by Alexander Blum
When he turned twenty-four, Knice Wendell finally got a job. The government opened up a wide array of positions for scholars concerned with ancient Latin and Greek, probably an attempt to keep the youth tied down in their seats before the long-anticipated A.I. takeoff, or “Night of the Crystal Soul” can replace everything they’ve ever known. To be born in this age is to believe that you will, in your lifetime, be replaced.
And I’ve never had any illusions about it. For me, it was understandable. Human beings occupied a brief but radiant ecological niche, a foothold on a tide-speckled beach now eroding. Oh well. Let the squids come to replace us, with their big heads, let them find the moral principles where Kant failed. Allow the octopi to clamor up from their holes and outdo our civilizations. I welcome the Shakespeare of the Octopus. What do I care? I’ll be dead, and I don’t plan on having children.
It wasn’t that way for Knice. Everything about this time in history, 2020 A.D., hurt him. One smarting, of course, was that his life’s work, the great Greeks, were not respected, liked, or communicated with any longer. They had disappeared just as Marvel will one day disappear, and we of the distant future will draw no line between the two inventions. Greek Pantheon, Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’re just memes, after all, just an idea of a God that went away. Apollo! And now Christ! And now, Crystal Soul! They’re already stacking up at the bottom there, you see how Christ won’t go? He’s causing a backlog.
Of course, Knice’s problems with the age he lived in weren’t just professional. He had been alone, I think, since he graduated college. Four years ago. He had left with such a smile, the ambitions he left me with that big grin of us, the calling for a truly human new renaissance, which were landed on and drooled upon by the strange birds of culture war. There was no great vision awaiting him, merely the double-checking of everything he had written online since 2012 in heated search for content that would prohibit him from getting a job.
As it turned out, and the State Department would later confirm, he had been paranoid.
Humanity, he told me, was really finished when you couldn’t even think for a living. I told him he was wrong. I told him he had hubris, and should settle down for an office job, or maybe even work for a farm. I told him that this is what life is, that no matter what pretty pictures bedazzled your interiority for the past twenty years, that they didn’t matter. That great dream you had of the execution and the unsigned waiver didn’t happen.
College gives you a nice enough deal – you get four years to think, then thinking will torture you forever after. Also, you get four years of friendship, so spend it wisely. After this, you may never organically make a friend again. I told him all this the day we graduated and he laughed in my face, said the world is not so exhumed of spirit, possibility is not a dead mistress, etc. Three years later he called me drunk out of his gourd saying he’d been living in New York City and was so completely utterly alone that each day he woke and stayed laying, missing his own train into the office and sabotaging his own hopes for promotion.
“I just can’t fucking believe it,” said Knice. “That after all I read, all I found, I have nothing. After finding so much, so damn much, I couldn’t hold any of it in me, and it was all carried away in the same places my memories of mom and dad go, ‘the eternal now.’”
Knice always called painful, nostalgic memories “The Eternal Now.” He hated Zen Buddhism, all his life, and hated mysticism structured around the fantasy of the “now.” For Knice, the now was the past. It was the accumulated mental black bag of trash, busting open, of every wrong decision that misaligned with a great idea, that made your life a thing in error. It found your parent’s love, and rebuked it, harshly, with your own demands. It found past friendships, and cut them, resurrecting the sourest moments as you wonder why they no longer respond to your texts. It’s over. That’s the message today – it’s all over. But nothing really replaces it. Rather, simply put, it is all over, and that’s for the best.
“And the nothing-new, and nothing comes,” bleated Knice over the phone, until finally I asked him:
“Why don’t you apply for one of the scholarships-in-residence at the State Department? The democratic socialists just won the election, for fuck’s sake, there’s tons of new stuff opening up.”
“Yes,” I said. “Opportunities are here, Knice, if you just stop whining about it all.”
