A Book is a Machine for Thinking by Joshua Leon
Little boxes pile atop one another in varying shades. An omnipresent gold bounces from surface to surface like a ricocheting laser beam. The perfect sunset. I’m half blinded and cold, but this is the only place to be alone. The fireworks are about to begin. The essay is just a jeremiad on urban planning, but serves my own purpose as an instrument for free flowing thought. I hum a few bars and chunk a few sentences on to the page. I am finally free.
From this midlevel plateau my surroundings tower over me in a series of awesome symmetries. Each time I peer away from the screen to bathe in the tableau— and it is impossible not to—the surrounding sheaths of glass and stone look a little taller, almost never ending. I pound forward. With no room in my hands to have carried my research papers up here, I have only faint confidence that these words contain much more than literary truths. Forget it, I tell myself, let the story bleed in to fiction.
From here the urban mystery begins. Images of firelight appear as the sky gets larger. Even over this artificial place there are stars, like you might see above a campground, although conveyor belts of jumbo jets continue disappearing into them. I gradually forget whatever it was I was trying to say. Cognitively speaking, it might be time to recalibrate. My attention turns to the stick figures behind each newly appearing window, looking busy even at home. Busy doing what?
Threats to these meditative moments inevitably pile up. Knowing this makes me nervous. Sooner or later the phone will ring. A group of screaming kids may decide that now’s the time to crowd the deck. Hunger will seep in. Even on the clearest of nights I somehow get hit in the face with droplets of something. Is there an oncoming storm?
Never checking the weather, I wouldn’t know until it was too late. Some gravitational force or another tells me to keep moving when all I want to do is sit still.
Now is the time, when everyone is home from work but has yet to leave for dinner—the precise point in the day when light abounds across the skyline. Decision time. I am still alone, hiding in the budding green gardens no longer quite visible. There is precious time left to think. On the other hand the essay is now a glowing blue mush on my screen. The chill is just a little strong. There are a few too many droplets from nowhere. There are, in short, the natural and social forces that jolt us out of all still moments.
An oncoming migraine clinches it. This increasingly common handicap instigates feelings of weakness, numbness. Things begin to wobble. All the while creative infertility disables me. Then a light breeze blows through the garden, amplifying its scent tenfold.
This remarkable ambient change offers a beachhead of encouragement, but recedes as quickly as it advanced.
I opt to go, and this is when things get strange. I live only a few floors down, but no one is home. Even though someone should be home. I call every person I know, but no one, neither family nor friends, are reachable. Odd, but the city below offers reassurance. There are still people on the ground, going about their business as usual.
Everything will come together in time. Funny thing is, the thought of time horizons unsettles me the most. When will things come together as they always do each evening?
I’ve completely forgotten what day it is and whatever happened this morning. From here, gauging elapsed time increasingly becomes a problem. I recheck my e-mail for any signs of my own little social network within this vast web of urbanity. It’s mostly a series of baffled missives from my editors. All I learn is that the deadline passed for the article weeks ago. The safest place from here is down there. It’s time to leave.
Forgetful though he can be, he fully remembered the previous night’s contretemps. Beth took the revolutionary position, thus discounting the very reason they were there, to celebrate the publication of very-reasonable-political-commentary. It was only two champagne glasses in when she suggested capping all property holdings at $500,000 per household. That technically would’ve meant the official confiscation of their own apartment, but only if you count the value of exchange and not use, she iterated. One eye glanced at the flat screen.
As it happened, the very informal launch party for Perspectives On Global Development had coincided with the day a grand jury oddly exonerated Darren Wilson, the police officer who lobbed a fatal fusillade of bullets into Michael Brown for the apparent crime of stealing some cigarillos. There were televised riots on the streets of an any-town called Ferguson, Missouri, and everyone in the room was looking for a reason to be pissed.
