When I was building #dwitd, I decided to build a companion piece based on the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom—because those are the two texts I’m juxtaposing in my (still unwritten) essay.¹ (There’s a link to this new thing below.)
The core of Sade’s work is a list of 600 “passions”—his term for transgressive sexual activity—four lists of 150 passions each, ranged under the headings “simple,” “complex,” “criminal,” and “murderous.” The first list is presented as a series of stories, but the circumstances of composition² prevented him from embedding the subsequent lists in a narrative—so they’re just lists, which makes them easy to browse (though the content sometimes makes them difficult to browse).
There’s a significant amount of narrative that sets up the relating of the 600 passions—settings set; characters introduced; rules, regulations, timetables, and punishments pronounced—but the bit that is significant to this project is the following explanation of ‘libertine refinement,’ which occurs almost immediately before the commencement of the main action:
“As for the diversity, it is authentic, you may be sure of it; study closely that passion which to your first consideration seems to perfectly resemble another, and you will see that a difference does exist and that, however slight it may be, it possesses precisely that refinement, that touch which distinguishes and characterizes the kind of libertinage wherewith we are here involved.”
So, tiny differences are the source of great pleasure—at least for more advanced libertines. This is, in my reading, the guiding principle of The 120 Days, the thing that dictates the logic of the lists. Maybe you already see why it doesn’t work, but for me, it took this entry, number 40 on the list of criminal passions:
“He fucks a goat in the nostrils which meanwhile is licking his balls; and during this exercise, he is alternately flogged and has his asshole licked.”
The first time I read this, I thought—well, which nostril? Does he pick one, or go back and forth? If he alternates, which nostril does he start with? What if the goat chews on his balls instead, or screams? Is the goat male or female? What color is it? What breed is it? And as far as the bit after the semicolon, well…
Let’s do a little math: there are four choices with regard to nostril, two with regard to the sex of the goat, and three actions (that I’ve listed) for the goat: 4 * 3 * 2 = 24 variations on this one entry. If we take into account the breed and coloration of the goat, other things the goat might be doing, and the dozens of possibilities for things happening to the man “during this exercise,” there are tens of thousands of variations.
Tens of thousands of variations on a single “passion,” and each one—according to the logic of the text—”possesses precisely that refinement” that produces pleasure for those advanced in libertinage. But Sade’s text collapses this profusion of passions into a single entry, and moves briskly on.
I built “he [blanks] a goat in the nostrils” (#hbgn) to illustrate the impossibility of Sade’s project—or, if not “impossibility,” at least the irresolvable tension between the text’s guiding principle and its rigid division and enumeration of libertine passions. I wanted to show both the huge amounts of variation possible within a particular format, and how boring those variations actually are—despite the appalling violence and unbelievable amounts of coprophagia, The 120 Days is relentlessly monotonous.
I wasn’t sure how to show that, though, until I found this macro for producing cycling links. The game (after a content warning) is just one screen, initially containing the text “he fucks a goat in the nostrils while it licks his balls while he is flogged” [noun, verb, noun, prepositional phrase, noun, conjunction, noun, verb, possessive pronoun, noun, conjunction, pronoun, verb phrase]. Thirteen moving parts, as it were—some with only a few choices, and some with many—out of which innumerable variations³ on a particular grammatical construction of a particular sex act can be constructed.
It is, I hope, both transgressive and boring, with occasional moments of genuine surprise:
2. Sade wrote the 120 Days while imprisoned in the Bastille, over the course of about five weeks, in a tiny script on a twelve-meter scroll of paper. It was lost when the Bastille was stormed—Sade had been transferred out about ten days beforehand—and though it was later recovered unharmed, Sade never saw it again, and never attempted to reconstruct it.
3. Well, not really “innumerable”: if I’ve done the math right, there are just under 76 billion grammatically-correct combinations. That number grows to 303 (and a half) billion if we ignore pronoun agreement rules, and 26 (and a half) trillion (American trillions) combinations if we ignore grammatical correctness altogether. This last number is what #hbgn is actually capable of producing, which is astounding.