Following the latest wave of small liberal arts college shutdowns, the fledgling financial value of the humanities was grasped only by the State Department. If private institutions could no longer educate our children, if the for-profit model wouldn’t do, then the state was the only institution which could uphold the duty. The State Department hired twenty-five scholars in Greek, twenty-five in Latin, twenty-five in Hebrew, and so on up the centuries until professorships of formerly unheard-of African dialects were toting their great untranslated literatures.
And they didn’t just hire Ivy-leaguers either, a blueblood’s pipeline to UBI. No, the State made it a point specifically to recruit “at-risk persons.” What this means is highly-educated people identified with the NEET subculture, that is, not in employment, education or training. These people, highly-intelligent and at the margins of society, were understood by serious technocrats to constitute an effective revolutionary vanguard. So, they had to be given jobs, they had to be given land on the farm to defend, a serfdom they could actually possess.
Knice was hired. I might have gone for it, too, if I knew any language other than stinking simple English. Before he knew it, the miserable Christian nihilist Knice Wendell was employed as a scribe by the state, given his own small office south of Wall Street, in a new light-streaked commercial building opened in New York near the very tip of the sea, the locus of flooding, to educate a new generation.
Wendell took to long jackets with sleeves that suspended like a sage’s, as he had always imagined himself, a regular Goethe. I visited him once in New York, after his swathes of blood-dimmed depression clotted and hardened slightly into a spongey brain-bed of new hope. He was giddy now with optimism, as he told me over the phone that a post-commercial age was coming.
“If the socialists stay apace, consumerism will really be wiped away in a generation. The state will seize all ad space on the internet, then the people will decide which ads are aired where. Isn’t it brilliant?”
I forced myself to swallow. Frankly, it sounded terrible.
“Corporate content will no longer trend, either. All memes will be pure, divined from the human mind! No corporate Wendy’s accounts on Twitter, nothing of the sort. . . .”
I almost lost my will to visit this strange new magician he had become until he informed me that I should attend a roundtable discussion on his subject. That is, Greek. The Oresteia. I didn’t know what the hell it was. Excited, I cracked it open to get an idea. At first, I couldn’t get into it. It was an epic poem, the worst format. I couldn’t even relate to novels much these days, how would I find myself in a poem?
But the opening monologue, on re-read, startled me. A lonely guard on a watchtower laments how he’s spent all his life looking at light play on the empty sea and is now at wit’s end. At last, the king Agamemnon and his great fleet appears. But that pessimism is fascinating. It feels modern, the way I read it. An existentialist in an ancient watchtower, waiting for the world to catch up to where he already was.
The lecture hall at the university was enormous, bright and lit by a gleaming sun, the flags of the US, the EU, and the United Nations all whipping in the wind outside the window. The wood of the meeting room, a round table, was so light it felt paved with cream. Knice smiled beside me, introducing me to his colleagues, three of whom were women. He said I would be sitting in as a representative of the “corporate world.” He wasn’t setting me up to be humiliated by his new friends, but I could see how the word “corporate” caught their earnest lips.
“You’re the one who compiles the propaganda?” asked a woman with lightly cropped sandy hair, thick dark glasses.
“What trends, trends,” I said simply. “People watch it, they like it, they spread it. Some like to convince themselves there’s more to it than this. But all modern culture is organic.”
A brief pause in the room. A couple chuckled.
“You see, this is the creature of ideology,” said Knice, smiling. He elicited a couple more chuckles. I was looking away at this point, imaginary, at a phone I wasn’t holding. My gaze needed an escape.
At any rate, my brief interrogation didn’t stick and the conversation rolled over to the topic at hand. In discussing Oresteia, however, it soon became oddly clear to me that I wasn’t merely listening to a random story being pulled apart. I was listening to my own story being pulled apart. It had risen to my attention, in the latter third of the book, that the poem was actually about the creation of the modern legal system, that Apollo and Athena were basically stand-ins for our Enlightenment liberals, that they offered the jury and the father’s law as the answer to mother’s cannibalism, and overturned the rule of nature for the rule of man.
