Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why I am an Atheist

I suppose I'm an atheist because I had a privileged childhood. Not in the usual sense of that phrase--my family was working class, unintellectual, unartistic, unimaginative--but in an arguably more important way: I had the privilege of growing up without religion.

My family was vaguely Protestant, and if asked by a pollster if they believed in God, both of my parents would likely have answered, "Yes" (which is why I've never trusted those polls that purport to show extraordinarily high levels of religiosity among Americans), but there was no compulsory religion in my childhood home. My parents didn't attend a church (and there were plenty to choose from in Lima, Ohio, from Catholic to Lutheran to Methodist to Mormon to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses); hence, I was never forced to go to Sunday school; and our living room bookshelf held a set of encyclopedias instead of a traveling salesman's Bible. There was no hostility toward religion in my family; in fact, my parents had a positive attitude toward religion in theory; it was the practice of religion in our Midwestern Bible Belt town that they saw as a hotbed of hypocrisy.

Since I didn't suffer the early implantation of religion in my brain, I was able to adopt a critical attitude toward it as soon as I began to think. At a very young age, I perceived that the consolations of religion were about as credible as a Roadrunner cartoon. I watched my grandparents' coffins disappear into holes in the graveyard ground, and saw no reason to believe that some part of them had magically escaped from their bodies and Houdinied its non-substance into an imaginary realm where my sickly Grandma and bearish Grandpa were transformed into airy angels. Not bloody likely. And no more likely, if much more creepy, was the idea of God as transcendental voyeur, a theological NSA spying with Santa-like ubiquity on our most private doings (including doings done behind bathroom doors). Even less likely was the idea of a loving God sadistic enough to crucify his only child and then spend the rest of his immortality demanding that the creatures he supposedly loves follow a set of absurd rules or be condemned to eternal torture. (I especially like the prohibition against seething a kid in its mother's milk; I'll never do that, I promise.) It is a very strange notion of love with which Christianity warps its believers.

The clincher, though, was that simple and brilliant question every child asks: If God made everything, who made God? Thus does every five year-old refute the First Cause argument. The arbitrary theological closure of the chain of causation seemed deeply 'unfair' to my child's mind, the equivalent of a frustrated adult answering my innocent (if irritating) inquiries with a curt, "Because I said so, that's why." I had much the same reaction to the climax of the book of Job, when God justifies making one of his believers' lives a living hell (in order to win a bet!) by telling the tormented Job, essentially, "Who are you to question me, you pathetic human?" A God who could justify himself no better than my Dad was surely not worthy of worship.

So I was a confirmed skeptic even before my first encounters with the two dead Brits who would turn me toward agnosticism, Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell. In one important and purely inadvertent way, religious fundamentalists are absolutely correct about Darwin: the concept of evolution by natural selection is an assault upon the religious worldview. In fact, it's an idea that renders religion unnecessary (just as the cosmological theories of contemporary physics do the same thing on a universal scale). We need no anthropomorphized creator because we have been 'created' by an unintelligent process working over millions of years, the same basic process that has 'created' all other life on our planet. When religion fights evolution, religion is fighting for its life, and that fact is the most convincing and eloquent testimony for the power of evolution to dissolve religion like a teaspoon of salt in a glass of water.

Darwin would probably have led me directly to atheism if I had not also, at about the same time (in junior high and high school), discovered the writings of Bertrand Russell. Lord Bertie was my first intellectual hero. His scathing wit and great good sense, wonderfully paraded in such essays as "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" and "Why I Am Not A Christian," brought me to agnosticism as the most seemingly reasonable and liberal and tolerant of religious positions. Since the question of God's existence cannot be positively or negatively answered with logical certainty, we should pass over it in Wittgensteinian silence and respect the beliefs and believers of all religions while accepting none.

This agnostic pluralism flowered a few years later (during my college years) into a comparative study of all the world's major religions. I read the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, the teachings of the Buddha, scholarly studies of South and East Asian religions, books on Zen, books by Confucius and Mencius and Lao-Tse, the Tibetan and Egyptian books of the dead, Joseph Campbell on mythology, Gershom Scholem on the Kabbalah, scholarly and popular books on the history of Christianity (Elaine Pagels was a favorite); and all of this study resulted in three successive realizations. First, I quickly realized that I now knew more about religion than most believers, very few of whom know even the most basic historical facts about the religions in which they claim to believe. (Ask any Christian to name the approximate dates at which the various books of the Bible were written; I'll give very good odds that he or she won't have a clue.) Second, I was drawn to Buddhism as the only one of the world's religions that accorded value to a consciousness of nothingness, the sense (which I personally experienced in a psychologically decisive way) that an abyss of unmeaning underlies all that we think we know. Third, I came to understand this attraction to Buddhism as a kind of 'atheism by other means,' a bad faith way of embracing unbelief under the umbrella of a vague and trendy spirituality.

My arrival at this last position prepared me for the final and decisive step, my discovery of Jean-Paul Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism" and Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus. I have since learned to spot the weaknesses in both these texts, but in my early twenties they were exactly the intellectual fuel I needed to launch myself out of a weak, wishy-washy agnosticism into a tough-minded and pugnacious atheism. These books (and others, by Beauvoir, Beckett, Genet, Faulkner, etc.) also validated my experience of nothingness by positing a world in which we must freely act to create ourselves in the midst of absurdity and meaninglessness. Our existence was a matter of pure contingency, and it was our duty to make from the bare fact of this existence a meaningful life. The world modeled by atheist existentialism was closer to the world of my experience than any of the other worlds modeled by philosophers and theologians. To me, reality appeared more Sartrean/Camusesque than Kantian or Hegelian, Cartesian or Christian, Foucaultian or Platonic. So I am an atheist, finally, because atheism is the idea that best fits the world. It is an idea that liberates and inspires, that gives nothing to imaginary gods and demands freedom for all human beings. It is quite possibly the most revolutionary idea in all of human history. It is an idea for our time.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A pot o' gold (or something like that) for Madness Trippers

...and since anyone who's made it to the end of The Madness Trip deserves a bonus, here, courtesy of YouTube, is a ca.1971 tour of legendary American writer Henry Miller's bathroom, guided by the man himself. It's a wonderful short film, very Millerian, directed by Tom Schiller and titled Henry Miller Asleep and Awake; the last section, which does feel a bit tacked-on, was filmed on the set of Hello, Dolly! (Henry Miller and Hello, Dolly!.. that's kinda like matter and antimatter, dontcha know...)

And here's an interesting short interview with Tom Schiller, director of the Miller film:

Monday, July 29, 2013

THE MADNESS TRIP by B. A. Oard: Chapters Nine and Ten of a Work-in-Progress

(Here are the last two chapters from my 2010 manuscript of The Madness Trip: A Surrealistic Pornobiographical Phantasmagoria)


“Break this under your nose and inhale,” says the girl with Louise Brooks hair as we move to a techno beat. I pop the amyl and my nostrils are flooded with orange peel and auto exhaust. Lara and I are raving, dancing in a crowd of hundreds of other young people–geeks, queens, queers, freakazoids, druggies, punks, posers like me–packed into a dark warehouse on the south side of Cleveland. The popper hits me and immediately I feel a hundred feet tall and invincible, omniscient, ready to lecture on Plato and Pluralism, Einstein and Falsifiability. I feel like a monster from a Japanese movie, some Godzilla Rodan Megalon primed to pulverize a multitude of miniature Osakas. No computerized cabal of dismally dubbed scientists can stop me now. I feel Lara’s face in my hands, and the thought that I could crush it, snap her head off like an insect’s, passes like a rainbow of blackness through my mind. Her arms encircle my neck and pull me close; my hand descends to her breast and cups it gently through her t-shirt and bra. The throbbing bassline, repeating synthesizer riffs, flashing purple strobes, spotlights swinging over the crowd, and the Ecstasy I took earlier all combine and whirl into the vortex of Lara’s face, into that tight cap of shiny dark hair, the bangs across her forehead, the black Anouk-Aimee-in-8 1/2 glasses framing and magnifying her brown eyes. I kiss the tip of her nose and she smiles cutely and kisses my lips. “God I wanna fuck,” I whisper urgently. “I know,” she says dreamily, “me too...It’s so beautiful...” Kissing her again and pressing our hips together, my cock against her thigh, I return to the first time our faces were almost this close, the night she leaned down to me in the Baker Hall computer lab and whispered, “Danny, could you walk me home tonight?”

“Sure,” I reply immediately, more than mildly excited by the proximity of her face.

“Thanks. I don’t like to walk across campus alone this late at night.”

We know each other slightly, having sat together through Professor Fisher’s course in How to Make the Modern British Novel as Boring as a Bag of Old Socks, but this is the first time either of us has addressed the other by name.

“If you’re done working, that is,” Lara adds.

“Oh, I’m done for tonight,” I blurt out with nervous rapidity. After stuffing pages of scribbled notes into my backpack, I flip a finger at the computer screen. “This isn’t due until next week anyway. I’m failing miserably in my project of perpetual procrastination.”

She squints at the glaring white glass. “What’re you working on, Yeats?”

“Yeah. I’m trying to type it into turninable form. It’s on ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and Keats’s Grecian Ode. Yeats’s bird and Keats’s urn, erotic frustration and the illusion of transcendence in art, that sort of thing.”

“‘Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss...’ That’s so fucking sad. ‘...yet do not grieve; / She cannot fade...’ When I read that I think, Who the fuck is he trying to kid?”

“You’re right. The speaker’s grieving even as he speaks it; he tries to use the urn to tease himself out of these thoughts, but he fails because the urn is inhuman. That’s the coldness of the pastoral.”

“And where does Yeats come in?”

“When I have an answer to that one, I’ll let you know. Yeats is harder, in some ways. Irish nuts are tougher to crack.”

As we leave the lab, Lara says, “I think the last stanza of that Yeats poem is fucking horrifying, you know? The soul trapped inside a mechanical bird. That’s like something in E. T. A. Hoffmann or Poe. Why don’t we shiver when we read that? It’s nightmare stuff.”

“My problem with Yeats is all the metaphysical mumbo jumbo he’s enthralled with. It all makes transcendence way too easy. He wants his soul to slip into the golden bird as easily as Zeus entered the swan. The poem is all about desire, but Yeats’s metaphysics eliminates the difficulty, distance and difference that produce desire. Does that make sense?”

“Maybe.” She sounds doubtful.

“How about this: desire needs a gap between its subject and its object, a space to spark across. Yeats wants to magically collapse subject and object and yet still pine away about the frustration of his desires.”

“So he’s just whining then?”

“Yeah,” I smilingly agree, “he’s just an old whiner, a fuckin’ coat on a stick. But the language is so beautiful we don’t notice that.”

