Monday, December 11, 2006

gordian knot

So you decide to drive some evenings instead of walk. Long, black car gliding effortlessly round snow packed streets, while the blue-white exhaust mingles with the breath of frozen passers-by, and the chrome grill grins and growls, pulling up at the stoplight.

You don’t notice the look of desperate admiration squeezed out of the driver of the foreign sub-compact next to you. You don’t notice, and even if you did you wouldn’t care. Above pretence, the car is more than a mere simulation of affluence. Above the rat race, the car is more than a status symbol. Above excess for excess’ sake, the car is more than the embodiment of greed, but is actually the embodiment of you. The driver. The man. The kingfish. You, who everyone else wants to be or be seen with.

Suckers. Red light turns to green, and your foot finds its way, romping on the accelerator, whipping the car into action. Speed doubles and redoubles, and before you know it, you’re cruising at thirty over the posted limit. But there’s no danger here. No. The car has been outfitted with every piece of modern automotive technology. Technology making deadly mistakes nearly impossible. Technology nearly erasing the possibility of driver error. Technology removing the need for driver skill.

So you sit back in the heated, plush leather bucket seat and let the car do the work, this magnificent piece of state of the art engineering. You sit back and you’re comfortable in the fact that you would have to actually try hard to fuck up this ride. Aim it directly at a light standard. Drive it off a bridge. Allow yourself to quietly drift into oncoming traffic.

Leather gloved hands rest easy on the custom steering wheel, and as you’re pulling into campus, you catch the admiring recognition on the faces of a few dozen students. This – this is the type of respect you live for. Not the acknowledgement of empty riches on your drive in from suburbia. Not the bullshit recognition of some fantasy brotherhood of the status quo. Not the mutually masturbatory reciprocal back-scratching of those at the top of the present class system. No. This – this is the only respect that matters.

You pull into your reserved parking stall, and as you do, a shadow falls onto the driver’s side window. The door is opened for you, and a hand is already in yours before you even get out of the car.

“Professor Wilkins?” an eager, young voice asks.

“Indeed,” you say, climbing out of your car, and shutting the door. “And you are?”

“James Levea,” he says. “Professors Duncan and Graham both said I should come and talk to you. Apparently you’re something of an expert on the subjects of myth and modernity?”

The simple recognition of a lifetime’s work. It’s all you want. Right? A young man asks for your help and gains your automatic approval. It’s the way of things these days. Getting credit for cognition. Approval for authority. Identification of influence. It’s more applause than flattery, but more fawning than applause. No. More adulation than fawning. Yes, adulation – that’s the word. Oh. Adulation.

So you choose to drive some evenings instead of walk. And you do so, knowing full well that the very attention you pretend to disregard is the exact same attention you crave. Your money, your importance, is importance gained through intellect. Your net worth is the recognition of your vast knowledge, and your net worth is the universal language of suburbia. An impossibly tight knot of roiling respect and rodomontade.

Yes, the car you drive, the home you live in, the clothes you wear, the life you live are all representations of your mental proficiency. You may deny it, you may pretend to not notice or care about the envy oozing out of those around you, but you can’t lie to yourself. No. You’re too smart for that. You’ve too good a grip on the ideas of myth and modernity.

There’s the crisp thweep thweep of your car alarm as you walk away, teacher and student, side by side. Your car, that beautiful piece of automotive science, is protected now. Protected from those who would seek to steal or vandalise it. Protected from those who lack the mental facilities, the cerebral adroitness, to obtain, honestly, such a symbol for themselves. Protected. The mechanical beast, cosseted, every bit as you are.

Monday, December 4, 2006

old klestehl (anaesthetic)

In the early afternoon, I parted ways with Agamen near the entrance to the old quarter after repeatedly assuring him of my safety, and coercing him and the giant burlap sack of coffee beans into a taxi back to the hotel.

“I’ll be fine,” I promised. “Trust me, I’ve dealt with worse than common thieves and murderers.”

Agamen peered at me warily. “Well, I do not want to have to go and identify you at the morgue – or what is left of you. Something tells me these people would not stop at seizing your possessions, but would take your body parts, as well.”

I laughed, finding humour in Agamen’s habitual worry, but caught a hint of anxiety in my reflection as Agamen rolled up the taxi’s window.

Of course I would be okay. I was always okay. I had to be. And nothing strengthens a man’s resolve like dropping a few hours in a seedy tavern, so I ducked into a grimy tent in Old Klestehl’s south side and sat down at the bar.

“Your strongest,” I told the barman, slapping a large note down in front of him.

The barman, a dark young man in a crisp, blood red turban, stared at me a moment with black-ringed eyes. “You want strong?” he asked, rhetorically, “I give you strong.”

With that, he spun around, deftly snatching a half bottle of bright green liquid from the top shelf, slamming it down on the bar before me.

“You want glass too?” he smirked.

I nodded and grabbed the grimy glass from him, polishing it on my shirt before pouring a measure of the foul, emerald liquid into it.

The smell was a highly offensive combination of dirt and liquorice mixed with a hint of pine needles and cough syrup, but I lifted the glass to my lips, tilted my head back, and poured the contents down my protesting throat in one fluid motion.

Catching the heckling face of the barman just as my guts started to fight back, threatening to expel the evil liquor from my body, I managed to barely keep it down even while my face started to twitch involuntarily, and my teeth began to chatter. My poor senses, dragged from heaven to hell inside of one day.

“You like?” the barman wryly asked.

“No,” I replied. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Tell me,” he said. “What are you doing around these parts? We’re used to seeing the stupid, the crazy, the—”

“I’ve come to find someone,” I said. “A diviner.”

“Well,” the barman said, “You might be able to find an oracle or a soothsayer or two, but make no mistake – save for our coffee, you will find nothing of the divine here in Old Klestehl.”