I’m a bit late on this—like, two months late—which means you’ve almost certainly seen this video by now:
It’s hard to take seriously, sure—it’s got a weird “expensive production values on a shoestring budget” aesthetic, and the final seconds are ridiculous (but, to be fair, it’s impossible to make “FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY” sexy, no matter how many flames you put behind it). And, of course, it was widely mocked as soon as it hit the internet, mostly for blatantly ripping off The Hunger Games (or the trailers, anyway) while simultaneously completely inverting the franchise’s ideology (or so the criticisms go: I’ve neither seen nor read The Hunger Games series, and have no idea what sort of political statements it makes).
The point I want to make—which seems (at least in my cursory reading about this … video) to have been overlooked—is that dystopian/post-apocalyptic narratives lend themselves much more readily to conservative agendas than to progressive ones.
I’m using the terms “conservative” and “progressive” fairly loosely, and—reductively, I admit—as shorthand for “change is bad” and “change is good,” respectively. But even if these definitions flatof socio-political nuance, I think they’re still sufficiently accurate to be useful. And while I tend toward the progressive end of things—”traditional” sometimes means “racist/sexist/oppressive,” and contemporary American conservative politics is based on inaccurate nostalgic fantasies about the early union—I also recognize that changes to complex systems (such as those that exist in a nation of 330 million people) often/always have unexpected/unpredictable results, which are not always positive.
Having gotten that out of the way: the dystopian/postapocalyptic narrative is, almost by definition, a conservative narrative¹—things are okay, something happens, then things are terrible. Change is bad. Were things better in The Road before the bombs fell? Of course. (Ditto for basically every narrative with nuclear explosions.) Were things better before Ingsoc? Yes. Did things get worse after Skynet became self-aware? Obviously! (Well, except for the robots. Ditto for the machines in The Matrix.) How about Independence Day? Sure, Bill Pullman and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum saved humanity from the aliens, but only after the destruction of ‘every major city’ and the loss of countless human lives. (Roland Emmerich also destroys the world in The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, neither of which I’ve seen, so I can’t make accurate jokes about them.) Are zombies ever good news, or outbreaks of virulent and fatal diseases? No (unless, again, you’re a zombie or a virus).
Back to the video: what is it trying to sell us? Ostensibly, anyway, it’s trying to sell us “fiscal responsibility, Constitutionally-limited government, [and] free markets” (in all-caps, no less). I’m going to ignore those, because they aren’t what we’re supposed to take away—they seem like a complete non sequitur, in fact. The video is trying to sell us revolution—a repeat of the Revolution, which (even though the video shows nothing more violent than people glowering at each other) has violent, bloody connotations. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, after all.
What happens after a revolution? After the execution of Charles I, Cromwell established a military
dictatorship protectorate; the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Haitian Revolution under Dessalines—all resulted in dictatorships of varying duration. The American Revolution is different only in that it resulted in an oligarchy (which persists to this day) rather than rule by .
The “people” certainly participate in revolutions, but they don’t organize them: cabals and juntas and provincial gentry organize them for the purpose of acquiring more power. A revolution results—in the short term, at least—in the transfer of power from elite to elite, and not in the dissemination of power from the elite to the people. That is: the people have, on the whole, no more liberty after a revolution than before, though they may have exchanged some liberties for others.
But, ironically, the Tea Party Patriots (like other ‘revolutionaries’ before them) are couching this movement in terms of greater individual liberty. “Limited government” is good, and (at least for libertarians) “limitedness” and “goodness” are inversely proportionate, so that almost no government is best (no government is anarchy, for fuck’s sake, and we can’t have that). Right? And with small government comes greater individual liberty—which reminds me, irresistibly, of the Hobbesian state of nature, in which individual liberty is completely unrestrained (nevermind that life is nasty, brutish, and short, and a war of all against all). So: governmental power should be consolidated (but not diminished), and individual liberty should be expanded, so we can all be assholes to one another. Cool.