When I turn toward the stairs and the front door of Baker Hall, Lara touches my arm and says, “No, let’s go this way.” She leads me up two floors and through a turning confusion of silent hallways lined with engineering research labs. Outside one ominously buzzing room, its door protected by a high-tech keypad lock, a sign declares “Live Truss Testing Underway–DO NOT ENTER.”

Lara laughs, and it’s a lovely laugh, light and feminine and as musical as the laughter in an operetta. “What the fuck is a ‘live truss’?”

“I don’t know,” I answer, “but I feel sorry for the poor bastard they’re testing it on.”

Laughing, we cross an enclosed walkway over a campus street and pass into the journalism building.

“Where are we going?”

“Nowhere special,” she says, “but I like it.”

Lara leads me through a heavy door marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, up more stairs, through a dark room of humming machinery, and out a final door that opens onto the roof.

“I thought they kept all the roof doors locked.” I say, my feet crackling on gravel as my senses adjust themselves to this unusual sixth-floor level view of the Ohio State campus.

“They do, but somebody jammed the lock on this one. Somebody named ‘me.’ I like to smoke up here.” We walk to the edge and stare down a sheer brick cliff to darkened sidewalk and street below. Lara rummages in her purse until a thick joint appears in her hand. “Are you hip?” she inquires.

“You have no idea,” I laugh.

With the tall buildings on this part of campus looming gloomily over us, we sit on the edge of the roof and pass the joint back and forth and talk. When a jet floats over low and loud on approach to Columbus airport, Lara says, “Look at them up there. ‘All breathing human passion far above,’ is that it?”

“Yeah, ‘what men or gods are these?’ or are they just a few more customers for Hertz? Or IBM reps here on business?”

“I don’t envy them, whoever they are. I’m a fan of ‘breathing human passion.’ Where do you stand on ‘breathing human passion,’ Danny?”

“It beats the alternative.” As though somehow to illustrate this statement, my weed-whacked brain (Lara carries amazingly good shit, extra preemo) sends me running along the ledge to a corner of the roof, where I throw out my arms and declaim in full-throated King Lear mode “Let copulation thrive!”

A few heads turn in the computer lab, at roof-level across the street, but they can surely see nothing through the darkness–at most, two shadows on the roof and the orange coal of Lara’s joint. Some students on the sidewalk below turn in circles and ask each other “What the fuck?!...Who said that?” But none of them look up. Sane people seldom attend to commands hurled down from the sky.

Lara, laughing again, grabs the back of my shirt and pulls me from the ledge. “Let’s go home, bad boy.” I’m still lucid enough for her unexpected use of the first-person plural (albeit contracted) to set off a pleasant stiffening in my jeans. There’s an ‘us’ now.

Giddy with grass, we giggle all the way to Lara’s apartment. Fitting her key into the lock, she asks me, “Would you like to come in?” and my “Yes!” is so unabashedly, so hornily eager that we both break into knowing laughter. As soon as we’re inside we grab each other, kissing and pulling at clothes as we hurry into the bedroom to make love.

On the downside of the popper I lose my equilibrium and hit the warehouse floor with all the celerity of a Tyson challenger. The dancers’ legs become a forest of tall trees tossed by a violent wind. Selva oscura. Birnam Wood. The spotlights moving like lighthouse beams across the crowd become sky-sweeping anti-aircraft lights, the music turns to siren screams, and I find myself on the business end of the Battle of Britain. Legs paralyzed by bomb blast, I lie bloodied in the street while hundreds of panicked Londoners run around and over me, the strobe-like flashes of distant bombs illuminating their trampling feet. I’m kicked in the back, face, teeth, a heavy Orwellian boot tramples my hair, a woman’s heel pierces my throat and she tumbles to the ground, forcing her companion to drag her away by a single jeweled wrist. And now the faces far above melt together into one massive howling orifice, its raw, meaty tongue vibrating as if electrified, its white teeth pointed and sharp as a shark’s. In place of sound, a fountain of blood gushes from its throat. I jam my eyes shut, and in blackness the sirens turn to music again. Hearing Lara’s voice I open my eyes and see her face hovering over mine. “You okay?” When I regain my feet, the rave metamorphoses into a massive, strobe-lit orgy. I’m in the middle of a darkened plain of intertwined bodies: arms sliding snakily across backs, legs entangling legs, hips and buttocks thrusting and throbbing, an endless field of fucking flesh. In a single flash of the strobe I have a vision of corpses piled haphazardly in a black and white photograph from World War Two, but by the next flash all is colored life again, moving orgiastic life, the music a chorus of orgasmic cries. “You all right?” Lara’s voice returns me to the rave. Her hand touches my cheek in a gesture of fondness and concern but not, I am now inexplicably certain, of love. I detect in her voice a maternal undertone when she repeats, “Danny? You all right?” Over her shoulder I see another Lara bending over, bracing herself against the warehouse wall while a man with the rippled body of an athlete fucks her from behind. He’s slamming into her, fucking her as hard as she likes to be fucked, and she’s calling out to him, as she does to me, urgently, “Do me!.....Do me!” In the next strobe flash I see only a confusion of dancing shadows projected on the wall. “Danny? Are you with me?” I take her face in my hands and kiss her deeply, as passionately as I can, and our bodies press together again, moving to the music.

Our faces part and I float back into myself in Lara’s bed the morning after our first night together. When I stretch and yawn and start to rise, she pulls me back with a sleepy, “Hey, where do you think you’re goin’?” She snuggles close, her lips at my ear. “Let’s talk,” she says.

“About what?”

“Anything, as long as it’s honest.”

“Uh-oh, you’re scaring me.”

“Yeah. Tell me something true. When I took my jeans off last night and you saw the scars on my thigh, you kissed them. Why did you do that?”

I let out a long, deep breath and decide to answer as honestly as I can. “Because when I saw those scars, they told me that you wanted to die. And that made me want to love you. Are you sorry you asked for honesty now?”

“No.” When I say nothing more, she continues. “But you’re wrong about my scars. I didn’t cut myself because I wanted to die. I did it because I wanted to feel. I never wanted to die.”

“I don’t think I did either, really. I wanted to kill the person I was so I could become someone else. I wanted to free myself from my past. Wipe the slate clean.”

“Tell me about that.”

“That could take a while.”

“That’s all right, I have a while. And you’re a–what?–twenty-two year-old–”


“Okay. You’re a twenty-three year-old guy in the arms of a fantastically sexy twenty-one year-old girl. I don’t think you have anything better to do today, do you?”

So I tell Lara everything. While the yellow bar of morning sunlight on her bedroom wall creeps to the floor and climbs across the bed to crouch below the window, I tell her about craziness, hallucinations, delusions, waking nightmares, depression, suicide attempts, omnisexual desires. When I finish, she surprises me by asking, “Have you ever seen a psychiatrist?” The cliched question, exactly the response I would expect from an unimaginative, unsympathetic listener, carves a divot of disappointment into my chest.

“Once,” I answer. “I told him almost everything I just told you–greatly edited, though, because we only had an hour. But in CIA terms, which are the best terms we have for deep, dark secrets, I gave this guy the ‘family jewels.’ It was not a ‘modified limited hangout.’ I told him everything. I opened myself to him more completely than I had ever opened myself before. And when I finished, he picked up the watch that he’d laid on the table between us at the beginning of the session, handed me a big Minnesota Multiphasic book–one of those multiple choice psychological testing things, you know?–and he said, ‘Fill this out and bring it back next week. Goodbye now.’ It was like the guy hadn’t heard a word I said. The only thing he was interested in was my fucking score on a standardized test. I never went back.”

“Needless to say. Guy sounds like an asshole.”

“He was a clueless technocrat. But perfectly nice about it.”

“They usually are.”

“You speaking from experience?”

“Guess it’s my turn now, huh?”Lara says. “I’ve had too much experience with psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis. Anything that begins with ‘psych’ spells panacea to my parents.”

“Even Psycho?”

Psycho II is my dad’s favorite movie.”

“Oh Christ. They made that one after Hitchcock died.”

“Yes. Well, you already know I used to be a cutter--”

“Used to be? What are you now?”

“A walking pharmacy.” She rolls over, opens the drawer of her nightstand, and starts tossing pill bottles onto the bed between us. “This is a dopamine blocker that keeps me from having all those freaky hallucinations you’re so familiar with. My signature one was a swarm of bees flying out of that air conditioner over there and attacking me, crawling all over my body.”


“Yeah. And this is an antidepressant. You know what that’s for. And here’s a more powerful antipsychotic for when the first one doesn’t work. I’ve only had to take a couple of these. The funny thing about them is: one of the side effects is psychosis. Here’s another antidepressant to be taken with the first. There’s a third one in here somewhere. And oh! Here are my birth control pills. Guess I better start takin’ ‘em again, huh?” She pops one in her mouth and kisses me. “Thank you very much. Here’s an old antipsychotic I don’t take anymore because it made me suicidal. Here’s the antidepressant that I was prescribed to counteract that antipsychotic. And this one’s my favorite: it’s a mild tranquilizer that I had to take a year ago because my antidepressant was working too well. I was euphoric, tiptoeing on the fucking clouds eighteen hours a day.”

“Sounds great. Couldn’t they just cut the dosage?”

“That’s what I asked my doctor. He said, ‘No, no, the dosage is solid. It’s proving itself. We’ll just treat the side effect, and that should bring everything into line.’”

“Did it?”

“Of course not. It just made me wacky in a different direction.” She gathers the pill bottles up and dumps them in the drawer. One hits the floor and rolls under her dresser. “No biggie. As long as it’s not the dopamine inhibitor. That’s the only one I actually take, because life without it would just be too fucking bizarre. The dopa and weed are all I need. I’m a pothead, as I guess you also know.” She lies back beside me. “And I’m an English major. So that’s me.”

“You saved the worst for last.”

“Oh yes. English. You know, when I was a freshman I dated a boy from India and when I told him I was an English major he said, ‘Don’t you already know how to speak English?’”

“Don’t laugh,” I tell her. “That guy’s gonna be your boss or mine someday. With a mind like that, he’ll go far in the corporate world.”

“His biggest dream was to be an accountant.”

“He’ll probably spend his entire life wondering why other people have so much trouble achieving their dreams... So I’m going to take a wild guess and say that you intend to be an English professor when you grow up.”

“That’s all an English degree is good for, isn’t it?”

“Oh come on, you need to read more departmental propaganda.” I slip into my OSU promotional video narrator voice. “A bachelor’s degree in English prepares students for a wide variety of challenging and satisfying career opportunities. Graduates who choose to continue their education can become English professors, fat English professors, thin English professors, short English professors, tall English professors, cool English professors, nerdy English professors, arrogant English professors, shy English professors, closeted English professors, butch English professors, femme English professors, androgynous English professors, alcoholic English professors–”

“Okay, okay.”

