intersubjective relationships that are established between the author and the reader; it governs the intentional relationship that exists, within the work, between the constitutive subject and the constituted language; it can be sought, finally, in the relationship that the subject establishes, through the mediation of the work, with itself. From the start, we have at least four possible and distinct types of self: the self that judges, the self that reads, the self that writes, and the self that reads itself. The question of finding the common level on which all these selves meet and thus of establishing the unity of a literary consciousness stands at the beginning of the main methodological difficulties that plague literary studies."
  • Paul de Man, as translated into a middle school English teacher so careful to be precise that she almost becomes confusing: "In this class we're all going to put on different hats and go to a lot of faraway lands without leaving our seats! You're all going to have opinions about what you read. But what's funny about reading is, someone else's words are in your head! Think about that -- you're thinking in your head, but you're thinking somebody else's thoughts! That'll tickle your noodle! So we're all going to have to try to figure out what the author was trying to say in his book, and what it means to us. But also, it's important to think of what it the writer thought his book meant. So we're going to have to put on four hats in all. We're going to be reading, and thinking about what we read, and writing about what we think, and even thinking about what we think! Did that blow your mind? Believe you me, it's not easy to wear those hats all at the same time! Have you ever put on four hats and looked at yourself in the mirror? It might be a fashion no-no, but it's an English yes-yes!"

  • Jacques Derrida, grand wizard of nonsensical sense: "The two concepts (friend/enemy) consequently intersect and ceaselessly change places. They intertwine, as though they loved each other, all along a spiralled hyperbole: the declared enemy (Blake declares the enemy by ordering him to declare himself: be my enemy), the true enemy, is a better friend than the friend. For the enemy can hate or wage war on me in the name of friendship, for Friendships sake, out of friendship for friendship; if in sum he respects the true name of friendship, he will respect my own name. He will hear what my name should, even if it does not, properly name: the irreplaceable singularity which bears it, and to which the enemy then bears himself and refers. If he hears my order, if he addresses me, me myself, he respects me, at hate's distance, me beyond me, beyond my own consciousness. And if he desires my death, at least he desires it, perhaps, him mine, singularly. The declared friend would not accomplish as much in simply declaring himself a friend while missing out on the name: that which imparts the name both to friendship and to singularity. That which deserves the name."
  • Jacques Derrida, as translated into a teenage girl who wants you to think she's more distraught, and more thoughtful, than she really is: "Omigod, sometimes I hate my friends so much. I know it sounds totally stupid but I feel like my enemies are the only people I can trust. It's like, I trust my friends one minute but then they stab me in the back. Ashley is totally acting like we're total BFFs, but ten seconds later she went through my bag while I wasn't looking and she's using my lipgloss again without asking, which is just super disrespectful. It's my property and she doesn't even have the common courtesy to ask if it's ok, and I've already told her not to do it a bajillion times. She totally would ask if we weren't such good friends, so it's like, what good are friends anyway? But like, when Blake told me I was his worst enemy when we were playing badminton in gym, I totally trusted him. I know it sounds retarded or whatever, but it's true. It's like, at least I know where I stand with Blake. I feel like Ashley just hangs out with me because people think she's cool, she does it just to be seen with me, so she doesn't look like such a spazz like she did when she was all fat and had acne last year before I showed her how to put on foundation and not eat three Fruit by the Foots every day at lunch. But Blake like totally hates me and he doesn't even care how it makes him look. It's so honest that sometimes I almost feel like he's, like, in love with me. He doesn't go rooting through my bag and taking my stuff and pretending he didn't think I would be mad. Even if he did, at least he'd just be doing it to piss me off. He'd be thinking of me and not just how everybody thinks he's totally popular because I let him smoke with me in my car during open period. God, Ashley is such a bitch!"

9/15/10

You know what's fucked up? I'm not even high.

It's interesting that people who are intellectually invested in defending evolution and denigrating intelligent design are also, in a strange way, backed into the corner of viewing intelligence as a uniquely human thing, qualitatively different (and more valuable) than whatever animates the other bits of space-junk randomly bumping uglies out there.

The design argument runs that the world has clearly been planned and built with such care that some intelligence must be in control, must have lain the ground rules and must in turn be enforcing them. Nonsense! cry evolutionists. It's perfectly plausible that it was merely a random string of events, and as we all know, on an endless timeline the infinitesimally unlikely becomes all but predestined. It's science, not intelligence! There's no wizard in the sky! The heavens are filled with trudging mechanisms, spasms of inky plasma, stars swallowing other stars and spitting out comets that crash operatically into balls of unimaginable flame in a fit of cannibalistic rapacity even more harrowing for the fact that the universe has no desires. It doesn't want to destroy. It doesn't care either way. It just destroys, because insensate things are fucking cruel. Except not really, because again, they don't give a shit.

It's odd, right? We say that there's no intelligent force governing everything, which in a sneaky way ratifies the idea that there's something fundamentally unique, special, and singular about human intelligence. Our atheism becomes a kind of self-congratulation -- we're special! -- that we're trying to critique in believers. Instead of arguing that there's no such thing as intelligence, or at least that human thought -- and life in general -- isn't qualitatively different than all the other crap that's going on, we implicitly argue that we're the only tiny pocket of intelligence for as far as the eye can see. Creationists argue that there is a god and we are created in his image; we argue that there is no god, because he would have to be created in our image it would just make too much sense and shit would be cool and nice and pleasant to live in when clearly that's not true. I mean, look around, man. Everything is a swirling mass, a primordial blob of who knows what, and we're a privileged enclave whose spasms of thought make us special, if for no other reason than the exquisite awareness of our impeding, collective doom, the fact that someday we will be washed away by the cosmic equivalent of Scrubbing Bubbles, and our recorded history will become a cold, dead monument to nothing. The power of observation will be gone, and with it will go any shred of significance, in any sense of the word.

On the other hand, we take heart by reading BBC Science articles and saying things like, "it's a statistical near-certainty that there are other intelligent life-forms somewhere in the deep reaches of space!" But we belittle people who believe -- based on what they swear is experience but what we insist is misguided faith -- that they've seen, say, a UFO. We have to say we believe wholeheartedly in the fantastically improbable, but we don't believe it cares about us, and to suggest otherwise would be lunacy. Because, again, we're the only thing in our neighborhood with the special skill to care about stuff; and even if we weren't, we're not that interesting anyway. (Narcissistic self-loathing.) If there's anything intelligent out there, it hasn't found us yet, because we haven't found it. And we're kind of the gold standard around here, I don't know if you noticed. We're kind of the only game in town.

Quantum and string theory -- not that I understand the first thing about them or can talk about them without mumbling like a nincompoop -- are fascinating in this respect: By suggesting that, say, the universe is just a tiny bubble in an endless sheet of bubble-wrap with and endless number of other sheets of bubble-wrap above and below it that an insane toddler is taking its sweet time popping, one bubble at a time, we get to imagine all kinds of insane Rube Goldbergish scenarios for the creation of the world.

