As the City Lights Burned the Nighttime Sky Bright

I stabilized while smoking cigarettes on the porch of a halfway house in October, 2009. I knew I had a job. I was laying brick patios for $8.50 an hour, but I was supposed to be teaching an “Intro to Critical Thinking” course at a small college in Northern New Jersey. Somehow, the school year had already started, and I was still in Richmond, Virginia. I’d been through all this before, but this was the worst it had ever been.

My nights were spent sleepless on top of my bed sheets in my single room in that halfway house, staring at the shadows on the ceiling, deconstructing my entire life. I couldn’t figure out what had gone so wrong. There was one thing I was certain of this time, though – this was my fault. My current predicament had nothing to do with my early childhood development, my parents’ divorce, or my mom’s solitary raising of me. It had nothing to do with either of my step-dads or their personal demons. It had nothing to do with my grandfather. It had nothing to do with my culture other than how I had interpreted it. My father’s death wasn’t even the cause of this. I was in that halfway house only because of me.

As a prerequisite for staying in that place, I had to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night. I’d been going to those meetings off and on for nearly twenty years by then. I’d put together three years clean three times. In fact, a mere five months earlier I’d been steadily approaching my four-year anniversary for the third time since I’d turned 15 in 1991. Once again, I hadn’t made it to that milestone. But for the first time ever when I tried getting a hold on it, not even AA made any sense to me.

Everybody was talking about God, and I couldn’t understand. I tried rewording that program’s 12 steps with words I could comprehend. Because the simple words the founders had originally chosen were just too complex. They said – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. That was gibberish. As far as I could tell, a Power greater than me had driven me insane. And the psychiatrists said, once again, that wasn’t even the case. There was absolutely nothing.

Five months earlier, as June was drawing to a close, I was in the middle of visiting my family for a short summer break from New York City in Richmond. I’d finished all my papers from my second semester of grad school, and I was starting to put together a syllabus for that “Intro to Critical Thinking” course I’d been hired to teach in the fall. I crossed my legs in lotus position to meditate one night, a regular habit I’d been practicing since before I’d even gotten clean that last time in DC back in August of 2005. And that’s when it happened. That’s when I broke… again.

You know Who I am, Gabriel,” the voice started in my stomach. It coursed through my limbs until becoming audible.

Staring blankly at the wall in front of me, my heavily lidded eyes half-closed, I nodded. I’d met this voice before in college, long before any sort of mood disorder or mental illness had ever colored my mind, making itself undeniably manifest to me. This voice was familiar. This voice was true, and I knew it wasn’t me.

You know what you have to do now, Gabriel,” the voice continued.

Without breaking my spine’s concentrated position, again I nodded. Unlike when I’d been in college, today I had a name for the voice. This was the Hindu conception of Brahman speaking audibly. I was to be The Angel Gabriel, to live the earthly life of Maitreya, the Buddha-to-be, by going out from the homeowner’s life into homelessness.

When I stood back up, pins and needles shooting through my legs’ discomfort, I took the anti-psychotic medication I’d been taking regularly since my last psychotic break in Charlottesville right before my dad passed away. With the medication coursing through my system, I knew this time the voice was real. And that meant – it was time. I knew exactly what I had to do.

Taking long walks through the woods, going for hours long drives around the Virginia countryside, I contemplated this proposition for about a week. But when CNN was busy broadcasting the news that Michael Jackson had just died, I knew the moment had finally arrived. The King of Pop was our true father – the first to come, the first to leave. I called my mom into the living room I’d been walking circles around while manically putting together playlists that could sing the world into existence through my week of sleepless nights. I told her, “Mom, I need to go into the psych ward.”

Slowly, she sat down on the couch. Concern spread through her happy face as she set her palms down on her thighs. “Why’s that, Gabriel?” she asked.

I told her, “I’m hearing voices again, Mom.” But I didn’t tell her my plan. I needed to get into that psych ward.

I couldn’t keep anything straight. I was on so much medication in the hospital. People flittered in front of my face and disappeared. In a land of phantoms, I battled the Hindu goddess Kali. Putting her to sleep with my embrace, I awoke as Shiva. I wound up in a padded room. That wasn’t the first time that had happened. A week later, the doctors decided I was stable. Nobody met me at the exit. The nurse who’d discharged me gave me cab fare. In my hands, I held my bag and a prescription to get filled on the ride home. I didn’t feel like taking the taxi waiting for me. I told the cabbie I wasn’t the patient he was looking for, and against his protestations, I headed out across the parking lot.

My mom’s home was down a winding path to the left. If I turned right, I’d head straight into the city of Richmond. Following the advice of a previous AA sponsor, I turned right, kept straight and threw that prescription away at the first trash can I came across.

