WEIRD SOUP II: THE GREAT DEPRESSION
"Now. Afraid that my bubble might burst again, I cooled off self-analysis by hiring surly call girls with thick lips, a course of action which seems to have had unfavorable consequences for my marital status and previous inborn sociability. Abandoned to float freely through the social spheres, I cast off the golden fetters of Odette, my former wife, and began stimulating myself by injecting fluids into my veins"
by Michael Tod Edgerton
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
THE BIG CRASH
When I crashed my motorcycle into the government bookstore on October 29th of last year, I should have expected the subsequent depression that followed. Oddly, I didn’t. In the mixed up aftermath of the crash, my central lobes ached from all the negative information my doctors were giving me and I couldn’t sleep. To facilitate the sleep process I acquired a number of addictive non-prescription drugs from close friends involved within the pharmaceutical industry. These helped. Short term at least. They also added greatly to the mood of general uncertainty dogging me at the time: but how was I to know what its ultimate consequences were going to be?
Well, think about it.
The natural thing to do when something that you do not understand happens to you is to pause and wait until the situation becomes clearer. Thus my first instinct when faced with this gathering depression was to do nothing. Several other people said do the same. They reinforced my belief that this was a time to watch and wait.
So, I watched and waited.
Like a fool, I fully expected any emergent depression to be self-limiting. Earlier depressions of mine had come to an end when the gap between reality and my inner life had modified itself, after an uncomfortable period of readjustment, into something fairly manageable:
· Yes, I was handling the depression in my own fashion, you might say, but through my own inaction, my own vacillation, my slide into a depression far deeper than I had ever known before continued …
· No, I wasn’t idle in the early days of the depression. I read articles. I consulted textbooks. I tried on women’s clothing. Yet I could find no fully satisfactory explanation of why these depressions happened. If such depressions were always a distinct possibility in an unregulated capitalist society such as our own, why didn’t people have two, three, four, five depressions every year? Or several a week? Why weren’t we tripping over each other’s depressions in the street every single day of our lives? There seemed no obvious explanation. THE BURSTING OF THE BUBBLE
After I skinned the last of the dogs, I hung it in the closet with the others. The carcass was already putrefying, shimmering in the early stages of decomposition. I regarded the row of rotting animal hides I’d assembled at a scholarly distance, feeling oddly pleased with the results of my work.
I told no one of my experiments.
That same evening, sweet Flora came over, sweetening my life considerably. Unfortunately she also questioned me about the now unbearable stench dominating the place. Caught by surprise, I managed to distract her from further contemplation of the nauseating odour by wafting my hands in a bizarre circular motion and casually mentioning dessert. I quickly served peaches and cream in attractive cut glass bowls.
She ate with an urgency that intimated some satisfaction on her behalf.
Later. Pondering the lousy situation of my life. Alone. Seated in a pool of my own exasperation for a quiet timeless period of angst. Well, it seemed a straightforward forward enough proposition to narrate my ongoing descent into the great depression. But where did such depressions begin? As the result of the general optimism of my youth, I believed my future progress to be guaranteed, a rapid rise to the knee of a happy maiden ensured. Were certain seeds being sown back then I could not possibly understand at the time? Years later, things went wrong. Unspecified things. Unfathomable things. Things you couldn’t quite put your finger on. And one day my bubble just burst: suddenly, publicly. That my bubble was ripe for bursting at that juncture is apparent to me now, although it never really occurred to me at the time. Nevertheless, a large part of the puzzle remains: the exact reasons why the bubble burst in the first place are still unknowable; and more importantly the full ramifications of the bursting of the bubble have yet to be fully felt.
Now. Afraid that my bubble might burst again, I cooled off self-analysis by hiring surly call girls with thick lips, a course of action which seems to have had unfavorable consequences for my marital status and previous inborn sociability. Abandoned to float freely through the social spheres, I cast off the golden fetters of Odette, my former wife, and began stimulating myself by injecting fluids into my veins. Am I now any more stable under the intellectual influence of the alternative drug orthodoxy? I do feel better. I have to admit it.But am I just an unusual exception in these matters?DISCOVERY OF LESBIANISM
Downstairs somebody had scrawled 666 in blood on the kitchen floor. I couldn’t remember who. Minutes later, something that sounded like an angry telephone started to ring.
