In every story, there must be a narrator. That narrator may be a main character, like the ingenue protagonist, or a peripheral character who accidentally spits out the blunt and concealed obvious truth. Someone must tell the story, and that will be the loneliest person in it.
My story started out quite differently. It is not really important now, since unlike an angsty teenage girl scribbling in a diary or a hack blasting out his latest postmodern short story, I am certain that no one will read it, at least no one human.
Consciousness for me began in the middle of things, at least as far as I can tell through memory, when I was somewhere near halfway through my first decade. Before that, my unformed mind resembles only cloudy sensations and perceptions, like reading a phrase from an abstract and not getting the whole thesis.
From my humble middle class origins in a mid-size city, I ventured into the world, unexceptional in every way except in ability, since I seemed to score higher than others on tests and, with a little work, found I could repeat the process day-in, day-out.
This got me into one of the highest-ranked schools in my nation, at which point I found myself in high demand. The previous two decades of education had served merely as a winnowing process, separating those with ability and dedication from all the other equals, and now I was in the circle of winners.
Should I go with the international law firm? Or the management consulting business known worldwide? Maybe I should go into medicine? At age twenty-one, I had what can be described as my first crisis in life, since for the first time, I had to make a decision.
Growing up in the small brick house with a grey roof, algae climbing the pinkish stone from where it met the muddy earth whose fine suburban lawn never really prospered, I saw the world as a series of yes/no choices.
For example, I could take two streets to the bookstore, one faster but more dangerous, and the other safer but longer and thus a slower route. I could buy a comic book that week, or save the money. I could succeed on a test by working toward it, or not.
As I saw it, life offered me options, and I could say “yes” or “no” to each one, with the only caveat being that saying “yes” to some meant saying “no” to others. I could save the money and not buy the latest Gorgon Invaders comic, but then I would never experience that sweet moment of excitement at having something new fresh from the store when it was most relevant, most poignant as an experience in the building of a life that I could look back on as an elderly man and reflect that yes, I made the most of it all.
This came up in discussion with my academic advisor, himself an elderly man, which was comforting to me because men fight and thus the men who survive to old age know how to fight well or how to escape cleanly, and both of those are essential. Jac came from somewhere in central Europe, had ancestors from both royalty and gypsies, spoke a dozen languages, and had been in more scrapes that anyone knew how to count. Some said he even owed the school money for bailing him out of a foreign prison.
Over tea — his with added whisky, since he claimed an Irish grandfather — I told him of my problem. I had no idea what to do with my life. On the surface, the problem could be simple in two ways, he told me. I could choose what was economically rewarding, like being a corporate lawyer, or what was personally more rewarding, like being a forest ranger.
“But this, this introduces us to something else,” he said. “I remember it well from one of my instructors back in Bohemia: das schicht, or the layer. Most people think in terms of exceptions, like ‘all skies are blue’ with the exceptions for rain and so one. But the layer theory says that all logic is constructed of variations to archetypes, and these are the layers. You will know them because there will be a ‘but’ in the logical chain after an assertion. ‘All skies are blue but sometimes they are grey when it rains or there is a nuclear apocalypse.”
He drank some tea and went on. “This means that for any decision, you have to look at where it leads and how that contradicts it. You want the money, but when you have the money, what will you want then? Or you want the personally rewarding job” — he spun this out to approximate the hasty diction of a young American — “but then what?” I had to admit that I had no idea. I liked science, played video games, enjoyed money, and had been spending some time in the company of a young woman named Annelise. Beyond that, the world was a stilled lake, a flat surface expanding in all directions without landmarks.
Tea grew cold in the lengthening afternoon. I was no closer to an answer. “The layer,” Jac said finally. “All things come back to the root. If you do not know what you want, you have no way to make the decision. Once you decide what you want, you have to look for the ‘but,’ because it is there. That will lead to other ‘buts,’ possibly a whole chain, and at the end will be your answer.”
Fortunately my walk home from the university took me through some of the wealthier suburbs of the city, the last stop before being actually rich but still, far removed from the struggles and worries that most endure, although it seems to bother them little because, as questions beyond their control, these are simply things to be reacted to, not planned for. The upper-middle city burbs showed a great deal of planning for, since these places radiated full retirement accounts, wealth management funds, comprehensive insurance policies, prenuptial agreements, and rented timeshare condominiums. Was this my future? It was hard to tell.
That night I went out to a Bohemian party for our section of the campus, drank too much, and ended up in a squat made from the remnants of a downtown bank. We burned broken-up sections of conference room chairs and smoked rooftop sativa from a bong made from an old coffee machine. When I awoke in the morning, the routine picked up at double the pace from what it must have in the wealthy neighborhood, scrambling to hide traces of our existence and scrabble for food, water, and cigarettes. I walked home in greater confusion.
This began a period of great uncertainty in my life. My dormitory, like my meals, were paid for as part of a mesh of loans, grants, and saved-up money inherited from a grandfather, so for the most part, my life was simple in the way that adults look back on childhood and say, “It was a simpler time.” Go to class, do the work, take the tests, and avoid dying or getting arrested; this summarized the total agenda. I stopped doing anything else, spending my spare time in the biology lab or in a chair at the library, staring into space and wondering what depth life might have for it.