Dr. Felix Fisher, a short, arrogant English professor who lives under the mistaken impression that his students regard him as a cool, artfully unkempt one, glares at me over the stacks of papers covering his desk, stacks so high that his head looks decapitated, the head of an unhandsome, unmusical Orpheus set adrift on a sea of dirty milk. I have just informed him that I have decided not to attend graduate school, and he’s saying, in a voice layered with Bronx gravel, “Well, what do you intend to do with yourself then?”

I mumble something about traveling, getting a job, etc. to which he responds with sarcasm so witless it’s almost funny: “Good plan. I hear McDonald’s is hiring.”

At this point I should stand up, turn my back on Fisher’s phrenological head, and leave his office. But for some incomprehensible reason, I remain seated. I still believe Felix Fisher has something to teach me.

“Why don’t you want to go to grad school?” he finally asks after several uncomfortably silent seconds.

“I just don’t think I would like teaching. I don’t think I would enjoy it.”

“Nobody really enjoys it. It’s a job.” The floating head smiles as it begins to philosophize. “‘Like’ is for weekends. This here is ‘do’ time.” A finger appears and taps one of the paper stacks. “This is what we do so we can do what we like. So why don’t you tell me why you really don’t wanna go to grad school, kid?”

Somewhat surprised by his challenge, I respond, “Two reasons. First, I worked in the corporate world and I hated it. And the more I see of the university, the more like a corporation it seems. It’s IBM with Michel Foucault instead of microchips. Second, there’s the fact that the world doesn’t really need yet another book on Joyce.” I say this knowing that one of the stacks on Fisher’s desk contains the galleys of his latest book, On Joyce.

“That’s fair, the first part anyway,” he says, “but what did you expect? It’s a corporate world. That’s the paradigm we’re living in. The idea that the academy is some kinda haven from that is a buncha Romantic bullshit that’s better left behind.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“I said it, didn’t I? A university is a business like any other, and we’re the professionals who run it. I encourage all my serious students to take a few courses in the Business department, because that’s where the future of the English department lies. Our profession needs to loosen up, be less standoffish and elitist. We need to embrace the business world, because it’s gonna embrace us whether we like it or not. Look: the corporatization of the profession is inevitable. It’s already well underway. So let’s get out in front of it. That’s what I say. Let’s find out what corporations need from us and give it to ‘em.”

“Isn’t that kind of, I don’t know, self-destructive?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“I mean, what use does the corporate world have for most of what English professors do? Microsoft doesn’t care about new interpretations of Henry James–”


“–Chevron doesn’t care about deconstructions of Moby Dick–”

“Not at all.”

“–and the only thing Boeing knows about modern literature is that one of its former employees writes books nobody in management can understand.”

“Who’s that?”


“Oh. Yeah”

“And if corporations can’t find any use for literature, then all that’s left is language study and composition.”

“Bingo! You just put your finger on it, kid.” Fisher’s head is joined by an illustrative index finger.

“The future of the English department is Freshman Composition?” My tone is disbelieving.

“Don’t knock it. It butters my bread, and it’ll butter yours too, providing you come to your senses. Composition is the only product we have that the business world wants to buy. We need to retool the profession to focus on writing instruction and jettison all this elitist deadwood, all these books nobody reads but us, all this so-called literature, a concept I personally deconstructed twenty years ago. We gotta get out in front on this, because the change is coming. The corporate revolution is coming, and I intend to get out in front and ride that wave, just like I rode the last one, the theory revolution.”

“Don’t you think some kind of oppositional stance is possible?”

“Whaddya mean? You mean you wanna fight the corporations? Like David with his slingshot?” His stone-cold sarcasm returns. “Yeah. Good luck with that... Hasn’t worked since the First Book of Samuel.” After another silence he asks, “So you really don’t know what you’re going to do with your life?”

“I might take off for Europe, write a novel...” Put you in it, Prof, I think, show everyone what a dick you are.

“Hemingway’s dead, you know,” Fisher says flatly.

“You’re tellin’ me.”

“‘You’re tellin’ me,’” I repeat to Lara in bed that night, recounting the meeting, “that’s what I shoulda told that snide fuckin’ asshole.”

“What did you really say?”

“Nothing. I nodded like a respectful little shit and smiled at his joke. I wanted to grab the letter opener on his desk–you know that silver one engraved with his initials that he displays like a museum piece?–I wanted to grab it and slit his fuckin’ throat with it. So I got outta there, fast.”

“Good move.” The bed shifts and groans a complaint as Lara, her hair sexily disordered, raises herself on one elbow to look down at me, peering over the tops of her glasses like a European movie star. “Did it ever occur to you that our professors are jealous of us? I mean, think about it. They’re all middle-aged and locked into careers and families and mortgages and bills. Their lives are closed and have been for years, but their students’ lives are still open, and there’s no way that can’t eat at them. They must resent the hell out of us, whether they know it or not.”

“They sold out.”

“Fisher? He sold out years ago. They all sold out and moved away, and now they’re just shells. The whole Humanities faculty’s like a collection of empty shells. And that’s why they need us. They’re like vampires, and we’re the blood. That’s why they resent us, too. They can’t stand the thought that the thing they need might not be as empty and helpless as they are. That’s why they want to turn us into clones of themselves.”

“It’s like the end of Freaks, huh?” I chant horrorshowily, “‘One of us, one of us...’”

“Exactly. You’re right to get out. Go as far away as you can.”

“If you feel that way, why do you want to be,” chanting, “one of them, one of them?”

“Because I think it’s the only job I could stand. Anything else would just be hopeless.”

“And you have your pills to fall back on.”

“Pills will help. And at least I’m going into it with my eyes open.” Her eyes travel down to a growing bulge in the blanket. “You’re hard again.”

“Vampire talk makes me horny.”

“I bet a box of Shredded Wheat would make you horny.”

“With or without raisins?”

“You wanna fuck?”

“Have I ever answered that question with a negative?”

“Not that I can recall, Senator.” Lara lies down and pulls me on top. “Okay. Come here... Yeah, I’m still wet... Start in my pussy, but I want you to come in my ass, okay?... Let me get my legs up here–”

“What the fuck was that?”

“Nothing. My hip joint. Pops like that sometimes. It doesn’t hurt. Just sounds nasty as hell. I’m pretty limber.”

“So I’ve noticed.”

“You... ah... Yeah...”

“God... your pussy feels so beautiful... ah...”

“Mmmm... Fuck me... oh... ah... Faster...”

Bedsprings trio our duet: whee-o, whee-o, whee-o, “oh... god...” whee-o “fuck me Danny...”

...“Hhhf” “ah” whee “hhhf” o “ah” whee “uh” o “ah” whee “oh fuck” whee-o whee-o...

“...oh fuck me... oh... ah-ah... oh... faster faster...”

“–uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh–oh... oh god–hey!... oh... No, I’m okay, it’s okay... ah-ah-ah-uh-u-hu-uh-u-h-uh-uh-uh-u-”

“Oh, ah, oh, oh, ah, oh, oh yes, oh yes, oh fuck.... Do me!... Do me!... Harder!... Do me!”

“Aieyah, aieyah, aieyah, aye, aye, ah, yah...”

“–whoa yeah! Whoa! Whoa-HAAA! YES! OH GOD AAAAAAAAAAAAA AAHHHH!-- YES! --YES! – OHGODFUCKYES!–OH god, oh... Come in my ass! Come in my ass!–”

“–ah, ah, ah!...okay ...gotta get it wet... Here goes–”



“Zalright, zalright... fuck me... fuck my ass... fuck me...”

“–oom–oom–oooom–ooom–oooooom–uh-uh-uh. Oh! Oh god your ass is so tight! Oh, oh, oh god....ha... ah...ah, oh, oh , oh, I’m coming!”

“Danny! Danny! Come! Come in my ass! Come!”

“–oh-HAAAAAAAAA!, ah-HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!, OH!... OH! Oh god, AH!... OH!... Oh yes, oh fuck yes, oh yeah....ah.....ah........oh, beautiful.... Oh you are so beautiful... God Lara I love you.”

“Love you too.”

A minute’s breathy silence.

“So what do I look like down there?”

“Huh? ...Oh... I see... a beautiful dark red rose... blown wide open... red around the petals... and dark at the heart... You’re a goddess. You’re a fucking goddess.” I press my lips to her dilated anus and kiss the dark rose before it closes again.

Lara’s legs come down with another loud pop, and I curl up in their enclosure, my head on her belly, her fingers in my hair. “You really love me , don’t you?” she says after a while. My tongue rises from the edge of her navel to say “Yes.” She says nothing. I close my eyes as her fingers play with my hair. “How bi are you, Danny? These days, I mean?”

“These days?” My voice is a drowsy echo of Lara’s. My eyes remain closed. “These days I’m about ninety percent hetero.”

“Tell me about the other ten percent.”

A funky little metal fan mounted on a bracket above the door ventilates the tiny elevator that lifts me to the top floor of the OSU Main Library, the level where the university’s most literate graffiti can be found. While the scribblers in the ground-floor toilets are content with such extempore effusions as “I jist droped a bom” or “Suk my bug cock” (I assume the third word is a failed attempt at ‘big,’ although the possibility of an entomology major with a praying mantis in his pocket cannot be discounted), the twelfth floor desktops boast carefully written and thoughtful (not to mention orthographically correct) quotations from Nietzsche, Wilde, Gide, Sartre and other favorites of the advanced undergraduate sodomite. For it’s not solely the archaeology of graffiti that drives me skyward today. The twelfth floor competes with the library’s second floor restroom as the campus’s premier cruising spot, and I’m up here looking for a boy to fuck.

The old elevator stops with a shudder, the doors slide jerkily apart, and I step onto a floor where the stacks hold only antiquated encyclopedias and bound volumes of magazines no one has read since the 1890s. I casually walk through the stacks, hands in my pockets, face nonchalant, taking a circuitous census of the floor. On my first circuit I notice a skinny, freshman-looking kid sitting at a study desk by a window and pretending to read a flaking leather volume of The Midlands Agricultural Digest for 1871. His eyes flick up and his head turns to follow me, but I walk on, deeper into the stacks, hoping for something a bit spicier, more dangerous-looking. But the kid is this noon’s only candidate, so when I pass his aisle again I pause and turn to see him staring frankly back at me over the top of his digest.

“Your book’s upside down,” I say.

His eyes shoot down to check. “It is not,” he responds in a snotty, offended tone.

“Just checking.” With a slight, amused smile, I walk closer to him until I see a flash of fear in his eyes.

He says, “You’re not going to hit me, are you?”

“Do I look like some dumbass basher to you?”

“Oh. I guess not. You gotta be careful around here, though.”

We’re close and whispering now. “Where are you from?”


“You don’t have to be careful in Cleveland?”

“It’s better than here.”