Beth was getting dangerously oppositional, taunting the mild liberal sensibilities of this circle. How could they not have positive feelings about the political violence they were watching? Before anyone said a thing in response, a group of doctorates fumigated the room with the shared scent of self-satisfaction. Here was an opportunity to educate, because God knows talking is a hell of a lot more satisfying than listening. The latter has the bonus of making someone else feel small even if no one actually learns anything.
At judgment stood Beth, one of those hysterical yet carefree radicals expressing her own kind of intolerance as storeowners saw their inventory carried off into the streets, as police and protestors invited mutual self-destruction. Pity, because through my own mind ran only magical feeling, enhanced by the dimly lit windows surrounding us like a universe of holograms. This was the great metropolis at night, and it was mine.
Vaunted names flew free and easy, the kind of use to any reasonable person’s advantage no matter what their actual political stripe. Names to bring out when some unreasonable person needs a lesson in being chaste and rational. What would Gandhi do? What would Mandela do? What would King do? Beth was visibly irked in front of the cult-of-reason. “They would have behaved very well in acquiescence to your status quo,” she mocked. “Because everyone knows MLK was a good white liberal.”
Faces turned from white to red.
Though few intellectuals really understand the subterranean rage in the public mind, it’s hard for me to argue that there isn’t some rage there to be understood—that there isn’t some reason for it. There it was, after all, on television. Of course there was something else Beth’s guests made sure to say without saying, which was that she was a just a librarian and they were intellectuals of the authentic kind. They wrote books while she stacked them. A reader and not a writer, she couldn’t credibly hold them to account for what went unsaid in obscure volumes like Perspectives On Global Development.
Whatever she said from here on warranted collective scrutiny, no matter where the conversation meandered. In fact it veered in to the most personal of sinkholes—the completed book whose still-warm advance copies were displayed proudly on the kitchen table, beside the cake and liquor.
Even though Perspectives will sell at most 600 copies across the Anglophone world, she respected the undertaking. She respected it because this labor of love had lasted five years, and especially because that labor belonged to her husband, however uncompensated. In fact she respected the endeavor precisely because it went uncompensated. All those warm nights on their building’s well-manicured roof deck where he could really write swiftly, crouched over his Mac like a little hermit half-aware of his remarkable surroundings.
When the topic came up she fell square into the bear trap set for her hours before.
She tried to tread lightly on his work while laying waste to his arrogant colleagues. Of course this indelicate balance toppled quickly.
“The politics in Perspectives is fine, but the prose is an exercise in conformity, concealing what it tries to reveal, reinforcing what it tries to break down,” she said, thumbing through its pages. “Look at this passage, where he points out that the richest 85 people control more wealth than the bottom half of the world population. This is a statistic, and you know what Stalin said about those. He’s giving us plenty of information but evoking nothing from within us.” This is where she didn’t want to be, thrown in opposition to her only ally left in the room.
So far so composed, but from there she faltered, ending with this: “You people are the real reason nothing happens in this cruel, dreary decade.” Down in the depths of their condescension welled a certain volume of puzzlement from everyone in the room who had written a dissertation—other than Morris, who stood by unperturbed. This was the kind of educated-enough person their sundry theories of social change were supposed to win over (none were quite aware that being a librarian required at least one advanced degree).
They departed collegially but with a collective air of failure. For an academic, not impressing someone like Beth was like a salesperson finishing the workday with no commission. Hangovers are always worse when this happens. However unpleasant the night had been, the clock read late. They had worked overtime, hacking at her for hours with no tangible quarry.
Later on Beth reflected that the social sciences—from which the balance of these acquaintances hailed—are peculiar in their lack of persuasiveness. This is particularly so in relation to their natural scientific counterparts. Whenever a social scientist drops an apple, the damn thing flies upward or diagonal, not neatly downward as time honored laws of gravity would have. Ceteris paribus. Beth was the apple that just wouldn’t land where her betters said she should. Why they didn’t embrace that I’m not sure.
