Our boat crosses a seam in the current. It swerves, tipping me onto my toes. I am still stunned by my vision of Vassal, and worried. I have been standing stiffly, my body unsteady. That is unlike me. Normally, I am well coordinated, on water as on land. I have spent plenty of time aboard boats, and feel at ease on them. I ride even a heavy sea as if I were part of it, making love to it.
I begin to lose my balance. I may fall over the gunwale into the water. I do not react. Vassal sees what is happening, grabs my waist, and pulls me back.
I look down in front of me. In the darkness, I sense the water more than see it. It is cold, obsidian, an abyss. I do not know what, if anything, sets me apart from it. I no longer want to jump in, however. I want to get away from it, to retreat. I would like to shrivel into a seed and become unaware of everything outside me, or to burrow into a womb and snuggle there. I want to return to an essence of myself, and begin again.
I am at a loss, my confusion irreparable. I am not sure that I am still alive, or that I care. I have mind only for the possibility that has been nagging at me, that the death I have anticipated is near—mine, Vassal’s, everyone’s. We may all be embarked on a funerary voyage to the afterlife.
I shudder, and manage to turn my mind to lesser worries: about what Vassal has done, and why and how he has done it, and why and how I have cooperated with him. They bring me small comfort. The larger question intrudes: Where is this voyage taking us, and where will it leave us?
It is too soon to answer. I only know that we have made a plan that we are now executing. I am playing my part, but with desperation more than conviction. We have not established a reliable course, either for ourselves or for the rest of humanity. To me, what we are doing continues to raise questions, including fundamental ones that underlie all questions: What is questioning, and why? What drives us to ask anything—what need or desire, for what gain, toward what end?
* * *
Three of life’s larger questions are these:
- What if?
- So what?
Tonight, what Vassal has done is posing them anew. They address the crisis that everyone is about to face. None of us will be able to avoid them. We must make them our own, live with them, find answers to them, if we can.
Everything a question
once vague now what
Context is all and
We take issue yet
There is awareness and
there is the eye
of the storm
the look of
No concept applies
and no chance
neither to nor from as
we think and say
and do with
what at the
ASSIGNMENT FOR MY STUDENTS
(1,000 word maximum)
As I told you I would, I have embedded assignments for you in these pages. By the time you see them, Vassal’s invention will be out and I may have been hauled off to the Conciergerie to await the guillotine, or summoned to Washington for interrogation, or some such fate. Regardless, I would like to read your work, so please take the time to do it and send it to me. Of course, if some miscreant has slit my throat, shot me dead, hung me high, or otherwise delivered me to the non-hereafter, never mind.
Here is your first assignment. A few paragraphs ago I asked, “Where is this voyage taking us, and where will it leave us?” I replied that it is too soon to answer. As you read this, however, it is no longer too soon. Vassal’s invention has arrived in your life and everyone’s. So . . . what? Where are you in that voyage? Where do you think you and everyone are headed? What do you hope will happen? Submit 1,000 words or fewer, please.
* * *
Outdoors, day or night, and often indoors, Vassal shades his face with the brim of a plain khaki cap. The crown is cotton and lies low on his head. It is not the kind that stands up and displays a logo. Vassal calls logos “emblems of well-meaning hate groups,” and he says, “By our logos shall ye know us.”
He is joking when he says that, but only partly. He avoids showing logos or other advertisement. He distrusts even the mildest slogans and propaganda. He is wary of reducing reality to catchy phrases and images, especially if they are adversarial, discriminating, or mercenary. Like anyone, he holds beliefs that simplify, but at this stage of his life, as I have reported, he does not advocate them. He considers himself a customer for every brand, a part of every group and team, a wearer of every logo and therefore none. He harbors a vast heterogeneity.
He has owned eight or nine such caps since I have known him. He wears them hard and treats them carelessly; he stuffs them into his pockets, and tosses them anywhere. Their cloth becomes rumpled, their brims bent and threadbare.
