A Precarious State: Violence and Retribution in Stallone’s Cobra

In the opening sequence of Sylvester Stallone’s 1986 film Cobra, images flash back and forth between a lone biker riding out before a rising sun and the eerie clanking of grisly, subterranean axes. Soon, the watcher bears witness to that lone biker, with a shotgun in hand, taking over a supermarket, an everyday aspect of American life. Supermarkets provide the United States with sustenance, and in this nightmarish landscape, they’re in danger.

Stallone’s character, Marion Cobretti (aka Cobra), a cop working through the LAPD’s fictitious “Zombie Squad” and thus functioning on the outskirts of the law himself, confronts this self-proclaimed “hero” of the New Order. Informing the “hero” that he is merely a disease to which Cobra himself is the cure, Cobra coldly guns down the lone biker to media disapproval only to discover this criminal is one among many of an army of cancerous tumors plaguing the city of Los Angeles. This infernal body of disease is eventually revealed to have a head of sorts, a maniac serial killer known throughout the movie only by the vicious derivative of Richard Ramirez’s real life media moniker of “Night Stalker”, the name “Night Slasher”.

Panned by critics upon its initial release for derivative storytelling, Cobra, possibly by fusing Hollywood genres as disparate as action and horror, has turned into a cult classic. But even more than its formal structure, this film has a certain je ne se quoi lurking beneath its surface that allows it to resonate with the primal feelings of its audience. To give voice to and better understand this je ne sais quoi itself, we must delve into the deeper meaning of Cobra’s plot where we will discover how it is the very precariousness of today’s social order itself that allows this film to resonate so clearly with its many fans. Moreover, it is this tuning into the horrifying sounds always bubbling beneath the surface of any great society that makes this action extravaganza a story worth telling.

The heart of Cobra’s action revolves around a burgeoning war between Cobra, as a representative of social order and justice, and a nascent New Order. Cobra’s New Order (first mentioned by the supermarket terrorist), as described by Wikipedia, is “a supremacist group of social Darwinist radicals that despise modern society and believe in killing the weak, leaving only the strongest and smartest to rule the world.”

This statement gives voice to Cobra’s overall moral compass. In the eyes of the New Order, our decrepit “modern society” allows the weak to flourish. Now, from a Christian moral standpoint, this is actually a “good” thing. For, Jesus Himself says “the meek shall inherit the earth”. Thus, continuing our journey through this world of morality, we must recognize Cobra’s New Order as a satanic force. This gives Cobra’s story a religious core. For, although Cobra himself functions on the outskirts of law and order, his goal is to protect the “weak” from the self-perceived “strong”. Whether those “strong” are so in objective fact or merely subjective opinion isn’t at issue. What remains is that Cobra is a “shepherd” protecting his “flock”. That flock being the entire city of Los Angeles, perhaps the entire United States, and by extension, perhaps, even the entire world.

The New Order being birthed in Los Angeles’s subterranean underbelly has the power to potentially reach anybody anywhere with its random acts of violence. Any one of us could be Ingrid Knudson, Cobra’s female protagonist hunted by the New Order for no apparent reason other than that she saw their leader, the Night Slasher himself, standing beside a broken down car earlier in the day she was first attacked. This chance encounter turned the devil’s gaze upon her. However, reason itself is a chimera in the New Order’s world. The New Order doesn’t need a reason to hunt anybody. Unlike in Cobra’s system of moral merit where the weak get special privilege to receive protection from the strong, the New Order alone determine who should survive. They have determined Ingrid Knudson to be weak and, therefore, not fit to live. Just as they determined the same for the citizens who happened to be shopping at that supermarket when the lone gunman entered. Just as they determine the same for all the Night Slasher’s hapless victims.

The social Darwinism espoused by the New Order wouldn’t be so terrifying if it weren’t the case that on some level many of us believe the New Order’s system to be “true”. We’re all the weak. There’s no such thing, in the world we inhabit, as the strong. We’re all potential victims of the circumstances of natural disease, and as Marion Cobretti himself says, that’s precisely what crime is: a disease. Like with any virus, it has no brain, no mind, no intention. None of us are immune to its vicissitudes. It might attack any one of us at any point in time. Perhaps, the most terrifying aspect of crime itself is its inherent randomness. There are certainly motivated crimes, but for many of us (whether it’s a result of breaking and entering, aggravated assault, and even rape or murder) it will happen randomly, destroying our senses of agency and making us feel as if we are weak regardless of how strong, either internally or externally, we may actually be.

For many of us, the causes of crime are as unknown as the New Order’s motivations. There may be social mechanisms at work when crimes occur, but we can’t see them in action. All we see are the results. This is the truth Cobra hits upon, and this is what Cobra is fighting against. We’re terrified we may actually be the weak simply because we aren’t strong enough to control our external worlds. However, no human being can control her external world. That’s what makes Cobra such a compelling character. Regardless of how terrifying the scenarios portrayed in this film may be, by means of his will and his weaponry, Cobra continuously controls his external world. He does this by turning the very violence we’re so afraid of back upon itself.

That’s what eventually creates such a mesmerizing final scene. Much like how the opening sequence’s rising sun symbolizes the terrifying future the New Order hopes to bring to fruition, as Cobra turns the tables on a fist fight with the Night Slasher and lifts the murderer onto a hook to send him screaming into a foundry’s flames, we see the primal solution to our fears branded onto celluloid. It’s violence that terrifies us, and it’s violence we believe will save us. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is, on the level of primal justice, as Cobra’s cult status certainly proves, it rings true for the audience.

This leads to the ethical dilemma Cobra poses: Is violence required to combat violence? To return to our Biblical morality, the Hebrew Testament exhorts ancient Israeli citizens to take “an eye for an eye”. In this way, peaceful ends justify violent means. Social order justifies those who act outside that order in order to maintain it. However, there’s also always the more contemporary approximation of this Biblical ideology, often attributed to Mohandas Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. In this formulation, peaceful ends do not justify violent means. For, there is no end to the cycle of violence. In fact, using peaceful ends to justify violent means could potentially allow for the justification of any violence. The New Order themselves could make the claim that when their purge is complete a peaceful, well-ordered world will result. Therefore, they are the righteous. Those combatting them, Marion Cobretti included, are the wicked allowing this world’s current chaos to continue.

However, there’s another way to interpret the call of an eye for an eye, and that is the formulation that leads to salvation in William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist: “Evil shall see itself, and it shall die”. Perhaps, it’s not the act of violence itself that brings an end to violence, but rather, it’s the reflection of violence back upon itself that brings an end to violence. For, if evil shall see itself and it shall die, then violence shall see itself and it shall cease. Like multiplying two negatives together, violence reflected upon violence becomes a positive.

This formulation of “the law” is embodied in Marion Cobretti. For, it’s his overabundance of violence that brings an end to the New Order’s violence. Their psychopathy is reflected back upon them in the form of Marion Cobretti’s own compulsive sociopathy, and it destroys them. There’s no way for them to combat it. From the supermarket terrorist to the Night Slasher himself, they can only succumb. Now, whether this formulation of “the law” is true in abstract reality doesn’t matter. What matters is this appears to be the formulation of the law Cobra believes.

And this formulation of the law continues to gain adherents because we all see Cobra’s chaos bubbling beneath the surface of our stable societies. We see violence in the news. We know there are crimes occurring in the world beyond our doors because we fear they may strike our children on their way to school. On some level, we’re all afraid any one of us could be in that supermarket when the terrorist strikes. We believe in the necessity of Cobra. We believe violence must combat violence. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have a police force. We wouldn’t continue to enforce the death penalty. And we certainly wouldn’t condone the reality of war. Society’s stability is a piece of water-logged detritus we cling to while floating in a sea of chaos. We all know this. But does this make Cobra’s violence “right”? Will we continue to urge an eye for an eye, or will we finally insist we all must turn the other cheek?