Finally free, I strolled up the sidewalk. The city’s downtown skyline loomed in the distance at the end of the road. I nodded to every soul I passed. My ministry began that day, an eternity in preparation for just one moment. A man approached to ask for a cigarette. I gave him one, and he wondered, “What’s in that bag?”

“All I own,” I told him.

“You got a Bible in that bag?” he asked.

I told him I didn’t.

“Oh. I usually carry a Bible in my bag,” he said.

“Wish I had one, friend,” I told him.

“You don’t have one?” he asked me. “You look like a prophet. I thought you might have one.”

“Not today,” I said.

“Well, come with me,” he said. “I’ll give you one.”

I went back with him to where he lived at his mother’s house. Of my own free will, I gave him my wallet and my money, keeping only an ID card with a rubber band in case I collected anything else. He never asked me for anything, and he thanked me for my kindness. I traded him for a smaller bag with a shoulder strap making it easier to carry, but he couldn’t find that Bible.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said to me. “I’m gonna put a Bible right in this here bag you gave to me, and next time I see you, I’m gonna give that Bible to you. You’re on a journey. That’s right, a journey,” he said.

I nodded, but I never saw that man again. He told me he was a minister. Right then, I knew I’d chosen the correct path.

Taking up on a corner down in Richmond’s bar district that night, I spent the early evening asking people only to please give what they could spare. I scrounged up just enough change to get a couple hot dogs at this place across the street, and I knew the Lord was watching over me.

As the night drew on, I realized I needed to find a safe place to sleep. I hiked underneath a long bridge heading back to Southside where my mom lived, and I searched out a safe spot underneath there to make a bed. Beside a lonely, little outcrop of rocks overlooking the James River, I set my bag down and pulled out some clothes to make a pillow to sit on. I crossed my legs in the lotus position, and I meditated as the city lights burned the nighttime sky bright in the darkness across from me.

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The Values I Embrace Today

Yesterday was Easter, and since Cora’s still at that festival in the California desert, I went over alone to a friend’s place for brunch. Luc was there, too. It’s his old apartment, the last one he lived in before moving out to Anacostia. He didn’t bring Leah, his most recent love interest, though. He still thinks their burgeoning relationship is a bit too fresh to subject her to his friends. After we ate, Luc and I were sitting at a table Luc made by hand when he first moved into that place with his ex-girlfriend, the grad student in her mid-twenties. Our current host’s step-mom and this other woman Luc’s introduced me to before, Medha, were sitting at that heavy, wooden table along with us. Luc’s known Medha for years, but she recently moved back to DC from Brooklyn to help out her mom who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. I was drinking coffee while everybody else was sipping the remnants of their mimosas.

Our friend’s step-mom was saying, “I think it’s simple. If you put people on an X-Y axis so you have four quadrants, and if you consider the Y axis to be the spectrum of depression and the X axis to be family upbringing, you can start graphing how people are going to react later in life. See, in this quadrant, you have depression with a good upbringing, which makes the chemical problems manageable. In this quadrant, you have a bad upbringing but good chemicals, which explains how some people overcome their circumstances. In the third quadrant, you’re good with both, which is the easiest way for somebody to be brought up. While in the last quadrant, you have bad chemicals and a bad upbringing. These are the people who are really in danger.”

“Sure. That makes sense,” I said. “But it’s really a spectrum on both axes, right? Not to mention there are so many psychological problems that don’t fall into the category of ‘depression’ per se, and that really complicates matters. Besides, what constitutes a ‘normalized’ upbringing at any point in time? I’d say trauma is the most natural thing that ever happens to a human being in this world.”

“Despite my hopeless romanticism,” Luc interjected.

I went on, “It’s simply because our culture places so much emphasis on the sanctity of youth that the most important part of a ‘normalized’ upbringing in this culture is to avoid trauma at a young age. But what about a culture where entire generations are traumatized early in life? Like, for example, a culture that survives genocide. Then, the abnormal becomes the child who is not traumatized.”

“Right,” Medha said, “I even think about kids in this country who grow up with poverty or gang violence. But I guess that’s how we wind up with the different cultural narratives we were talking about earlier…”

“Sure,” I said. “Except there’s no real reason to believe any one narrative is inherently superior to any other. There’s only the one that wins.”

“History is written by the victors,” Luc reminded us.

“Maybe,” Medha said. “But do you think that’s why Communism lost, though? Do you really think capitalism is ‘better’?”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “But I’d make the claim that Marxist communism is ideologically flawed, and the flaw lies in Kant’s idealism, which crept into Marx’s thinking via Hegel. I mean, the problem with Marx, in my opinion, is more or less a problem with the German philosophy of his time. It’s the inversion of the ideal and the real. For me, the antidote is Nietzsche, which he probably even saw himself to be. And Nietzsche is what’s actually at the heart of the American project even though we couldn’t have said that at the beginning.”