If our argument, as Free Thinkers and all that shit, is that the universe makes an elegant kind of sense insofar as nearly impossible things become necessary in the long run, does it become logically necessary to suppose that at some point, a three-eyed troll in negligee named Carter Burwell once vomited up a celestial pool of filth, one lonely rising bubble of which was the Big Bang, or a Bigger Big Bang before the Big Bang that contains our Big Bang and a billion like it? And Carter Burwell is, in turn, a quivering quark in a monumental atom of gold so vast it's dense enough to make you cry and valuable enough to cause a war between a Greek in a loincloth and an Egyptian with a weird animal head, which the Egyptian wins because the Greek is crushed from out of nowhere between the thumb and finger of the lunatic toddler?

The forms bigness this big take on are predictably anthropomorphic & anthropocentric. I can't imagine the kind of new, mind-incinerating entities I hope straddle universes, and what kinds of personalities they have, and what kind of complicated things they might do that, if we had a vantage on them, would look strikingly like intelligence, except of a sort so vast that it merks humanity's like '86 Tyson did Marvis Frazier.

So I imagine awesome, slobbering babies and giant titans fighting over shiny stuff I wish I had. But this is optimism. More likely, the universe and the universes around it are cold, dark places lit up periodically with terrifying flashes of rending light none of it matters, in the scheme of things, any more than we do. Which is to say, not at all. Fortunately for us, the antidote to despair is ignoring its causes and acting like we're fucking awesome. We're so fucking smart, it's incredible.

Here's what bothers me about, but also saves me from going insane under the weight of, eternity and infinity -- it's impossible not to think of them as, respectively, A WHOLE BUNCH of time and A WHOLE LOT of space or stuff or whatever. But that's never seemed quite right to me. Eternity and infinity are the same as no time and no space; not just the biggest number you can imagine +1, but the smallest number you can imagine and then it vanishes. Absolute zero. This, to me, is a great consolation. If it turns out we're wrong -- if it turns out there's a smartypants god and he invented everything and the last will be first and the first will be last and the last and the first will be judged by their acts, it's comforting to know that an ever-lasting suffering in a never-ending lake of fire is also a never-starting suffering in a non-existent lake of fire. Hell takes so long that it's over in literally less time than an instant, the smallest division of time imaginable but even shorter; and heaven is so big it can fit in the shoe of one of the army of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

8/20/10

On attention sp... hey, look, a beaver!

Speed is important to me in a really troubling way. Basically I mean efficiency, as in "requiring little time to work," but I would be wrong not to mention the dextroamphetamine salts in the generic Adderall I get from my psychiatrist who looks like a skeleton. Mentally, I am a rat-race addled working man. I just happen to have the schedule of a bum. I want to do things as efficiently as possible, with as little effort as possible, and glean maximum results with minimum expenditure. I don’t like spending a lot of time on anything except trying to absorb things – recently, it’s been podcasts about things I half-care about.

I listen to hours of podcasts every day or two. Semi-professional production values meshed with semi-articulate talkers all served over a bed of self-serving unselfconscious hypocrisy and convenient position-taking. It doesn't really matter what they take themselves to be about; that's what they all consist of. Every podcast I listen to is basically terrible, but they’re all comforting. I don’t learn very much, except by a sort of osmosis – I’m only half paying attention, and I’m not paying attention to learn so much as I’m paying attention so I don’t feel so alone. This is one of the amazing things about all new media, to me – especially new media that captures the voice or movement of another human being. I’m pretty sure we haven’t entirely learned to parse the fact that they’re not really there – it’s a presence that feels good, that takes a certain burden of solitude away. Radio, at its best, is like being told a bedtime story all day.


There is this sense of absorption – of learning without trying, of doing or being able to do without trying. This was what I was trying to do by getting lots of audiobooks and mp3 lectures about my field. I wanted to replace reading and learning via elbow grease with the facility of absorption. But it hasn’t worked for me, and it won’t. And that’s partly because I’ve come to identify literature – particularly American literature from the 19th century, the subject of the aforesaid audiobooks – with work. And work is something that I believe you should only do on the clock.


I have a more or less evil, capitalistic sense of time. I’m entering my fourth year of grad school – my writing year, in which I’m supposed to produce on my own time and with my own schedule – so I don’t have a clock. Nobody watches me, or makes me do anything, so I always have the sense that I’m shirking responsibility to do something fun at the expense of some Scrooge-ish overseer who, for once, isn’t paying attention. It's like, the only way I can make my dalliance with irrelevancy significant is by making it a romanticized "fuck you" to the powers that be -- which, make no mistake, actually exist, but also don't give a fuck what I do with my day to day. I think deep down I feel I’m cheating my employers out of something by getting paid not to do any work, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about that – I am exploiting them right back for exploiting me, the bastards.


But there’s also something absurd and pathetic about it all. It’s just such a waste, such an orgy of resentful feelings and bad faith. I don’t do anything because doing stuff is hard, and doing stuff is hard because it’s work, and it’s work because it’s what I do. It’s who I am. It structures my identity and my reality. But I hate my reality and I hate my identity and I want to escape it. How can I use literature or theory as an escape from my identity or my reality – which is WHAT LITERATURE AND THEORY TELL ME I’M SUPPOSED TO USE THEM FOR – if they’re the very things that structure my identity and my reality? I want to escape from these things, not use them to escape something else.

So I do.

I play Red Dead Redemption, which I bought for my new Playstation 3. It’s an incredibly immersive experience. It will never yield anything. But it's awful fun, though.

Yesterday I took a legally-procured Adderall. I have a medical condition, you see, called attention deficit disorder, the symptoms of which only rear their heads when there's something I am supposed to be doing but cannot do because I lack the willpower and ability to care and gumption and tenacity and sticktoitiveness. It's in the DSM-IV, look it up. I fully intended to do some work after taking said psychostimulant, but my new HDMI cables came and I just had to see how Red Dead Redemption would look on my new LCD TV without decades-antiquated component cables.


I ended up playing for 9 and a half hours or so. Finally forced myself to stop out of disgust when I couldn’t find any cougars – I’m supposed to kill two cougars with my hunting knife to become a “master hunter” – and I kept getting mauled by grizzly bears, which are entirely too stealthy and entirely too aggressive to be plausible in this fucking game.

I stopped to go to Target to buy a wrench so I could finally put together the Ikea kitchen shelf unit that’s been obstructing some pathway or other since I moved into this new apartment some weeks ago. The cheapest adjustable wrench at Target was $20, so I bought a $5 pair of non-needle nose pliers and stripped the shit out of the bolts tightening them up. So I hope I don’t ever have to take it apart, but at least I put it together, and now it stands there, monolithic, holding up my microwave, my Foreman grill, my coffee maker, and my toaster oven. A true monument to convenience. Except I accidentally installed one of the shelves in such a way as to block the outlet, and I haven’t the gumption to take it out and put it back in. I blame my ADD.

But the point of this story is that, when I drove to Target, I felt simultaneously like I was sleepwalking and like I was still playing a video game – everything felt consequenceless, and everything seemed at a remove, as if through a screen, projected onto my windshield instead of existing on the other side of it. I knew I was driving recklessly and dangerously, but I couldn’t make myself care enough to correct it. I fiddled with the radio, flipping until I found a song, not that I wanted to listen to, but that I wanted to soundtrack my experience. When I got to Target, I stared at the wall of tools long after I’d discovered that the kind of wrench I wanted wasn’t to be had, as if it was a problem I could solve if only I scoured the terrain long and concentratedly enough.