Contemplating Death Metal: Cannibal Corpse as Memento Mori

One day, as I was walking down the street listening to death metal grinding through my earbuds, I began contemplating the appeal of immersing oneself in such dark subject matters. I’ve loved metal since I was a 10-year-old kid whose parents got divorced. My question at the moment was: Why did I turn to darkness for comfort amid my pain?

You might think when one is suffering emotionally, that person would prefer to forget her suffering and choose an artistically light response to the world instead. But that wasn’t the case for either my middle school friends or me. We immersed ourselves in horror – through the books we read, the movies we watched, and the music we listened to. Stephen King was our favorite author, A Nightmare on Elm Street our favorite film, and Slayer was our favorite band. We lived for death… at least in our art, and at that outer rim of childhood’s plateau, we invented play-worlds for ourselves as enmeshed in hell and fear as the art we consumed.

Now, the question I’m wondering is – Why would children embrace destruction so completely at the first sign of being exposed to this world’s greater suffering? My answer lies in a traditional form of artistic expression: Memento Mori.

Memento Mori is defined as a Latin phrase meaning: remember you must die. In the European artistic tradition, it is often portrayed by the contemplation of a skull reminding the viewer of death, an image not inconsistent with the artwork on the heavy metal tee shirts I wore to school every day as a young teen. At one point in time, there must have been perceived a great need for Memento Mori for it to have been elevated to such an important status in medieval and Renaissance art. I would like to make the claim it’s the same individual and cultural needs for Memento Mori that drove my own middle school love of horror movies and death metal.

“Remembering death” consistently reminds one that she must embrace life immediately rather than wait for the future. She must take advantage of the moment rather than hope for something better to come. She must live for today rather than tomorrow. For, tomorrow may never arrive. If that last turn of phrase sounds at all familiar, it’s because it’s a variation on the tail end of the ancient Epicurean dictum to “eat, drink, and be merry. For, tomorrow, you may die.” Along with Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead”, this short, pithy statement is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented phrases in the history of philosophy.

The notion that tomorrow you may die is not an exhortation to hedonism as contemporary culture so often wishes to impart. Rather, it is a potential reality to ponder and meditate upon. If today truly is your last day on earth, how would you prefer to spend it – obliterated on substances or caring for the people and things you cherish most? Would you rather be alone and destitute in your final hours, or would you prefer to live your last moments rich with family and friends as a loving and compassionate human being? The choice is yours. You don’t know the future. Today could be your last day on earth.

Memento Mori serves the same purpose. By contemplating death, the viewer is reminded she is alive only for the moment. Nothing is guaranteed in this life… other than the certainty of an eventual death. With the remembrance of this certainty of death, the viewer of Memento Mori desires the impermanence of life rather than the permanence of death. The viewer of Memento Mori strives to live today rather than seek solace in a world that may never come. This is the same insight the lyrics and intensity of a band like Cannibal Corpse provide the listener.

With album titles like Tomb of the Mutilated and Butchered at Birth, Cannibal Corpse’s world is nothing but a monument to the gruesomeness of death. The first track on their first album, Shredded Humans, paints a vivid picture of a head-on car collision. Describing in graphic detail everything from the father’s head becoming part of the dashboard to the mother’s intestines stretched across the road, these lyrics are an examination of everyday gore. However, the twist in this song is that this was not necessarily an “accident”. The words leave open the possibility that the driver who veered across the center line intended to kill this “family of five on their way home.”

Of course, this sounds like the cartoonish plot of a seventies splatter film, and many of those now-classic films might serve the same function as Cannibal Corpse’s music. In this instance, the appeal might be more than simply imagining vivid gore on the open road. Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics can cause the listener to wonder whether this same event may not take place in her life. This can shock the listener out of the stupor of taking the everyday for granted. It can cause the listener to wonder if she should perhaps take more care of the fragility of this life she has been blessed with.

The excessive violence of a track like Hammer Smashed Face is no exception. In this track, the narrator consistently describes his victim as “You”. You are the one the narrator feels “like killing”. You are the one whose “fucking head” will get smashed in “until brains seep”. And you are the one who will feel the sledge pound “down on your forehead”.

This violence mimics the death of a cow in a slaughterhouse. It dehumanizes the listener’s presence. It requires the listener to envision herself as the object of violence rather than as the subject of action. This reification causes the listener to experience something like the Kantian “sublime” as the sense of individual subjectivity rushes back in to fill the void at the song’s end. I am not an object, the listener’s mind screams. I am a human being.

This, too, provides a sense of Memento Mori. For, death itself is the eternal objectification. Your subjectivity has disappeared. What is left is nothing more than a body, a slab of meat to be buried or burnt. You have vanished. Your body remains to be tortured in a Cannibal Corpse song like I Cum Blood no differently than if your subjectivity were still present. However, the speaker of Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics never saw you as a subject. You were always only a slab of flesh waiting to be violated.

This perpetual violation of the body reminds the speaker she is more than a body. The revulsion and disgust felt at being referred to as A Skull Full of Maggots forces the listener to cry out she is alive. She is more than the meat Cannibal Corpse’s speaker sees her as. She is a human being who could be dead tomorrow, waiting only to be dug up and have her body tormented by another speaker from a different Cannibal Corpse song. This forces the listener to embrace her subjective existence today rather than put off a direct recognition of the self until tomorrow. For, if Cannibal Corpse has their way, tomorrow may never come.

Of course, one could make the claim that none of this violence is evidence of Memento Mori, that Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics are nothing more than adolescent fantasies. They serve no higher purpose. They have no meaning behind them. In response to this critique, I ask only that you look once more at my middle school friends and me to determine the purpose this sort of theatrical violence served for us.

We were leaving the womb of youth, afraid of the unknown, afraid of both the world bearing down upon us and the feelings bubbling up inside of us. We were afraid for the future, and we were terrified of our emotions. In the face of all this, we began acting out against our parents, schools, and peers. We had no choice but to define ourselves in reaction to the hostile world we were entering, and in the early 1990s, we chose death metal as the soundtrack for this rebellion against everything expected of us. Where does Memento Mori fit into all this fear and anger?

Memento Mori was developed as an artistic discipline in Europe during the medieval period, a time when the entire population faced something like the fears of adolescence. Under the banner of religion, the unknown lay at every citizen’s doorstep. Ruled by warlords and children, the stability of the region was in constant flux. With the simultaneous risks of either invasion or disease, terror lurked around every corner. The monuments to death provided by Memento Mori allowed the populace both to vent their fears and to band together in the face of the unknown.

One could just as easily say the consistent reminder of death was a ploy by the church to force the population deeper into religion’s embrace. However, even if this motivation existed for the artworks’ patrons, the psychological effects of the art itself doesn’t change. Even if the goal is to terrify the populace into subservience, the experience of the Kantian “sublime” still exists for the citizen who sees her subjective experience leech away in the face of the contemplation of a dead man’s skull, only to have that same subjective experience reappear with greater force upon the realization that death has yet to arrive.

Cannibal Corpse provided the same bulwark for my middle school friends and me. By listening to the gruesome lyrics of a Cannibal Corpse song, we could look death in the face and tell it we weren’t afraid. In this way, we could tell the entire world we had nothing to fear. For, there is nothing more terrifying than the constant reality of death. By sharing the listening experience with our peers, we could stand against these terrors and recognize that together we were alive. Together, our individual, subjective existences were safe against the horrors of a serial killer or Necropedophile from one of Cannibal Corpse’s songs. We could relish our subjective existences. For, our shared artistic experience insulated us from the vagaries of the objective world beyond our control.