I brush my thumb across the kid’s cheek. He’s cute, in a pale, young and innocent kind of way. I hope he’s not overly innocent. “You top or bottom?” I ask as a mere courtesy. This kid might as well have ‘bottom’ tattooed on his forehead.

“I go either way,” he answers unconvincingly.

“Me too. So I guess I’ll fuck you, okay?”

Unbuttoning and unzipping, he dances a swaying step and softly sings a questionably tuneful variation on Cole Porter: “You’re the top / You’re the cock I’m humpin’ / You’re the top / I’m the butt you’re bumpin’ / In the William Oxley Thompson Memor-i-al Li-brar-reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” The tune ends when he bends over, his hands on the windowsill. Anyone looking up at this moment would see only a student taking a break from his studies to gaze out at the Oval on this sunny spring day. “Hey man, I can see William Oxley Thompson’s statue from here! It looks like a big black dick. That’s pretty racist, ain’t it?”

“No, it’s just a crappy statue. The first time I saw it I thought it was Robert Altman.”

The kid laughs, and I feel the vibration of laughter in his asshole as I lube him with a KY-ed finger.

“Who the fuck was William Oxley Thompson, anyway?”

“Guy they named the library after. A mid-Ohio nonentity. President of the university sometime after the last Ice Age.”

“No shit... Don’t use too much lube, man. I wanna feel it.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll feel it... bitch.”

“Oh man.” Smiling, he presses his forehead into the window. Almost as an afterthought, he asks, “You’re wearin’ a condom, aintcha?”

“Oh, I suppose,” I half-mockingly complain. I pull a Stonewall Pink one out of my pocket, stretch it over my fattening Samuel Johnson, and let the foil wrapper float mothlike to the floor. I knead his ass cheeks for a while and tease his anus with my thumbs until he’s hot and panting and begging for it. “Stick it in, man, stick it in.” When the pink-wrapped head pops through his sphincter, he thrusts his butt back to swallow my shaft with so much force that I’m almost knocked off my feet. So that’s the way you wanna play this, eh kid? It’s okay with me. I’ll fuck you like you’ve never been fucked before. I pull out halfway and slam into him as he pushes back from the windowsill to meet me. We continue like this for what seems like a long and ferociously pleasurable time, pounding into each other with constantly increasing force and speed, the bruising slaps of skin against skin sounding like Ali during an especially intense rope-a-dope. When we finally settle into a fast, steady rhythm, both of us exhaling quickly and loudly at every stroke, I slide my hands up to his shoulders and lean down against his back. Beyond his head, through a window with more fingerprints than the FBI, I see the big, unimaginatively O-shaped lawn at the middle of campus stretching bright green in the sunlight, its surface colorfully speckled by the bikinis and shorts of tanning students. This pastoral vision blurs and goes dark as I feel myself coming. The first jolt rushes up my spine and erases my brain like a chalkboard wiped clean (a metaphor I spontaneously steal from St. Sylvia of Plath; the orgasmic consciousness knows no morality). I bury my face in the back of his head to muffle my cry as the familiar floating feeling spreads over my body, and my balls and cock throb with a life of their own, shooting hot jism into the condom’s rubber tip.

As soon as my orgasm subsides, the stair door clicks open and closes with an echoing thud that becomes the sound of approaching footsteps. The library security guard doing his hourly rounds. I pull my cock free. The kid straightens, jerks up his pants and, still standing at the window, buries his face in his English farming magazine. My slowly subsiding erection resists my attempts to dress, so I hop into the chair and grab a big volume of The London Illustrated Weekly for 1848. When the footsteps reach our aisle, I’m sitting with the book open and upright on my lap, my sheathed and shrinking cock soiling with commercial lubricant a full-page engraving of Louis-Philippe d’Orléans, fallen king of the French. The footfalls cease, and I glance up from my booked boner to see not the expected walkie-talkied, security-badged student, but Professor Milton Stanley, an openly closeted Henry James specialist with iron-gray hair and the exquisitely haughty manner of a Versailles courtier. He looks down his long nose at me and pronounces, “If I were you, Mr. Douglas–although a more unbearable fate I could scarcely imagine–I would, as they say, tuck myself in. Good day.” Only when Stanley’s footsteps fade do I notice that although my cock is concealed by the upright book, my pale balls dangle below the bottom of its leather spine in plain sight of all passersby.

“Who was that?” the kid asks three times while I peel off the condom, press it into the pear-shaped face of Louis-Philippe, and reshelve the book, pregnant now with my purloined French letter.

“Nobody,” I answer, stuffing my shrunken stuff away, “just an old cruiser who’s too uptight to fuck.”

“You know,” Lara says in bed after exhaling smokily and passing me the postcoital joint, “whenever I hear right-wingers talking about ‘tenured radicals’ and the ‘leftist takeover of American universities’ and all that shit, I always think to myself, ‘If only...’ You know?”

“Yeah. If only it were even half true. The right’s been on this ‘radical professors’ kick for generations now. If leftist indoctrination on campus was anything like right-wing fantasies, don’t you think we would’ve seen some results of it by now? I mean, the left-wing takeover of America would’ve occurred, well, I guess about 1980, when the right wing took over.”

“It’s all bullshit,” says Lara, inhaling good shit.

“I could probably blow some right-wing minds–”

“A teeny tiny explosion.”

“–by telling them about the right-wing professors in American universities. And I’m not talking about administrators or presidents or any of that. I could tell them about professors, English professors. English professors. I said that twice, didn’t I?”

“Keep talkin’. But take another hit first.”

“Ooooh.... yeah... What was I talking about? Oh yeah, one time during the break in the middle of a two-hour class, Farnsworth–”

“Oh god.”

“Yeah. Good ol’ Farnsworth was telling us about a conference he was attending on the My Lai massacre. I assume he was going to argue in favor of it. Anyway, he started talking about Vietnam–”

“He was there, you know. Air Force.”

“Yeah. So in the middle of this class on, I don’t know, Donne or Herbert or whatever, Farnsworth starts talking about bombing Vietnam, and he says, let’s see if I can remember it exactly, he says, ‘I don’t care what anybody says. Those bombs were beautiful. They looked just like guppies falling out of the sky.’ That’s what he said.”

“Oh god.”

“The funny thing is, I wasn’t outraged or offended by it, or anything. More than anything else, I felt privileged. Yeah. Privileged to have been given such blatant confirmation of Walter Benjamin’s idea of fascism as the aestheticization of war. This is amazing dope. Better than the last batch.”

“It’s Ohio Gold... Jesus. Guppies... You know, I think John Donne would’ve loved that metaphor.”

“Yeah. Donne was a sick fuck too.”

After a few more puffs Lara says, “What really pisses me off, more than Farnsworth and the right-wingers, who are at least being honest, are the profs who think they really are radicals, the deluded leftists, the let’s-start-the-revolution-with-a-Lacanian-interpretation-of-Sense-and-Sensibility types–”

“Yeah, the Sixties survivors–or so they think. The self-righteous self-praisers–”

“The Sixties,” Lara sighs. “I used to love the myth of the Sixties, you know–until I met some of my profs. The Sixties:... the decade when our professors failed miserably in their attempts to change the world. They failed so miserably that Reagan became president. Fuckin’ Reagan, for fuck’s sake! Mister Anti-Sixties. And then Bush and now Clinton, who they think is one of them, but who’s really just Reagan with a soul.”

“Yeah, but the Sixties had a great soundtrack.”

“Fuck. All those songs are shoe commercials now... Oh yeah, yeah, they had great music, great drugs, great sex. And while the left was busy fuckin’ and snortin’ an’ listenin’ to Jethro fuckin’ Tull or some shit, the right was organizing an ideological army to take over the fuckin’ country. And they did.”

“Oh come on, Lara, the Sixties had some positive results. I mean, I like Jethro Tull. And...and in the Fifties our relationship would’ve been impossible. We would both have been expelled from the university for fucking.”

“You would’ve been expelled for sodomy.”

I imitate Lara’s passionate cries, “‘Oh, come in my ass! Come in my ass!’ It takes two to sodomize, baby.”

“What I mean is–gimme that joint, Bogart–what I mean is, our profs try to convince themselves the Sixties was all one big victory, so they can take credit for it... It’s like they think if they praise their own pasts long enough, they’ll be able to change them. Then Woodstock won’t become Altamont, the Kennedy Coalition won’t become the Silent Majority, hippie engineers playing with Ataris won’t become Microsoft–”

“And the March on the Pentagon won’t become the Great Earth Day Riot?”

“Something like that”

On the third Saturday of the fourth month of the fifth year of the tenth decade of the twentieth century Anno Domini, as the chronicles record, the youths and maidens of the University of Ohio State poured forth from the campus gates at eventide and did gather, like a flock of wild geese blown south by wintry winds, in the warm and foam-splashed land of the Greeks. Hundreds did revel past the setting of the sun, gathered on a frozen black river and along its verdant banks. And yea, the nectar of the hop did flow, and the wassail, and the mead. And youth and maiden did chant good-naturedly of divers joys of sack and wenching. And all continued merrily, with nor harm nor insult, until there did appear on the horizon the dark knights of the Columbus PD, there to deliver this evening of jollity over to the realm of very deep shit.

Lara and I are talking in bed (of course) when a loud and excited knocking sounds at the door. I throw on Lara’s robe, a bright pink number embroidered with yellow swans, and answer it.

“For fuck sake!” exclaims our friend Ahmad when he sees me. “Don’t you two ever do anything but get it on?”

“Can you think of anything better to do?”

“Get dressed, both of you, right now. There’s gonna be a fuckin’ riot.”

“A riot? Where?” Lara calls from the bedroom doorway; she’s already dressed and pulling on her jacket.

“Here,” answers Ahmad. “Two streets over. By fraternity row.”

“A frat boy riot?” I ask skeptically. “Is it too late for me to join the police?”

“It’s not frat boys, it’s regular students. They were havin’ a block party after the Earth Day concert on campus. It was a good time, no problems, and then the fuckin’ cops showed up in riot gear and everything went crazy. Kids are turning over cars, there’s fires in the street, all kindsa shit. Let’s go!”

We turn the corner onto fraternity row and see a scene out of Paris in May ‘68: about two hundred students are massed at our end of the street, yelling and chanting and angrily pumping their fists; in front of them–of us–is an improvised barricade consisting of an overturned AMC Pacer (which looks better upside down, incidentally) with burning rubbish tossed onto its undercarriage. By the fire’s light and through its heavy black smoke, we can see at the street’s other end the ranked riot squad of the Columbus Metropolitan Police Department. They stand like sci-fi statues in carefully ordered rows: Darth Vader masks down, black shields up, batons raised and ready. I feel decidedly underdressed facing them in Lara’s swan bathrobe (which I’ve thrown on over shirt and jeans, purely to annoy Ahmad) and with a pair of three year-old flipflops flipping and flopping on my feet.