It was Odette and her voice.
Some important business had come up, she told me. “Remember the baby?” she said. “Yes?” “Take her bowling.” Overloading the yellow receiver, she methodically dealt me an impressive and punctilious critique of my entire personal life, while I remained slumped in desultory fashion, minus much hope.
Her words exploded harmlessly against the walls.
Nothing she says impinges too heavily on me anymore.
I come fully equipped with a non-stick conscience these days.
Odette? It was she who first told me of the great depression and in return I frequently bought her beautiful gifts: obscene chocolate shapes, flame-retardant flowers, anger management lessons. It seemed the quality of our love was pretty good in bed, if not quite wide enough. But soon her discovery of lesbianism soured her towards me. Things happened disappointingly. Became. Disjointed. In the broken wake: “I never promised you a rose garden,” became her excuse. “Well, I never asked for one,” became my lonely battle cry.
And time passed. And time passed. And time passed.
Back in the early years when we first made our mutual acquaintance, I once said: “If I lay down my sword, would you take it?” “Do you have a sword then?” she snapped back. “No,” I replied. “I don’t think I do.” Meeting her in flashback, I mistook her for a beautiful young woman wearing a coat. Only later, when I got to know her naked form more intimately, did I understand my error. Yet we lived together almost happily… long ago… in the 1960s… the days of Jet Harris… long before the great depression was ever mentioned in passing moments of abstinence. “Do you take this woman?” “Where?” I wondered to myself after the ceremony. Yes, I married a delicate flower, a weeping willow, a burning bush. (But why did I do such a thing? I made the mistake a long time ago. I’m not sure I can correct it now.) In those early days we made a competent enough burglary team. Stealing Bob Dylan box sets from our nouveaux neighbours who never suspected a thing. Meanwhile the view from between her legs was breathtaking, everybody agreed.
Even her work colleagues.INCREDIBLE SERIES OF PERSONAL BLUNDERS
It’s the same old scene. Her mean world view comes to the door and greets me abrasively, completely dictating her own doorstep. Verbal communication bursts forth: snapping at my ears. Meanwhile, nothing ebbs through my mind, like an unseen sunrise. Yes, I am constantly battling her blizzard of words, invariably in vain. I remember that at some dinner party in the mid-1980s, she called me a sociopath. I took it as a compliment at the time, completely misunderstanding the factual meaning of the word. It was only later that the words hurt in retrospect. Scarring my psyche. Wounding deeper and deeper. (Like a process.) A sociopath? I wonder to myself from time to time. Was she correct? Well, yes, maybe she actually had a point there for once in her life…
In these heightened moments of danger I remain stationary, legs dangling weakly below me, perhaps seeming further away than ever from her current right wing viewpoint. She’s looking prettily unfazed however. Flaming pink lipstick twinned with matching flamingo shoes. She always did look her prettiest when she was being unfaithful to me.
“The great depression is coming,” I sometimes remind her, conscious of the past and the part we played in it together. “It’s coming and I can feel it in the air…”
She tends to ignore my newest observations with a derisive snort.
I stand my ground. I keep my distance.
In the past, she’d always argued that any depression was the inevitable consequence of an incredible series of personal blunders, all of my own making: “It’s nobody’s fault but your own,” she once suggested, hurling a frozen nan bread toward my head. These days, she is nobody utterly meaningful at this chapter of my personal history, although regretfully a large portion of my life’s back catalogue has been wasted between her loins.
“I don’t like that look on your face,” Odette will say from her side of the door.
“I don’t blame you,” I’ll agree. “I don’t much like it either.”
Out in the street, the great depression winked. Snorted. Had nothing much to say for itself. Where was this day taking us? I wondered.