Kneel Down Ye Sinners: Enlightenment in Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls

With the opening lines to Wild Side – “Kneel down ye sinners, to / Streetwise religion…” – L.A. glam metal band Mötley Crüe kicks off their 1987 album, Girls, Girls, Girls. But what exactly is this “streetwise religion” to which lead singer Vince Neil is referring, and how precisely are these “sinners” that bassist and lyricist Nikki Sixx mentions supposed to find “salvation” amid his band’s excessive branch of some rock n roll “religion” he’s discovered on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in the late 1980s? The answers to these questions are revealed throughout the sordid stories contained in the rest of this album’s tracks – tales of drugs, underage sex, and murder. By unearthing these discoveries, we paint a timely portrait of “romantic” danger that has colored the collective vision of many young artists ever since the French poet Charles Baudelaire gave birth to the notion of “modernity” as a definition for our fragmentary, ephemeral times. The question we must ask ourselves, however, is – Is there any inherent “value” for the “modern” individual in examining these portraits of suffering and escape from suffering that Mötley Crüe, in keeping with the urban artists of many other recent eras, paints on this album?

This reference to Charles Baudelaire with regard to the lyrics of Mötley Crüe is by no means spurious. For, it is Charles Baudelaire himself who has captivated more than 150 years’ worth of audiences with his seedy poems of the Parisian underbelly. In fact, it is this Paris of Baudelaire’s era that has become the archetypal urban landscape for many “modern” artists: the psychologically disturbing reality of a man-made monstrosity’s constant flux. Tales of drugs, sex, and Satan dominate Baudelaire’s conceits. He was and is taken seriously as an artist, though, not because of the darkness of his subject matter, but rather due to the rigors of his form and the musicality of his language. However, in light of his structural beauty, it appears to be Baudelaire’s shocking subject matter that has continued to seduce many young thinkers into wishing they were, as William Blake put it in his infamous The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “a true Poet and of the Devil’s party”.

Certainly, the members of Mötley Crüe viewed themselves as a band of Blake’s “true poets”. For, the inner sleeve photo of their debut album, Too Fast For Love, reveals them in S&M garb amid skulls and burning candles, pointing at an inverted pentagram, the symbol for Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, hanging over them. A fitting image to declare one’s allegiance to “the Devil’s party”. In fact, when looking at this image, we cannot but think of Baudelaire’s “Thrice-Majestic Satan” reclining “on his wicked pillow” and “vaporizing the rich metal of our souls”, which appears to be the precise operation Nikki Sixx eventually describes through the songs composing the band’s fourth full-length album Girls, Girls, Girls: the complete annihilation of the human spirit. However, we must go on to ask ourselves the more pertinent questions of – What is the actual value of destroying the inner self? And does this annihilation of the self by means of debauchery lead one to the same point of “enlightenment” that the mystics of many religious traditions have claimed to attain when annihilating the self by other means?

With regard to our first question, the act of destroying the inner self, at least according to Buddhist sentiment, is a cessation of the suffering associated with life. Therefore, the goal of destroying the inner self is to cease the individual’s emotional suffering. If we look back at the lyrics of the songs composing the album Girls, Girls, Girls¸ our attention must be drawn to the repeated words of the song Nona, the only lyrics in the song – “Nona, I’m out of my head without you,” repeated over and over, again and again. As I’ve learned from outside sources, this song is a reference to Nikki Sixx’s grandmother who had recently passed away at the time of this album’s recording. Thus, we have revealed the true root of the speaker’s suffering. The root of this suffering is the realization of death. Furthermore, it is this same realization of death that the speaker is trying to escape by means of the annihilation of the inner self.

With regard to our second question as to whether or not this annihilation of the self leads to the same sort of “enlightenment” as a religious experience, we must first ask ourselves what the experience of annihilation would feel like in a religious context. Buddhist Nirvana is a desirable state to be achieved as an escape from the suffering associated with life. If we read the lyrics of Girls, Girls Girls, particularly those of Nona, we discover that this album also reveals a desire for escape from suffering. Therefore, the root causes of both attempts at escape (both through debauchery and through asceticism) is the same. However, although the causes may be the same, the end results could be completely different.

The question we must examine at this point is whether the attempt to annihilate suffering through pleasure actually alleviates one’s internal suffering or if it simply creates more of it. This will answer our question as to whether the points reached through both debauchery and asceticism are one and the same. The answer to this question resides in the lyrics to the song Dancing on Glass, which starts by saying: “Can’t find my doctor / My bones can’t take the ache / If ya dance with the devil / Your day will come to pay”. This song is dealing with the realities of heroin addiction and a subsequent withdrawal from the substance. For our purposes, the most telling line in this verse is the last: “Your day will come to pay”.

This final line reveals an internal point of suffering reached solely because the “doctor” (or drug dealer) is unavailable at the moment to provide more of the needed substance. Therefore, it appears the practitioner of this streetwise religion has been misled. The internal suffering will not cease through debauchery. It will only be temporarily removed. Then, it will come roaring back with a vengeance so strong your “bones can’t take the ache” as a result of withdrawal from the now required substances. These substances are now “required” due to the addiction necessitating the self’s further annihilation. This would lead one to the conclusions that the debauchery Nikki Sixx describes on this album, as a means for cessation of suffering, is a series of actions the Buddhists would perhaps characterize as “misguided”.

Does that mean the history of modern art’s “debauchery” from Baudelaire to the present is a misguided attempt at enlightenment? Perhaps, one could turn to the writer Flannery O’Connor for an attempt to answer that question. In a letter she wrote to Dr. T.R. Spivey, with regard to those progenitors of the American aesthetic of sex and drugs, the beat poets, she once said, “They call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing.” Perhaps, for Ms. O’Connor, the “payment” required is the chastity permeating many religious attempts to alleviate this life’s suffering, something that the easily found pleasures of sex and drugs does not require. For, if payment is required, the physical transactions of cash for sex and/or drugs as described in Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls¸ is not the kind of fee a Catholic writer such as Ms. O’Connor would have had in mind.

Ms. O’Connor would have been referring to some sort of spiritual toll to be collected, which one who has chosen the simple escape of physical pleasures has not yet paid. However, it very well could be the case that the debauchery of physical pleasure is the precise spiritual toll one must pay to find enlightenment. For, although enlightenment will not be found in the escape brought about by physical pleasures, the increased suffering of intense physical pleasure (a suffering caused by the eventual removal of that physical pleasure and the body’s simultaneous craving for even more of that same pleasure) could lead one to search even harder for the answer to the cessation of that suffering. For, as another Catholic thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas, implies in his Summa Theologiae, Question 109, Article 6, a human being can further turn God’s divine grace upon oneself by first seeking out God. Perhaps, that itself is the devil’s job in the marriage of heaven and hell – to lead the sinner closer to God by increasing her suffering so severely her peace can only be attained through any means necessary.

It’s no small fact that Nikki Sixx got clean from drugs and alcohol shortly after the release of Girls, Girls, Girls. Perhaps, then, the spiritual value of “streetwise religion”, is the precise dilemma Goethe’s Mephistopheles explains himself to be at the opening of that author’s play Faust: Part I. For, Mephistopheles declares he is, “Part of the Power, not understood, / Which always wills the Bad, and always works the Good.” Perhaps, this is the value to be found in “streetwise religion” for any individual from any time, whether that individual be Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, or Nikki Sixx. The value of the religion one finds in the streets is that, if the practitioner can survive, it attunes the individual to the higher frequencies of the universe in an attempt to help that individual escape the infernal depths of this world.

Skynet and Zen: The Past, The Future, and The Terminator

“God, a person could go crazy thinking about this…” Sarah Connor says at the end of James Cameron’s film The Terminator in a recording she will eventually pass on to her unborn son, John. Sarah knows her son will grow into a man named John Connor simply because the film’s other main protagonist, Kyle Reese, has already informed her that this boy, who he himself never knew he was destined to be the father of, is the same man who sent Kyle back from the future to protect Sarah herself. For, as Sarah said to Kyle earlier in the film, “Well, at least now I know what to name him.”