He anoints them without trying. He wipes his hands on them, and stains them with engine oil, gasoline, fish slime, kitchen grunge, and dirt. On wet ground, they become smeared with mud and grass stains. In hot weather, his head sweats in them. In the boat, saltwater spray splashes onto them. In the house, smoke from the fireplace sticks to them. Sometimes, when one of them is sitting on a table or countertop, he accidentally spatters it with beer, wine, or coffee. Sometimes I contribute to that. Last week, he put his cap on the kitchen table and I spilled my cup of tea on it. We did not clean it up. He did not want to. As a result of that kind of treatment, his caps exude a low fragrance, a country musk that neither of us finds unpleasant.
* * *
His caps match his outfits: loose, fading jeans, and solid-colored T’s and plaid shirts, untucked. Those clothes make him look like what in some ways he is: a tall variant of the conventional Down East character. That is not a look he cultivates. He does not try to create an impression with what he wears. For him, his clothes serve their basic functions, nothing more. His style follows unintended.
His caps keep sunlight from his face, and rain from his eyes. In summer he sprays them with insect repellent (yet another fragrance) to ward off mosquitoes, black flies, and no-see-’ums. On cool days in any season, they warm his head. On frigid days in winter, he wears them over a headband or, when the cold is bitter, over a wool stocking cap or balaclava. Year-round, he wears them even when he does not need to—often indoors, as I have said—just because they feel good.
When one of them becomes too beat up to wear, he does not throw it away. He keeps it around as a spare. I have never seen him resume wearing one, but he wants them available. He is like his Yankee forebears, who stowed a clutter of worn-out items in their farmhouses, barns, and sheds, in case they should ever need to use them again, or to cannibalize them for parts.
He also keeps his caps as mementos, reminders of paths he has traveled. He is not sentimental about that, but he stores them respectfully. With his long right arm, he reaches to the back of the coat closet shelf and places each addition atop a stack of older ones. Or, if one has been a particular favorite, he hangs it on a nail in the barn, where it stays on exhibit, speaking to him of its experience.
There are three or four of those down there now, arrayed along one wall, hung in rustic splendor beside old orange cloth life preservers, limp coils of leftover rope, lengths of rusty chain, a broken iron hand pump from the well, a scarred metal dust pan that must be eighty years old, a straw whiskbroom worn down to stubs, a pockmarked red toilet seat, and other junk.
The toilet seat is wooden, with chips out of it as if someone hacked at it with a sharp object.
“It was here when I bought this place,” Vassal told me once. “Looks like someone sat down on it blowing farts like shrapnel.”
* * *
I describe his caps because some readers will want to know. There may be nothing about him too trivial for their notice. Also, as I have mentioned, anything I describe about him will help satisfy some people’s curiosity about him enough that they will feel no need to come see him for themselves.
I have also thought that we should save one of his caps for posterity. It would make a nice relic for a museum. The Smithsonian will want one, I expect, along with other Squeezeshot relics. I should gather some.
The caps could be valuable, too. They could make good items to auction for worthy causes, whatever such causes will be after today. That could help fund training programs for new users of his device, for technophobes who have trouble operating it, and for the imaginatively challenged, who may have trouble figuring out where to send it. Maybe such an auction could raise money for detox programs, too, for people who have become too obsessed with using it; and for correctional programs for people who use it for antisocial purposes like peeping, stalking, and harassing.
Now that I think, though, using it to peep, stalk, and harass may become commonplace, and so may peeping at, stalking, and harassing peepers, stalkers, and harassers. Might all such conduct cease seeming offensive or deviant? For that matter, once Vassal’s device gets around will there be any such thing as antisocial behavior?
If we had auctioned one of his caps in recent years, someone might have paid a few thousand dollars for it, as an investment in a minor historic memento. By tomorrow, however, when what Vassal has done has become widely known, we might be able to auction one for five figures or more; and for six or seven figures before long.
If he ever reads this passage, he may tell me what he thinks of that idea. Not much, I imagine. In any event, this book will go to press later today; I doubt he will have time to read it, either before it is published or after. Besides, neither of us may want to look at it again. We may want to let the bygones we report in these pages be gone, and reflect on them no further. Also, like everyone once his invention arrives, we will have other things we would rather do.