“I supposed I’m just not a very convincing radical,” her partner concluded. He was the only one not angered by her lack of deference, who in fact shared her misgivings. He raised his head as if smelling fine perfume that wasn’t there, carrying a peculiar air of contented detachment. I’ve seen this before. I wonder if he knew of the changes going on inside, ever so gradually. There would come a time when he’d achieve the perfect balance of detachment and lucidity, like the great artist Willem de Kooning toward the end of his career and life.
And then there’s the place where I stood, which I kept undisclosed that night. An unapologetic member of the one-percent, I had every reason to welcome Beth’s “cruel, dreary decade.” Then again she was right, it is boring, static, reactionary.
“I was a neurologist turned investor,” I volunteered, “a one-percenter and a self- unaware Marxist. Self-unaware in the sense that I won’t cash out of my stock portfolio, and have a habit of absconding with property of all kinds. I get away with it by paying for the stuff, knowing all along that my right to possess comes only from having deeper pockets than others. Lately I’ve been stealing—from auction—the late paintings of de Kooning. During his Alzheimer’s years.”
And then I recalled the events leading to my invitation here, how I fell into Morris’s good graces. If for no other reason than puncturing the ennui—the very one she laments—I allowed them in whenever they would pound on my conspicuous bright red door.
Beth Morris is gone another day. I suspect the one-percenter in this. True, he was agreeable enough around our set, a man who can move in all crowds. He was agreeable, like a nonplussed thief discussing his own role in the big robbery. He’s the reason why I meander through this city, at this hour.
I stomp forward in the midnight freeze, pounding Reinhold’s red door a few times. Returning, pounding on it again. A few weeks ago, out of the blue, that door opened. And the one-percenter did a strange thing: let two people off the street into his elaborate quarters. This is a quiet corner of the city at this time of night. It is a place where people from all over the district go walking late, looking for permission to think.
It is also densely populated, so we couldn’t have been the only ones listening. We debated what made those sounds, Satie, Debussy, and Ravel resounding all over the neighborhood. Was it a real person on a piano, or a stereo? The safe bet was that this came from a fancy record player. The kind that had speakers built in to the walls.
Morris knocked on the door to thank whoever this person was, and get an answer to a question that bugged us for years. This is frowned upon behavior in an eternally suspicious city where you don’t just go knocking on doors, although I couldn’t see the harm. Morris is in some kind of danger because of it. He had been home, but this couldn’t have been a desertion.
It turned out the music was a little experiment to see who would come around.
Your curiosity would go rewarded, Reinhold said, annoyingly addressing Morris and not me. Morris, who admittedly had something in common with this person. Morris, who would stay awake all hours working on his obscure articles. Morris, who doesn’t know how to turn off that kind of impulse, who thinks writing for no one is its own reward.
My husband actually needed convincing to turn in his tenure portfolio. He had intellectually abandoned the daily stresses of academia. We’re talking about a private catholic college, and Morris is a left wing atheist. During the day he played the part, followed by drawn out complaints by night. No work place would allow him to be his genuine self, he insisted. All workplaces made caricatures of us. Interpersonal mutilation was the real reason managers existed. The great nameless problem of the workplace was exacerbated in an era of unpaid interns to bully by fiat.
The most important advantage of wealth is never having to expend mental energy in service to someone else. For this reason Morris retained enough envy toward Reinhold to offset inevitable resentments. This parasite—my metaphor, not Morris’s—used his surplus time to cultivate something important, the mastery of classical music. Meanwhile everyone else plies forward in directions not of their choosing, over longer hours, for lower wages.
We quickly discovered that it really was him at the piano, which was a shiny grand fitting comfortably within its own echo chamber. All night he pounded the keys, pushed on by inertia, hardly napping. He could play for the philharmonic if he wanted to, not just finance it. We became his regular audience, arriving and leaving as we liked, on the grounds that we never interrupt him during a number. He played his moods, lurching from queer silence to galloping codas.
He was the kind of person who seemed to leave an opium trail in their wake, intoxicating urban adventurers like Morris. Strangers came and went, presumably those brave enough to walk in on these semi-public performances. Alternatively, this could have been some loose cult, counting those coming and going as its members.