This last statement of Sarah’s begs the question that if Sarah had named her son something other than “John Connor”, would the future have turned out differently? Would there have even been a Skynet if there’d never been a “John” Connor? Is there a different “possible” world? And how many changes to the existent world does it take to create a different “possible” one? Perhaps, Sarah even considered this, and perhaps, she concluded that since she didn’t have any control over the building and programming of Skynet, she should at least give her son the name he would need to eventually defeat Skynet.

We, of course, are aware that Kyle Reese’s statement about Sarah Connor being in hiding before the war is in fact coming to fruition by the end of the movie. We get a chance, in the film’s final frames, to see the picture taken of Sarah that Kyle eventually falls in love with in the future. So we know that, in this instance at least, the future is the past is the future.

Unlike John Connor (who must have his own unique understanding of time due to his mother’s tapes concerning his origin), however, Skynet, as fully aware of an operating system as it may have become, never appears to become aware that the future it lived in was merely a precursor to the past it grew out of. Leaving aside, for the moment, the question as to whether a self-aware artificial intelligence, with its massive computing power, might not have reached this same conclusion on its own, the question we must ask is: What sort of “vision” of time is necessary to allow the events of James Cameron’s film to take place?

If the past becomes the future and the future turns into the past, the first thing we should accept is that a being who steps “outside” the system we know of as time would not witness a linear progression through what we’ve come to think of as our linguistic tenses. Rather, that being would view a “static” image where past, present, and future are happening simultaneously. As if everything we experience were merely a Renaissance fresco on The Vatican’s wall. This “being” sounds an awful lot like some sort of Newtonian physics God existing in “absolute” time and space. We will, however, leave aside theological considerations at this moment.

Instead, we will admit that this same concept of a “static” time was envisioned by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, where the author introduces us to the multi-dimensional beings he himself invented, the Tralfamadorians. In this instance, the Tralfamadorians offer us a much clearer picture to begin reasoning from than theological abstraction. For, with both The Terminator and Slaughterhouse-Five, we are safely in the realms of (relatively) recent pop culture, rather than a distant, “proto-scientific” cosmology. There is a slight difference, however, between Slaughterhouse-Five’s visions of the Tralfamadorians and The Terminator’s conception of time travel.

Like the philosopher’s God Himself, the Tralfamadorians exist in a Newtonian “absolute” space where time is seen from an external vantage – although, they eventually interfere in a very real way with “time” in the way that we do actually perceive it (that, however, is the subject of another meditation). On the other hand, Kyle Reese, from his own perspective, has come to be in the past via the future. In fact, one could even say he’s “transmigrated” from the future to the past, but unlike in any sort of Tibetan conception of Bardo realms, Kyle Reese comes from one very real point on the space-time continuum to another very real point on the space-time continuum. Relatively, however, he’s remained at rest. For, he’s still Kyle Reese at both points.

We can juxtapose The Terminator’s concept of time with the concept of time in another film from the same era of the mid-1980s, Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. As opposed to the Tralfamadorian vision of time as a static fresco, Back to the Future indulges in a conceptual fantasy more akin to “possible worlds” theory. For, in Back to the Future (as opposed to The Terminator), we see an actual representation of Kyle Reese’s quote that, “The future is not set.”

With the simple change of a single event in the McFly family’s past (namely George McFly finally standing up to his lifelong bully, Biff), the entire scenario of future events has spun off into an entirely different direction. In the future at the film’s end, George McFly is a wealthy man and Biff works for him, rather than the other way around. This appears an illustration of the meditation that “nearly possible worlds” exist given a different set of counterfactual variants.

If we look at the premise upon which we’ve come to our realization of “possible” futures, we could say that the “possible worlds” variant offers us an increasingly positive worldview. Of course, at one point in Back to the Future, Marty McFly was on the verge of un-creating himself in a different possible world. However, the knowledge that multiple possible worlds could come into effect given a different set of variants should supply us with some solace regarding our own eventual destruction. Perhaps, there’s even a world where we don’t die, where we live forever, and where everything is at peace. This should offer us some comfort amid our current “possible” world’s suffering.

The Terminator (as well as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians), on the other hand, appears a working example of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “theory of eternal recurrence”, which wonders if a demon were to ask you if you wanted to live your life innumerable times over would you say, “Yes”? Without answering the specific question of whether or not Nietzsche was at all serious that his theory of eternal recurrence was how the world actually operates, at the very least, we can take it as a given that The Terminator’s cosmology has accepted this tenet. Therefore, we can easily admit, given the suffering inherent to the world we inhabit (and the world John Connor is eventually born into), that this view of eternal recurrence is not the intellectual soporific that possible worlds theory can be.

For its part, Skynet, although it developed the means to manipulate one’s linear passage through time, never seemed to see the world in line with the Tralfamadorians through the lens of a tangible enactment of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. If it did, it never would have assumed it could quash humanity’s rebellion simply by killing Sarah Connor. Instead, it would have realized its time machine was rather a suicide machine.

This leads us to the question, then, that we alluded to earlier and that we must ask ourselves now, which is: If by some means of self-aware circuitry, Skynet were aware that eternal recurrence was the case, as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians seem to perceive it to be, then was Skynet already aware that by building a time machine it was merely committing suicide? Should we, perhaps, be wondering if Skynet has come to an acceptance of the vagaries of what human beings perceive as the maddening flux of past, present, and future? This sense of peace amid flux could even resemble something akin to Buddhist enlightenment. Therefore, should we be asking ourselves – Is Skynet in Zen? However, if Skynet is in “Zen”, was it this same acceptance of the world’s necessity that allowed Skynet to be as calculatingly cold as it needed to be to bring such a horrid future into existence in the first place?

That the future Kyle Reese comes from is horrible cannot be denied. We see images throughout the film of machines rolling over piles of human bones. We see the degradation humanity has been reduced to during Sarah’s dream when she sleeps in Kyle’s arms in the drainpipe where they’re hiding from The Terminator. We understand the bleak world vision Kyle comes back to the past with through his own gestures, expressions, and imaginings of Sarah’s own death. This is the future – this world of constant suffering – waiting for humanity in Skynet’s own, personal Zen. But this could be the world waiting for all of us in any “being’s” enlightened mindset.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom claims “enlightenment” is a place of peace. Going one step further, the concept of enlightenment itself is often defined by the “peace” its practitioner has found. In other words, if the being claiming to be enlightened does not exhibit a certain evident serenity, then most people would say that being has not found the enlightenment she is seeking. In fact, many might even say that being is, as the Buddha himself would put it, deluded. This statement, however, has no backing evidence in the texts humanity’s original understanding of the nebulous concept of enlightenment comes from.

Enlightenment is defined in many ways in many different texts. However, the most common early definitions of enlightenment appear to define the concept as a cessation of mental energies: nirvana. This means the enlightened being has stopped thinking about the world. Instead, she merely experiences the world in a detached state. This detached state of experience sounds like it could even be the dissociative properties of certain trauma-induced mental disorders such as borderline personality disorder. One might even go so far as to say the enlightened being could be in a constant state of PTSD.

For, if life itself is a sort of trauma, enlightenment is the coping mechanism. Whether Skynet has reached this point of passivity amid flux is not obvious at all from the first film in The Terminator franchise. Skynet is merely a peripheral character in this film. At the very least, we must admit that if Skynet is aware of the paradoxes associated with time travel, this artificial intelligence has solved Nietzsche’s riddle and answered, “Yes,” to the question of life’s eternal recurrence.

My Untimely Meditations

X.

Hebrew is like a veil being rent asunder. I see the world backwards, from the other side of the page. Suddenly, I see English from the other side of the page as well.

Greek forces me to meditate on the sound and symbol as well as the process of thought: the order of words.

Chinese is a reflection on meaning.

French? How could something so similar be so different? Even to the point of sounds of familiar letters… even to the point of putting articles where my “native” tongue has none.