An interesting question, to me, is whether or not video games and the like are actually going to destroy the attention spans of generations to come. I guess I’m in one of the first generation of kids who never knew what it was like to write without having a word processing equivalent on a personal computer at home, and I never knew what it was like not to have recourse to, say, Microsoft Solitaire when I got bored. I have played Microsoft Solitaire for entire days, before, honing technique, subconsciously learning probability, adjusting the way I move the mouse for speed and precision. I have dreamt in solitaire. I have lived life seeing things and people as if they were solitaire cards, and as if what I was supposed to do with them was turn them over in the proper order.


The first time I took Adderall, I looked at porn for eight hours.


Adderall is a wicked drug. Some new users, yours truly tragically included, enter a state called "hyperfocus." Hyperfocus is about what it sounds like -- at the expense of everything else, you sink into the Fire Swamp quicksand of whatever subject happens to be at hand, and you don't leave until the subject or the drug is exhausted. It's a race for last place.


Adderall also makes you incredibly, preposterously, Pepe Le Peu-ishly horny.


But mainly what Adderall does is suck all the non-essential blood out of your body and send it to your brain. The effect of this is more or less what you'd expect: In the end it's something like being a late-career Philip Roth character -- desperately wanting, prurient, desiring, wanting, needing, lusting, craving. But there's just not a lot going on down there.


On the other hand, you can concentrate forever. On anything. But you don't want to concentrate on anything, because this hotshot of speed to your brain has made you into a quasi-impotent sexual dynamo -- you're like one of those Greek statues of a fertility god with the dick broke off. Pornwatching, in this state, makes you a kind of ultramodern Tantalus, reaching for grapes but not having long enough arms. There's a terrible pun to be had in there in there somewhere.


So anyway, the first time I took Adderall, I sat there looking at gallery after gallery of still shots. I decided to play a game. With most Thumbnail Gallery Post sites, certain thumbnails will redirect you to an entirely new TGP site with entirely new thumbnails of entirely new and promising galleries, which in turn direct you to new TGP yadda yadda yadda. The game I made up was to click on every thumbnail that -- at the time -- struck me as "undeniable," and only stop when I had managed to close every single gallery and every single TGP array.


I completed this mission. It is possible. It is horrible, horrible, and it takes eight hours, but it's possible. When I stopped, I started seeing porn in my life the same way I had seen solitaire years before. Everything took on a certain positional or appendagial significance that was wholly unwanted and thoroughly unsettling. When I finally went to bed, 36 hours after my first dose of the drug, I dreamt about porn. But not porn as in porn -- porn as in everything in life is porn. I was able to focus for eight hours on this thing that I really did not want to be focusing on, and for hours and hours after that it wouldn't leave my subconscious -- it provided a kind of organizing principle for my entire life.


Yet, I have trouble sitting down to read a single page, or to think about – much less write down – what’s been on my mind. The idea of paying attention to something at the expense of everything else is an almost crippling affliction to me.

When I was a kid, I had a paper route. Every morning, I would deliver 40 or 60 newspaper, and at the end of the month, I would get 40 or 60 dollars. It was a pretty shitty gig, but it gave me exactly enough money to spend exactly one entire day at the arcade. My mom would drop me off in the morning and pick me up a workday or so later. I would be drenched in sweat, almost post-coitally spent. And in those eight, ten, twelve hours, I would have participated with full focus in a fantasy world built out of pixels by other people. I would have a near-obsessive drive to correct mistakes I’d made, to approximate the goal of perfection that videogames, so much more than life, render approachable and plausible – even if, like life, they leave it lingering past the horizon of your limited capabilities. It was a state of deep concentration, totally oblivious to time or space, only interested in Street Fighter 2 or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Simpsons or even – and most agonizingly – that fucking machine with the tub full of cheap toys and The Claw.

I spent hundreds of dollars on that Claw, always winning an armful of stuffed creatures and cheap watches before my money was up, never feeling like I got my money’s worth, and always returning to it with a sense of indignation, as if THIS TIME would be the time I wouldn’t let the machine beat me – I’d come away on the upper hand. This is, I imagine, what it feels like to gamble – to develop an animistic relationship to “the house” that makes you resent your own (probabilistically pre-ordained) failings as the sinister machinations of some imposing but faraway intelligence. Winning becomes personal, but it’s personal against no one – it’s nothing but a measly point of pride, and your triumph wins you no plaudits and tarnishes no rival's honor.

Later, as a young teen, I punched holes in my bedroom's plaster walls – perhaps a dozen holes. Some of them were because I was growing up in small-town Iowa and the small-town Iowa girls I thought at the time were hot but have gone on to learn were on the threshold between gross and average didn't like me like I liked them; but most of the holes were punched over Mortal Kombat II for the Sega Genesis. I would come home from school, where I had been bullied and shamed in a million disparate, and always somehow novel, ways, where I'd been marginalized and made to feel insignificant – and, what’s more, like I was playing a game for which everybody else knew the rules, but they were so baroquely complex that I’d never be able to make sense of them without a crib sheet I’d never be given. And I’d come home to this box, which I’d play for hours every day, until my parents told me to stop – that is, until I realized I could just keep playing after they told me to stop and they’d eventually stop trying to get me to stop.

This made sense to me. I knew that if I honed my reflexes, learned very specific and recognizable patterns, adapted my idiosyncratic way of understanding the problem to the fully intelligible problem itself, I would end up solving it. I could win, which was a sensation I was promised nowhere else in life. Not in art or literature, not in social interaction, not in organized athletics – and I was a good athlete, goddamnit, but I was mercilessly bullied off the soccer team by a kid who was bullied so much he finally had to transfer. The big wheel keeps on turning.

I certainly couldn't hope for this kind of promised success academically. I couldn’t win at school. I couldn’t escape the sense that no matter what I did I was a disappointment to someone, that I couldn’t delegate my time in a way that would make my efforts satisfactory to everyone looming over me in judgment – a half-dozen teachers in wildly disparate subjects and two parents who only showed genuine interest when something was wildly wrong, and who brought me up to think I was at my best when I didn’t cause trouble but didn’t do anything that warranted special attention, so exhausted were they from dealing with my terrorist of a criminal of a sister.

It’s not that I particularly wanted to underachieve in school. I didn’t much care either way. But my teachers so thoroughly drilled it into my head that I was underachieving so prodigiously that my young, stupid mind only took away that I was young and stupid, and that I couldn’t really do any of the things they wanted me to do, so I should only do what I want to do. I can only assume that their attempts to shame me for putting zero scholarly effort in were intended as motivational, intended to stoke the fire of passion for knowledge they suspected burned just under the surface ashes of my cartoonishly morose persona. You should have seen my shock when I saw that my history teacher, who I’d only given the form to that morning in spite of the fact that we were supposed to give at least 2 weeks notice, gave me all 1s on a scholarship recommendation. But I didn’t catch any of these subtle signals. I thought he was just fucking with me. It was all part of the game I so stupendously misunderstood at the time, which I now take such delight in trying to decipher. I’m not sure if it’s across-the-board difficult to hint kids in the right direction, but I do know that it was impossible to hint me into doing what they wanted me to do. I wanted to be told, and no one ever told me shit -- the nudged and finessed and cajoled, and if there's one thing I've learned from my romantic life it's that I'm entirely too thick to take hints. So I did what I wanted to do.

