The Consolations of Big Picture History

modern plague doctor

Continuing the trend of using my own illustrations for the blog for the time being. It just so happens that I had a picture of a plague doctor in a modern subway station from a few years ago and that just works for this post.

In times of crisis and breakdown there is a tendency to turn to religion and philosophy for context and meaning. I disagree that these should come first. It is history that should come first because it is only in history that the experiences of the present can be directly shown to be outgrowths and inevitable processes of the past. A past that rhymes with often surprising regularity and binds experiences across generations.

This is not to demand the divorcing of history from other concepts in the humanities-indeed that would be foolish. I simply want to prioritize events over interpretation even while I acknowledge that both working in tandem is necessary. Why? Because an un-anchored interpretation on its own is simply editorialism and a concession to postmodern solipsism. Religion on its own is an even more extreme version of this. History, even vague and disputable history, is by definition based around clear cut events and therefore sets limits on just how much editorializing can come from studying it (even if as a humanities discipline there is still quite a lot to editorialize).

Most likely, just like after 9/11, we are about to see an uptick in religious fervor, cult activity, and large groups of people retreating into idealist and individualist-affirming philosophies. This is exactly the wrong path forward, especially considering that it is materialism, science, community response, and state policy alone that are going to curb pandemics and climate change.

If you wish for consolation in the grand scheme of things coming from the humanities, it is to be found in the past experiences of those who came before. Because history shows a few big things quite definitively:

-Pandemics are normal.

-Tragedy is normal.

-Social breakdowns fueled by decaying orders staffed by complacent ghouls are normal.

-These things happening in tandem with each other is not unheard of.

-Practical collective action can matter, atomized individual responses do not. True leadership, such as we see from Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand, comes from governments integrated with oligarchies of proactive expertise rather than defensive ass-covering such as we see among the great powers.

Above all, history shows something that was once summed up perfectly in a phrase from Battlestar Galactica, ‘All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.’ Fictional though the setting is, its a sentiment that could have been written by Kautilya, Thucydides, or Sun Tzu. It is also a sentiment that is deeply alienating to the western European/Christian mind, where history serves as a sort of teleological exercise where life is just a practice run to sort out who gets to go to the good place or the bad place forever.

No doubt this view brings comfort to the moral absolutists and scolds that makes up a noticeable sub-section of humanity. But we shouldn’t indulge such people any longer. They have proven themselves in their eras of dominance (christianized rome, late caliphate, the neoconservative-neoliberal present) to be unfit to hold the reigns any longer. Its time to use history as a far more accurate counter-narrative…the one of connecting us to the greater picture of our past through the shared sufferings and occasional triumphs that make up the story of life.

As evidence for this allow me to use a somewhat strange example. I have generally have nothing but scorn for the phrase ‘conservative intellectual.’ Not as a general principle but certainly applying to the 19th, 20th, and above all 21st Centuries. So-called conservative intellectuals are usually nothing but fearful rubes riddled with sexual pathologies who use eloquent language to deny that problems caused by the powerful are bad and to shift blame onto the powerless as much as possible. While I have massive disagreements and often outright disdain for many leftist and progressive thinkers, they are usually critics of entrenched systems which makes a far greater percentage of them intellectually useful.

But there are two conservative intellectuals from the modern time period that I do have respect for…one is John Gray but if he is even conservative in any way outside of general philosophical disposition anymore is debatable. The other, who I wish to talk about, is Oswald Spengler, even though my disagreements with many of his central thesis are legion.

Despite claims to the contrary, Spengler is a bit of a romantic. He is definitely a Germanic idealist, that most cursed class of philosophers. The central argument of his most famous work ‘The Decline of the West’, takes a great framework (cultures growing, flowering, and dying as part of a natural life cycle), and corrupts it with anti-material assumptions about the intrinsic and platonic nature of culture. In a way, he was a (much smarter) precursor to Samuel Huntington.