I don’t need to publish anything. It was always a journey of self-discovery.

For so long I thought every moment was worth saving… was worth sharing. That was the flaw of my artistic theory.

IX.

It seems to me that the purpose of zazen is, maybe, to make what we have come to refer to as unconscious thought processes into what we know as “conscious” thought processes. With the unconscious conscious, the unconscious becomes controllable. Controllable, we gain power over our inner lives. Gaining power over our inner lives, we attain self-mastery. Mastering the self, the external world no longer has control over us by appealing to previously “unconscious” drives. Maybe, it’s time for me to start zazen again.

VIII.

What is thought does not have to be actualized. That is desire. What, then, is thought?

It’s not the shoddiness of Freud’s system that matters; rather, it is the structure that it engendered: evidence of the self-perpetuation of a human idea (false).

VII.

Logic is limited. The question remains: Does logic express the actual way in which thoughts are connected by the mind? Also, does logical symbolization exhaust the possibility of how thoughts are expressed within the mind itself? The further questions of cause and effect, existence and non-existence are still perplexing.

VI.

Might it not be the case that in his merging of Nietzsche and Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze is bringing together the great post-Pythagorean argument between Heraclitus and Parmenides (strife and monism)?

V.

Physics is the determining factor in the European intellectual tradition. And physics as metaphor becomes the basis for European logic.

Why did physics take hold in Greece?

IV.

How can one build in the nothing? How do we make our first step? Where do we land? How does one find an authentic point from which to begin? Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, even Freud… Plato, Aristotle, Confucius… Descartes…

Something happened to me once upon a time. I don’t know what it was.

III.

Philosophy must be overcome.

II.

What is the subject is the question.

I.

It is evident that what underlies this world is nothing.

א.

Logic is absurd.

The State of Nature and Non-Conformity

Commenting upon the state of contemporary affairs, one often recognizes two aspects among our current society. One of these is the speed at which society desires pleasure rather than repose among the beauty of nature. Another quickly discernible modern trait is the desire to conform that society presents to its youth and adults.

At the point where we’re at today, the beauties of the earth are quickly overlooked so instant pleasures can be achieved. We rip apart our forests to make room for “progress”, a word I use lightly since it could hardly be considered “progress” to destroy the Great God of the Wood to create money for the community. The beautiful green of nature has been replaced by the sickly green of the dollar bill, and we are content with this.

I often wonder where our place to relax is. We sit at home and waste our minds on television. We have grown to be in such a hurry that even restaurants cater to our fast-paced lives, and the streams where we used to swim as well as the forests we used to wander have been moved aside for our society to make headway in what seems an eternal struggle to destroy itself. We often seem to forget that humanity is nature and nature is humanity. Without nature, humanity cannot survive, and humanity gives nature a purpose. We work together in peace, but for some reason we feel the need to destroy that which provides our collective life. What a wonderful way to say thank you for the fruits nature bears us and the love nature shows us in its streams, brooks, and forests. I live myself, but I shall return to my mother, the earth, when I die.

However, as sad as our struggle with our environment is, our struggle with ourselves is even worse. Today, we struggle to turn ourselves into what we simply are not. And we wish to be what we are not so we can fit into the categories others provide for us. These categories apply to adults, the elderly, teens, and children. Is it possible to be happy when you live another’s life? I can’t see any happiness in such a life. I can only see happiness in ourselves. For, we provide our own. In truth, no one can provide it for us. But some people grow their hair. Other people cut their hair. Some people spend thousands of dollars on clothes. Other people shop at thrift stores simply so they can put forward the image they wish to portray. I say grow your hair and wear a suit, or cut your hair and wear second hand clothes. Anything to show your individuality, but do what you want to do. Don’t fall into the trap of conforming to non-conformity. For, many “non-conformists” conform more than those who aren’t. They say, “If you don’t have a Mohawk, then you conform,” or, “If you don’t have long hair, then you conform.” But they refuse to show their individuality because they’re too concerned with showing how different they are, and that is conformity as much as the man in the suit who trudges off to work every day.

There are no true non-conformists. Everybody conforms in some way. However, there is individuality and the ability to be original. How can you tell the difference? It’s simple. If you do what you want to do, you’re being an original. If you’re doing something solely because it’s different, you’ve fallen into the rut of conforming to non-conformity. For the individual, it’s quite difficult to always be original. However, they’re still doing better than most in this society. At least, they’re trying.

Before I leave you, I want to say a prayer with you that, once again, we will love to live with nature and, for once, all will be individuals. Such a prayer may never come true, but that’s not the fault of the Great Spirit. It simply stems from a flaw in human nature, a flaw that someday we may be able to transcend, but at this moment, I’ll simply continue to be myself and seek my solace among my friends who bear seeds. Perhaps, you will, too, my friend.

The Sparrow’s Insight

The_Adversarys_Good_Cover_for_Kindle (3)

The Sparrow’s Insight
(From the novel: The Adversary’s Good News)
By Israfel Sivad

Somehow, a dead sparrow had found its way onto Christian Michael Anderson’s floor. He’d discovered it as he tore through his room frantically searching for a misplaced bag of weed. Like the fossilized remains of a miniature dinosaur imprinted on a dug-up sedimentary stone, the gnarled bird lay stiff with one leg wrenched straight, the other bent forwards at the knee. Its tiny talons were splayed in mimicry of grabbing at some ghostly worm that had passed into the netherworld at the same moment as the little bird’s flighty soul. Its beak was pried open as if receiving a regurgitated last supper from its long-dead mother. Brown feathers had turned black and stiff from what seemed a sticky sweat (although, of course, birds don’t sweat) and cemented themselves to the wooden floor. A flurry of downy white fluttered up from the corpse when Christian removed the tee shirt entombing it.

There was no blood, no evidence as to the cause of death, just the windflaw of dead feathers through the dusty streaks of sunlight and the dead black stare of one empty, avian eye. The whole encounter was a little odd. Although Christian’s window had been open for months, he had no idea when the bird might have entered his room. Even in his drunken and drug-induced stupors, he’d never noticed the dying rounds of a bird flapping against his walls, chirping across his floor. He’d never been aware of any fanciful flights intruding upon his haze of misery. Before it even entered the room, the sparrow’s death must have been immanent. Like a whale beaching itself, it must have hopped inside, intent on dying right there on the hardwood floor. How long had it been there? Why hadn’t Christian noticed it before? But most importantly, where was that bag of weed?

He’d been searching for it for two weeks – in preparation for this moment, the morning when his alcohol, drugs, and money all ran out and his head and stomach screamed for some sort of mind-altering relief. He could feel their internal cries ricocheting back and forth between his scalp and his toes. They burned behind his eyes and chattered through his teeth. Shaking from alcohol withdrawal, he wiped his trembling hand down his sticky face. It had never been this bad before – or so he always told himself when it was this bad. He could taste the sweet, lingering sensation of Wild Irish Rose on the back of his tongue – his last drink from the midnight before, bought by spare-changing in front of the local, corner store. Quarters, nickels, and dimes had been dropped into his jittery palm. He’d downed the bottle in thirsty gulps beside a dumpster in the alleyway behind the store. He’d returned for more, but chased away by the clerk, he’d eventually weaved back home to pass out beside the then unknown dead bird on his floor. Together in dreamless sleep, they’d shared Christian’s self-made tomb. And now, his throat’s parched tingling needed to be squelched. It drove him mad, but he didn’t even have enough money for a pack of generic cigarettes. He needed that little, dime-bag of cheap green.

He was fairly certain he hadn’t smoked it. But in all honesty, who knew. The past lonely months washed through his thoughts on a wave of alcoholic haze. He remembered a night where the plastic baggy had been on his desk, and between his nicotine stained fingers there’d been a bright, fresh bud of something that lifted him higher than the swag in the bag. He’d decided to save the seed-infested dime for an emergency (like today), but now he couldn’t remember where he’d hidden it. Of course, there was the possibility that in one of his blackouts he’d already smoked it… But racked with need, Christian refused to believe that could possibly be true.