* * *
He does not care about his appearance. There is no reason he should. Few people see him, aside from me. The guards do, briefly, on most days; and Jimmy and the other Bigheads, who visit us every month or so; and the Indians, who stop by now and then. Also, a few times a year, an emissary from the government comes to our door, usually from the White House (the National Security Council, and sometimes the VP’s office) or National Security Agency. So far, those emissaries have been male, bright, well educated, soft-spoken and polite; attired in suits, ties, and dress shoes, or wearing pressed slacks, polo shirts, and loafers. To us, they always seem a touch ludicrous, because their mission is futile: to enlist Vassal and his invention in some government initiative, which he is sure to reject.
None of those people care how he looks. They come with greater concerns. Few people see him elsewhere, either: on the river sometimes, usually from a distance, or in town, where we go now and then.
Not that he shuns strangers. He does not mind living at a remove from society, as he has done for years. But necessity made him choose that. He likes being among people and feeling like one of them. A description by Baudelaire is apt: “The lover of universal life moves into the crowd as though into an immense reservoir of electrical energy.”
I find his enthusiasm for other people sweet, a little romantic, even sexual. Once he said to me, “In our hearts there’s a continuum between liking people, touching them, hugging them, and making love to them. We feel their presence, physical and emotional, and they feel ours. There are boundaries we know not to cross, but it’s natural to think of people as our imaginary lovers and sex partners. It’s part of how we regard each other, part of the pleasure of being humans who reproduce with each other.”
* * *
The nearest town is a half-hour drive upriver. We go there every month or so to stroll around. We shop in the stores and, on Saturday mornings during harvest seasons, in the farmer’s market in the riverside park. Weather permitting, we sit on a bench on a sidewalk or in the park and watch people. He prefers that to interacting with them, but does not feel strongly about it. Or we sip coffee in our favorite café, or eat in one of the restaurants. Occasionally, we stay into the evening and attend an event in one of the church halls, usually a musical performance—sea chanteys, folk and world music, sometimes string quartets.
Vassal’s appearance is so distinctive that he cannot go anywhere incognito. Nor does he care to. People still recognize him, but his celebrity waned so long ago that nowadays they are rarely inconsiderate of him.
Things were different when I first knew him, when we were completing his journal. The few times we went to town, people gathered around him in groups, sometimes small crowds. Many wanted to talk with him. Often they felt anxious to do so. Some expressed sympathy for what had befallen him. Others chided him for his refusal to share his invention with the government (“Didn’t you want to help us outdo the Russians?”) or with the private sector (“You could have sold a lot of them. You still could.”). Some wished he had shared it with the likes of them (“If I had one of those things, I’d—.”) And some asked him about choices he had made and things he had done: “Why did you do (whatever)?” or “Why didn’t you (whatever)?” Vassal always listened politely, smiling. To those who were disapproving of him, he sometimes said, “You could be right, but I suspect that if you were me you would have done the same as I did.” If that reply displeased them, he sometimes added, with a wink, “Good thing you weren’t me, isn’t it?”
Most people, though, just wanted to stand in the glow of his fame and have their friends photograph them. Sometimes in the early days, he chafed at people’s intrusions, and he never let on. He acted approachable and friendly. Often, as people walked away from us, we would hear one of them say to another something like, “It’s surprising how nice he is, and how normal. You’d expect him to be ten feet tall and have lightning coming out of him or something. He could’ve played God and shaken up the world, but he decided not to. But he’s not like that.”
He has always been curious about people’s interest in him; also irritated some, in the early days, as I have said. Once, back when we were preparing his journal, he said to me, “Why do people pay so much attention to famous people, even to me? At this point I’m yesterday’s news, a has-been who has left the scene. They believe fictions that mass media have contrived that give them wrong ideas about me. They project those fictions onto me as if I were a silver screen. Being that kind of object to people feels odd to me. It’s impersonal and mostly untrue. I sometimes think that people who believe those things may be half-dead. Celebrity worship like theirs may be a way for them to avoid living more fully. If so, they should get a life. They have better things to do.”
