Eating pizza the other week at a new restaurant in Brooklyn, I was reminded of Voltaire’s famous saying that without the shitting duck, who would remember the glory of France? He was referring, of course, to the automaton invented by Jacques de Vaucanson, the canard digérateur, a mechanical duck that appeared to eat grain through its mouth then digest the food and defecate the waste. It was a fairly simple trick. The eaten food was stored in one compartment inside the duck and the waste product, already packed inside, was emptied from another compartment. But what’s simple and what’s complex are often confused. The mechanics must have been quite advanced for the time. Isn’t the modern world full of marvels? Or is that wonders? I can’t tell the difference anymore—between a marvel and a wonder. That must be a modern deficiency as well. Maybe others have a better perspective on the subject, somewhere in a land of dreamers. Brooklyn is not a land of dreamers, but there are days I walk the streets thinking, what will our glory be? Among Voltaire’s aristocratic enemies was the Chevalier de Rohan, who ordered Voltaire brutally beaten in the street one night while his friends enjoyed themselves upstairs at dinner. The difference between eating pizza and eating shit is hardly abstract, yet enlightened men and women have argued this point for centuries. The debate over true abstraction hasn’t even begun.
I’m going down it. There’s nothing else to be done. There are only so many drugs you can take before you fall asleep. This is where you and I part ways. Me in my black helicopter. You in your van driving off the pier. I know how bad this looks. These reckless accusations undermining our public discourse. I was ready to let it all go. Chance is not always unkind. But recognizing your limitations is not the same as waiting day after day by the window. If you’re going to give up on your dreams, you might as well get it over with. As if you had the choice of turning back. Participation is not mandatory. Compulsion is not participation. There’s still the question of how to ensure your place in history. To be a man of war or a man of peace. Either way you have to stay on message. There are greater dangers in the world than a crazy lady on a park bench cutting her own hair with scissors. I wasn’t expecting this opportunity to be ignored. I wasn’t expecting panic to strike the population so thoroughly. Right as the sun struck through the scaffolding. It’s just so much easier to laugh in the interviewer’s face. Because that’s what modern life is about: getting things done. There are whole cities colder than you and I can imagine. When the time comes, you’ll know what purification looks like.
The situation is not in your control. You are helpless to change the circumstances. How much of you is left after this conversion? When there are no dead among us and what you want you cannot have. The rules are there to keep you safe. The limits are there for your protection. We discussed the problem at length. The violence at the beginning. The need for a violent beginning. All those mornings we lost ourselves. Going farther, slowly farther, out of our depth. The light as a medium we bent to our will. The edges like planes on which it turned. Now every move is answered with its double. The green winter suspended in the white winter. The nearer suspended in the farther. Opening into opening, frame into frame. You refuse to submit until submission overcomes you. The mornings overcome you. The backdrop stripped of its darkness. The still shot drained of its light. The approach is sudden and immediate.
DEGRADATION OF GENIUS
The exact phrasing “degradation of genius” does not appear in the text of Dr. Johnson’s life of Dryden, but is rather an editorial insertion in the form of a running head, condensed from the more complete “degradation of the dignity of genius,” which possibly carries a separate, if not opposite, meaning. Without the doctor’s notes on the subject, this angle of criticism may have gone unremarked: “Of the mind that can trade in corruption, and can deliberately pollute itself with ideal wickedness for the sake of spreading the contagion in society, I wish not to conceal or excuse the depravity. Such degradation of the dignity of genius, such abuse of superlative abilities, cannot be contemplated but with grief and indignation. What consolation can be had, Dryden has afforded, by living to repent, and to testify his repentance.” Other running heads in the surrounding pages, some of which also signal degradation, include “theatrical profits,” “conversion to Rome,” “the revolution,” “story of his funeral,” “answers to critics,” “belief in astrology,” “forced conceits,” “character of mind,” “extravagances,” “faults of negligence,” and “his poverty.”
Of the many ways to be degraded, some are more exacting than others. But is it possible that we corrupt ourselves by imagining evil? For all Dr. Johnson knew, Dryden was already lost, years before, to the contagion. We are either the agents of history or we are its outcasts. We come unprovided to the controversy, but not unprovided of matter. Polluted by silver salts, light-sensitive agents, we are released from what we were. Degraded compounds, degraded elements, degraded images. Neither a change of mind nor a change of heart, but the delight of the mind in the investigation of secrets, the delight of the heart in its pleasing captivity. That one may by accident introduce the other. The seasons darken us with their stories, turn by turn, until at last we can speak for ourselves: The contagion is in the woods. The contagion is in the streets. The contagion is in the blood. Now the contagion has come to me. The contagion is in me now. The contagion has arrived.
In an age of reason, you must make an example. In an age of reason, you must be made an example of. Above all laws, you place happiness in your first religion. No authority is given for your first religion. The first teacher is forgotten, the first instruction. Not only the facts, but the way they were learned. What holds together the fragments of other people’s behavior? The same story, told by someone else, would be different. The same events, in the same circumstances, would not have happened to someone else. Or they would have happened, but a different meaning would be attached. When the attention is fixed, you cannot say what kind of knowledge was required or how it was received. Every degradation carries its own immunity. A perpetual material more direction than machine. The future not the past. Then the contagion spreads through the year and any conceivable objection is ignored. Because there is another happiness exempt from these restraints.
An idea that lives by the legend of its own power is irrefutable. Where is the “dignity” in language already so degraded that it is, for all purposes, meaningless? In Tolstoy’s theory of history, the degraded words we use to explain events are inherently corrupted by our ignorance: “The words chance and genius do not designate anything that actually exists and therefore cannot be defined. These words designate only a certain degree of understanding of phenomenon. I do not know why such-and-such a phenomenon occurs; I think that I cannot know it; therefore I say: chance. I see a power that produces effects incommensurate with common human qualities; I do not know why that happens, and I say: genius.” That we have words we use to describe a failure of understanding is generally acknowledged, just as we commonly admit that our use of words in itself degrades them, but how to speak of the vacuum that occurs when words lose their power to control us? “What force moves peoples?” Tolstoy asks. What force does not?
The contagion casts its spell. Nothing passes without notice. In the place of rules, there are only doubts on one side, only evidence on the other. The sun as an agent of history. The sun burning through the seasons. Forest succession, bloodless decay. The dependency of one event on another. Now the contagion is in the air. One mind imagines evil, another brings it about. What consolation is there? You should have stayed in the reverie. You should have stayed in the background. There’s a power where you’ve gone that no one speaks of. The light degraded in the air as you move. The light dredged and magnified like an artifact. The path of transmission goes one way. The direction is mechanical. The seasons shut down like closing doors behind you. There’s movement between the seasons, but the movement is hidden from you. The future is more hidden from you than you know.