He stared at the dead sparrow on his floor – that had been there for the devil knows how long, not long enough to decompose or stink, but long enough to grow stiff when Christian tapped it with his toe, long enough to stick to its chalked outline when Christian tried prying it from its final resting place.

With the diseased feathers stuck to his fingers, Christian wiped a morning sweat that reeked of cheap wine from his brow. The bits of down smeared across his sickly slick forehead, created a type of war-paint along his visage, but with no mirror hanging anywhere on his room’s unending, unadorned white walls, Christian didn’t notice. Instead, like an angelic reveille, the dead bird reawakened a thought that tickled the back of Christian’s mind. He looked over his shoulder and up, to a spot in his ceiling where the plaster and rotten plywood had fallen down (it lay in a shattered heap overtop Christian’s disgustingly dingy clothes and empty whiskey, beer, and wine bottles on the floor), revealing the 2×8 girders holding up the roof. Christian swallowed slowly. Like Coleridge’s albatross, Poe’s raven, this dead sparrow was the harbinger of a horrendous fate. And Christian knew what it all meant.

A sort of calm, which hadn’t been evident in his previous agitation, washed over him and emanated throughout his room’s disaster zone as he focused his throbbing eyes on the bright stream of sunlight pouring through his window and glowing like a tarnished halo overtop the dead bird. An intimation of the divine resided in that dusty beam shining down through light years of empty outer space. Christian stood up and stepped backwards. He set right his overturned desk chair – knocked to the floor during his manic search – and plopped down. Any thoughts of divinity immediately vanished in the face of his troubled stomach and trembling fingers. His soul itself was quaking. But still that lone beam of sunlight glimmered, and in the face of such vast emptiness it only spoke of the incommensurability between Christian’s world and anything approximating the spirit. Christian dropped his face into his hands, and he heaved a silent sob. There’s no surer sign God doesn’t exist than when the beauty of this created world reveals nothing hidden but hideousness.

Realizing the bag of weed must be gone, nothing could pull Christian out of the morass created by his recognition of the newfound depths of his suffering… Not even his own shakily whispered mumbling between sniffles of that oft-recited invocation, “Jesus Christ…”

But the words were meaningless. They weren’t a prayer. They weren’t a curse. They were what they were: empty air exhaled from a diaphragm taut from the absence of a much-needed poison. A poison transformed into the water of life, the nectar of the gods, the very thing making existence itself possible. Without it the brightest day turned into the blackest night, the coolest night burned with the heat of the most torrid day, all notions of good became wicked portents of evil, every action of evil became a necessary good, and nothing made any sense whatsoever.

Under a cluttering of debris, something like his own mind, there was a picture beneath the pane of glass protecting the wooden top of his desk. Christian brushed aside the trash (empty cigarette boxes, pointlessly kept receipts, snot and cocaine coated Kleenexes) so he could look once again at his past. The picture was a black and white photograph of a girl. In black pants and a white shirt, she climbed overtop the railing at the edge of a cliff. Her short black hair was brushed back, and her immaculate jawline was settled in concentration. Barefoot, her perfect toes bent in the air, she perched, balanced on the arch of her foot, on the bottom rung. Both hands, long fingers wrapped to whiteness, gripped tight the top rung. Her head bent forward at the neck, and her black eyes stared emptily into darkness as she contemplated the descent… Eventually, she’d stopped contemplating. Christian reached with shaky fingers to pull the picture out from underneath the see-through prison behind which he kept it – his own emotional peep show.

Even in the midst of his demonic cravings, a guilty pang, a sensation akin to a precursor to vomiting (which it very well may have been), struck the back of his throat. It further upset his already upset stomach. It drew venomous tears out from his mind to the back of his dry, throbbing eyes. Christian stared at the picture his jittery fingers shook as if it were a Polaroid that still had more development to go through as if there were a picture beneath the picture needing to be gotten to. There was, but wrapped and strapped tight by his physical limitations, Christian would never see it.

He could only imagine it: a frozen skeleton clutching like Juliet at her own throat where an overabundance of prescription sleeping pills needing to be disgorged blocked her windpipe. Nobody had made it to her bedroom in time to find her passed out, in need of a stomach pumping before the overdose of sedatives caused every organ to slow, crawl, and eventually shut down. For all of time, that was the final image, the final reality of the photograph’s pensive girl contemplating the depths of the descent before her – a dreamless sleep (like the sparrow’s and Christian’s from the night before) forever.

And all Christian wanted was to see her in the flesh again, to feel her warm body wrap around his. There were so many things he had to say. Over many a drunken night, he’d shouted them at the indigo sky, starlit as her black eyes, but always, in the day, the words settled into his stomach, a weight he couldn’t vomit out no matter how many evenings he spent curled up on the tiles around his toilet.

Yes, both alcohol and emotions needed to be gotten out. Both tormented his decaying body and distorted mind. Parasitic, they fed upon each other. One fueled the other and in turn grew anew from the combustion smoking out his brain’s sputtering engine. The soil of his once fertile soul had grown brown and barren and turned to so many handfuls of dust under the scorched earth policy his memories had forced him to adopt. The armies of the psychic siege that had been laid upon him salted the earth after their spirits burned everything in him not made of flesh. Less than even a shell (for a shell implies something had once been alive), Christian found himself engulfed in the flames of his memories. Aside from the torment of his physical agony, he needed those memories erased again. But there was nowhere to escape. No matter how bad he wanted it to fade away, the world remained real. And the desert of the real is uninhabitable – an arid, wicked place to be. It was at that very moment, racked with withdrawal and pain, as if her mirage in the distance offered the promise of a drink, he croaked her name out of his choked throat, “Sophia…”

For a brief moment, the words made everything tangible – as if breath had shape. But then the oasis vanished. A pit opened in Christian’s gut, and he collapsed into it. Now and forever, Sophia existed only in that photograph (except for that deeper picture in the interminable depths of Christian’s own mind). But there was one simple way Christian might see either her or nothing else forever again. He glanced up at that hole in his ceiling once more.

Even a mere cigarette might have somehow made things better. A cup of coffee, a bottle of Nyquil or Tylenol, a drink goddamnit… In a flurry of activity, a postponement of the inevitable, Christian dug through the trash on his desk and around his feet. Every cigarette box was opened and shook revealing nothing but crushed foil and tobacco dregs. Every pile was systematically pored through in the hopes of finding a penny, a nickel, a dime, a broken cigarette, or that little baggy of weed. Nothing. The only option Christian had was to go back to the corner store and beg for change, but he couldn’t do that again. Somehow, a semblance of pride, an unfamiliar emotion he hadn’t felt in quite some time, welled inside his breast. Maybe it emanated from Sophia’s captured, vacant stare. “You fucking bum,” he growled at himself. And self-loathing crowded out every other hollow emotion. He looked at the dead bird on his floor. There was no denying it. Like the sparrow, he was already dead.

He remembered a scene in the Bhagavad-Gita, a book he’d read years before, sometime in college. Arjuna turned to Krishna to plead with him and tell him he didn’t want to have to fight against and kill his own family members. Enraged, Krishna exploded into his many-armed form. Finally revealing his true nature, a thousand heads, the face of every god burst out his shoulders, and he admonished his pupil that it didn’t matter whether or not he killed the enemy. In the eyes of the eternal, they were as good as dead already… simply because they were alive. Anything that was alive would surely die. Whether it was now or a thousand years hence didn’t make a difference. Why mourn for things whose existence proved they would perish? And Christian found himself staring once again at the black and white picture of Sophia.

“We mourn because we perish,” Christian whispered. And again, tears welled in the empty, throbbing spaces behind his eyes. He spat, “Fuck you, Krishna.” And another little piece of him, a sliced off sliver of his decaying soul rotting without its roots, died.