What sets him apart, however, is that he was a historian before he was a theorist. Even with his misguided focus on KULTUR, his curiosity about the world, of actual events that occurred make him a fascinating and engaging read. While his interpretation of the past was often questionable, the fact that he engaged with it to construct his world view (rather than the usual opposite of selectively harvesting the past to suit a pre-constructed theory) meant he was way ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to understanding the present and the future. His predictions were often spot on, seeing the social and environmental effects of mechanization long before that was a normal conservation to have, calling both world wars as inevitable before they happened, and how decolonization would soon occur.

Despite Spengler’s love of culturally-focused relativism, he still manages to outclass his ideologically similar thinkers by the mere fact of treating history as an ever-unfolding story that may not repeat itself but definitely rhymes. A grand tragicomedy where we all have roles to play and little control over the stage directions or even casting calls. And, to steal a line from a Thomas Ligotti story, ‘there is no one behind the camera.’

We know by looking at the past that our sufferings are not unique and that our individual influence over grand events is actually quite small. In acknowledging how little control we really do have over vast systemic processes we can become immunized to the paralyzing fear of uncertainty. The Resistance Liberal mantra of ‘this is not normal’ was always entirely wrong. It is the very definition of normality when living in times of uncertainty. Others did it before, we have to do it now. Endure stoically and your odds are making it through with less damage increase. You might even learn something in the process.

Weirdly enough this now leads me to conclude with an example that is not historical, but in the realm of popular (ostensibly) children’s entertainment. Much as its rare to find a conservative intellectual worth reading, its also rare to find popular entertainment that can engage with the general themes of history as a continuous process with no predetermined beginning or end. It is no accident that the show I am watching continuously through lockdown is Adventure Time. Why? Well, having caught most but not all of the episodes and often out of order in the past I finally had the chance to go through it all in order. But, more importantly for our purposes here, because Adventure Time does something I love to see but that is rarely done well…it presents a world where apocalyptic events are normalized into a historical context.

The nuclear analogue ‘Mushroom War’ did not end the world except for those directly killed by it, it merely started a new cycle. Everything changed but by the time of the show’s present era all those changes are now normalized. The past is tragic but also enabled the present in much the same way that the extinction of dinosaurs made way for the rise of mammals. You can never go back and it would be weird to want to. At the same time, the past is what made the present and therefore the future. While Spengler could only see civilizations dying in the absolute, Adventure Time sees civilizations as dying but still contributing to a great compost heap of context that the entire future is built upon. This theme is carried continuously forward as multiple episodes contain not only flashbacks of thousands of years but also flash-forwards where we see ruins of the (usually present-tense) Candy Kingdom. The Kingdom had a technologically advanced future beyond that shown by the present-era episodes of the show, but apparently met a similar fate to the human civilization of the ancient past (our present) and left behind only its ruins. Though this looks pessimistic since we have been conditioned to identify with the Candy Kingdom, new life forms have taken their place and the world continues on-different, but not in the end worse.

In the sense of world building, Adventure Time is actually a deeply historical and historiographical setting, even if its connection to real world history is nonexistent. Compared to most of the anglo-protestant morality plays we get in mainstream fiction as the primary output of our culture that is refreshing. It sells the idea that the study of real world history could propagate to an even greater degree: all of this is normal, and even the weird bits will one day become normal, perhaps even the start of something endearing. You are part of a of a context that started before your birth and will not conclude after you die. The personal discomforts and tragedies you face are events to bind you to the experience of the species, not alienate you from them.

L’Inseguitore della Quarantena, A Covid-Giallo Story

giallo

Normally when I write short stories I just send them to specific friends as email attachments. But in the interest of providing extremely topical free content for those under social distancing lockdown I have decided that my most recent story should be posted publicly. The genre is giallo, which if you are unfamiliar with you can find a good concise summary here. Needless to say it is one of my favorite film subgenres. Bad taste as it might be, I just couldn’t resist thinking ‘Venice under lockdown during pandemic is the perfect giallo setting.’ Also, giallo is all about bad taste made stylish. Sometimes we make do with what the world gives us. Even by the standards of short stories, its on the smaller side so I figure it will fit fine as a blog post.

And if you need a fitting soundtrack for reading it, here it is. Now, on to the main event.

……………………………………………………………………………………….