Now I feel so empty, robbed. Maybe those migraines Morris complained about weren’t migraines. In fact, things were turning glacially different over time. He was getting less angry at things, disengaging. His usual story telling veered into hallucination. I edited the odd tangential passages out of Perspectives, which he said was his machine for thinking.
Reinhold said revolution wouldn’t be initiated through ballot boxes or legislation or political activism like social scientists believed. What he and his apparent followers wanted was a revolution in thought and expression. It would come to us like a language, and it was the job of painters, musicians, filmmakers, and writers to invent that language, to break through what he called this period of reaction. Would he steal my husband, in his delicate state, for this purpose?
Reinhold thought there was ground left to blaze in stream-of-consciousness prose, from which might spring a manifesto. Where other writers have long experimented with this, Morris could execute it honestly, dispassionately, until the words turned in to music. No more tenure pressure killing the imagination, no restraint of any kind. Reinhold would look over his shoulder, guiding, instigating, and if necessary invent themes for Morris to interpret.
Sooner or later, Reinhold says, all thought will come in expressionistic forms.
So goes the revelation: I know Morris was kidnapped. Isn’t kidnapping an act of violence, inviting retaliatory destruction out of necessity? To not act would be pliant in the face of a powerful person’s capricious experiment, run on others.
I close my eyes for clarity. The sequence of events unfolds this way: Morris shows up at the red door. He grows blank like a whiteboard undergoing erasure, ripe for manipulation. Reinhold, a neurologist, must’ve recognized the symptoms. Willem de Kooning, he would say, executed much of his best expressionism after his mind started going. Furthermore Reinhold was vaguely aware there were outtakes in Perspectives that would connect meaningfully. They would fit together what’s left of Morris’s broken mind like pieces of glass.
There were real de Kooning’s hanging on his walls, by the way. It is an extensive collection of the artist’s late canon, when he somehow painted three hundred of his best abstract works.
The emergency operator didn’t buy the theory. That left confrontation. My next stop is to the hardware store to pick up a crowbar, or maybe a bat, or both. With that I’ll be back at that conspicuous front door, and dismember it at the hinges. Reinhold I still play for them once in a while, not holding the attack too much against her. Her freshly unemployed husband is more restful than she has ever seen him. His medical advice is simple: don’t do too many things at once. Finally, the joyful simplicity he long sought. The two of them hold hands, strolling the ritziest sidewalks, alight with a turn-of-the-century European pastiche.
From here on, everything hinges on how things seem rather than how they actually are—that is what I know about these cases. Morris’s mental state could make him look cured for the day, or afflicted, I told Beth. Do not take Morris out of his routine. Let him work on his new book if he wants (for which he may produce an intelligible draft). I walk to their neighborhood frequently, giving Beth words of optimism.
My mind returns to the crunch of glass crystals under my feet, to the pounding of my aging heart that night. That is how I learned her husband had been missing. The costly mess revealed in her a repellant conspiratorial mindset. There lurked an inner sense of personal disempowerment that forces faulty connections between disparate facts.
There must still have been some rightness in her busting up my mansion. What’s scary is that her eternal suspicions of me might be true. Guilt lies not in fact but in thought. Maybe I’d like to see things change, or maybe I just want to see things break. Besides, her budding conspiracy theory came during one of those lonesome times when the mind spins its shrieking wheels the loudest.
Today I see them pass by, not far from the cold grass where they found Morris after he did not come home. She is good with Morris, able to string together happiness moment by moment like an artist. They are getting further away, passing the mansion, disappearing into the vast green swirl of the park. He looks fine, but she knows problems are brewing. The trees roll gently by, a park of dreams. Problems are brewing, but things are plenty tranquil now.
Joshua Leon has recently written for Dissent, Third World Quarterly, Metropolis, Peace Review, The China Beat, Cities, Brooklyn Rail, Monthly Review, Z-Magazine, Asia Times, Epoch Times, Arch Daily, Urban Omnibus, and Cambridge Review of International Affairs. His book The Rise Of Global Health came out this year.