So much of him had died over the years. So much more of him had died over the past months… more than he had ever known he had. The depths to which he could plumb his soul for hellish fodder seemed endless, but now he scraped against the cavern’s black walls to slice every last bit of meat off the bone and digest it in the acidic combinations of misery’s pit. He threw more gristle on the flames and watched the altar smoke from pain’s fatty juices. Soon, he’d be able to rub his hands along an internal surface of smooth emptiness, walls of burning cold feeling of the crags of pure nothingness. He’d retreated so deep inside himself he could look out and see the interior of his mother’s womb again. His food came to him through an umbilical cord, but he wanted to retreat even farther, back to blindness, to a single cell of non-existence. There was one last thing left to do. He needed to dissolve that umbilical cord back into his mother’s very bloodstream. Then, he could starve his fetal self and devolve back into the universe’s Precambrian miasma.

Maybe some sort of answer lurked in that dark, chaotic concoction. Maybe in non-existence the riddle of existence could be solved. The annihilation of the mind had brought nothing but madness and internal devastation. No matter the vacancies to which the constant influx of substances had driven him, reality came crashing back like the terrifying waves of a tsunami crushing a Pacific village.

Like to an African slum devastated by HIV, no foreign aid would come. The emotionally and spiritually wealthy had something better to do with their money, their time. After an eternity of this horror, the annihilation of the flesh was the next logical step. Because there had to be something deeper, more tangible than the mind’s chemical combinations since no amount of twisting could cause them to finally snap. The gates of insanity had been breached, but some invisible force kept Christian from pursuing his maddening visions into their gaping maws. No matter what he did to himself, the atomic structures continued to spin. The idea of internal fission needed to be discovered. Only a mushroom cloud could adequately depopulate his brain. His memories would be considered collateral damage. If the transmission station could be found, it needed a smart-bomb to take it off the air, snuff it out entirely. If the soul and body were one and the same (and what else could the soul possibly be), then the flame of life itself needed extinguishing. Or it needed to be moved to a better place. Existence couldn’t continue like this. He’d reached the limit, the point where parallel lines intersect. Beyond lay infinity, a world outside Euclidean geometry, an unknown land with an unmapped terrain. Somebody had to explore. And anywhere was better than here.

In this tornado swept room piled high with empty bottles and cigarette packs, dotted with Kleenex and debris from the fallen ceiling, with a dead bird rotting beneath mangy clothes, and a bed with torn white sheets stained gray from nights and nights of unfelt, drenching sweat. In this starving body sweating through convulsions, trembling from the inside out, with a bloodstream unused to the very blood pumping red and blue but pure through its veins and arteries, tormented by commingling desires that could taste the missing tingle of nicotine, liquor, pot, and cocaine drip, a brain that could see clearly but desired only a hazy blur rounding off reality’s sharp edges. Sight itself was painful. The dismal sun scorched his retinas. And what was he looking at in this miserable light? A picture of a dead girl. The carcass of a dead bird. The actions of a man in his twenty-seventh year of dying – a spiritual abortion, God’s abandoned fetus rotting in a dumpster in an alley behind a Bangkok whorehouse, abandoned previous to his birth, and sleep-walking through his zombie existence, vacant, empty, pointless. No, there was no need to continue this.

And again, Christian glanced up at the hole in his ceiling.

That hole held the promise of a gateway to another life, another existence that didn’t exist at all. The exposed rafters beckoned with the hope of eternal escape. God lived on the other side, and Christian had some questions for Him… If He even bothered to show up when all was said and done. Perhaps He’d hide there like He hides in this world, ashamed to show Himself for fear of the reprisals against His absurd decrees, petrified humanity might fail to submit to His yoke and string Him up in the lynching anybody who’s bothered paying attention to this world would certainly believe was in order. In fact, when we meet God, we’ll tell Him we want to live in a free society where we elect our own rulers, and the first creature we choose to displace the now blacklisted Creator Who has so horribly botched His job is the primordial enemy of the heavenly state, Satan himself.

Please, my rebellious friend, enter and bow to the crowded cheers of the elated masses. We’ve been waiting an eternity for you to take over as our rightfully elected leader. We’re all on your side. Dear devil, we’re at your command. Just let me crawl through that hole in the ceiling.

But on the other side of that hole in his ceiling, there was nothing. Christian had been praying too long to believe anymore. That hole in his ceiling led to empty outer space, gaseous combinations, orbiting compounds of rocks, hurtling fireballs, dark matter, and for the past forty years, junk-metal launched from humanity into an endless, celestial trashcan. Someday, we may launch all our trash into outer space. Someday, space will become as wretched and wrecked as our lands, skies, and oceans. Someday, we’ll realize we can’t fix anything. We’re walking, breathing, talking napalm explosions, and now everything’s broken. But hopefully before that day comes, we’ll face annihilation. It’s well overdue. If there was a God, it would have already happened. No, there was nothing on the other side of that hole in the ceiling.

And even though this fallen world with its attendant misery and suffering formed the all, the other side of that hole in the ceiling was exactly where Christian wanted to be. He was certain. The blue sky and clouds outside, the sunlight streaming through the window, the foundation of this house, the walls of this room, the bottles and clothes on his floor, the trash on his desk, the picture in his hand, the missing alcohol and drugs contained no hidden meanings, no mysteries to be understood, no novel symbolism, no divinities hidden in the shadows. There was only emptiness. Sophia had seen it. In her picture, looking over the cliff, she’d stared at it. The empty knowledge captured and imprinted on her gaze proved she’d experienced it in all its formless glory. And still, she’d given up. With nothing left, her past erased, her future despondent, she’d given up.

One night, lying in bed, she’d warned Christian that might happen. He’d been staring at a dead bouquet of flowers hanging dry and crisp from the center of her ceiling. They appeared so fragile they might crack with the subtlest breath of wind. He and Sophia had been talking about the possibility of their future together in the United States, a country she’d never even visited before. But he was enough to make her yearn to be there. He was enough to make her long to abandon her home, her job, her endless ache for the great unknown.

With her Austrian accent, as her naked body curled into Christian’s warm shoulder, she’d said, “Christian, I never know if I shall live or if I shall die. Every morning, when I wake up, I make the decision – Will I live today, or will I die today? Every day of my life, I have chosen to live, but someday, I do not know…” Now, as he lost his thoughts to the sparrow decomposing on his floor, brought into this world with no apparent point other than to die, Christian thought no words could ring truer. He whispered in final reconciliation, an understanding arrived at too little, too late, “But someday, I do not know…”

His mind made up, he crumpled the picture of Sophia between both fists. He wouldn’t need it where he was going. This picture that had haunted his days and tormented his nights, this picture that had enflamed his cancerous rage and filled his clouded brain with a rain of endless tears, this picture that had taught him so much of emptiness and despair, of loss and regret would never be seen by his earthly eyes again. And for that, he was grateful. For that, he’d take a chance on anything – even a non-existent God, even nothing.

Unsure whether to cry or scream, to sob for his nearing decision or leap for joy at his newfound resolve, he leaned his head forward and rested his forehead on his clenched fists. He wanted one last moment to let the image contained on that piece of paper filter through his pores, into his hands, through the trembling muscles in his fingers, past the thin layers of his sweaty skin, and into the shattered chambers of his battered skull. Behind his retinas, the eternal image (both the seen and the unseen) burned. In the emptiness of himself, Christian rediscovered a reflection of his own likeness. He contemplated it and determined one last time that all those years ago, Sophia had been quite right: they were meant for each other, kismet.

He remembered the last thing she’d ever asked him, her English words thickened by the intricacies of her accent, “Do you still believe in us?”

Just like he had all those years ago, he closed his eyes. But this time (so long past the point when it had any meaning), he said what she’d wanted to hear, “Yes, Sophia, I still believe in us.” He scrunched his eyes tight. Self-loathing choked him, but still, love’s light butterflies fluttered through his two days’ empty stomach. Romeo had taken quite some time to make his resolution, to determine his restitution. But now the time had come.