L’Inseguitore della Quarantena

 

Ania strapped on her surgical face mask before wrapping herself in her stylish long coat. She reached for the purse that never leaves the foyer except to go outside and adjusts it over her winter-grey ensemble. Taking one last glance out the living room window that overlooks the waters of the canal outside, she sighed and opened the door.

On the ground floor of the apartment building she stopped to knock on her neighbor’s front door.

‘Who is it?’ the fragile voice of an elderly woman called out.

‘Eleanora, its Ania. I am headed to work now but wanted to know if there are any groceries I could pick up for you once I head back?’

‘No dear. I believe my family has provided for me this week quite adequately.’ A loud cough reverberated through the wall. It stopped suddenly, almost like an unintentional oath that slipped out at a formal board meeting, but then returned with a vengeance. ‘Perhaps it would not be best for anyone to come inside my apartment for some time, dear.’

Ania whipped out her phone and dialed a number she had the misfortune of having saved from past use. ‘I’m going to let the authorities know, okay?’ Eleanora was 89 years old and was peak risk demographic for the virus. She also had been in self-imposed quarantine for weeks. Ania knew the elderly were a prime target for the quackery of grfiters.

‘Please dear, don’t worry about me. You have your own concerns. My children take care of me.’

Ania cursed under her breath lest the sweet old lady hear her as the phone chimed in an automatic message. We’re sorry, but the reporting center is currently experiencing high volume of calls and a backlog of cases. Please try again in a few hours.

‘If you could use your phone to call the reporting center later today, please do so. Good day Eleanora.’

Ania could hear the muffled assent between rough coughing from beyond the door as she strode out into the sun. Then she remembered that Eleanora’s phone hadn’t worked in months.

—-

Ania was fortunate that her commute was only about 10 minutes. Exiting her apartment building of stately 18th Century entropy, passing the Santa Giustina church and walking along the canal by way of Ponte Fonadamenta di Santa Guistina Street and then turning east towards Castello was the extent of the journey.

It was a daily walk she had come to love since she started her job two years before. Even now…and perhaps even more so now, though she would tell no one of course, she found herself more in tune with the neighborhood and Venice in general with the quarantine in place. The city could be appreciated fully with less crowds and distractions. The waters lapping up against the crumbling-yet-functional buildings that had seen countless generations come and go stood as mute testament to past crisis survived by the city. The weathering on the buildings was no longer just charm for photo opportunities but rather the age lines and scars of place that had seen worse outbreaks and tragedies in its past.

The economy that kept it afloat on spendthrift tourists may have been gone, but a city was returned for to its actual residents. Or it would have been if they could have gone outside.

A masked police officer waved her down from across the nearest canal. Obediently, Ania stopped and ruffled through her purse for her permission slip. By the time he had crossed the nearest footbridge to within 10 meters of her she was able to hold up the work travel exemption. He gave her the thumbs up and she continued on her way.

He was the first person she had seen on the street that day.

Ania took off her mask and coat and stowed them in the locker right inside the entranceway to the crematorium. She washed her hands thoroughly in the restroom and made her way deeper into the building.

Alessandro was already there, running the oven. ‘Less today than any time last week. That’s good.’

Ania nodded. ‘Good to see such a rapid change in such short a time.’ The heat of the room tapered off as the oven shut down. She grabbed the brush and assisted her colleague in extracting the ashes from the oven. ‘Why do you think that is?’

‘Check the local news on your phone once we get done with this next one. I think I have a theory.’

Work gloves and plastic face plate applied, Ania began to hoist another wrapped body onto the table. ‘You know how I avoid the news these days. Everything I need to know I see here.’

‘Trust me on this one.’

The trellis rolled the next body into the oven. The door shut. Then came the roar of an all-consuming flame.

—-

CANAL STALKER STRIKES AGAIN

Multiple eyewitnesses have called now in testimony about a killer that stalks Venice. The figure, believed to be a male, has so far claimed four victims in the past month. He targets solitary pedestrians who violate quarantine by being out at night. There is now enough testimony from people who witnessed the killings from their windows that some common facts can be pieced together.