I was going to write about The Walking Dead (the comic)—all those patriarchal, dictatorial tribes (Rick’s included) trying to make a “new life” in the brave new world of the undead—but I don’t think I can right now. The more I’ve tried to make sense of that video, the less sense it makes to me—maybe it doesn’t make any sense?—and I think I’ve already made the point I want to make … which is just that the dystopian tone is actually sort of generically appropriate. That’s all.
I finally read Zone One last week—that is, during my first week with a broken collarbone, while I was regularly ingesting hydrocodone and chasing it with effect-enhancing bourbon. So that may have affected my reading experience a bit (ditto the writing of this post).
It’s a bit of a slow burn, Zone One—it opens with the protagonist, Mark Spitz, reminiscing (or the narrator reminiscing for him): “He always wanted to live in New York. His Uncle Lloyd lived downtown on Lafayette, and in the long stretches between visits he daydreamed about living in his apartment.” And Uncle Lloyd’s (always “Uncle Lloyd,” just like it’s always “Mark Spitz”—a nickname, and the only name we’re given)—Uncle Lloyd’s apartment is a recurring motif, an anchor or beacon of sorts for Mark Spitz, though it never quite worked for me (maybe because I have no desire to live in NYC).
The apartment is outside Zone One, the section of lower Manhattan that’s been walled off and cleared of “skels”—the active zombies of the novel. Mark Spitz is part of a three-person civilian sweeper team, tasked with clearing the buildings inside the zone of “stragglers”—zombies who don’t move and don’t respond to external stimuli (until, at the novel’s climax, one does, and the sudden surge in skels suggests that the stragglers have all stopped straggling). It’s a boring job, as there aren’t that many stragglers, and they don’t present a threat—and the rapidity with which the return of “normal civilization” produces monotony and complacency (which prove to be disastrously fatal) is one of the novel’s primary themes.
And so the novel itself is, occasionally, boring—or so I found it.
The action, such as it is, covers three days, but the mostly mundane events of the weekend in question are interwoven with, or supplemented by, or the occasion for, forays into Mark Spitz’s memories, his past (there’s a bit-too-clever recurrent pun on “past”—the survivors all suffer from “post-apocalyptic stress disorder,” PASD, “past”). Whitehead does this well: bits of Mark Spitz’s past surface according to the logic of trauma, which is compelling but inscrutable.
It’s also disorienting: shifts in time are not always clearly marked, and there are several times when returns to the present involve the reader (and sometimes Mark Spitz) missing something important—the narrative equivalent of a pronoun with no antecedent, or an antecedent that’s supplied a dozen pages later. The Lieutenant’s suicide is the most egregious example (although, again, the effect is a good one) (also, again: some of this might have been the chemicals in my system).
Whitehead writes some wonderful sentences—if I’d had the use of both hands, I would’ve tweeted a dozen of them—but there are moments when the narrative as a whole seems less important than the individual sentences that it’s composed of, moments when Whitehead seems to be self-consciously drawing attention to the artistry/artifice of a particular turn of phrase (something I’m also guilty of, of course). These moments of rococo prose are, thankfully, few, and it is of course a matter of taste.
I really enjoyed the novel—it was both fun (mostly) and thought-provoking. It’s one of the very few zombie narratives that I’d call “realistic” (well, as realistic as zombies can be); 28 Days Later is the only other I can think of at the moment, and their realisms are of different sorts. Part of what makes Zone One realistic are the mechanics of the “plague”—the dead don’t rise, one only becomes a skel when bitten, and skels seem to wither (“winnow” is a word Whitehead frequently uses) and even ‘die’ with prolonged lack of food (although they still have unnaturally powerful hands and jaws, though we only see them in action a few times).