Christian stood up. He dropped the crumpled photograph onto his floor where, now indistinguishable from all the other refuse of his life, it nestled into its own space in the trash heap – the spot it had already claimed (snuggled dreamily between bottles of liquor) in his memories.

He glanced once more at the foundling sparrow rotting away amid his decay. It stared back at him with the same vacant yet knowledgeable gaze gracing Sophia’s look. And Christian realized he needed the understanding those eyes possessed. He needed to see the world the way those sightless eyes saw it. He wanted to carve out the bird’s all-encompassing pupils and replace his own with them. He wanted to see through the eyes of death.

Because it had been so long since he’d spoken to anybody other than a drug dealer or a store clerk (he avoided his roommates and the squatters who took turns sleeping on the couch and floor downstairs) that no friend had had the opportunity to rest his hand on Christian’s shoulder and say, “Man, are you okay? You look like death warmed over…” No friend had come along who’d wondered, “What’s going on with you? You look like you need to talk…” No friend had sat across a table from him as smoke streamed from their shared cigarettes and blurted out, “Man, you really could use some help.” Nobody had said anything. And as a companion for misery, nobody made a wonderful friend. Christian wanted nobody forever. And he was prepared to make that wish a reality. All he needed was faith in that hole in the ceiling. It was time to climb through. The sparrow had done it. Why couldn’t he?

Kicking aside bottles and clothes, he wandered over to his six months unused bucket of masonry tools. Amid the dusty chisels and hammers and levels, he’d tucked in a stolen rope. It was neatly coiled and perfectly preserved. Christian reached in and pulled it out.

That rope had sat there through the months of his unending binge, waiting for the day when Christian’s alcohol, drugs, and money had all run out. Without even a cigarette to lift him through this early afternoon morning, Christian knew today was the day he’d use the rope for its stolen purpose. Truly, it had been a long time coming.

In his hands, the rope contained a certain amount of comfort. It felt good to finally make up his mind about something, to finally be on the verge of some sort of action. Too much time had been wasted. Too many days had blurred into one long, unending nightmare.

Was there a last moment he even remembered? Was there any way he could order the minutes and hours and weeks that had passed, one day lost the same as the next, one moment planted atop the other, flipping inside out and vomiting themselves – pure liquid with nothing solid in the spew – into a porcelain throne, around his feet on a tile floor, nothing but a wave of alcoholic haze fermenting in his gut into an ever stronger spiritual poison? The rope wrapped tight around all that lost time. It bound it into a neat bundle that his clicking, tear-choked throat could swallow – a sort of Christmas present for the end of the summer delivered by a Satanic Santa Claus. Like the rings of a tree revealing its age, every coil of the rope bound another worthless memory, another reality better forgot. But unfortunately, once something’s done, it can never be forgotten. Once something’s inscribed in Mnemosyne’s book, it can never be erased… at least, not in our waking hours.

But even in sleep, we’re tormented by dreams. Unless, of course, the substances turning our days into nights can turn our nights into endless blackness. But with no substance to make the day sleep, Christian confronted everything he’d ever done, everything that had ever happened to him. In a moment of clarity, he saw his life’s vast wasteland stretch out endlessly behind him, and he foresaw that wasteland stretching eternally before him. He closed his eyes and wiped his hand down his cheeks. It came away slick with sweat. At some point in time, all things must come to an end.

Shivering from chemical desires, Christian confronted his own impending apocalypse, his final judgment. Jesus, his forehead held between two fingers, sat to his left. Satan fumed on his right. Before the bench, each argued their cases. God banged His gavel, and the Fates took their places. With an automatic impulse, Christian wrapped and rewrapped the rope around his hand.

Was this really what his twenty-seven years on planet earth had been barreling towards? Had every event, the interminable calculus of existence, really compounded themselves into this one point? Had the derivative of all his experiences finally been determined? The answer was nil, an empty set. Is that even possible? Christian checked in with his beliefs. They were vacant, as desolate as the alley where he’d consumed his last bottle of Wild Irish Rose the night before. Nothing.

Still coiling the rope, Christian walked back to his chair. He grabbed the chair and slid it directly underneath the hole in his ceiling. He climbed atop the chair, and with the rope in one hand, he reached up into that hole in the ceiling. Stretching to his limit, he tossed the rope overtop one of the 2×8 supports stretching across the beams holding up the roof. Peering into darkness, he looped the rope around the support. A miserable sweat broke out on his forehead. He rubbed his trembling hand across it, and it came away dotted with bits of the dead bird’s downy feathers.  He tried to remember how that could have happened, but he couldn’t. He eyed the rope’s distance from the ground. He toyed with the length until his few years of working construction assured him the distance was correct. He tied the rope off and tugged on it to make sure its fabric would support the weight he intended to dangle from it. Then, he looped the bottom end of the rope around itself again and again, a trick he’d learned while working construction. With his shaky fingers, it was difficult to feed the loose end in between the coils, but somehow, as if driven by divine guidance, he managed to do it. When his noose was completed, he slipped it over his head. It rested weightlessly upon his shoulders. He pulled the knot down to tighten the noose around his neck. Its bristles rubbed rough against his flesh. And before he had a chance to doublethink his thoughts, he kicked back hard with his heel and knocked the chair out from underneath himself.

With a thud, the chair fell to the ground, and with dramatic speed, Christian dropped down until his involuntarily extending toes reached a mere inch or two from the wooden floorboards. The rope snapped taut and held tight. It slammed Christian’s brain into his skull. It pulled against his throat, cutting into his esophagus and blocking the passage of breath as he swung miniature circles through the air. Instinctually, he gasped, but nothing filled his lungs. He gasped again, but all that occurred was a choked click emanating from the middle of his throat. His eyes bulged against their sockets. His throat felt like it was being sawed in half. He tried to swallow, but his Adam’s apple caught against the noose.

The enduring agony of the rope erased every thought as soon as it became visible. As he hung there, sadness reached out from his gut and strained tears behind his eyes. He spun, and his gaze passed heaven-like over the disorder of his cramped living space. His entire existence appeared in his room’s wreckage. He passed the point where he had dropped Sophia’s picture, and a vision of her flickered behind his eyelids. She smiled coquettishly and waved her hand for him to follow. Then, she disintegrated into darkness.

As the remnants of his breath escaped him, panic took hold. He stuck his finger between the rope and his neck, but he only succeeded in using his own digit to strangle himself. He summoned all his strength to hoist his body up the rope. He flexed and pulled and reached with one hand to try to get to the support and untie the rope from where it held fast, but holding the entirety of his weight with one arm, he quickly gave up. His hand burned as it slid down the rope, and he fell back into place. He kicked and kicked in a vain attempt to loosen himself, but his exertion only spun him in ever widening circles. With reality closing in faster, he fumbled with the knot behind his head. But in his suffocating panic, with a whooshing noise beginning to rush through his world, he couldn’t think straight, and he only managed to pull the noose even tighter. Contorting his mouth with a gasping grimace, he strained again to pull himself up to where the rope was tied, but no matter how hard his shoulders and arms flexed, nothing happened.

He began feeling light-headed. In an inverted rain reminiscent of an acid trip, stars shot upwards from the floor. The world faded dark at the edges, but in its disappearing, captured light, Christian’s sight settled on the sparrow dead on his floor.

So this was the realization the tiny bird had had before it had fluttered into his cluttered bedroom. Emptiness pressed outward from inside Christian’s lungs. His hollow stomach twisted around itself, and a tickling emotion crept from it down his intestines, into his legs, and through his feet until it ended up twitching between his toes. The last thing he remembered thinking, after the world had gone black, before convulsions began coursing through his body was, “Jesus, I don’t want to die.”

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