I noticed it, not immediately, in the corner of my friend Knice’s mouth, this friend I had attended college with and seen much fire from. I saw his mouth mull with indigestion at what he was being fed. And now, I knew, there was no turning him back. He was about to unleash himself.
“Do you really think, at end’s point, that what we’re discussing here is little more than base political misogyny?” he asked them.
“Of course not,” replied the woman with short sandy hair. “The poetry here is more beautiful, in my view, than Shakespeare’s. The vision on display cannot be denied. But ultimately, what we are viewing is a chronicle of a son murdering his mother, and being absolved for it by the rule of the father. The mother is transformed into nobody, an unperson. Athena and Apollo, as representations of patriarchy, fight to establish the precedent in court that one’s mother is of a lesser ethical and spiritual value than one’s father. Athena even admits she is joining in this legal decision to free a murderer of women, Apollo’s devil’s pact, merely because she has never had a mother, and was born from Zeus’s skull.”
A second colleague offered her outstretched hand, dipped downward against the table in thought. “It’s a masterpiece, no doubt, but it’s also a document of the broken logic our world has operated on for two-thousand years. We’ve had enough of it. And as classicists, we are uniquely posed to disrupt its mythologies and contradictions.”
Knice Wendell focused his look down sharply. He was as a boy told his favorite toy was dull as plaster. Deflated, he played the idiot of the classics, the true chump who read them for wisdom, and swallowed them whole. He had swallowed a cocktail of inevitable feminism is what he had swallowed. Those old stories, no doubt, hate women.
“That’s not how I see it,” he said, warily. He raised his chin to face them as equals. “No doubt, these plays are misogynistic. Apollo hates mothers, that is true. And the case of Clytemnestra, of the Furies, the case against matricide, against the father’s law, bears a moral fruit not borne out by the story.” I cringed at his turn of phrase. Don’t blow this, here, Wendell.
“But I see the play wholly as a metaphor. I don’t know, I mean – from a Jungian point of view, we know what we are seeing. The slaying of the mother, for Jung, occupies a very serious metaphorical rule. It isn’t just killing one’s mother. That’s too literal . . . it’s not what it means. It’s about slaying childhood, really, it’s about killing oneself as a boy and that necessitates killing yourself as your mother’s son. No individual, no adult, can live as a fetus, as a creature in a womb, as a man-child, a baby. . . .
“Apollo’s decision to absolve Orestes of the murder of his mother wasn’t really about undermining women politically. No, that’s a misreading . . . it’s a stand-in, all a stand-in, for the freedom of the young hero to kill himself as he was in the womb, a non-creature, and attain personhood. Liberation from the womb, from the mother’s cage, to join in the realm of the fathers and the male elders and become one of them himself, a father, a man.”
“That’s interesting,” replied the feminist who had first spoken. “But you admit, then, that your interpretation is yours alone. The Oresteia was used to suppress the political power of women. It was used expressly as a political document to argue for fathers over mothers. It wasn’t about what you say, about Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey.’ It might be, in a very abstract way, exactly how you describe it, in Plato’s world of forms, in heaven without a name – but here, on Earth, the story has been part of a despicable hatred, and it helped justify that hatred early on in the history of ‘man.’ The Oresteia is really a rotten work.”
“Rotten?” asked Knice with alarm. “But you’re a scholar of Greek!”
“Right, it’s the problem with studying the past,” said the sandy-haired woman. “You have to at once learn and adapt to the language while ignoring its slights against you.”
“Women who study classics are used to the paradoxes,” offered another, with curled black hair and a nose ring that caught the mid-afternoon sunshine.
“Besides, Jung can explain to me why his whole framework is about killing the mother,” said a third, yet voiceless woman. “Why is the feminine the principle of birth and the womb? Why is the father the Word that uplifts us from sorry womb and makes us people? I’m sorry, I don’t buy it one bit. I don’t buy it for an instant.”
Knice swallowed. “Well, but it’s because of the womb.”