Most of the novel’s realism, though, comes from the aforementioned “monotony and complacency” which are concomitant with the return of bureaucracy (a wartime government established in Buffalo) and that bureaucracy’s attempts to restore “normalcy”—an attempt which, at the novel’s end, fails spectacularly, because the world is a fundamentally different place after Last Night:
Why they’d tried to fix this island in the first place he did not see now. Best to let the broken glass be broken glass, let it splinter into smaller and smaller pieces and dust and scatter. Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but new places for things. This was where they were now. The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in the new place. They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before.
The survivors—or all of them except Mark Spitz—have deluded themselves into thinking that “things can go back to how the used to be” (as they do in World War Z), and therefore they all die—or they might as well all die, because Mark Spitz is alone at the novel’s end. The (un)dead have reclaimed Zone One, they’ve overrun the various outposts of the new civilization, Buffalo itself has probably fallen—and Mark Spitz, alone in a fortune-teller’s shop on Gold Street, not only recognizes the new world, but is perfectly adapted to it.
The ending is of the sort that used to irk me—to really piss me off—but that I have come to appreciate more and more: an ending that stops, but does not resolve:
“Fuck it, he thought. You have to learn how to swim sometime. He opened the door and walked into the sea of the dead.”
In which I continue this post.
“You are what you eat”—a common enough phrase, and one to which every nine-year-old ever has snarkily responded, “Oh yeah? So I’m a(n) [whatever junk food is to hand]?”
A digression: Michael Pollan (apparently) amended it: “You are what you eat eats.” And as my father says: “It is the fate of all living organisms to become food for other living organisms.”
A further digression: I can’t find any information on the origin of this phrase—none of the dictionaries of phrases/idioms/clichés in the campus library had an entry for it. The internet at large wants to attribute it to Brillat-Savarin, who, in his 1825 The Physiology of Taste, wrote (in French): “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” That’s not the same thing at all, though it’s possible this aphorism is behind the cliché under consideration. This website cites one Dr. Victor Lindlahr as the person responsible for the stubbornly literal version of the phrase.¹
“You are what you eat.” Except, of course, we’re not: we are human, and humans are the one thing we don’t eat.
This is going to be a post full of digressions: other humans aren’t the only thing we don’t eat, of course. Even if we limit ourselves to “living organisms,” there are plenty of things we don’t eat—depending on who that “we” includes, of course. There are plenty of things white middle-class Americans don’t eat that are edible elsewhere—bugs, various organs, rodents, probably some plants too but those aren’t as gross, you get the idea.
And, of course, cannibalism happens: as a cultural practice, in extreme situations, and as—for want of a better word—an aberration.
What I’m after is this: if I ate a bowl of live cockroaches, most people who are culturally similar to me would find it—the act of eating the roaches—disgusting, and—depending on why I ate the roaches—some portion of that disgustingness would attach itself to me. The dude who eats roaches is a gross dude. However: a person who eats roaches is still human. A person who eats other humans ceases, I’m arguing, to be human.
I don’t know why that’s the case. I feel pretty certain that it is the case: see, for example, the word “subhuman” in the first sentence of the above-linked HuffPo article. Also: google “recent cannibal attacks” and scroll through a half-dozen pages of results: along with words like “horrific” and “terrifying” and “flesh eater,” you will probably notice how often the word “zombie” occurs (you may also notice that the CDC weighed in on the question).
Zombies are, of course, not human.² And the contemporary conflation of cannibals and zombies strongly suggests that cannibals—at least, those cannibals of the “aberrant” type—have, in the act of eating human flesh—lost or given up their humanity. Whether that loss is temporary or permanent, I don’t know. I do know that at least one (fictional) cannibal—Crusoe’s man Friday—was rehabilitated and “humanized” (and it’s probably significant that, in the second novel of the trilogy, Friday was killed during a sea battle with a host of cannibals).
But if zombies and cannibals are not human, they’re also not not human—which is a subject for another post.