A loud but hollow pop sounds from the police lines, and a silver cannister about the size of a malt liquor can flies up over the barricade and descends toward the students, a thin line of white smoke like a vapor trail marking its arcing passage. It clatters against the street, a girl screams, the students move back as one.

“Gas!” Ahmad yells to the crowd. “They’re shooting tear gas! Cover your eyes!” As students scatter, Ahmad takes off running for the cannister. He pulls his jacket sleeve over one hand, covers his eyes with the other, and in a single near-balletic motion bends down to scoop up the cannister, winds up like a pitcher on the mound, and hurls it back over the barricade. It lands at the riot squad’s feet. A ripple runs through their ranks and a white cloud of teargas bursts in front of them.

“Where the fuck did you learn to do that?” Lara asks Ahmad when we catch up with him.

“Just one of the benefits of a Palestinian education.” He flashes a smile, then turns grim. “But there’s a lot more where that came from.”

As if on cue, a fusillade of champagne corks erupts from the darkness behind the cops. Looking up, we see five cannisters flying on parallel courses over the fire and beginning their descent. “We’re fucked,” Ahmad mutters and then yells: “Run! Run! Cover your eyes! Keep your heads down! Run!”

I grab Lara’s hand and we take off into a chaos of bodies. A cloud of teargas bursts in front of us (a thought rides through my mind on the gas: this dumbass neon-bright bathrobe is a perfect target) and we swerve right, colliding with a fat kid in a Pearl Jam t-shirt whose passage tears our arms apart. Another cannister bounces to my left. A guy tries to imitate Ahmad’s move, but during his wind-up the cannister bursts in his hand. He falls to the pavement yelping, hurt hand pressed between his thighs, a perfect target for the first wave of cops. Three armored goons encircle him and bring their batons down on his back and legs. A girl runs to help him, and a cop knocks her down with a swing of his arm. More screams. Gas cannisters explode into clouds all around me. Where’s Lara? My face and hands itch painfully, as though badly sunburned; uncontrollable tears spurt from my eyes, doubling and blurring my vision. “Lara!... Lara!” But my voice is lost amid screams, shouts and sirens. I stumble on something and my back hits the pavement hard. I see a solid wall of police boots approaching ten feet from my head. Seven feet. Five. Oh shit. Someone I think is Ahmad drags me to my feet, and I take off running blindly, frequently colliding with others equally blind. I run on pavement, sidewalk, grass, anyplace away from the sound of moving cops. I call Lara’s name and think I hear her calling mine.

When my vision improves I see a mass of students running along the gas-fogged street in front of me. (For a second I think they’re running from me, this weird apparition in pink bathrobe and clip-clopping flipflops.) Under the shelter of a tree, a group of girls douse each other’s faces with bottled water. Two students help a third with a twisted ankle hopping between them. “Lara!” No response. A thick cloud of gas blows over us from behind, and the world goes blurry again. Bent double, screwing fists into my eyes, I run along an uneven sidewalk, stumbling over cracks and treeroots, colliding twice with the same streetlight pole, gasping for a breath that won’t burn my lungs.

After a while, the sound of trampling feet dies away. I hear a clock with Westminster chimes (probably in a church tower) strike the hour. Ten o’clock. Ten? The thing’s at least four hours slow. My eyes clear again, but the gassy fog thickens as though following me. It rolls thickly under the streetlights and lends this silent neighborhood the air of an old Basil Rathbone movie. Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Girlfriend. No use calling for Lara on this street. I’m clearly alone. The sidewalk curves down to a shadowy, arched passage. The arch looks formidable: solid white granite decoratively carved, above the keystone an inscription lost in the night. A fancy old railroad bridge, I assume, entering the black underpass. The smell of gas is heavy inside, and I stagger to the wall, once again rubbing my eyes.

“You all right, mate?” It’s a friendly Liverpudlian accent, the voice of an aging Beatle.

I lower my hands from travel-weary eyes and blink in the bright sunlight. “Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks,” I reply to a tweed-clad, pipe-puffing man with a gray triangular beard. He nods and puffs himself onward, up The Mall toward the white statue of Queen Victoria Dominatrix and the flat facade of Buckingham Palace, tiny in the distance. I turn and walk in the other direction, out of the shadows of Admiralty Arch and into the white light of Trafalgar Square. Sending flocks of tourists and pigeons into flight before my flipflopping, bathrobe-clad form, I negotiate the square and arrive at the London National Gallery just as a guard steps up to unlock the door.

The agony is unbearable, unspeakable–almost, for a few seconds, unwatchable. A man–if we can still call it a man–is dying horribly, his body torn apart by dogs. Enraged hunting dogs snap and claw and tear at him as he falls backward under their weight. An especially vicious black dog, a beast all mouth and muscle, has sunk its teeth into the hunter’s thigh and ripped it open bloodily from hipbone to knee. The dogs are flaying him alive. For the crime of stumbling upon the virgin goddess at her bath, of seeing a Diana no man can see, Actaeon will die the agonizing death of a traitor, a regicide, a perverter of the natural order of things. Transformed into a deer, he will suffer the death of Orpheus and Pentheus at the mouths of his own dogs. The painter captures him as the punishment is only beginning, his transformation not yet half-complete. The hunter wears a deer’s head, but his body retains a human shape: arms still arms, hands still fingered, feet not yet entirely hoofed. He is frozen in mid-metamorphosis, mid-fall, mid-death agony, as though his magical transformation to an animal is but a metaphor for the fall into death, the final period nature puts to all human action. Death is nature’s vengeance upon us, as cruel and implacable as Diana’s upon Actaeon. My gaze shifts to the goddess who dominates the foreground, her body three times Actaeon’s size. Caught in mid-stride as she sprints toward the center of the canvas, Diana’s lovely athletic body, with its powerful arms and small exposed breast, its nipple a ruddy jewel, compels my desiring gaze even as Actaeon’s dying figure fascinatingly repels it. I become a reflector receiving signals from the painting and bouncing them back. The horrible spectacle of this death sends out vibrations of dark desire that my mind deflects onto Diana, illuminating her body with a soft erotic glow.

I am sitting on a bench before Titian’s Death of Actaeon in the London National Gallery, trying to understand not the painting’s meaning but the meaning of its mysterious hold on me. Why does my every visit to the gallery eventually bring me here, to the large Venetian Renaissance room with its skylighted ceiling arching over enormous Veroneses, Tintorettos and a wealth of Titians? And why this particular Titian? Why does this dark late melancholy work attract me more powerfully than the bright and beautiful Bacchus and Ariadne hanging on the same wall? The Bacchus (I glance at it now) is a painting with blues that can teach us the meaning of color and greens to make us see green differently for the rest of our lives; it’s a glorious intoxication of a painting. So why is my gaze always drawn away from it (as it is now) by the subdued sunset gold of the Actaeon on the other side of the doorway?

I stare at the painting for several more minutes, my eyes moving from hunter to goddess to the frothy stream between them to the small horseman silhouetted in the far background. I stare until my mind blanks and I lean back on the bench, my gaze passing up green wall to white ceiling. My eyes close, and in the sudden darkness comes a blinding sunlight that burns purple spots on my retinas. The spots float above a vision of summer grass, blades greener and taller and closer than I have ever seen before, a forest of grass with towering dandelions drooping like crazy sunflowers above it all. I seem to be a small animal moving at mouse-height across a summer lawn.

Opening my eyes, I lower them from a gray Constable sky, past the curving panorama of riverside London, to the surface of the rolling Thames. I’m standing on Westminster Bridge. The Houses of Parliament stretch behind me, the massive clock tower looms over my shoulder, and to my left the tourist-filled time-release capsules of the London Eye move as deliberately as a minute hand around the great wheel’s circumference. Hands on the railing, I lean over the edge and stare down at dark water swirling into whitecapped whirlpools where it emerges from the bridge’s rapids. The river is high today, rich with rainwater rolling down from the Chilterns to the sea, and its unstoppable onward force writes its signature in the rapidly marching waves that ripple the surface. Sweet Thames, my ass. This river is a killer that never gives up its dead. If a tourist boat capsizes today, all aboard will be lost, sucked below the photogenic surface before they have a chance to scream. Compared to the Thames, Jack the Ripper was a cheap sentimentalist, a music hall imitator of penny dreadfuls. The river bears a deeper darkness, and I can hear it faintly calling, feebly feel its force even here among oblivious summer tourists smiling and posing and snapping photographs. I feel something as powerful as my vision of green grass but more mysterious, more frightening, some dark animal moving in the riverbottom mud, waking and beginning to rise.

The chimes of Big Ben snap me out of my revery. I turn to look up at the tower, soaring straight into the sky at an angle so vertiginous it seems to lean away from me. The hour tolls, Virginia Woolf’s leaden circles still dissolving into the air, and by the eighth and final resounding stroke my eyes have filled with tears. I feel an exaltation, a sense of sheer perfection in this moment: this evening light, this flowing river, this darkly tolling bell. A tear falls down my cheek and I wipe it away, embarrassed to feel so much amidst a milling mass of people who seem to feel nothing, all of them signaling the same sham pleasure with the same toothy snapshot smile. A part of me accuses the other part of a similar sham: the old tearful Romanticism’s a bit outdated, isn’t it? Rather late in the day to play Wordsworth on Westminster Bridge. Better to play Boswell: bend a willing wench over the rail and bang her doggystyle while the moonlit river slides below. This bridge has a history only English majors know.

Crying and laughing to myself, I walk through a candy-colored confusion of tourists toward Whitehall and the twin white towers of the Abbey. I move with the same unbroken stride that takes me through the Roman galleries of the British Museum, past vitrines of ancient pottery, pedestaled statues, large sarcophagi, brightly colored fragments of Pompeiian paintings. I glance at none of this, keeping my eyes straight ahead in half-conscious parody of a king progressing through his palace. My goal is the Portland Vase, that font of English Neoclassicism, the original of Wedgwood, but when I arrive at the small, central display case where the blue and white Vase sits alone, I am immediately and unexpectedly distracted by a silver drinking cup sitting in a identical case nearby. Known to scholars as the Warren Cup (I read on the descriptive card), it is believed to date from the time and place where people still alive might’ve remembered a crazy rabbi named Jesus and a peripatetic preacher who called himself Paul. It lay buried in the earth for more than a millennium until someone accidentally resurrected it outside nineteenth-century Jerusalem. And yet another century had to pass before any museum could publicly display it. For the bowl of the Warren Cup is decorated with two exquisitely rendered scenes of gay male anal sex.