  1. There is a single solitary perpetrator working with no apparent collaborators.
  2. The killer always appears to be wear a long black trench coat, black leather gloves, and bright red shoes.
  3. The murders are all committed with a large knife, variously described as a long thin blade like that of a sushi chef.
  4. The killer is always stated to be wearing a horrific mask, though the details of this mask vary from eyewitness to eyewitness. One man in San Polo described it as ‘like melting wax’ and a woman in Dorsodouro stated that ‘it looked like a mask of that ugly American senator’ but could not recall the specific name of the figure she was referring to. A police officer at one of the crime scenes raised the point that the killer may in fact have a naturally deformed face. So far, there is no useful or clear picture taken of the assailant.

 —-

Ania was eating a salad two meters from Alessandro who had constructed his own sandwich out of what meagre remnants still lurked in the communal fridge. ‘I am at a loss,’ she looked at him between bites, ‘as to why a serial killer has reduced the amount of death we have to process.’

‘Four deaths and the quarantine violators are basically off the streets entirely. You almost never see anyone out after nightfall anymore.’

‘One hell of an extreme method.’

‘If it works it works.’

Let’s head back to it, we have a backlog to fill if we want to get done before sundown ourselves.

—-

Alessandro gave a polite wave on his way out the door. ‘Don’t wait too long now to close up.’

Ania nodded. She just had a few chores to wrap up after all. Then her phone rang with an unfamiliar number incoming.

Our system indicates that you previously tried calling our reporting center. Would you still like to make an infection report? Please press 1 if so.

Ania pressed 1 and then the various other numbers needed to narrow down who she was to talk too before being disconnected. She tried calling back and got a busy signal. Cursing, she gave up, gathered her outdoors coat and mask, and locked up the crematorium behind her.

—-

The sun settled overhead and a dusky orange hue reflected from the canal water. Ania would be home soon but this was clearly cutting it close by her normal standards. Not a single person, not even a police officer, had she seen walking the streets at the same time as herself.

She had just made it to her normal turn-off near Santa Giustina when she heard the report of hard shoes against stone from behind her. She turned her head but could only see the growing shadows emerging from between the buildings around her. They were masking the walker. A walker whose pace was increasing the echoes bounced all around, obscuring the direction of approach.

Cursing, Ania increased her pace. She was almost home and her paranoia wouldn’t matter once she got there.

Something splashed in the water directly behind her. An object casually tossed from what could only have been a place of origin no more than ten meters away. Unthinking, Ania took off at a running speed down the narrow side-street. The sounds of her heels on stone merged into an endless feedback echo along with that of the other person.

She almost collided with the apartment building’s front door. Fumbling with the keys, she unlocked the lobby and slammed it behind her upon entering. That’s when she noticed the blood red glow that permeated the inside of the building.

Turning, she saw that Eleanora’s apartment door was open. The light was pouring out from inside.

‘Eleanora? Are you alright?’ Time distorted as Ania walked up to the doorway and checked to make sure her facemask was still in place.

The elderly woman had managed to get her own face mask on and seat herself in a wheelchair near the entranceway. From the state of her apartment it had clearly been a struggle. Ania never remembered all of her lights being tinted red before, but now they were. Every last one.

‘My children,’ gasped the woman, ‘said the new light covers would protect me.’ Ania’s eyes caught a discarded box of ‘VIRUS KILLING UV LIGHT’ on the floor before returning to Eleonora. ‘I think I need to go to the hospital,’ wheezed the neighbor.

Ania had her phone in her hand in a second but swore an oath as the various emergency numbers she had put into her contacts list all returned busy signals or automated messages to call back later.

‘God-fucking-damn-it.’ The old woman was far too out of it to chastise Ania for her outburst as she grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and turned it about. She made her way back to the front door pushing the woman ahead. Outside, the darkness had descended into Venice.

—-

Even going to the hospital, they would still have to pass the Santa Guistina church. Eyes sharply casting about for any signs of a stalker, Ania turned the wheelchair before her onto the canal-adjacent street and began pushing past the building. The church had become lit up as the skies had darkened, giving the black waters and shadow-cast buildings around a faint and eerie reflective aura.