1 This website seems legit enough, though I remain somewhat skeptical—I’d really like to see the 1923 ad, for instance. I’m also a bit disappointed by the scant attention paid to this phrase: it was in none of the dead-tree phrase dictionaries in the campus library (and I looked in at least a dozen).
2 That “of course” should bother you—because I haven’t actually demonstrated yet that zombies aren’t human. And I might not—maybe I’ll just assert it, and hope it sticks.
Let’s begin this post with an exercise. Take a moment, and try to bite a chunk out of your forearm. I’ll wait.
I’m going to guess that you couldn’t do it—if you actually tried, that is. I certainly couldn’t (and, for the record, I’ve tried on more than one occasion). But it’s a certain kind of couldn’t: what we might loosely call a psychological or instinctive couldn’t—our lizard brains prevent us.
I’m after a different kind of couldn’t: I’m curious whether or not it is physically, physiologically possible for a human being—say, a thirty-year-old male with reasonably well-preserved teeth—to bite into and tear a chunk off of another living human being’s limbs or torso. The biting-my-own-arm experiment is really unhelpful in answering this question: sure, I coud bite my arm harder than I’m willing to bite it, but I have no way of judging if that extra force would be sufficient to puncture and tear human skin and muscle.
Why am I interested in this question, you might be wondering? Zombies, that’s why.
I’m currently working on a paper—and by “working on” I mean “I wrote and submitted an abstract to a conference and I’m not writing anything else until I hear if it was accepted”—…a paper about the connection between zombies and late-early-modern (1650-1800) European representations of cannibals. One of the things I’m interested in is tracing a genealogical path between the two—someday maybe I’ll write a post about that. Right now, I’m interested in teeth:
Gnarly-ass zombie teeth. They don’t look capable of chewing on a raw steak, which I’m guessing—but only guessing—is easier than chewing on tasty (again: guessing) human flesh. The point is that her teeth are prominent—like, say, this dude’s teeth:
Pointy damn teeth, and the defining feature of the photograph. Without the filed teeth, the photograph is something else, something less memorable: the teeth make the man.
I’m not sure I have a point yet, except to point out that teeth are perhaps the defining feature of both cannibals and zombies. The defining action of both is, of course, that they eat people; and, certainly, other physical features are more prominent—zombies are more or less decayed, cannibals are “black” (in the sense that they aren’t “white”). Both of those markers are external, on the skin, difficult if not impossible to conceal—but the teeth can be hidden until the moment of biting.
There’s something to that: think of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring (the film) when Bilbo, old and decrepit, sees the Ring in Frodo’s possession and suddenly lunges at him—no, don’t think about it, watch it: scary teeth! I’m sure I could find examples in, I don’t know, Alien or any adaptation of Dracula ever made. The teeth are revealed at the moment when the threat is revealed as a threat: or, rather, the revelation of scary (read “pointy”) teeth is what reveals the bearer of the pointy teeth as a threat—one that is about to attempt to eat whoever it is that’s just seen those scary teeth.
Hopefully my abstract will be accepted, and I’ll have an excuse to keeping fleshing this out—and we can all ponder together whether or not human teeth are capable of what zombie teeth do, and why that might be important.
I just finished Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder—published sporadically between 2005 and 2008, on indefinite hiatus after 10 issues, incomplete in several senses of the word.
No, I’m not: I didn’t enjoy reading it. It was offensively sexist, even (or especially) when it was pretending not to be. The dialogue was often ludicrous. The plot was disjointed and uncompelling—though part of this is probably a function that in ends in medias res (more on this in a bit). The villain, the person responsible for the murder of Dick Grayson’s parents in the first pages of the first issue—the Joker, who else?—doesn’t appear until the final page of issue seven (and then only as a full-page joker card), and then is only given a brief and fucking boring scene which opens the eighth issue. Also: the goddamned Batman is a goddamned sadist, laughing gleefully while breaking bones and setting people on fire.