He saw socioeconomic and political factors at work in that. He believed that our elites manipulated the rest of us, the wage-slave citizenry whose productivity and desires enriched and empowered them. In his view, as I have mentioned, our elites and their lackeys and proxies imposed that tyranny from the bully pulpits of politics and government, religion, entertainment and the arts, advertising and commerce, the workplace, and other positions of influence.
Their preaching and storytelling presented us with attractive myths and compelling beliefs about our society and ourselves. They delivered us comforting illusions of our shared progress, good fortune, and significance. They exalted fame, celebrity, stardom, status, wealth, and other self-serving measures of achievement and preeminence. They seduced, harangued, and intimidated us, persuading us of the virtues of the status quo, which, no surprise, required doing business their way. Within that, they stimulated our lust for consumer goods, further enslaving us. In those ways and more, they projected their power and dominion, sustaining a culture that guided our thinking, channeled our ambitions, and discouraged assertive unrest among us. Thus they maintained the social, economic, and political order that profited them.
He regarded fame, celebrity, and stardom, whether in politics, advertising, sports, the performing arts, the fine arts, or other entertainment (he considered politics and advertising to be forms of entertainment) as “. . . opiates with which our elites drug our masses.” Our elites accomplished that by using “the usual star-making machinery,” which they owned and managed. They sponsored “entertainers”—politicians, actors, musicians, artists, athletes, newspeople—who were “skilled in advancing their interests.” They “conferred godlike celebrity upon those entertainers, creating false idols whom people admired.” They presented those entertainers to the public in venues and media that they owned or otherwise controlled, including television and radio, theaters, clubs, sports arenas and stadiums, print media, museums, art galleries, political forums, etc.—that they owned or controlled. That enabled them to “exploit people’s hopes, dreams, and desires; dispel people’s dissatisfactions; and keep people content with their servitude.”
He said to me, “Our elites want to keep workers struggling to make ends meet, and busy envying people who have greater wealth, power, celebrity, success, and so on. It’s a conspiracy. Not that they think of it that way. They think they’re just hardworking citizens who are living the American Dream and serving the greater good. (“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak. . . .” — John Adams ) They think they deserve the opportunities they get and the riches they acquire. They see nothing unfair about their good fortune and disproportionate influence.”
To him, our elites’ efforts and values were typical of their kind, common to government chieftains, captains of industry, major stockholders and board members, big-time philanthropists, and other slave drivers and masters of the universe. He painted them all with the same brush.
“Their system is well established, time-honored. It won’t change any time soon.”
* * *
Honoré de Balzac wrote that behind every great fortune lies a crime. Vassal used to agree.
He told me, “Being wealthy is a crime against consumers and others, who pay more than is reasonable for goods and services, and against workers who produce that wealth. Neither gets a fair share.”
He observed that owners, major stockholders, board members, and others who profit the most believe that they merit their advantages not only due to their abilities and, hard work, but also due to their virtue and, often, the grace of an approving divinity.
“Those people are in a position to get the most, and they have few qualms about getting it. That’s unfair but not illegal. They see to that by arranging for laws and law enforcement that support them.”
In his view, our elites were fluent in the language and practices—the lingua franca—of the top levels of our governmental and economic systems. Through their political contributions, and by controlling taxpayer dollars, our elites hired the politicians, lobbyists, and staffs who created our laws, and the judges and bureaucrats who interpreted and applied them. They bankrolled those people’s careers, including post-government careers in commerce, NGOs, academia, and elsewhere. In return those people submitted to the elites’ will, going along with it in order to make a living and advance their careers.
Among the laws that our elites controlled, one category particularly perturbed him.
“Look at our tax codes,” he said to me. “They’re never very progressive. The richest few percent of taxpayers earn a third or more of the income, own half the wealth, and control much of the rest. That doesn’t do much good for everyone else. The wealthy give relatively little in return, notwithstanding the philanthropy of some of them, and the business they generate and the employment they provide. They rig the game much more to their benefit than to other people’s. The fact is that relatively few of the people who contribute the most to society are the wealthiest and most powerful. Such is our pseudo-egalitarian system.”
* * *
For a while back then, Vassal continued to express his views vehemently. He did not speak phrases like “pseudo-egalitarian system” as much as spit them out. But his vehemence diminished, and lost its edge.