And I wanted to play Mortal Kombat.

And when that didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, I wanted to punch holes in my wall.

This seems off the beaten track of concentration and attention span. But consider what people bemoan when they talk about the intellectual decline they see in the youth today. Great Books. Epic Poems. Ethics. Fucking Opera. Intellectual issues considered broadly, apart from soundbites or blurbs.


Youth’s inabilities are painted as a decline in the faculty to pay attention to shit we don’t care about, and have no reason to care about (or at least, are given no incentive to care about). And, what’s more to the point – these things are unpleasant. And nobody makes bones about this. Reading a Henry James novel, for the mass of men, is awful. Sure, there’s the odd odd duck who does enjoy it – and these are generally the people who try to make everybody else feel guilty for not enjoying it – but enjoyment isn’t really the game, here. Rather, it’s about tradition or heritage or genius or greatness or fucking human dignity (which I’ve always found to be a remarkably curious concept for a species whose coping strategy for dying appears to consist of forcing the aged to become senile and shit themselves and move very slowly and take very seriously things nobody else takes seriously at all.) It's about doing what people have always done, because that's just the way people do it, and it would just be a shame to lose that.

With videogames, the rewards are immediate and visceral.


They’re not, on the other hand, metaphysically satisfying. At least not when they’re your primary means of subsistence, the thing upon which your life is predicated.

But here’s the thing. NOTHING that you predicate your life upon is satisfying to the least degree. Literature is not satisfying unless it’s an escape from the horrors of your own life. Work is not a solace unless it blocks out the horrors of home. Alcohol isn’t any fun if you drink it all day, every day -- then it's just another fucking job. Vocations are miserable. But most of the people who tell us we should be doing more things that are intellectually rigorous – that require more attention, that force us to concentrate – seem to have no idea that we can immerse ourselves, life and mind and body and all, into Madden ’06 for 18 hours straight without eating or drinking anything. They have no idea that when they tell us we’re failing when we don’t learn this shit they think we should learn for the betterment of our souls even though none of us believe in souls anymore, we want to fail because what did THEY ever succeed at? I would love to be shown the generation who excelled at mathematics and concentrated on things that aren’t fun and really hunkered down to read long works of literature who didn’t, at the end of the day, feel as empty as we do, and who didn’t, at the end of the day, engage in wars and crimes and rape fantasies and wicked thoughts and petty thefts just as callow and horrifying as our own. It would give me something to shoot for.

The only problem now is, I hate all of my peers.

The end.

7/25/10

I, Power-Bottom

I have a theory that the closest a heterosexual male can come to learning what another heterosexual male is like in bed is by grappling with him. But this doesn't go for just any two guys who have never grappled before. As with sex, the first few times basically consist of flailing, barely-concealed terror, unrealistic expectations, and crushing ineptitude. But once you know where to put your hands, and once you know how to shift your hips, and once you know the appropriate responses acts of aggression, you establish a baseline comfort level and start to develop a legitimate personality -- a set of skills and tactics that actually constitutes a kind of identity. It's hard to imagine, for instance, what it would be like to have sex entirely differently from how you have sex now, but once you have sex with your second partner it's surprising how different -- for all the consistencies -- each person is.

Grappling is the same way. Everyone has a certain style. Everyone learns the basic moves, but they work differently for everybody's body. And entirely different idioms, virtually different languages, develop out of roughly the same syntax. This is, in a sense, true of all sports, but grappling is more intimate than just about any other athletic endeavor. It's competition based on the unmediated communication of two bodies in contact. For instance: I know, by feeling where your limbs and your core are, and where your body is going, where I need to go to beat you to the spot. I know, by listening to your breathing, whether you're tired, and how hard you can push. I know when you moan you're about to give up, and I know when you grunt you're about to fight back. I know, by feeling your sweat all over me, that you are fucking disgusting and I'm going to get a staph infection.

As you can see, it's very much like sex. And everyone has a different specialty. There are guys who are wizards from side-control.
There are guys with suffocating back-mounts.
There are well-rounded guys with skills in all areas, but who don't dazzle you anywhere. There are guys with gaping holes in their games, weak spots, so you know if you wiggle a specific block they'll topple, Jenga-style. Then there are virtuosos, the kind of people who make every person you've ever met who says they're "good in bed" because they've gotten over their fear of leaving the light on look like a fraud. Watching my instructor grapple is like that scene in Watchmen where four Dr. Manhattans are having sex with Laurie while simultaneously making scientific breakthroughs in the other room. Basically the difference between him and me as grapplers is the same as the difference between me and Gandalf as wizards.

There are also pressure top-control guys, and I hate grappling with them.
They get on top of you and just wrench and twist you, manhandle you, out-strength and out-muscle you until they get you where they want you. They make mince-meat of you.

Of course, pressure top-control is the classic way to grapple. It's the way it's supposed to work, and the way it works at its highest level. It's why amateur wrestling is the best foundation for combat sports. The philosophy is simple: You power a guy onto the ground -- you get into a dominant position -- you neutralize his defense -- you attack until he submits. In amateur wrestling, the fight is over when you pin a guy's shoulders to the mat. The objective is simply to be on top, and for your opponent to have no way out. It's just all kinda... rapey-y... isn't it?

Amateur wrestling is generally done by the kind of people who wrestled at your high school, and those people are generally bad people.

I, on the other hand, am a guard player -- or what some affectionately (?) refer to as a "power-bottom." I like to fight off my back. This also means I start every fight in the least threatening position imaginable: the butt-scoot.
Shinya Aoki butt scoot chase
(We could go into all the ways this parallels my courtship strategy, but I believe it's important to leave certain things unsaid, for mystery's sake.)

There are a couple reasons for this. First, it's the best way to exploit my Gumby-ish flexibility by gift-wrapping people with my armlike legs into awkward positions with stupid names like "crackhead control."
More importantly, it allows me to attack and control from a situation that is typically submissive. It's a subversive way to fight -- by doing it, I re-appropriate a subaltern position and extract a new kind of power that counters the hegemony of the bourgeois status-quo of what fighting is "supposed" to be. It enacts a leveling deterritorialization that explodes constrictive stratifications, provides a line of flight to escape from the fascist regime of vertical, top-down power into the horizontal bleed of The Real.

I'm totally kidding. But hey, look, you can do Deleuzian literary criticism on literally anything, and that's something, right?

I herniated the left side of the C6/C7 disc in my neck -- again -- about a month and a half ago during BJJ class. This is apparently one of the worst discs to injure, because the nerve it protects is responsible for the left side of your body. Such as your heart. And your arm.