Ania gradually maneuvered herself and her charge to be directly parallel to the canal and across the street from the church. If anyone were to approach, they would be backlit. It only took a minute for her precaution to pay off.

A figure detached itself from the shadows at the base of the church and made its way towards her. The light was too poor to see details, but Ania could see the glow of the church lights reflect from bright red shoes and shining black leather gloves. At the top of this confidently and deliberately striding figure was a melting mask like that of a human blobfish. Its wax glistened repellently.

Beneath their masks both Ania and Eleanora screamed.

‘I am a vital state worker! I have a pass!’ Ania shouted.

Without breaking their stride, the attacker kept up at the same pace, now only a few meters away from them. There was almost an imperceptible nod towards the old woman in the wheelchair as if to ask ‘but does she?’

There was a scrape of metal against leather and the flash a long glistening knife. Ania let go of the wheelchair and stepped between it and the approaching figure. ‘No.’ It was barely a whisper that escaped her lips, but the determination behind it surprised even herself.

The knife was raised, pointed downward, and swept towards her. The figure was taller and broader than her but not faster. Self-defense course training from college kicked in and Ania sidestepped to the left. The knife flashed by her face, barely missing it. Open palmed, she struck the waxen mask.

There was the sickening sensation of lukewarm candle. A brief and confused thought flitted through Ania’s mind for just a second before she struck again: That is no mask.

Kneeing the off-balance attacker in the center of mass, she was able to stagger her foe. The knife fell. She pushed the stalker away and made a grab for the weapon. Grasping black gloves fumbled as she brought up the steel blade and failed to stop her relentless assault.

Again and again she thrust forward. Each time the knife came back redder. There were no cries or screams. Blank eyes buried within that melting face seemed to stare through her impassively as she screamed in primal rage. The figure toppled and Ania fell on top of it, knife still plunging.

So it continued until the attacker moved no more.

Shaking, Ania dropped the knife with a clatter upon the stone street. She was covered in blood. She turned and staggered back to Eleanora’s wheelchair.

The old woman’s eyes bugged out like grotesque glistening orbs. Her mouth frozen in a panicked scream. Ania had seen more than enough corpses to know it was too late. Eleanora’s frail heart must have given out in the panic of the attack.

Ania stripped off her blood-soaked gloves and reached for her phone, trying the police, the hospital, any institution once again. She received no response. A frustrated scream boiled out of her and she tossed the phone into the canal before falling to her knees and sobbing.

—-

It was almost opening time for the crematorium and Ania had completed most of her unofficial tasks for the night. Eleanora, per state mandate, was going to be denied a public funeral and as an infected person would have to be cremated anyway. This had already been completed. It was a second body she was preparing now.

There had been no forms of identification on the figure. Everything was loaded onto the oven trestle, gloves, shoes, and all, into the oven. Alessandro had been right, the canal stalker had a useful role to play in public health. Best to just disappear and remain a looming threat than a saga cleanly ended in the public mind.

Then Ania’s eyes caught the red on the shoes and her mind spun back to the UV lights in Eleanora’s apartment. She made sure to grab the knife before sending the body into the oven.

In fact, she thought, it might be best for the stalker to get one more stab at the headlines.

 —-

The middle-aged brother and sister were knocking on their mother’s apartment door. ‘She isn’t answering. She might not hear you.’ The woman crossed her arms impatiently as the man kept striking the door. He hit harder and the force caused the door to swing inward.

The siblings entered. Everything was bathed in red light. ‘Well, she put the lights up. That at least means she doesn’t have to worry so much.’ The brother turned to the sister, ‘probably in bed.’

The door slammed shut behind them and the lock clicked. The siblings spun around and recoiled. Between them and the door stood a figure swathed in black clothing, black gloves twisting around the hilt of a knife which glinted red in the light of the apartment’s interior. A shocking waxen mask had been constructed around a nurse’s face mask and surgical goggles.

The siblings screamed and cowered as Ania advanced in silence.

………………………………………………………………………………………………..

libretto di sangui

Now, for some added bonus content, here is an old giallo style movie poster I made for what was going to be another story years ago but I never ended up writing. Though a few of the ideas ended up going into the above tale.