“Are you saying we’re the overman?” Luc asked with a smile.

“No. But we have the myth of the overman, the myth of the future. Not to mention the whole ‘that which does not kill you only makes you stronger’ mentality. But that’s why, I’d say, reality is even more than just the victors writing history. The only thing that makes something ‘good’ at all – and I pretty much stole this idea verbatim from Nietzsche – is whether or not it survives. And that’s why, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come to believe there’s something to this American system I spent my twenties and early thirties railing against.”

“But the American system is actually two systems,” our friend’s step-mom told us. “One system is what people call capitalism and the other is more or less Christianity. And these two systems are constantly at war here. In fact, if you look at our elections, we’re split pretty much evenly at about 50/50. But it’s those two systems in conflict with each other that makes the United States what it is. We need the greed of the capitalists to move us forward while we need the morals of the religionists to keep us from completely destroying one another.”

“Sure,” I said. “But one thing I’ve really come to believe is that the America I know is necessarily anarchic. And the more I look at my life, the more I realize those are the cultural values I was raised with. So I have to admit, despite any of my past leanings, those are the values I embrace today.”

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Why I Didn’t Get a PhD…

Figuring out why I didn’t get a PhD, why I’m not a philosophy professor today instead of a copywriter, is an intricate problem. To tell the truth, I don’t even think I can give you a decent approximation of the reason. It’s much like when my dad was alive, if you’d asked him to tell you why he left my mom… But I know when I first started thinking my graduate school career may be coming to an end.

I’d been waiting nearly two weeks to hear back from my department. At this particular school, in this particular philosophy department, you had to reapply to be admitted to the PhD program at the end of your master’s degree. From the moment I’d been accepted, three years earlier, I’d always been under the impression this was merely a formality. The department didn’t even accept PhD applications from students who didn’t already hold an MA in philosophy specifically. In fact, I’d turned down an acceptance to Duquesne’s PhD program simply because I wanted this chance to return to New York City. There were memories I needed to explore further, and I hadn’t set foot in Brooklyn for six years then. As far as I could tell, everybody who demonstrated competence at the master’s level was admitted to continue on to the PhD. Truth be told, the school needed the money, and I had maintained an A average, passed all my exams and developed a thesis proposal the department was well equipped to handle. I assumed I’d be no exception.

At the time, I was dating this woman, Rachel. Her family had come from Pakistan via Delhi as a result of the Partition of India, and she’d been named by her grandmother while still a baby in India. At the time, her parents already knew they were coming to the United States, and they hadn’t given the two-year old girl a name yet because they wanted her to have an American one for their new home. The moniker of their favorite character from the American television show Friends was the perfect choice. Rachel was really good to me, but after everything I’d been through the year before, I was in no state to reciprocate.

My dissertation would be an examination of the evolution of conceptual subjectivity from Scholastic philosophy to Early Modernity. With my background in Chinese and Buddhist thought as a result of my first master’s, I was particularly interested in why and how European philosophy developed the notion of the individual subject inserted within our overtly subjective states. It didn’t seem inherently necessary to me, and I was of the opinion it had something to do with the development of medieval interpretations of the writings of Saint Augustine. After that dinner party at Luc’s last night, I was walking these two Belarusian friends who don’t know the neighborhood past my apartment and back down to the Columbia Heights Metro after a failed attempt to go dancing at this bar up on 11th Street.

We passed a building I always notice when I’m walking home late. It doesn’t have any bars on the first floor windows and the curtains are open revealing the occupant at her computer. “I don’t think I would be very comfortable letting people from the street see me in my apartment,” the Belarusian girl said. “Especially as an American. It seems Americans are very concerned with their privacy.”

“I don’t know if that’s necessarily what it is,” I told her. “I mean, it’s complex. Stereotypes are never quite what they seem, you know. Sure, there’s always a grain of truth. But there’s intricacies to the world’s cultures that can’t be painted in broad swaths. It seems to me what Americans are most concerned with, as a result of mapping our cultural narratives onto human desire, is individuality. As a result of that concern, we worry about our privacy.”

When I got the news about my PhD application, I was on my way to go work a campus event with a couple other people from my department. My initial application was rejected. The department chair invited me to reapply after being awarded the master’s that summer. I didn’t know what to do. The only thing that had kept me alive, sober and sane for the past year and a half had been my desire for that PhD. I’d even given up writing fiction and poetry at that point in time. My most recent novel had remained untouched for over two years.

“Shit, man, what are you gonna do?” a PhD candidate from my Hegel seminar was asking me outside the campus’ main lecture hall where we were handing out name tags for this conference on conflict resolution in contemporary Africa.

“I don’t know, man. But it’s always been my experience, if I can keep my shit straight, something really fucking cool will come up. It always has before.” I wasn’t even telling him the half of it.