“Well, the womb,” he repeated. “Babies come from the womb. And unless the world is also like the womb, babies have to kill the past and the maternal mercy that supplied it. Because the world is not like the womb.”
The woman narrowed her arching brow to a slant. “Then we will make the world one continuous womb, thank you very much.”
Six other men around that table had stayed silent. As the topics were ground down under the wheels of structure, one into the next, silent they remained.
“I apologize,” said Knice, straightening his glasses. “Maybe I am wrong.”
Can a person be an apology? That’s what I wonder, more and more, as time goes on – can a living, breathing person merely be an apology? Of course, one cannot. An apology must be a corpse. It must cease to exist. It must come, and vanish. There is no use for a living apology. A surviving apology is just a reminder of scorn. It has, really, no use.
Knice Wendell wasn’t an apology. But he was getting dangerously close. The way he talked about women, the way he elevated them, how he was uncomfortable even discussing sex – a prude. And he didn’t have much sex, either, because women don’t respect a prude. In every characteristic, his was the wrong one. Perhaps he was born to be a monk. His instincts are the inverses of good ones. He’s good-looking, but he squanders it by worshipping women, and he fades into their background. He is talented, but he sees himself as an apology, so he can become nothing. Apologies don’t get what they want. No, only men do that.
Knice Wendell on the eve of his seminar was an apology, a man cloistered by his own palms against sides of his face, sitting upon a stone, dashed by the waves. A Greek temple, he was worn down. It was almost pathetic to see. But there was, believe it or not, a phase of his life when Knice Wendell was quite wanted by women. Many women. It lasted about two years, nothing more, and nothing since. How odd, how life rescinds and blesses. He’s been so alone ever since, while meanwhile I, who in all likelihood have much more to apologize for, have skated forth into a healthy sex life without much of a shudder.
Sure, it’s a hard time to be a man. Nobody ever taught you how to do much more than apologize. You stay respectful, and apologize. You stay out of the way, you apologize. You “do better.” “Be better.” Wrack with guilt. And wrack, these apologetic men, do. Knice Wendell, after going near-mad for the day I was in the city to see him, finally saw a way to disabuse himself of torments. He was to meet with a woman. One who might like him. And it was to change things, forever.
She came to him on the day I was scheduled to leave. I promised Knice I’d be soon out of his hair, as my presence was wearing thin, but he waved me down off the edge and insisted I stay for lunch. He told me that this old friend of his might be comforted by a third person being there. In truth, I knew the comfort would be all his, that he was scared to talk to people, most of all without a crutch, without a reference, whether it be liquor or me, he needed some context to talk to a person, otherwise his eyes would just break and linger low and a silence would set in and he’d never know next what to say.
She was a slight girl, blond and long-haired, a future Catholic’s wife. There was a littleness, a smallness, a fragility on her whole frame, attached to her body, hovering above her shoulders like a ghost. She had one of those black Russian hats on, the fold-up ones, and she smiled and hugged Knice and shook my hand and settled into the seat at the little table in Knice’s state-run apartment, handed to him along with his job, with warm curry in the microwave.
Her name was Alessia, she had come from Vermont, she knew Knice since back from Catholic School, a fact he smiled and looked away from as she said it – and she was in the city today for a job interview. It would be in a few hours, at a law firm, and Knice excitedly told her she’d get it, before offering her coffee, her turning it down, and he, blurting out afterward “sorry.”
He informed her we were just about to eat, another mistiming, and she said she didn’t mind. He thought – I know he thought – about offering her some curry on this Sunday afternoon, but that he didn’t, because he couldn’t bear to accidentally say “sorry” one more time after she said no.
“You know what, screw the curry,” he said, showing his teeth with a smile. “I live on words alone.”
“What?” asked Alessia.
“You know, I’ve been thinking, let’s assume that I loved you. Let’s assume that I loved you because all great literature and all great ideas are about love. If I loved you, Alessia, really really loved you, what would I say? What could I possibly tell you to make you believe it?”