Looking past the faint reflection of my face in the display case’s glass, I see on one side of the cup a shining silver relief of a beardless youth with a classic Roman profile sitting atop a reclining man who penetrates him. To their right, a boy peeks at the action from behind an open door. As I assume the boy’s position and freely gaze, I am powerfully attracted by the image’s denial of any strict division of sexuality into active and passive roles. The penetrated youth is arguably the more active partner here, raising and lowering himself onto the man’s penis by means of a strap suspended from the unseen ceiling. Looking at them, I feel an excited tenderness that is both more and less than erotic arousal, an emotion as pure as the silver from which the cup was molded and as gentle as the four-fingered gesture of the youth’s hand touching the man’s wrist.

I move around the case to the other, even more rarely photographed, side of the cup. It shows a muscular youth holding a young boy and fucking him from behind. This image evokes a colder, less intimate feeling. There is no confusion of roles here: the boy is clearly being taken by an older and more powerful youth who is pleasuring only himself. The youth even turns his head sharply away from the boy’s and looks downward as though narcissistically admiring his own ass. I notice a thin black crack in the silver running from the top of the boy’s head up to the rim, and I become irrationally convinced that something is concealed within this crack, that something even darker lies hidden behind this carefully constructed image. I imagine myself thrusting both hands through the glass (it magically gives way like a Cocteau mirror), pressing my fingernails inside the crack and ripping the silver apart, tearing the lovely image away to let the secret it conceals blossom forth like a forced flower. Certain it contains something I’m not yet able to see, I study the cup minutely, inspecting every fold of drapery, every tiny modeled speck of shadow. I circle the case slowly several times, a hawk zeroing in on its prey. And when I hear the guard’s voice in another gallery call closing time, I lean in closer until my breath fogs the glass, and I look down into the cup’s smooth, hollow interior, peer into the pewter-gray nothingness inside.

When the guard, walking up to me, announces a second time, with extreme politeness, that “The museum is closed,” the silver circle of the cup’s rim becomes a thin, silverplated wristwatch lying on a nightstand beside a pair of gold hoop earrings and a hotel alarm clock reading 11:05. In the bed, I am mechanically banging a fortyish junior executive from Microsoft who allowed me to pick her up in the hotel pub this evening. Sherilyn, or Sherry as she prefers to be called, is a smart, successful, attractive, and terribly boring woman who talks like a Wheel of Fortune contestant. She works for “a major software corporation,” lives “in the Greater Seattle Area,” and has “a lovely husband and two wonderful children.” While we chatted in the pub, her words turning to Muzak in my ears, I reflected that Sherry personified the saddest failure of American feminism: the creation of corporate women who are as blandly conformist as 1950s corporate men. I concentrated on her lovely, round, girlish face, pretty blue eyes and dimpled cheeks, the face I stare at now in the clock’s faint pinkish light as she receives my thrusts with disappointing impassivity. I pause to ask, “Do you like this? Is this good for you?” “Oh yeah,” she says flatly, her voice far away. “Don’t stop.” I resume fucking her in the same position: me on top, Sherry’s arms loosely encircling my back, my hands wrapped around the wooden posts of the headboard, my hips metronomically thrusting a condom into her snug pussy. She whispers, “Scott... Scott...” softly to herself, and I conclude that in the midst of this mutually unsatisfying act of adultery, she is fantasizing about her husband.

Licensed by Sherry’s mental wandering, my mind travels back to the drag queen I met the previous week when our hands collided reaching for the same Cezanne catalog on a high shelf at Waterstone’s. “I’ll thumb wrestle you for it,” she says with an ironic grin. She calls herself Tatyana, and Tatyana is as beautiful as her name. She’s a butch queen (stylishly short hair, boyishly flat chest), but her face is smoothly, flawlessly feminine, and glancing down I see to my heart-pounding delight a pair of long, shapely legs sheathed in black stockings. I offer her the Cezanne book as a gift, and she refuses with an aristocratic “Oh, I couldn’t possibly...” but accepts my invitation to dinner. We end up at my flat, a tiny Soho boho bolthole with one window overlooking the dismal and sarcastically named Golden Square. I take off my clothes and sit on the bed while Tatyana does a slow striptease, unbuttoning her blouse, unzipping and sexily wriggling out of her skirt, unhooking her unnecessary bra and inching it slowly down her arms until the straps encircle her wrists like a pair of black, lacy handcuffs. When she stands before me in the pose of Botticelli’s Venus, dressed only in garter belt, bulging panties and stockings, I dive to the floor and bend down to kiss her feet. I rub my face, shoulders, arms, against her legs, run my hands over her stockinged thighs. As if reading my mind (admittedly, not a difficult task at this particular moment), she says, “Baby loves Mummy’s legs, doesn’t he?” “Yes. God. Yes. Oh.” “Baby can love Mummy’s legs as much as Baby wants. Mummy’s not going anywhere.” We move to the bed. I curl into a ball, and Tatyana runs her legs and feet caressingly over my body. Her foot musses my hair; I catch three stockinged toes in my mouth and suck them, tasting the tingly texture of stretched nylon. When her foot descends between my legs, she says in a sing-song voice, “Uh-oh. Baby has a hard-on,”and in a more natural tone “Mummy has a hard-on, too. See?” Lying on her back, Tatyana pulls down her panties and her penis rises to attention. It’s as impressively large and thick as it is incongruous, this knobby male member rising from her sleek female body, like an oak tree shooting up out of limitless desert sands. The penis with its dangling, wrinkled bag of balls looks like something hastily sewn on, a creatorly afterthought. Tatyana’s cock is a new definition of surrealism, and I hunger to feel its syllables on my tongue.

She reads the desire in my eyes. “Does Baby want to suck Mummy’s cock? That’s all right. Baby can suck Mummy’s cock. Come here, Baby. Suck Mummy’s cock.” With one hand on the back of my head, she guides my mouth to her erection, and I gorge myself on it like a famished man presented with a three-course meal. As her legs embrace my back, I run my tongue around the smooth pink head, force the foreskin back with my lips and taste the rough, rigid shaft. I lick down to her balls, tongueing and sucking them with increasing pressure until I hear her moan and gasp “Ah!” Then my tongue scales her cock again for a proper blowjob, my head bobbing in a fast, steady rhythm, lips tight around the shaft, tongue swirling the tip. When I feel her dick hardening toward the granite of climax, I ease up a bit, and Tatyana scoots around like a clockhand, getting into position for 69. After a few more minutes of mutual sucking and harmonious moans, we come in each other’s mouths, Tatyana exclaiming wordlessly as my watery semen overflows her lips, while her thicker wad slides down my throat like hot wax down the side of a candle.

I close my eyes and come groaningly into the condom squeezed by Sherry’s cunt. “Thanks,” she says emotionlessly when I pull out. “That was great.” And the saddest moment of the evening–so far–comes when I realize she’s speaking sincerely. If this robotic, non-orgasmic humping is her idea of great sex, I think, lovely Scott back in Seattle has a hell of a lot to answer for. I can still taste her pussy in my mouth, but the only thing close to an orgasm my tongue could give her was a bit of yelping that sounded false to my ears, an unpracticed imitation of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. I wonder if Sherry has really come even once in her life, and this thought, to my surprise, doesn’t draw me sympathetically nearer her but pushes me away, as though she were a contagious patient. I slip into my clothes, and Sherry sounds a little disappointed when she asks, “Are you leaving now?” But by the time I close the door, she’s softly snoring.

Downstairs I surreptitiously swipe an umbrella lying conveniently orphaned on a lobby table and walk over wet incoming footprints to the door. Opening now-my umbrella, I step onto Piccadilly in a driving summer rain. It’s the sort of London storm that pours all night and leaves gutters and tube entrances flooded under the sunlight that peeks out innocently at calm daybreak. I tramp along the flowing sidewalk toward the lights of the Circus, splashing like Gene Kelly at every step. About halfway up the street, I pass a man holding a Manchester United umbrella in one hand and the leash of a large dog–a great dane, I guess–in the other. The dog is clearly walking the man: the leash is taut, and the man leans forward, trying not to stumble on the riverine sidewalk as the dog pulls him along. Before I can ask myself why anyone would walk a dog along Piccadilly at midnight in the middle of a rainstorm that feels like a million giants pissing, I flash on that morning in Hampstead when Mandy and I were walking up a residential street toward Parliament Hill. A dog walking with a man several yards behind bolts forward and falls into step with us, its reddish fur brushing against Mandy’s legs and mine. When the owner catches up, I ask him the dog’s name. “Bob.” “Bob!? Oh no, no,” I tell him, “you gotta give a dog like that a name out of a Russian novel. Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov, Dmitri Karamazov–all those books are great for dog names.” The memory snaps like a stretched rubber band, leaving me with an empty and unaccountably nauseous feeling. I pause to collect myself, let the water flow around my feet, and stare through a curtain of rain at the colorful glow of Piccadilly Circus and the statue of Eros hovering at its dark center, the god’s stance and bow reminiscent of Diana in Titian’s painting. Suddenly, I have a sensation of falling, of sliding back as though the sidewalk has been tilted sharply upward, and when I close my eyes and take a single step forward against the feeling, I am assaulted by a memory older than any I have ever known. It hits me with hallucinatory vividness and cinematic clarity.

I am very young, hardly more than a baby. I am lying on my favorite blanket, the blue one with a red pattern of Indian wigwams, in the middle of our gigantic front lawn on a warm, sunny day. I feel a beautiful, body-filling emotion of contentment and bliss, the feeling of floating in a warm bath. The bright sun overhead burns the same shifting purple spots into my eyes that I see when looking up under the living room lampshade at the bare burning bulb, and I cry out a little at the spots, but they fade when I turn my head away to look at the tall green grass rising in a fortress row along the blanket’s edge. With a coo of exertion, I roll over on my belly and pull myself across the blanket toward the beautiful grass, its blades yellowishly translucent in the sunlight. When I’ve almost reached my goal, a shadow passes over my head. I feel hot breath on my neck and hear a low growl, like the garbage truck backing over the gravel in our drive. I look up and see the big dog standing over me. He’s an open-mouthed, slobbering mongrel four times my size with sharp white fangs and a dangling tongue that’s licking wetly now at my back and thigh. I call out and slap at its jaw with a tiny hand that sinks into cushiony fur. The dog drops his head, fits his mouth around my leg at the knee, and clamps its jaws down with a screaming pain. (Standing on Piccadilly, I finally understand the two tiny white marks (I have always thought them birthmarks) at the right side of my left knee. I reach down to touch them through my jeans and remember being dragged helplessly across the lawn.) The dog takes off running with my leg vised between its teeth. I scream, I howl, with a sound that crackles in my ears and breaks in my throat. Body twisting, head turning, I’m dragged across the bumpy lawn, pulled through grass that rises higher than my head, past towering dandelions. My face scratches across a dusty sandpapery mound crawling with black ants, and I feel them in my mouth, my nostrils, my hair, crawling across my scalp when I hit the rough stones that burn and prick and bite at cheeks and forehead. When I feel myself sinking into the darkness of yellow weeds on the other side of the muddy ditch, I hear my mother’s voice, distant and hysterical, screaming, “Get that baby away from that dog!”