The clouds looked tense.
The trees were hesitant and unsure of themselves.
Like me, they had lost some of their old confidence and self-assured swagger. Deep down in my heart, I blamed Odette and the uncanny ability she had to make you feel you were guest starring in Hedy Lamarr’s life story. (This ability has somehow transmuted itself into nature and the natural world and inanimate objects around her, into the grass and the concrete. And -- I am wholly convinced of this fact -- she is now also omnipresent most of the time, the way God is.) Only a few steps taken down the street, the baby’s head began rotating 360 degrees. Slightly vexed, I aimed myself toward what remained of the skyline, this tiny bald clockwork head revolving in my arms…
In a time of great depression, things happen like this. Repeatedly.UNIVERSAL SEARCH FOR MEANING
At the park, the day thinning itself tellingly while ducks and trees and sunshine made themselves readily available to our eyes and other senses. Within minutes of the ducks and the trees and the sunshine, the whole scene palled, fell away. “There’s a whole other world out there aside from the exterior one,” I informed the baby, sternly, the way fathers used to. “A world of meaningful inner experience -- expressed via the medium of dance, for instance. Available in various places such as theatres or the internet...”
Yes, it was quite a fine day of colour, as sound as any illegal medication.
“You are quite right,” replied the baby. “There is something more. So let us find it, you and I, together -- however reticent we may seem with the rest of the human race.” Her name? Cream Puff most of the time. Although occasionally it can be Born Screamin’ or Sweet Pea Mussolini depending on the exact nature of the contortions on her face.
“The great depression is coming,” I remind Cream Puff, when it seems relevant. “I can feel it. Can you feel it in the air? And once this depression has earned its central place in twenty-first century history, all other depressions will look half-hearted and not a little embarrassed. No doubt in the end, the spiral of deflation will continue and depress even you and your friends in your future years until something is done to restore your confidence, and break the prospect of additional depressions ahead...”
She understands. I am in no doubt that she understands.
Often she reaches up to my face, pulls up to me and pulls me over to the video shop on the other side of town, its shelves stuffed with motion pictures most of which singularly fail to engage with the greater questions of the human race, or even mention in passing the coming of the great depression. “This is a kind of a temple,” I will tell her, squinting at the sparkling video boxes. Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. What Women Want starring Mel Gibson. The Prince of Egypt starring Val Kilmer. Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts. Love’s Labour’s Lost starring Alicia Silverstone. Gladiator starring Russell Crowe. The Legend of Bagger Vance starring Matt Damon. A wealth of home cinematic entertainment I take absolutely no delight in. Nothing resonating with us here. Nothing reflecting the great depression.
“In a time of great depression,” I am prone to admit. “Art can be a major disappointment…”***
And so we searched on and on and we blundered in our search: like all of humankind’s universal search for some kind of valid tangible meaning. Having faltered under the intellectual influence of the paralysed sky… neutered neutralised… indecently assaulted by too many unforeseen absences… the weeks tumbled down upon us… shot down in my heart… oh, I blame Odette… Why else am I forced to languidly stimulate myself by injecting fluids into my veins? But am I any more stable under the influence of the darkly bald young man, tall, late-20s at a push, who runs the video shop with such little knowledge of the wider contemporary arts scene? Down in the arid valley of my sadness: “Why are we so lost out here?” I ask Cream Puff, the great depression cracking great holes in my newly faked resolve. Our search was proving a long one. Our hearts slackening in places. At first we searched eagerly and diligently for alternatives. Days passed without success and we became discouraged. Where is this day taking us? we would ask each other as another one slipped beyond our reach. We knew something had to arrive at our door, grab us by the scruff of our expectations, but what precisely? Where is this day taking us? we sang in a kind of all-star showbiz family father and daughter duet.***
“This is all very frustrating,” I am later heard to observe of my entire life.ART WORLD
Then. The Art World called to us from a high window. Sang. In a language we barely understood. Suggesting a realm of new possibilities. Inside, a girl sitting cross-legged in a chair. She told us admittance was free and without words we stepped down. Down. Falling down into a new world. Down into the swirling discord of the government funded arts. Where we reclined a little. Inside this new experience. Testing it out for size.