The first thing that happens when there's direct pressure on this cervical nerve is that your tricep shuts off. Poof. Gone. Nothing. It can't flex, and it almost instantly starts to atrophy. It turns out that this is the worst possible coping strategy your body could adopt, because when your tricep shuts off, all the other muscles in your arm and shoulder clench up into a vicelike Rube Goldberg contraption of overcompensation. The main problem here is that these other muscles are the muscles that pulled the disc out of alignment in the first place, and the only way to get it back where it needs to be is by engaging the tricep. But your central nervous system is telling your body that flexing this particular muscle is impossible, and your central nervous system is one hell of a bureaucrat. What it says, goes.

I hurt myself doing duck-unders, a wrestling move that somebody with a bad neck has no business practicing with a fiery ex-wrestler who really, passionately wants me to do it right for some reason. My head hit his arm, my neck folded back, and I felt a tingle in my shoulder that trickled, Reaganomically, down my arm.

At first, I thought I'd just pulled a muscle, and in retrospect I regret the fact that I shook it off and kept wrestling with people much bigger and stronger than I am for the next hour and a half; though, when I got to my car and the adrenaline wore off and I felt the characteristic numb tingling in my fingertips, I felt like a fucking savage for having toughed it out for so long. I felt considerably less tough after the half-hour drive home. I pulled up to my apartment building feeling like an army of radioactive wasps had gone to war with my shoulder, and I'm not sure I would have been able to finish out the drive if I hadn't kept myself occupied by screaming non-sequiturs at the top of my lungs at people on the sidewalk. Which is hilarious, by the way.

One of the most unsettling, and most characteristic, side effects of this particular herniated disc is "referred pain." All the signals from the nerves in your arm are routed through the central master-nerves in your spinal column on their way to your brain, but when your spinal column is compromised it interprets the pain as coming from everywhere other than where it's actually coming from. You're not supposed to feel anything in your spine -- that's why it's wrapped in armor. Essentially this is the same thing that happens to amputees when they get phantom limb -- acute sensations that actually exist nowhere below your neck, and yet are absolutely real -- except, mercifully, the limb is still there.

So that's the upside -- your arm isn't gone. The downside is that herniating this disc is, so they tell me, one of the most painful mundane injuries that can happen to a body, up there with kidney stones and childbirth. It has unfortunate social consequences, too, because it's difficult to explain -- to your friends why you're in such a terrible mood, to your doctor what hurts when what hurts is just past your fingers and somewhere to the left of your elbow, to your bosses why you can't get out of bed for a week straight.

I hurt my neck on a Saturday and didn't get out of bed until Monday. I didn't go to the doctor, because my health insurance makes it much cheaper to go to student health before I go to any independent providers. So I sucked on Aleve like Now 'N' Laters for forty-eight hours, moved as little as possible, tried to sleep, and tried not to breath.

I called Student Health services and made an appointment for 1:30 that afternoon, but the receptionist transferred me to the head nurse told me to go directly to the ER because "there's not a lot we can do for you here." I told her I would, hung up the phone, and started sobbing uncontrollably. I'm not a crier -- I once went plus-or-minus ten years without crying, and mostly all I can muster is a couple of dry-eyed convulsions and a choke or two. But not on this day. I'd all but forgotten what it feels like for tears to trail down your face and leave that wet feeling, and then dry into the same trail but sticky this time.

So I called my friend Nick, trying to pretend for some reason that everything was cool, asking him how he was, crying hard but fighting through it, and asked him to drive me to the emergency room. He finished his bowl of cereal and pulled up outside fifteen minutes later, and dropped me off in front of the emergency room entrance. I thanked him and hobbled away, clutching my elbow in a makeshift sling.

That was the last social contact I had for fifteen days.

I got to the ER at around noon. I paced. I avoided eye-contact. I resented the people in line ahead of me, and I resented the nurses who didn't seem to feel sorry for me. Forty-five minutes later, a doctor who spoke at least passable English called me into an examination room and asked me some questions -- I take Adderall, Sertraline, and Xanax sometimes; I'm not allergic to any medications; I have health insurance; my pain is a nine out of a possible ten. He looked at me skeptically and shuffled me off into another waiting room, where I got to hang out with three cool, friendly guys passed out in their chairs and two loving mothers ignoring their children. The moms turned on the TV in the corner that said "DO NOT CHANGE CHANNEL" and changed the channel to a soap opera. They talked to each other with incredible fluency about the characters on the show. One of the little girls cried. The other one played at the little toy-station in the corner. When her mother saw what she was doing -- a half hour later -- she called her away, forbade her to play on something so dirty, and scraped her hands, hard, with a baby wipe. This little girl started crying, too. The women talked louder about the soap opera.

I was called back into the examination room by the pretty nurse, by this point almost delirious with pain from sitting and standing -- two things, if you don't mind me saying, we as humans generally take for granted. In my brain, I told myself I would say, "You're one of them pretty nurses, like I done seen on the TV!" My brain told me this was a really very good idea, but when I opened my mouth my shoulder flared and all that came out was a sad little squeak that sounded like "gak!"

A teenage boy with his dad were led into the next room. I listened to the same pretty nurse interview him. "I had surgery for some abscesses and the stitches are torn and the cotton packing is coming out."

"And where are the abscesses?"

"Uhm, well, one's on my inner thigh, one's on my lower buttock, and one's on my... I guess... my taint area?"

"Your what?"

"My taint area?"

"Oh... OH."

"And every time I take the antibiotics I throw up."

I wondered what was wrong with this poor kid, and what it was like for his dad to be there. I wondered if they were scared. I was scared.

After an hour or so, a dignified greybeard of a doctor, earth-tone business-casual head to toe, swept into the room and asked what he could do for me. By this point it was about 3 pm. I'd had an appointment, you'll remember, with student health at 1:30, but they were not qualified to serve my needs. Well, it took all of three minutes for this doctor to confirm my self-diagnosis and write me scrips for Percocet and Prednisone. And then they turned me out the door. Three hours and three minutes for synthetic opioids and oral steroids seems like a small price to pay.

But I still haven't got the ER bill.

7/21/10

The Super Awesome Mega Championship

I'm back from Chicago after a long weekend (or a lean week) of sunbaking while watching bands that aren't quite ready for the big time play in front of many thousands of sunscreened assholes at the Pitchfork music festival, and I am just as happy as a clam. My friend J housed me as he always does: with some implausibly shaped pillows and a sleeping surface (after a manner). My favorite parts of these vacations to Chicago are always the weekdays, when he and his girlfriend are at work and I get to pad around the house siphoning oodles off his stash of PERFECTLY LEGAL DRUGS and watching grotesque effluvia on the NFL Network before popping in a Bond VHS tape on his St. Bernard-sized monstrosity of a television.


Usually, anyway.
This trip, my favorite part was going to Chris's Billiards, the poolhall where they filmed that scene in The Color of Money where Tom Cruise has a temper tantrum and tears the balustrade out of the wall on the stairs.
J is better than I am at pool. Substantially better. This is infuriating to me, because I'm better than you are at pool. I'm better than you and your three best friends who are good at pool. I'll take your money, and I'll make sure you leave with a shaved ass when your wallet is empty, just because that shit is funny to me, and also, fuck you. I'll beat you in front of your girl with a fifteen ounce cue and a bee-sting on my aiming eye. I don't give a fuck.