The sound of her voice breaks me out of the memory. The feeling of damp ditch mud against my face becomes the warmer, gentler pressure of a wet washrag molded against my forehead by my mother’s hand. I’m lying on a towel on the hard bathroom countertop, my body a quivering mass of blood and tears, and Mother is nursing me, cleaning my scrapes and scratches with cool bubbling peroxide, applying band-aids and kisses. “Little Danny’s gonna be all right... Don’t cry, little Danny.” She tickles my belly, and I hiccup a laugh through my tears. Her other hand holds the rag firmly against my bleeding face.

And that memory melts into another, a different time, a different pressure. I am six or seven years old, and my face is being pressed into the fissure between the two puffy pillows of the rarely-used double bed in the guest room. Ronnie Ferguson’s bony hand palms the back of my head like a basketball and pushes my face into the dark, cool sheet to keep me quiet as he rapes me. Ronnie’s my babysitter this summer, a 15 year-old boy from the neighborhood whom all the parents trust. Every mother wants her son to be like Ronnie, the paradigmatic nice boy. His mom’s a teacher. His dad’s a cop. Whenever Ronnie comes over, I feel that unspeakable emptiness deep in my guts, and a few minutes after my parents leave, Ronnie always downs a shot of Dad’s bourbon (carefully measuring a shot of water into the bottle) and then turns to me.

“Time for our little game, Danny.”

“No. I don’t want to.” My voice is emotionless, speaking from a terribly familiar script.

“You have to,” Ronnie reminds me. “That’s the rule. Remember what I said.”

In the bedroom he pushes my head between the pillows and I scream silently until the sheet is stained with saliva and tears because the pain in my bottom feels like a knife cutting me apart inside. And even more than the pain and the fear, I remember a sense of powerlessness, of being unable to move under the press of Ronnie’s weight, the crush that tears me in two. And when it’s over he leaves me alone with the pain, returning after a few minutes with a length of toilet paper that he instructs me to roll and stuff into my bottom to stop the bleeding. This is when he leans down, holds his pocket knife in front of my face so I can see my chin and neck reflected in its blade and whispers in my ear, “You tell anybody about this an’ I’ll hafta cut your throat, got it?”

And I remember my parents coming home and handing Ronnie his nightly twenty dollar bill and thanking him for “taking care of Danny.” “Oh,” he replies, pocketing the cash, “it’s my pleasure, Mrs. Douglas. Danny’s a fine kid.” And as I watch my mother and father smile after him when he leaves, I feel a crack like an earthquake fault opening in the floor beneath my feet. The crack is alive with molten lava glowing bright orange and it releases a stench of rotten eggs. The fault widens below me as the ground shakes violently. I spread my legs to straddle it, but it moves too quickly. I fall into the burning heat like a dreamer tumbling through the sky, endlessly falling.

I stand on Piccadilly past midnight inside the cylinder of dryness under my stolen umbrella and feel influenza-ill as I remember Ronnie and the big dog. A vomitous nausea rises to my throat, threatening to choke me, until a third thing, a different thing, climbs up the basement stairs of my childhood home to become the image of myself at ten years old standing barefoot at the top of those stairs and looking down.

In the darkness at the bottom of the gray-painted steps I can hear the refrigerator rumbling. It’s filled with ice-cold cans of Pepsi, the perfect drink for this muggy August afternoon. The stairs have no railing, and I’ve fallen on them many times, cracking the back of my head sickeningly against the concrete floor, so I move down carefully, step by creaking step, one hand pressed flat against the grainy, cinder block wall. About halfway down, I pass through a beam of hot sunlight falling from a high, ground-level window and see tiny dust motes dancing around my head. I continue down into the basement’s damp darkness, splintery wood becoming cool concrete against the bottoms of my feet. It has rained recently, and a paper-thin pool of water stretches its dark mirror along the middle of the basement floor, forming a small puddle in front of the refrigerator. I step into the puddle, feel its chill, watch the upside down reflections of my legs ripple across its surface as I grab the refrigerator’s metal handle. A powerful jolt of electric current hits me like a fist in the face. My whole body shakes with the violence of a powerful earthquake. My teeth clamp shut and my tongue is paralyzed. The current curls my fingers around the handle and holds them there with invisible clasping hands. My free arm and legs jump jerkily like the limbs of a poorly controlled marionette. Completely helpless, unable to move or cry out, I stand there shaking and terrified for the longest fifteen seconds of my life. My body is reduced to an electrical component, a conductor through which the ungrounded appliance discharges itself into the water. A phrase from the newspapers, “death by electrocution,” flashes through my mind, and I know with absolute certainty that this is the end, that I will never do or see anything again, that my parents will find my body lying on the basement floor and be mystified. “What the hell happened?” spoken in my father’s perpetually annoyed voice.


The image of my body dead on the basement floor is overtaken by the sound of a single syllable. “No” becomes the whole of my mind. Thinking ‘No,’ I angle my convulsing left arm around until its insensate hammer of a clenched fist strikes my right forearm. Thinking ‘No’ again and again, I hit my arm with bruising force until the hand finally wrenches free. The circuit broken, I stumble backwards, slip on the wet floor, catch myself on the edge of a shelf, and stagger to the stairs.

Halfway up, I stop in the golden shaft of sunlight and sit on the sun-warmed step. When I catch my breath and my heart stops pounding and my hands cease to tremble, I look up into the light. Specks of dust sparkle and turn in the air above my head, some tiny as diamond chips, others longer and thin like snippets of hair. They move past my eyes as though floating underwater. Staring at them, watching them scatter and pulse to the slowing rhythm of my breath, I am flooded by a feeling of bliss. Perfect peace falls beautifully around me. I am walking through a gentle rain on a day as hot as this, throwing my head back to feel the cooling drops on my face, opening my mouth to catch them on my tongue, spreading my arms to embrace the beauty that comes to enfold me. And I let the beauty come, let it lift me up as weightless as the dust floating in that waterfall of light. I let it carry me out of the basement, out of this Piccadilly night, out of London and across the Channel and over Flanders Fields to Paris. I let it deposit me in a gallery at the Musée D’Orsay where I study a painting by Monet and feel an overwhelming fraction of that emotion from the stairway, a tiny, shining sliver of perfect bliss.

It is a very well-known Monet, one of those paintings so familiar from reproductions that it has become difficult to deeply see: under a sky of thin summer clouds, a woman with a blue parasol walks with a child at the foot of a poppy-covered hillside; to the left, another woman and child stand atop the hill as though hesitating over the decision to descend; in the background, slightly off-center amidst the line of trees that blocks the painting’s recession into deeper space, stands the country house from which these Proustian promenaders have issued and to which they will return. I step back to a chair in the center of the gallery and study the work from a distance, teasing out the implications of my literary thought. This could be a portrait of Marcel’s family taking the Guermantes way out of Combray on a lazy July afternoon. Or that foreground pair could be Odette and Gilberte strolling on the grounds of Swann’s Tansonville. Even the painting’s French title, Coquelicots (“Poppies”), harmonizes in my mind with colimaçon, the snail to whose slimy track Marcel compares the traces of his semen on the currant branch that thrusts through the window of his ‘little room’ at Combray. This association immediately and powerfully eroticizes the painting. Monet’s gently rolling hills become the curves at the small of a woman’s back; the base of the treeline at right describes the slowly rounding contour at the edge of a thigh; the upsweeping hillside blushes in blood-red flecks, pregnant with life. And the blue sky looks watery now, an eye glazed with tears, a cloudy pool where we surface from the intoxication of those falling poppies. A sky like a lover’s kiss slowly waking us back to life. This thought, this emotion of surfacing and survival, takes me back to the basement stair, and for a few seconds I’m once again that boy dazzled by dust dancing in a golden shaft of sunlight.

I sit in the gallery for a long time, looking at the painting while visitors pass before me like eyeblinks. Under the constant chatter of their conversation, I am remembering the day of my different and darker experience across the river in the Louvre. It was a quiet weekday, and I was deep inside the sparsely touristed Richelieu Wing, walking past walls that open into landscapes, seascapes and shining still lifes as I approached the Rembrandt room. Inside the doorway I pause for a few seconds, letting my eyes adjust to the gallery’s palette, that signature Rembrandtian mix of golden-reddish-brown. My eyes pass over the Bathsheba, which I’ve studied many times before, and land on a painting hung high beside the door, a late work depicting a grizzled St. Matthew taking dictation from a lovely androgynous angel who whispers in his ear. The angel draws out and holds my attention like a violinist sustaining a note. It looms mysteriously out of the painted shadows: a boyish face, a few fingers barely touching the old man’s shoulder, and a stunning, cascading mass of brown hair that seems to float as it falls. This hair is the angel’s only halo, the only halo it needs, for this is a darkly pagan figure, more muse than angel, a Rembrandtian riposte to the bright and winged cherubs that cluttered so much religious painting in his day. It is a figure not necessary divine, a somewhat uncertain ghost, its lips slightly parted for the kiss of inspiration, the life-giving Yahweh breath that vivifies the old man’s stiffly held pen. This painting is an image of the flesh become words, the primal scene of writing.

At this height of understanding’s rush, this hermeneutical climax, I turn my back on the St. Matthew to look at a very different painting on the opposite wall. In Rembrandt’s greatest still life, the carcass of a slaughtered ox is hung up for display like the body of an executed convict. This is a brutal painting, painted brutally. Exposed viscera, ribs, fat and muscle are realized in thick, slashing strokes and long, loaded sweeps of the brush. This is a work of Rembrandt the Revealer. Here the artist who in The Blinding of Samson gave us one of the most painful of Old Master paintings–the image of an attack by proxy on the viewer’s seeing eye–forces upon us an ordinary, unmythological horror, an everyday atrocity of the abattoir. And the longer I look the more deeply I understand that it is not despite but because of the terrible subject that this painting is almost unbearably beautiful. Yes, I tell myself, instinctively arguing against the word, this fascinating repulsion is also beauty–and of a deeper and more disturbing order than the beauties of Monet. I lean close to the painting, my eyes inches from the surface, feeling the power of the brushwork: the lead-white ribs laid down quickly and decisively like strokes of the butcher’s knife; the great gushing gobs of fat and flesh bunched at the body’s top as if in defiance of gravity. I am so enthralled by the ox that it takes me a while to notice the painting’s other figure, the woman who leans over a Dutch door in the background and stares not at the ox but at me. Her gaze intersects and interrogates mine. What am I looking at? Why do I find this mundane ugliness so powerfully attractive?