Not fun at all. And yet, perversely, I think it would be a lot of fun to teach—for all the reasons I just said it was no fun to read.
I revisited Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead back in February, and I realized that while it’s bad, it’s bad in interesting and instructive ways. So is All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (also it has a stupid title). I’m teaching Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the fall, and I’m tempted to add ASBAR to the syllabus—Miller has stated that both take place in the same universe (along with The Dark Knight Strikes Again and Batman: Year One)—but there’s not any room left, or I’d be tempted to add Are You My Mother? as well. And, really, teaching a class that was just Miller’s Batman (with his not-Batman thrown in for good measure) would be awesome. Sometime. Maybe after Miller and Lee finish ASBAR, which is never going to happen.
Anyway—why would ASBAR be so fun to teach?
One example: the Joker appears so late—and is such a shallow, uninteresting, carelessly written—because he’s superfluous: this Batman takes up all the room for senseless violence. This is Batman as the villain who thinks he’s the hero, or who just doesn’t give a fuck about the distinction. He’s his own enemy, and he’s really hard to like. He’s an anti-hero, or something. He’s a character ripe for armchair psychoanalysis.
A second example: this series clearly illustrates how ridiculous it is for Batman to exist in a world populated with “real” superheroes—like Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern, who all make appearances, and all look like idiots. And, interestingly, the incipient Justice League is vehemently anti-Batman: Superman wants to hand him over to the “authorities,” and Wonder Woman (“Diana”) wants to put him down, like a rabid dog (and that’s a direct quote). (It doesn’t help that he kidnaps Dick Grayson—the first Robin—moments after the boy’s parents are murdered.)
A last example: the series stopped after ten issues, with basically every plot arc unresolved. (Why did the Joker want Dick’s parents murdered? What’s going on with the unnamed Black Canary? What will happen to Batgirl? What about Catwoman? And, seriously, what does Barbara Gordon’s alcoholism add to the story?) The first nine issues were collected into a single volume: All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, Volume One—a collection that ends with Batman and Robin crying together at Robin’s parents’ graves. It’s not an ending, exactly, but it does provide some sense of resolution. Issue ten fucks that up completely—and saving that issue (withholding even the fact of that issue’s existence) until after the students had read and discussed Volume One could be a really interesting exercise.
I have no idea when, or if, I’ll get to teach this class—but it’s totally going in my file.
There are a lot of asinine proverbs out there, and “Live every day as if it were your last” is one of them. It can’t be done. You know why? This is why:
Damn, Bill Murray.
Of course, the Book doesn’t want me to live every day like I’m going to be dead tomorrow—just one. It even provides me a handy hypothetical scenario—a meteorite is about to obliterate the planet, and only I know!—so that I’m healthy and there are no consequences, for me or anyone else. I’m Phil Connors for a day, I guess.
What would I do with a day like that? Have a ridiculous breakfast, yes—but I’d be drinking champagne from the bottle, and not coffee from the carafe. I’d be drinking all day, in fact. I’d play with my kids, I’d take my wife on a date (for lunch, before I got too drunk), I’d ignore the stacks of work that I’m mostly ignoring anyway. I might pick a fight with my asshole neighbor. No, no, I wouldn’t do that: I’d just burn his house down. No consequences, right?
Living a “last day” that’s radically different from all your other days seems, I don’t know, wrong somehow? I mean, I wouldn’t go to work if I knew I was going to be dead in twenty-four hours—but I also wouldn’t walk through a parking lot smashing car windows, or hire a van-ful of prostitutes, or gorge myself on french fries and doughnuts and cupcakes. I wouldn’t do any of those things anyway: why would I do them just because I was going to be dead soon?
Because my life is sad and miserable, and I need the extraordinary circumstance of my impending death to enable me to do what I’ve secretly desired to do all my life, the things that will finally make me happy, finally make my life worth living, when it’s finally too late——that, at least, is what the Book assumes. Stupid fucking book.