I clenched my teeth. I didn’t move to get my curry. I was ready to feel humiliation for this man, my friend, who was now offering himself up on Prometheus’ rock.
“It would have to be something personal,” said Alessia, thumb on her lip. “It would have to be a speech that was really specific, that I could say was truthfully me.”
“Then love is impossible!” shouted Knice. “Because all people, really, are beautiful in their universal qualities. As people, as individuals, what really are they? A collection of media, shared references? A collage of Twitter memes? A big board of pins and elastic bands connecting them to their loved ones? No, that’s not who anyone is. A person is a broad thing. A person is an ideal. A self, a coherent, honest-to-God self – a person who is whole – that is a broad idea! Not a lived fact!”
Alessia let loose a little laugh. “Oh, you’re always so entertaining, Knice! But I don’t know, that seems very wrong. More of a projection on your part. People are people. Not just what they consume.”
“Sure, I could reference some thing shared between us seven years ago that only I remember, how that white daisy plucked in the upstate wind made me feel I could write verse, but that would only prove that I happened to be around you during that time of your life, when you were in Syracuse. It shows nothing about me, or you. I could have been born in Yukon, Alaska, or New Delhi, India. Anyone I meet along the way – what would I really love? There are too many people, too many of you to begin with. Love is a far broader thing than I could ever base on you alone. Hell, I’m thinking about you, Alessia, like I always think about you. Vaguely hoping we’ll get married, even though we never really talk. Fantasies, fantastic stories, about the call that will never come, you wanting to be with me, you wanting to love me, you wanting to be with me. And why? Why you? Because I know you! Because I want to love you, because I know you. Is that not enough? Isn’t that enough, for me to know you, and to love you? What more can there be? Because as far as specific people go, I’m a broad sketch. I’m really not much. Because no one is. Because if we had enough inside us to keep us going, I wouldn’t need you. But that’s not the world we live in. And I do need you. Because at the core of my engine, my homeostasis, running gut, is an unanswered question, and the same is true for yours. I know you don’t know the first thing about yourself, but you want love, somehow to figure you out. Love is your poison, not mine. I see it broadly. I see it vaguely. I cannot have it. So I can believe in it. But already, specifically, with you, I see hell. I see myself fifty, widowed, having known love once. I see you dead two years after we wedded to The Cranberries, a car crash taking you from me. I know, even if I get you, I’ll never get to be with you. It’ll never really happen. It’ll always be in the past. How do I know this? Because I’ve already seen it. I already see it all. And it’s disappointing, our life together. You are disappointing, Alessia, and I am too.”
She burst into laughter. Not hateful, not vindictive, not mocking, but true. The laugh of a girl who had heard something funny. She narrowed her eyes at Knice and smiled.
“Finally, you admit it. You’ve been crushing on me for years.”
Knice laughed, just a little bit. She looked him in the eyes, and her look was different. She was impressed with him, for admitting the truth. It was an impression of a meek man, finally loud. Finally honest. And she wanted to hear more, she did. I could tell by her eyes, which were transformed, and not the same eyes that looked upon him just seconds ago. I went cold. It seemed, in the unlikeliest of ways, he had made real contact with this person, a vague but identifiable presence from his past.
And then, his eyes meeting hers, he could think of nothing more to say, and he smiled, in silence, looking at her, as the moment fled, and Knice’s grin began to dilute, and the sun’s fading face signaled the birth of the late afternoon, and Alessia stood and said she had to make it to her interview, and that if she gets the job, she’ll be around town. Knice didn’t say much else. He hugged her goodbye.
He looked out into the storm drain after her swishing heels with a chin of certainty, a low nod, but I could tell in his glassy eyes he knew what his heart was putting into his veins, that this was it, a brief moment to do something right, a moment that would never come again, and could not possibly be repaired.
Alexander Blum is a writer interested in Hermeticism and competing mystical systems. He has previously published fiction in Soft Cartel and is working on a novel titled American Blood. His writings on theology, politics and evolution can be found at www.alexanderblum.net