But J? He'll buy and sell you for a dollar.

I managed to tie it up at 2-2 after going down 2-0.
The reason I was able to do this is because, as previously indicated, I am really good at pool. If being good at pool were the precondition for attaining a title in medieval England, I would be at least a Baronet.

But J? He would be something even better and more prestigious than a Baronet. He would be a Marquess or a Viscount or something else even more badass than a Baronet, like a Duke or a King even. And it seems to have nothing to do with skill level, at least not in the rustic American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps sense. I can and have practiced baroque bank shots for sixteen hours a day, and he can practice being handsome and having nicely windswept hair whenever he remembers, and he'll still beat me seven games to five at pool -- and two of the games I win, it'll be because I left him an insanely easy shot on the eight ball and he scratched it because he either (a) pities me, or (b) folds like a sucker when the shit goes down. Seriously, if I could compete with this guy based on intestinal fortitude instead of talent, I would maul him like some kind of fantastical bear that has claws on its teeth, because pressure crushes him into a little origami hula girl, and I eat origami hula girls for breakfast.

Unfortunately, J eats me for breakfast, so there's a weird Mobius strip effect going on here.
I had to sacrifice some handsomeness for anonymity in this shot. So I do him all kinds of favors in photography, but in pool I'm like his medieval puppy-dog bitch court jester.

Seriously, this is the kind of shot-to-win I leave him.
It turns out that I'm the worst pool player in the world, even though I'll still destroy you financially, ruin your marriage, and make your kids hate you on a single behind-the-back, double-bank 'n' kiss-off-the-nine combo.

Don't fuck with me. I'll end you.
(J racking because he lost like a hack coward loser. PATHETIC.)

Many years ago, J and I devised a strategy to cope with the most troubling problem in amateurish competitive pool: How do you know when to stop? As is our wont, it was decided that all decisions should be made in the most childish manner possible. We reckoned that, with children, the championship is never the championship.

This is how kids work -- the alpha-boy declares that the next game is to be the last game. Then, because even alpha boys are shoddily designed and often dressed constrictively, even he sometimes loses. But rather than suffer his ignominy with dignity, he deicides -- through the god-given fiat of being the handsomest, the angriest, and the first one to crack four foot tall -- that the game is not over. The championship isn't the Championship -- because we haven't played the Super Awesome Mega Championship yet.

And the Super Awesome Mega Championship is what separates the winners from the losers, and the prematurely pubed from the late-bloomingly shorn.

Naturally, I almost always win the championship -- the meaningless exercise that does nothing but give my oppressor an opportunity to try.

Then J comes back and bulldozes me with a six-ball run in the SAMC, and pretends like it's not a big deal.
But right here and right now, I've got a message for J. It's a simple message -- the only kind he can understand, BECAUSE HE'S TOO STUPID TO UNDERSTAND COMPLEX SENTENCES BECAUSE FUCK THAT GUY WHAT AN ASSHOLE AM I RIGHT?

That message is this: Next year, I'm going to crush you, you homunculus.

6/29/10

Spielberg's Hook, psychosexual smorgasbord

I Baited that Hook

In 1991 I attended a Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch concert in southern Massachusetts. Mr. Wahlberg rapped, stiffly but not without enthusiasm, while a pan-ethnic cadre of backup dancers broke their parents' hearts behind him. He took off his pants -- remember how that used to be one of our now most recognizable living actor's gimmicks, taking off his pants and rapping about being "drug free, so put the crack up"? -- and stalked the stage, flexing his jagged abs provocatively. After a wardrobe intermission, Wahlberg retook the stage wearing a bathrobe. He took it off and revealed himself to be wearing only... his boxers. Underage girls screamed. I left feeling perplexed -- why, if he'd already taken off his pants, did he have to put on new clothes only to take them off again? -- but having had a mighty fine time. I felt the vibrations. Come on, come on.

Outside the civic center was a booth organized by a local radio station. They were giving away promotional items to shill for the launch of one of the year's most anticipated blockbusters: Spielberg's Hook. The bulbous, haggard DJ threw a t-shirt to me, rolled and taped. I opened it immediately, and was crestfallen to find it was an adult medium. Puny as I was -- the shortest kid in my class, girls included, until grade 8 -- when I put it on, I looked like a refugee in a muumuu. I sighed and resigned myself to the fact that I would never be able to walk around, impressing my friends by billboarding for the all-the-rage motion picture event of the season.

That shirt is now my oldest possession. As far as I can tell, I've had it for several years longer than anything else I own.
It's survived 4 states, 13 moves, an accidental bleaching (thanks a lot, mom), and being used as a painting smock. It was with me that next year, 1992, when I went on my first date -- to Aladdin and then Big Boy, who I thought had the best hot dogs on the market -- with a girl named Sam (and my parents). It was with me on my last date, to a cupcake store for my ex-girlfriend's birthday, where I told her "I can't take you anywhere" after she was rude to the clerk, thereby precipitating the weeks-long fight that would end with a perfunctory breakup. It now fits me almost preternaturally well -- every gaunt angle, every malnourished crevice, every worrying mole, stretch mark, and superfluous third nipple on my torso is swaddled tight in its cotton embrace, as if I've grown to fit its shape as it has shrunk to fit mine. Like a Venom symbiot.

Perhaps it's just a cheap coincidence. Perhaps its a cosmic confluence of taste and happenstance. Perhaps this shirt is responsible for the man I've become -- but sometimes it seems like I'm the only person in the world who likes Hook.

It has a 22% "fresh" rating on rottentomatoes, and the positives range from condescending ("muddled but fascinating," or "It's worth a look. But overall, Hook feels like an exercise in cynicism") to milquetoast inanity ("The movie is a strong reminder of the freedom of youth and the quest for pure adventure, one that looks to the stars and sees the possibilities are as bright as a child's own imagination"). Gag.

I've seen it perhaps 15 times -- just enough to be able to annoyingly recite pretty much every significant line of dialog a second before it's uttered onscreen. I love Hook. I really do. But I never realized what a fucked up movie it is until last night.

Peter Pan and the Women Who Love Him
"I don't ever want to become a man. Yuck!"

Three characters are in love with Peter: his wife Moira, Moira's grandmother Wendy, and Tinkerbell.

When she first appears in the movie, Tinkerbell pummels Peter with a rolled up magazine until he falls onto a baby's bed and then stands, triumphant, on his crotch. It's all fairly infantilizing and emasculating, innit?
"If less is more, there's no end to me, Peter Pan."

Peter explains her appearance this way: "You're a complex Freudian hallucination having something to do with my mother, and I don't know why you have wings. But you have very lovely legs, and you're a very nice tiny person, and what am I saying, I don't know who my mother was and I'm an orphan, and I've never taken drugs because I missed the sixties. I was an accountant." It takes a while for the irony of the invocation of Oedipus -- and the creepily incestuous vibe in Tinkerbell's brand of pedophilia -- to come into focus.

About halfway through the movie, Peter has a torrent of remembrances that begins with an image of his birth-mother discussing her plans to send Peter to attend Whitehall and Oxford before ascending to "the highest court" as an attorney, all the while saving time for "a marriage, and family, and all of that." Meanwhile, she forgets to watch her pram, freighted though it is with precious future-barrister cargo, and it rolls away.
So her priorities kind of suck.