It was in this state one night, lying on the bed in my dormitory waiting for an appropriate hour to fall asleep, that I received a phone call. Annelise was working late at the museum for her internship and her normal work-partners had all gone home; could I walk her back from the city center to our little academic enclave? I dressed as mechanically as I had done everything for the past few weeks, then jogged into the downtown. The security guard let me in and gestured that I stay in one of the chairs by the front desk, but as soon as he wandered off in search of Annelise, I began walking among the exhibits.
This was more reflex than anything else, because I had never cared for art, thought poetry was for homosexuals, and believed that most authors were simply mincing wimp-men who had no other uses in life besides alcoholism. Among the sixteenth-century art, however, I encountered one of Jac’s “buts.” This art was entirely irrelevant to me or the question of my life, but I felt comfortable around it, these products of thousands of hours of labor and hundreds of years of protection and adoration by people who found them attractive. Standing by a painting of Our Lady, my body began to tremble and my eyes misted. I knew what whatever I wanted in life, there would be a “but” at the end, and this moment would be there. I blinked hard when Annelise rounded the corner, smiled like the good robot I wanted to be, and walked her home with small talk.
As we approached her dormitory, she said something which I will never forget. “I could stay there forever, surrounded by all of that beauty,” she said, and for the first time I really understood that combination of words. She then mentioned that the museum was having its funding cut, and that this meant that the paintings would probably go elsewhere, the crowds would dry up, and then the museum would be closed in order to make more condominiums for timeshares to rent to tourists. After all, in a once-great civilization, tourism presents the most reliable source of income. In Paris, the street signs even have Chinese translations for this reason.
Back in my dormitory, listening to one roommate snore while the other ineptly covertly masturbated, I contemplated the emptiness of infinity as balanced by the beauty I had seen. The sheen of undisturbed waters now radiated with a light, a changing play of colors like the daubs of paint on canvas, and for the first time, I saw how some patterns exceeded others. From the bunk below I heard a gagging groan followed by furious grabbing of kleenex, and rolled over to go to sleep in the now-silent room. Morning arrived without my noticing and I got up to do the usual calisthenics.
On a blackboard in a disused classroom, I began my tree hierarchy. I needed income, but I needed fulfillment; I needed fulfillment, but I needed income; ironically, what underscored both was the need for security, stability, and some belief that things would be as they were now for my lifetime and ideally, beyond. At this point, my scientist took over; I could outline that museums were beautiful, but subject to financial pressures; financial pressures reflected markets, but those showed what people in groups thought, even if it was not real. By the end of that hour, I had a long descending outline arriving at the question of power.
To spare you a few years of great interest to me and no one else, since nostalgia shows us the misery or glory of a decision reflected in the struggle needed to reach it, I got my degree in the sciences and went on to a graduate degree in political science. When Annelise told me that there was no one else and did not look down to her left, I married her and began a career in government. Using the principles of psychology I acquired in my first years of education, I made people like me and trust me to do not the right thing but the least disruptive thing, and quickly rose in my career path despite having no interest in it. Thirty years later I had quite a bit of power.
Our story resumes on a Wednesday night in one of the anonymous months between major holidays. A group has gathered at a movie theater to watch Fifty Shades of Last Tango in Paris, a film about the need to be needed, because even pain in feedback from the world tells us that we are in some way, important. Designed by my staff, this film contains enough of the licentious to be stimulating to the aimless and a curiosity to anyone else. My assistant takes her place at a loft above the screen with a laptop and a gadget that resembles a camera.
Let her explain: “The infrared camera reveals the distribution of blood throughout the face, roughly mimicking facial expressions and revealing degrees of excitation. Upper forehead intensity signals disturbance, lower facial excitation especially on the sides of the nose indicates a favorable response. The digital signal processor clears out noise and allows us to establish a vector profile showing degrees of interest. We sample three relevant scenes, and then using thresholds based on average response, determine favorable and unfavorable reactions, sorted by the facial impressions loaded into a computer.”
With a squad of Einsatzkommando regulars, she samples data during three scenes — one of an opulent room, another of a spouse cheating, and finally, the third famous BDSM-style quasi-consensual anal sex scene borrowed from the original Last Tango in Paris — and then takes up position at the front of the theater. Her machine identifies members of the smaller group, and the Einsatzgruppen lead them away where they are placed in police-style vans.
The remainder of the audience are taken into the lobby, told that an emergency is underway, and led out the back door, where they wait in line for instructions. In the meantime, I address the group in the vans over a PA system which plays in each: “During your viewing of this movie, your reactions were monitored. Based on facial excitation, you found this film either repellent or uninteresting, which suggests that you have the mental capacity to avoid solipsism, or the fetishizing of the self as a means to dominate the world. Instead, you seem to desire what is beautiful, not what is self-pitying. People like you are the only possible basis for a humanity which will not consume everything in its path. You will go free in a moment, but first, you will witness what is necessary and not beautiful.”
I lean out the window with a hand raised. In my mind, I am there in the still halls of that museum, smelling like old paper and covert tears. I see the Virgin, resplendent in the light, caught in a moment of sacrifice and belief in the beauty that it may bring. I drop my hand. My Einsatzkommanden lock their MP5s and spray the crowd lined up against the theater wall, dropping them in a heap. One woman gasps, slumped against the bloody packages of clothing and flesh, her eyes rolling upward. For a moment I see the Madonna again. Then we package up the survivors and go home.