“Where am I?” I asked, hovering an inch above the floor at the bottom of the stairs.
Eyes growing accustomed, we found a broken landscape here: an atrocious exhibition in a tall white gallery with the levity of a crematorium, the room filled with tepid art works and men with strangely cut hair. A party was in progress: a private viewing. I adjusted my accent accordingly and praised the wine. This was another life: different from the ones we had previously been used to. Aphorisms flowed, capricious and uninspired. The baby was an avid admirer of Hopper, and the works of the Dadaists, so a knowledgeable look of intrigue flickered up and down her brow. She pointed out various installations of potential interest. In one corner, a bone-faced nun was losing weight behind a Japanese screen. While several of the younger, more daring artists had hung themselves from the ceiling. Other, larger artists were displayed in prominent glass jars, ageing visibly for the duration of the exhibition. There was untitled silence also.
We studied it silently.
Of all the artists who had hung themselves from their lighting fixtures during the initial waves of the depression, I survive today relatively unscathed, despite the dislocation of several of my bones in solitude, nothing much to say for themselves. Which was partly due to the artificial stimulus lingering on from our tiny stage of the 1960s… the days of Jet Harris… long before the great depression anyway…
“Are you a great artist too, then?” the expression on the baby’s face seemed to ask me.
“No,” I winked. “Not so great. Not so you’d notice.”
I thanked her anyway with a heartfelt smile.
Here I was: handling the depression in my usual nefarious way, lacking the talented wife who had previously come in handy at parties and other social gatherings. But finding myself surrounded by a round robin tournament of literary critics, each wittier than the last, I faltered. I declared the Booker Prize to be a joke with something of my old swagger, drawing contemptuous glances from hostile women, skirts slashed to the knee. “Am I a metaphor?” I asked them, pointing to my head.
A number of people were holding hands and humming themes from various well-known advertisements. “What do you see in that ape?” somebody asked somebody else. People gathered around the bathroom like members of a particularly close-knit orchestra. Inside, we were offered cocaine by a courteous lady wearing a dress. Attempting to be agreeable, we agreed. Guessing the cocaine would keep us occupied for a while, we took the cocaine in a corner and almost at once the cocaine rose up and introduced itself in a scary pair of bright pink pyjamas, fizzling like Coca Cola across the centre of our faces before a sudden blaze of sadness overtook us like a speeding TR7, hampering our selection at the buffet considerably.
Our mental processes disintegrated somewhat after that.
In retrospect, I found myself lacking credibility in this world. Depression gathered force and I fell over several times, increasing the relentless strain on my system. Afterwards, we reflected: Was the party successful, we mused, or like the effects of long-term alcohol abuse, had it turned into something of a disappointment? Neither the baby nor I could decide. PANIC IS NOT ALTOGETHER A BAD THING
Returning Cream Puff to Odette’s terminally violent psycho-landscape tends towards the problematic Within minutes of the past I am confronted by awkward questions in mock stereo: Where have you been? Who have you been? Who have you been with? What have you been doing there? What time do you call this? Are you drunk? Are you drunk? Are you drunk?
Odette seems oddly keen to know these things.
Things that seem perfectly unimportant to me.
“The great depression is a self-inflicted catastrophe on his own behalf,” Odette always used to tell our friends loudly. But was she actually correct? Had I involved myself in a colossal muddle, bungling under the influence of a delicate beauty, the inner workings of whom I did not fully understand? Or was she as hugely mistaken as she usually was? After the big split, Odette -- measured as a multiple of corporate dividends -- boomed. It made no sense to me in terms of traditional patterns of rules of thumb. Contemplating the contemptible wreckage of my own laughable career, and marriage, and social life, I thought bitterly in retrospect about those who had advised inaction during the downslide: people who said let the slump liquidate itself, those who held that in itself even panic was not altogether a bad thing.