Peter explains, in a kind of voiceover that supposed to be directed to Tinkerbell, but is really just hammy exposition for our benefit, that at that moment he realized that he didn't want to grow up -- this must have been a fucking smart baby -- because "everyone who grows up has to die some day." So instead he "ran away." Ran away in his baby carriage. By making it roll down a hill. Until apparently it tipped over in the rain? And he fell out into the middle of a spiral on the pavement in a suspiciously well-framed shot?
Like, how did the baby get from the pram to the middle of the spiral on its back?

So Tinkerbell finds and rescues baby Peter -- and he's thrilled about it, clearly.
Tinkerbell absconds with the little dude, in what would look suspiciously like kidnapping if baby Peter hadn't had a preternaturally sharp baby intellect capable of high-level practical reasoning, awareness of his own inexorable mortality, and the amazing ability to navigate a baby carriage of which he is inside.
He explains: "You came and you saved me. You brought me to Neverland. You taught me to fly." So Tinkerbell is, at the very least, on the cusp of felonious babynapping. But she also raises Peter, provides him succor and care and nourishment, for the first twelve years of his life in Neverland.

At which point we run upon the rock of an insuperable problem. Isn't the whole point of Neverland that you stop aging when you're in Neverland? If I didn't know better, I'd be tempted to call it shoddy filmmaking.

Fortunately, it's a problem with a payoff: without this loophole, Tinkerbell couldn't be simultaneously Peter's mother-figure, nursing him to manhood from his first days on earth, and want to jump his bones.

If Peter doesn't want Tinkerbell -- his surrogate mother -- he doesn't want Wendy -- his foster-grandmother -- either. But, of course, this movie has a moral responsibility to us to creep us out with quasi-incest as much as it possibly can. So, the now ninety-something year old Wendy Darling, who still calls the now middle-aged Peter "boy," is also still in love with him, eighty years after the fun summers in Neverland. Only one problem: Peter married her granddaughter, Moira. Imagine getting left for your thirteen year old grandchild. That would sting a little bit.

In his initial visits to her open window, Peter resists the advances of the young Wendy -- who looks strikingly like a young Gwyneth Paltrow -- because he's a fucking idiot, apparently.
And, in the immortal words of Michael Bluth, "you gotta lock that down," because this asshole has the gall to be surprised when young, hot Gwyneth Paltrow turns into old-ass Dame Maggie Smith.
I mean, she's hot for an old lady, but... come on.

In a genuinely affecting scene early in the movie, Wendy explains to Peter that she has always been in love with him: "When I was young, no other girl held your favor the way I did. I half-expected you to alight on the church and forbid my vows on my wedding day. I wore a pink satin sash... but you didn't come."
Peter, taken aback by her bedroom eyes and her clumsy groping, responds, "Grandmom?"

And this is where we find out what kind of chap the young Peter Pan really was. Wendy says, "Yes, I was an old lady when I wrapped you in blankets. A grandmother, my thirteen year old granddaughter asleep in the bed. Moira. And when you saw her, that was when you decided not to go back to Neverland." It will take an hour and a half of screen-time to learn the rest of this story.

Not only does Peter decide to stay; he decides to give the sleeping girl a kiss. Wendy begs him not to -- "I couldn't bear for Moira's heart to be broken when she finds out she can't keep you!" -- but Peter is adamant. He hawks in and plants one right on her pie-hole. In one fell swoop, Peter devastates the woman who has served the role of mother for, and who is in love with, him;
he terrorizes the woman who will become his grandmother, and who is in love with him, thereby consigning her to decades of torture in providing for him financially and emotionally while watching him seduce her descendant right in front of her;
and he commits something that looks eerily like sexual assault on a minor incapable of consent.
We should remember that this is Britain, and the laws might be different there -- after all, if they locked up every pervert and pedo on the street there wouldn't be a whole lot left over. But no matter where you are on the globe, this is big-league dickweed stuff. The kid's a world-class asshat.

Happy Thoughts

This whole cavalcade of reminiscence is triggered by Peter finding an old teddy bear his bio-mom put in his perambulator to keep him company while she talked about his future with her shrew-friends.

After he describes the aforementioned gray-rape incident to Tinkerbell, she responds, "I can see why you have trouble finding a happy thought. So many sad memories, Peter." Because you totally dicked me over, you son of a bitch, she continues silently.
Fortunately for Peter -- and pace Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life -- "teddy" sounds kinda like "daddy."
And lo, Peter has his happy thought, and he can fly -- which is one of the three important things, along with fighting and (for some reason) crowing, and blah blah blah.

The "happy thought" is, of course, an important, if borderline-nonsensical, theme in the movie. Peter's happy thought is Jack, his son; later, Jack's happy thought will be Peter; Peter's daughter Maggie's happy thought will be her mother Moira. Only two Lost Boys are allowed to have happy thoughts: Tootles and Thud Butt (more on him in a minute). Tootles's happy thought is somehow literally manifested in his marbles, because, as Foucault has convincingly argued, crazy people cannot be happy. When Tootles gets his marbles back at the end of the movie, he flies to Neverland, the doddering old bastard.
He's in for a rough go of it when he gets there and remembers the Lost Boys think "all grown-ups are pirates," let alone that "we kill pirates."

Also, Moira seems surprisingly placid when a senile old man starts flying.

Wishes

Happy thoughts aren't for everybody. Only for the fulfilled. The Lost Boys can't fly, and no wonder -- just look at the ridiculous shit they suggest to Peter when they're trying to coax him skyward.
Man cannot fly on gum alone.

Two disappointed characters, Tinkerbell and Rufio, have the bummer obverse of a happy thought -- both have, instead, a "wish."

Tink's wish is expressed in one of the movie's most perplexing scenes. Peter has found his mojo again -- he can fly, fight, and crow, and is a full-on, raging, rock-hard Pan. But he's also regressed emotionally: He thinks he's in Neverland "to always be a little boy and to have fun," and he doesn't remember that he has kids. Tinkerbell has to make a melancholy choice between brainwashing the man she loves into being a little boy again so he might love her back, or reminding him of what he truly wants.

And so she does the clearly wrong thing and chooses to try to seduce Peter and make him forget about his life.

The people in this movie are pretty shady.

Some monumentally cheesy special effects erupt and Tinkerbell becomes as tall as Julia Roberts for some reason. "I did it," she says. "You're humongous," says Peter.
"This is the only wish I ever wished for myself. Oh Peter, this is the biggest feeling I've ever, ever felt, this is the biggest feeling I've ever had and this is the first time I've been big enough to have it."

Did I mention Carrie Fisher was brought in to rewrite Tinkerbell's dialog?

"Peter, I want to give you a kiss." He reaches out his hand for a thimble. "No, I mean a real kiss."

Did I mention that Julia Roberts was nominated for a worst supporting actress Razzie for this performance? (She lost to Sean Young in A Kiss Before Dying. I haven't seen it, but that performance must have been something special, because Ms. Young won both the worst actress AND worst supporting actress Razzies for it.)
They kiss. Tinkerbell says, "I love you, Peter Pan."