Recently he said to me, “As I’m sure you noticed, by the time you and I finished my journal and started creating the rest of my saga, I was past most of my anger.”
As his understanding of himself and his world grew, he became less moralistic and judgmental. He began to entertain views more than hold them, and to value other people’s perspectives as much as his own. He began to suspect that the status quo he had so despised was, despite its faults, no worse than any other. He even began to think that our envy and admiration of the rich, powerful, and celebrated, and
our submission to their interests, might help the rest of us overcome our disadvantages.
“I began to think that the manipulation of us by our elites, which I’d complained so much about, might not be altogether bad. It motivated us, prompted our dreams and ambitions. If it led some of us to practice devout consumerism or celebrity worship, and to live in accordance with the established system and values, was that so terrible? We liked to own nice things and lead comfortable lives. The system enabled that some. Worst case, we could observe our elites’ supposedly more fortunate lifestyles. If that was as close to living those lifestyles as we could get, that was better than nothing. Our experience of them would be vicarious, a spectator’s rather than a participant’s, but there was little if any harm in that.
“Most of us don’t feel victimized by the so-called better-off among us. We don’t complain about them much. We don’t see much to complain about. For one thing, there’s a chance that we’ll acquire status like theirs, or that our children will. For another, we discover that once we provide for our basic needs, the difference in quality of life between those people and us isn’t great. More wealth, privilege, influence, and so on don’t add much for us, especially once we factor in the complications that they bring. We recognize that the human experience is pretty much the same for all of us, no matter who we are, what we do, or what happens to us. So our envy of others tends to be mild, not bitter.”
Not that he denied the physical and psychological hardships that many people suffered due to poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunity, neglect, abuse, crime, addiction, and the like.
“Disadvantage is real,” he said. “Social and economic inequalities are real. They’re issues to deal with. But I now see that many of the distinctions I have made between our so-called elites and non-elites are false. The differences in terms of advantage and control over our lives amount to much less than I have thought.”
* * *
Vassal says, “Having been a celebrity, I’ve thought about how we regard such people. I’ve noticed that we don’t get much sense of who they are. I’ve also noticed that we don’t want to or need to.”
He observes that celebrity is mostly about the celebrants. It helps us lead our not famous lives and feel content with them. It reinforces illusions that we want to reinforce, about our beauty, soulfulness, sexiness, charisma, talent, achievements, character, wisdom, humor, etc. Other people’s celebrity reflects and inspires us. It gives us ideas about who we are and who we want to be, and it suggests to us how to become who we want to be.
That can be particularly instructive to young people, who are unformed in many ways, open to influence and in need of guidance. It brings their attention to people whom older people, supposedly wiser, deem worthy of attention, either as good role models or cautionary ones.
It instructs the rest of us, too. In our imaginations, all of us, old and young, climb onto pedestals with our heroes, idols, and other exemplars. Those people are aspects of us, Vassal believes. We share their experiences and accomplishments. In our minds we run the base paths with them, score their touchdowns, strut across their stages, stand in their spotlights, and sing their songs. We participate in their performances, romances, ceremonies, and occasions. We suffer their setbacks, too, sharing their defeats and humiliations. The better they and their PR staffs and journalistic camp followers do their jobs, the more fruitfully do we imagine ourselves in their places.
* * *
We mythologize. We make fiction of everyone, starting with ourselves. Our stories about others—from the most distant of the rich, powerful, famous, and infamous to our nearest and dearest—help us fashion useful stories about our own lives. That is idolatry, to be sure, but for our kind there is no avoiding that. We want and need it, and benefit from it enough to offset any harm.
Vassal says, “We acquiesce to power, authority, and charisma more than we have to, often without a second thought. Our submission and conformity become routine. That limits us as individuals and as a society. I used to think that was dumb of us. Now I see that we can’t do otherwise, and that in our circumstances it’s a reasonable price to pay for what we get in return. No one is more worthy of our love, admiration, respect, envy, or obedience than anyone else, but that love and so on for those others is also for ourselves. It feels right enough to us, and it’s practical. We need it both as social animals and as individuals.