She often opined that a depression would actually be good for me: 'It will purge the rottenness out of your system. You will work harder, you’ll see. Live a more moral life. Your values will be adjusted accordingly. Depressions are not simply evils which we must attempt to suppress. Rather they are expressions of something which has yet to be done: namely, an adjustment to change..."
Her words sent a concentrated shudder down my spine, threatening immediate hospitalisation.
At its nadir, the depression seemed like collective insanity to me. I stood idle while all around me several thousand men and women risked their lives scrabbling in thick brown mud for prize-winning scratch cards. How could I permanently mobilise all the resources available inside me to effect a lasting cure? Gambles are enterprises which sometimes fail: a future comes to pass in which certain decisions in the past should not have been made. Is there a choice to be had between depression and no depression? Or between a small depression now and a worse depression later?
I have strained muscles in my head thinking about less.NUMEROUS OBLIQUE STRATEGIES
I sat with Flora, quietly finishing the Jim Beam Cream Puff had slipped me for my last birthday. This was how I escaped physical and psychological deterioration: through long periods of drunken sullenness, one of my numerous oblique strategies aimed at grasping some futile moment of fleeting escapism. Flora? She was my latest model and not a bad one. I met her at the supermarket, shoveling guacamole into the boot of a car, breasts as big as my head. Her name tag read Gloria, but this proved to be an administrative oversight. Later, I discovered more about her. Her first name and how her fear of travelling by public transport was so great we would have to walk everywhere, thinning my shoe leather considerably.
Stricken on the sofa, I was inwardly contemplating the Manhattan skyline in the anonymous landscape of my central lobes. I was thinking about the time I had tried to strangle myself and failed. It was not so much a cry for help as a deliberate attempt to commit suicide. I was also thinking about the time soon after when I tried to strangle several of my friends and relations as well. These days, I had given up on such thoughts. I was a father now. I had reproduced myself genetically. I had big responsibilities. Like staying alive. And remaining relatively sober.
We retreated to my bed…
Well, my polite observations have never gone down well socially. Applause is always muted and on a fine day of colour: indigo blue, the disjointed collateral of my ceiling called to me. Much time having elapsed, the sky blinking over my head just thinking about it. Under the barrage of a number of drugs. Became more. Self-absorbed. My bed seeming to gleam. Vividly. Like an undiscovered planet. An unclimbed mountain. Sleep tactfully descending and smothering my feeble consciousness. My soul rising, travelling upwards unfazed, towards one blunt smear of colour: indigo blue. The disjointed collateral of my ceiling. Ceasing its journey at this chapter of my own inaction: … as my slide into the great depression continues apace… the future now a frightening proposition… I see the future every night… it looks a lot like this:
UNFINISHED SONG OF BLUENESS
Later: and I was late. I pulled my guitar from its case, negotiated a free drink from the dwarfish barmaid, then plugged straight into the house system. Seated on the tiny stage in the lonely spotlight, mostly I am singing the blues, a succession of doleful melodies dripping from my plectrum like hemoglobin, drenching the orange neo-baroque architecture with… The Genuine Confusion of Going Nowhere… my unhappy songs… Loves Like a Drunk… my voice vocalising meaningful words… Don’t Blow Your Own Trumpet…on top of these weary tunes… Loopholes of Nostalgia… using my lugubrious voice… Stranded Forever on Planet You… as a kind of tool through which to express things… My Evil Twin (Is More Popular Than Me)… things which must have once seemed important … Susan Sontag’s Cocaine Nightmare…important enough to write down and remember for later use… Zadie, Zadie, Where Are You Now I Need You?…
I even wrote a song for Flora once, or rather tried to. It was called Juliette And Her Fear of Travelling By Public Transport and when I premiered it semi-acoustic at the club, she remained non-plussed. The middle-eight lacks clarity, she said. The chorus is over-cluttered and uncommercial. Sometimes I just want to punch her on the nose: quite hard, in actual fact. And sometimes the baby asks me to write her a song too, something melancholic because she’s a melancholic baby. And I do try. Yet the words don’t fuse and the melody never lifts off unexpectedly from the anonymous landscape of my former youth. And I can’t. I just can’t. And I can’t think why.