At this point I wonder, do you think Tinkerbell breast-fed the infant Peter? Or did she feed him neverberries and roots from the neverforest?

Fortunately, at this moment of ethical crisis -- and, let's call it like we see it, fairly brazen sexual manipulation -- the ol' word-association trick kicks in again, and when Peter asks Tink to kiss him "more," it makes him think of "Moira," which is the name of his wife. It's a good thing she wasn't named like Agatha or Isabel or something -- the movie's second moment of soft adultery could have turned pretty explicit. This is, after all, one of Julia Roberts's best-looking movies.

The second disappointed character, Rufio -- the interim leader of the Lost Boys in Peter's absence -- conspicuously doesn't have a happy thought. He's got authority -- "Ru-fi-oooooo!" -- but he seems insecure. He growls, "I've got Pan's sword. I'm the Pan now!" But, in the justly famous dozens/food fight scene ("Bangarang!"), Peter reminds Rufio that he's "a one-celled critter with no brain that can't fly," and that he's "suffering from Peter Pan envy."

The two trade insults (including two of my favorite from Robin Williams: "prison barber" and "nearsighted gynecologist"), and then move on to imagining delicious frostings into existence and hurling them at each other.
No homo.
No homo.
No homo.
No homo.
No homo.
Even Tink gets hit with some splashback.
By the end, it looks like Chan-Wook Park tried to direct a grindhouse bukkake flick and it went horribly, horribly wrong.

Peter wins, of course, and in vanquishing his rival he also becomes a fairly clear father-figure to Rufio as the film progresses -- both in the sense that Peter gives him someone to look up to, and in the sense that Rufio is continually placed in conspicuous proximity to Peter's crotch.
I mean, if the story doesn't make it fairly explicit, the camera angles do a pretty good job.
"You are the Pan," Rufio says.
But Peter isn't satisfied until he has totally humiliated the pretender. Even though Rufio has just abdicated his station of his own volition, Peter still feels the need to draw a literal line in the sand, forcing the Lost Boys to desert Rufio and join Pan's side, even though it's strictly pro-forma.
Also, I don't know if you picked up on this, but the sword is, like, some kind of symbol for a dick or something.

So anyway, Rufio's wish is expressed in the wake of the scene that broke ten-thousand hearts -- "looky, looky, I got Hooky."
Dying in the arms of the man who usurped him, disrespected him, forced all his friends and allies to betray him, and didn't save him because he was busy saving someone else, Rufio says, "Do you know what I wish?"
"I wish I had a dad..."
"...like you."

Captain Jack

Rufio, we must remember, is an orphan with no history, and therefore a sacrificial lamb whose only role is to make young Jack, Peter's son, realize what an ungrateful little prat he has been to his father.
Even though, let's not forget, his dad's kind of a cocksucker.

Though God knows I haven't got the energy to tease out the Oedipal threads of this thing, at the beginning of the movie, Peter misses Jack's baseball game. So the son wishes the father dead.
"Where's my parachute?"

Then, when Peter remembers his happy thought he says, "I know why I grew up. I wanted to be a father." So it's an old, evo-bio inflected story, really. Boy wants to be boy in perpetuity; boy meets girl; boy realizes girl is exemplary candidate to bear seed forth into the world; boy feels irresistible caveman urge to possess girl as sexual object by any means necessary; boy renounces bid for immortality to spawn son who resents him; boy-as-father shames son for resenting him, even though the resentment is well-founded and justified.

Thud Butt

The only other Lost Boy with a happy thought is the aforementioned Thud Butt.
I'm serious. That's his name. You can tell because it's inexplicably embossed on a wheel of cheese.
Thud Butt is the kid Peter implausibly leaves in charge when he leaves Neverland at the end of the movie. Thud Butt's happy thought is his mother.

It's a mean-spirited touch -- only characters with "happy thoughts" can fly, and in nearly every case, "happy thoughts" are mothers, fathers, or children. Tootles can fly, in spite of the fact that he's a Lost Boy -- but his happy thoughts are marbles, god knows why. Thud Butt can't fly (yet), but he's got the Pan's sword and a nuclear family-based happy thought, and that seems to be all you need. The movie actually has this weirdly sinister anti-orphan undercurrent -- it seems to say that unless you're connected to the world by lineage and legacy, you're adrift, cut off from happy thoughts that empower you not only to make magic, but to lead men. Rufio was a tragic accident, and order was restored when he was relegated.

However, Thud Butt seems by all accounts ill-equipped to fill the role that Pan and Rufio held in Neverland. He's fat and unathletic. In battle, the Lost Boys display their characteristic whimsy by shooting pirates with guns full of eggs and paint and marbles that trip them. They also stab the pirates to death with swords. It's a pretty heavy-duty contrast. Thud Butt, on the other hand, is effete and weirdly feminine -- he rolls down gangplanks and bowls people out of the way, and stomps on boards so they hit guys in the nuts. He's not a stabber. No one seems to respect him or take him particularly seriously. When Peter leaves him in charge, he even hits him with a fat joke: "I want you to take care of everyone smaller than you."
Yet, on the merit of this one happy thought of a time long past, he's given responsibility and sovereignty over the whole tribe of boys.

The Hook Appendix

Plenty could be said about Captain James Hook, but I'll limit myself to my two favorite bits.

First, his attempt at suicide. "I hate living in this flawed body... I've just had a sublime vision. All the jagged parts of my life have come together to form a complete and mystical whole. An epiphany... My life is over."
"I want to die."

The second bit includes my favorite line and my favorite sight-gag in the movie. The Lost Boys are having a game to "steal Hook's hook as fast as you can. It'll make you proud. Then you'll crow like Pan." Hook is sitting in the bleachers, waiting for his pirates to indulge master Jack in a game of baseball.

He says, "Confound it, Druscilla, glove me! The game's about to start."

Gets me every time.

The Shadow Addendum

Early in the film, Peter is haunted by the literal shadows of two things Captain Hook reminds him of in the final fight scene. He says, "You know you're not really Peter Pan, don't you? This is only a dream. When you wake up, you'll just be Peter Banning -- a cold, selfish man who drinks too much, is obsessed with success, and runs and hides from his wife and children."
His son.
Booze.

The Weaver Affidavit

Is it just me, or does this kid look like Sigourney Weaver if she was really, really sick?

Love Disinterest

Soon after he gets to Neverland, Peter falls into the water with his hands bound. Tinkerbell screams after him, terrified that he's going to drown. He's saved by some mermaids, who make out with him, presumably thereby blowing air into his lungs. The first of the movie's soft marital infidelities.
Peter is taken back to shore, and he bumbles his way through Neverland for a few seconds until he steps on a trap and is hoisted up to Tinkerbell's house. Now, in the time it takes all this to happen -- about a minute, which the movie portrays as if it were real-time -- Tinkerbell has already flown from the pirate ship back to her little clock-house...

...and fallen asleep.
Sure, she wakes up and she whoops and hollers and seems pleased that Peter's alive. But I mean... come on, girl, damn. You're his mom and his mistress. The least you could do is grieve for a little while.