Unable to answer, I turn away from the ox carcass and boomerang back to the other side of the gallery, where Rembrandt’s late self-portrait stares down at me. I think of this one as the ‘self-portrait at midnight,’ both for its overwhelming blackness and for its mood of tired resolve. I remind myself (as I always must when studying a Rembrandt self-portrait) that the artist is likely looking into a mirror as he paints and reproducing in pigment his reflected gaze of self-regard. But Rembrandt is a Narcissus without narcissism. Rather than prematurely sealing the painting’s interpretive circle, enclosing it in a narrative of painterly self-construction, Rembrandt’s game of mirrors slyly slides it open. Unshaven and overworked, the old painter looks out of studio darkness into a mirror that–a mere three and a half centuries later–becomes my gaze. I feel myself slipping into the painting, beyond its darkness and through its light, and like the final cadence at the end of a symphony there comes over me the satisfaction of a great circle closing in my mind. This is what it means to be an artist: to cast at one’s subject, even and especially if that subject be oneself, the same unforgiving gaze with which one views the carcass of a slaughtered animal. This is what Rembrandt teaches me today–this and much more. I see the rainbow spectrum that stretches from beauty to terror fold back upon itself until its ends join in a perfect, blinding circle that flames out and energizes my mind, as though an electrical circuit in the coils of my brain has finally become fully charged and sprung into life. I understand.

I remember nothing of my return journey through the Dutch galleries. I emerge from the Louvre’s glass pyramid late that afternoon and walk south, crossing the river and trying to lose myself among the Left Bank’s narrow streets. After a mediocre fish and rice dinner in an unfamiliar Vietnamese place, I wander down to the Luxembourg Gardens and sit for a while staring at the palace. While the facade darkens in the falling light, I try to recapture my epiphany in the Rembrandt room, to reformulate it in words. A hopeless task. The knowledge that surged through my body like a drug a few hours earlier is lost now. It is either forgotten–a victim of the Bad Dinner from Porlock–or too large, too multifarious to be contained in the cage of a word, the prison of a sentence. To restate it all would require at least a book, perhaps a lifetime. A sense of the enormity of this task, of my own limitations, and of the possibility of a revelation irrecoverably lost condenses into a cloud of melancholy that settles over me.

I lean back in my chair and glance around the garden. It’s an urban Monet of promenading Parisians: men and women walking, together and alone, talking in couples and groups as they stroll green paths under a soft evening sky. The vendeuse of toy sailboats loads her cart and wheels it away from the basin. It’s closing time for her. An American girl with long blonde hair and her frizzier French boyfriend hold hands under a distant tree, occasionally bumping heads in a kiss. A handsome Algerian-looking guy in tight blue jeans stands with his back against a large pedestal that supports an enormous and empty stone vase. He smokes and looks straight ahead, eyes focused on nothing, lost in his thoughts. A teenage Parisian boy amuses his friends by whizzing stones into the feathers of a tame pigeon that struts across the nearby gravel, cooing for crusts of bread. A wealthy-looking Italian man (to Americans, all middle-class Italians look wealthy; it’s the clothes) photographs a younger and much more beautiful Italian woman standing in front of the Palais. Her sinuously lovely body, clad in a clinging black dress, unconsciously mimics the contrapposto pose of Classical sculpture. Two English university students, a guy and a girl on a break from Oxbridge, walk briskly across the park, halt at a corner of the basin, consult a map, and march off in the direction of the Pantheon. They are moving much too fast for Paris.

I squint my eyes until the park goes blurry and liquid, like the loosest of Renoirs. Colors melt together: green metal chairs, darker grass and trees, white gravel walks, graying palace. A family of American blobs rolls across my distorted vision. I widen my eyes to see the flabby patriarch aiming his light meter at the distant top of the Eiffel tower and taking a picture with one comically unsteady hand. When the family–husband, wife, daughter, son–turns as one and immediately proceeds to the nearest exit, I realize that I know these people: I know all of them. French and American, Italian and Algerian, even the tall bald Senegalese man hawking souvenir trinkets from a large metal ring at passing tourists who keep on passing. I know them all because they are becoming characters in the novel I will write. I am creating them, even as they continue to live and think and die in lives I know nothing of. They are undergoing the magical transubstantiation from flesh and bone to the words that will give them life. They are so many golems formed from common clay, and I am breathing the life-word into their lungs, inscribing it on their foreheads with indexical finger.


Twoot, twoot, twoot.


Two gendarmes snap me out of my grandiosity. Alternating sharp police whistle toots with cries of “Closing time!” en francais, they walk side by side in perfect step from one end of the garden to the other, clearing it for closure.

Twoot, twoot, twoot


I rise and casually follow the Algerian guy to the Boulevard St. Michel gate, my eyes on the perfect twin orbs of his ass pumping under tight denim. At the sidewalk he turns and looks back over his shoulder. Our eyes meet. I guess he’s about 21 or 22, a few years younger than I. He knows I’m watching him. He walks on nonchalantly. I follow.

He’s leaning against a Morris column (over his right shoulder a severed head advertises Salome at the Opera Garnier) and finishing his cigarette when I approach. Up close I see that he’s not merely handsome, he’s an Adonis. Curly brown hair crowns with autumn leaves a head Hadrian would’ve built a city for. The top three buttons of his shirt are undone, exposing a hairless chest as smooth and solid as marble. His abdominal muscles ripple visibly beneath the thin fabric. Round, powerful thighs stand encased in blue denim, and I stare frankly at their intersection: a long, tantalizing bulge beneath the phallic stitching of his fly. My cock begins to stiffen in sympathy. If I could fall to my knees and blow him right there on the boulevard, I would. Suck his cock while he leans against the column and pedestrians stroll past with that affectless air of Parisian cool, as though there’s nothing unusual in the spectacle of two men having sex on the sidewalk, as if boulevard blowjobs are an unremarkable feature of the city, like Wallace fountains and fresh baguettes.

He tells me his name is René. He tells me many things on the walk back to my apartment, most of them as memorable as they are true. At my building we take the stairs to the fourth floor, pausing at each landing so I can push him back against the railing’s tarnished Art Nouveau spirals and kiss him deeply, relishing the sour tobacco taste of his European mouth, Powhatan’s revenge. In my room, amidst a frenzy of unbuttoning, unzipping and tugging at fabrics, he knocks the paperback of Le Temps Retrouvé from my desk. When he bends to pick it up, I run my cock through his curly hair like a thick but especially sensitive finger. He laughs, and laughs harder when I bend down and with both hands bang out a bongo rhythm on his drumtight ass. He catches my dangling cock in his mouth, caresses the tip with his tongue. I roll onto the rug and reach up to touch his upside down face hovering above me. My hand passes over it, feeling the contours of forehead, chin, cheek, and in my mind I’m touching an unbroken version of the head of Alexander in the Louvre. “Stand up straight,” I tell him. And I lie with my head between his feet and look up at him, at his knobby ankles like two boulders at the base of twin sequoias, his cock jutting out at a right angle above droopy balls, the dark fuzz of his pubes and above it the gentle curves of belly and chest. His face turns down to me, ringed with curls and grinning mischievously. One hand grabs his cock. “You want dis?” he asks.

Oui,” I answer in suddenly pathetic French, “fuck oui.” Kneeling on the scratchy rug like an acolyte before his god, I take communion, feasting on his hard cock. I circle one hand around its base, fingers pressing into pubic grass, and with the other hand I do a Captain Queeg on his balls. My tongue moistens and reddens the bulbous tip, an angry mushroom for which my mouth waters. Turning my head while I suck at the shaft, I rub the tip along the insides of my cheeks and then run it all the way back in my mouth until my lips kiss pubic hair. I pull my head back, sucking hard. My lips come off the tip with a kissing pop! And I catch him on my tongue and swallow him again. A wave of pleasure pours around me when I hear him moan. Avoiding the industrial rhythm of a standard, mass-produced, Henry Ford-style blowjob, I swirl my tongue around his head and shaft; I lick and kiss and suck and flick him, my fingers working overtime on his balls. I love the feel of his cock in my mouth, but after several minutes, it’s no longer enough. I want to feel him more deeply inside me, filling me up, expanding me the way helium expands a balloon. I want to join with him, merge, become that mythical Platonic whole.

“Fuck me.”

I kneel on the bed and bend over, both hands flattened against the headboard. René climbs into position behind me, bedsprings creaking promisingly at every movement. A dollop of saliva and his probing finger prime my asshole, but I still let out a soft cry and close my eyes when the big head of his cock goes in, pushing me apart, opening me. This sensation is quickly followed by another, much more pleasant one when my sphincter closes around his shaft in the tightest embrace. He begins slowly, drawing his dick partway out and easing it in with deliberate, steady strokes like little wavelets of pleasure lapping against me. When I tell him to fuck me faster I feel wave after wave washing over my body and issuing from my mouth in a hundred variations of “ah,” the syllable of bliss. I feel his balls bouncing against my ass and reach under myself, between my legs, to fondle them with my fingers. René almost loses it at this point, but after a few seconds’ pause he recovers to fuck me even faster, my ass smacking against him as his hands grip my waist, my staccato ‘ah’s modulating to a series of longer, sustained moans punctuated by the occasional “Fuck me,” all played to the accompaniment of the bedsprings’ screeching violins.

When René’s thrusts and my cries rise to a level of unbearable urgency, he curls his forearm across my chest and pulls me upright. Without breaking the rhythm of our fucking, he presses my back against his sweaty chest and belly, gluing us together. I feel his breath fast and hot on the back of my neck and reach behind me to grab his thrusting ass cheeks in both hands. René wraps his free hand around my cock and begins pumping it so rapidly that hand and cock blur together into a single organ of incomparable pleasure. I feel his cock stiffen further and throb heavily in my ass. His breath catches in his throat, his arm tightens around my chest, and he cries out to the ceiling as a sweetly violent trembling shakes both our bodies, and I feel the wetness of his semen shooting inside my ass. And before his tremor ceases, mine begins. Pressed against him, his body melting into mine, his hand still working frenziedly at my cock, I feel a surge of white hot ecstasy rush up my spine, blank out my brain, and set me floating for a few perfectly empty seconds in the nothingness of pure Being. I call out at ear-splitting volume, but I barely hear my cry. Long white streaks of semen erupt from my cock and land on the white pillow, soiling it with darkening stains.

René’s softening penis slides slickly out of my ass, and I turn around in a transport of tenderness to embrace him. Tears that are purely tears of joy fill my eyes and flow down my cheeks. Both of us kneeling, I hold him close, kiss him, lick the sweat from his forehead and love the taste. When his breath and voice return, he gestures at the soiled pillow behind me and says, “You are very... messy.”

Yes, I silently agree, holding this god in my arms, but it’s a beautiful mess.


Twoot, twoot, twoot