“My invention won’t change that. By bringing us so much transparency, it will change the nature of power, authority, celebrity, and so on, but not in any fundamental way, and not in any way that will improve anything. One way or another, they will continue, and play their usual roles in our lives.”
Once Vassal’s invention arrives, it will draw our attention to many more people’s lives than in the past, and to everyone’s lives, not so much to the lives of an overhyped, influential few. We will all be revealed to each other as never before. There will be so much of that for us to observe that—aside from brief periods—few of us will attract more notice than anyone else. For a time, those of us who have worshipped celebrities, respected authorities, and deferred to the powerful will enter those people’s spaces with impunity. As we hang around them—in their homes, cars, and workplaces, and at their events and occasions—we will find that they are more like us than we have imagined, and lead lives more like our own. That will dispel our illusions about them.
As Vassal says, his invention will cause celebrity, power, and authority to evolve. We will redefine what we celebrate and admire, value and envy, respect and obey. Stardom as we have known it will end; human stars of today will fall from the firmament with scant display. That will not be any improvement, he says, and I agree, but with regret. Unlike him these days, I feel that there is much wrong with celebrity, power, and authority. I sometimes hope, though without confidence, that his invention will help bring corrections.
* * *
Michel de Montaigne advised, “Wake from the sleep of habits.” By changing people’s outlooks and behavior, Vassal’s invention will cause some such awakening. At first that will invigorate people. But probably, as he says, we will all become accustomed to that, and end up no more awake than ever. Which he thinks will be fine.
Samuel Beckett wrote, “For me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.” Sometimes I fall into the former category, but more often the latter. Vassal, though he considers himself as much a fool as anyone, falls into neither. He is not one to stay where he is, but neither does he imagine that significant improvement is possible.
That does not discourage him. As I have reported, he takes things lightly. He does not prefer any particular result. He would endorse another remark of Montaigne’s: “All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure of that.” He feels no confidence about the uncertain future, but also no worry about it. He welcomes it regardless. He holds no hopes, but also feels no despair. He neither wants nor needs confidence, optimism, or hope. To him, they do not matter. In a sense, nothing matters to him, and it does not matter that nothing matters. He just does what he does, sees what he sees, and thinks what he thinks. His life proceeds, and he with it.
* * *
I have mentioned that there was a time when Vassal, with Victory, felt hopeful about what they might accomplish with his invention.
“I was still in my angry young blame-gamer and conspiracy theorist phase. Victory was in a similar place. We thought the country needed fixing and that working within the system couldn’t do that. We thought the wealthy and associated elitists who were messing things up were like the Wizard of Oz. We felt that if masses of people were going to be intimidated and manipulated like that, we should take everyone behind the Wizard’s curtain and show them what was up. We would expose the evil, prompting reform. The result would be a better world. Simple, we thought.”
By taking people behind the curtain he meant taking them into every lair of our nefarious elites: boardrooms, conference rooms, offices, and trading floors of private enterprise, as well as country clubs, golf courses, and tennis courts; also the White House, Executive offices, Congress, and courthouses; and newspaper offices, Hollywood sound stages, TV and pop music studios, and elsewhere—into the scoundrels’ every habitat.
“When we thought more about the idea, though, we realized that people would always have their Wizards of Oz—their controlling elites, and the beliefs and behaviors that served the interests of those elites. That’s how human society stratifies, no matter what. Inevitably, there are top dogs, bottom dogs, and dogs in between. Also, we saw, that reality has its advantages. It helps produce and maintain at least some prosperity for everyone, and it maintains social order. It didn’t seem as bad as we had thought. Why should we undermine it?
“That’s also when we concluded that the world didn’t need my invention and couldn’t benefit from it. It would do as much harm as good. Nothing could be gained. We rejected the notion of using it for grand purposes.
“We got bored with it—bored with using it and bored with thinking about it. Also, since it was still drawing government people to us like flies to a carcass, it was a nuisance to us. And according to news reports, it was stirring up angry forces around the country and the world. We decided that we’d had enough of it. That’s when we decided to get rid of it.”
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