Fearing the worst, I close the set with my Unfinished Song of Blueness, my big number:
“… into the blueness of the paralysed sky… neutered neutralised… indecently assaulted by too many unforeseen absences… shot down in flames… smothered by disinformation… oppressive smiling in medium-sized department stores… entering the valley of blueness… crazy snapshots of blueness… busily burying blueness… speculative attacks of blueness... the blueness of my shattered psyche… pieces of blueness refusing to fit back together again… the way they once did…”
It is not received well. No: as the last dregs of feedback squeal and ebb into nothing, I return to the bar, everything round me smothered by hostile silence. People are frowning. Even the eyes of the dwarfish barmaid seem to chide me now. Her smile is gone. Some men wearing dark cheesecloth applaud half-heartedly as I clamber onto a high bar stool, but they do not really understand. Not at all. They are merely masquerading as being genuine citizens, like members of some bizarre fencing club on a field trip. Deflated, I drink heavily to compensate. These continual deflations I continually experience will have consequences that are so much more than an amplification of the modest depressions of the past. In the end the perpetual spiral of my deflations will continue to depress me further until something is done to restore my confidence, and break the prospect of more deflations ahead. “Why do I write these stupid songs anyway?” I ask myself, hunched awkwardly at the bar. “Craft them into valiant imperfection? Waste all my time musing on their incurable deformities?”
I must be thinking out loud again. Flora answers.
“Maybe all art is the product of somebody’s psychosis,” she suggests, somewhat unhelpfully. She is perched on a stool next to me, I suddenly notice.SOME CONCLUSIONS:
Things keep humming admirably between us. Flora and I. While over our heads the great depression hedges its bets… broods knowingly… bides its time… waits to strike again… venomously… vengefully… like a pre-emptive NATO airstrike…
“The great depression is coming,” I warn her.
“Or is it already upon us?” she replies.
I think about this a moment.
“Well, anyway, it will not be a good time,” I say. “It will not be comfortable or easy. Probably I won’t even enjoy it very much at all…”
“We can only wait and see. Perhaps there will be well being and comfort to be found somewhere within it…”
“Who knows? Perhaps it will be an intimate time. Bringing people closer together. Physically and emotionally.”
“You may have a point. I hope it is like that very much…”
“The great depression is coming,” she declares. “But its contents are none of your concern. Your values will be adjusted accordingly. Recovery is only sound if it comes of itself. For any revival which is merely due to an artificial stimulus ultimately offers only a false dawn. It leaves the work of the original depression partly undone and adds to the undigested remnants of your affliction, forming newer, meaner depressions of its own which then have to be liquidated in turn, thus threatening you with an even bigger depression in the future -”
“Uh-huh,” I say, frowning.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Flora smiles. “The depression will be good for you… it will purge the rottenness out of your system…you will work harder, you’ll see… live a more moral life...”
Well, I have made a grave error of judgement.
I thought I understood the essence of the great depression. I thought I had mastered its basics. But I had merely assumed an inappropriate disposition -- downbeat, ironic, resigned -- toward it, quite the wrong disposition it’s since become clear to me.
And now I am no longer performing a social function.
Instead I stay up late with Flora and eat nachos to combat the depression, not a prescribed remedy but one that seems to work -- temporarily -- nevertheless. At least we’ve found some solace, some scant morsel of comfort to keep us alive through the long cold nights. Sometimes we hold hands in the darkness and let the oncoming days crash through us. Sometimes she talks of her father. Mostly we just lie together in the silence, nothing much to say, time dragging. Once you have fallen deeply into the chasm of such depression, even the passage of time appears ineffectual. There are no clean answers.