“Probably true,” he said. “But did they offer you a chance to meet with anyone, to find out why you were rejected this go round?”

“Yeah, they did.”

“Do it, man. Meet with them. Find out why they want you to reapply, and do whatever they tell you to do. My guess is you’ll get in this summer.”

But I made up my mind pretty quick. Within a week, I was meeting Rachel outside a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood. We’d heard good things about this place, but it didn’t look like much more than a delivery spot. The sky was polluted gray as she walked up to me in her red jacket with a smile. I didn’t even offer a kiss before saying, “I’ve figured it out, Rachel. I know what I’m doing instead of a PhD.”

“Wow. That’s cool,” she said. “What?”

“I’m gonna teach English in China.” Rachel cocked her head to the side. Her eyes grew wider. I told her, “No. It’s simple. The director for my last graduate program, he’s got a ton of connections there. When I was finishing up that degree, he even asked me if I wanted to go teach over there. I’d have a job in a second.” I added, “Do you want to come with me?”

Rachel shook her head. “Gabriel, I have no desire to go to China,” she said. Three days later, she broke it off with me.

The day after Rachel and I split up, discussing the break up at a neighborhood pizza joint with my AA sponsor, he said to me over his pepperoni slice, “Gabriel, you don’t tell a woman you’re dating that you’re moving to China. It makes you sound like you’re not so serious about the relationship.”

“I asked her to come with me, though,” I reminded him. With a simple shake of his head, he took another sip off his Pepsi.

When I got back to my apartment from that meeting with my sponsor, my roommate sat me down in the leather chair that, a mere couple weeks before, she and I discovered had grown into a hive for the roaches infesting that place. They were everywhere. You couldn’t put food on the counter because they’d swarm it. You couldn’t even keep food in the freezer. They were there, too. They crawled across me as I slept, waking me with wispy legs brushing over my flesh. And the two cats did nothing about it. One of them always shat in the shower. I knew exactly where the disinfectant was. I was scrubbing the tub with it every day. There wasn’t a knob on my bedroom door. The first night I moved in, I shut the door before realizing there was no way to open it. Because of the bars on the room’s solitary window, I wasn’t able to get out until the building’s super came up the following morning to help. The Virginia driver’s license I still have today is missing a chunk from where I tried breaking out of that room that night. I never should have taken the place. I’d found it on Craig’s List, and when I spoke with Lucretia, the woman who held the lease, over the phone from Richmond, I discovered she was sober, too. I didn’t believe in anything spiritual about this world at the time, but I did believe if there was something to this plane, that apartment was where I was meant to be.

In fact, I hadn’t even wanted to move back to Williamsburg, then. Lucretia had convinced me. I wanted to be on the other side of Brooklyn, in Cobble Hill or someplace like that, but there I was.

“Gabriel, we’ve gotta move out,” Lucretia said on that day my sponsor chastised me for my last conversation with Rachel. Lucretia was about ten years older than me, had come up in the East Village theater scene during the nineties and currently ran a one-woman, multi-media performance art piece dealing with domestic violence. Most of the time, she was on tour. I had the apartment to myself. But during her last performance in town, at a little space on the outskirts of Chelsea, Rachel and I had decided to go. It was a cathartic experience.

“Okay, when?” I asked, assuming I could worry about all this after returning from that same Christmas break where I would eventually wind up in a verbal disagreement with the television set that convinced me to apply to law school.

“December 1,” she said.

“But that’s in two weeks…”

“Yeah, well, it’s a long story, but suffice it to say, I lost the legal battle on my squatter’s rights here. The apartment’s being returned to its owner.”

I went out to an AA meeting that night because I had no earthly idea how else to handle the present. I was sharing, “And I just don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna do. In the past week, my scholastic career ended, my girlfriend broke up with me, and now, I just found out I got two weeks to find a new apartment. It’s hard, but not as hard as it’s been. So I know if I just stay sober and do what I have to do to keep sane, everything will be all right… eventually.”

Smoking a cigarette beneath streetlights after the meeting, I was trying not to think too much about what was happening. But that’s when Carl, completely bald and towering over me at well above six feet, approached in his absolutely fabulous manner. Carl’s father, I later discovered, had played professional basketball. I wish my dad was still alive so I could know whether or not he’d ever heard of him. While Carl, I eventually found out, was an ex-rave kid turned painter of abstract figures who performed solo in an avant-garde drag show under the name Baroness Babylon. Today, he’s married to his then boyfriend. With a flourish, Carl introduced himself and said, “You know, if you need a place, I just discovered one of my roommates is moving out of my loft at the end of this month. I need somebody to fill the space quick. Do you want to come over this weekend and take a look at it?”

I had absolutely no faith, but still, I managed to say, “Yeah. I’d be happy to. How much is it?”

“$750 a month.”

“That’s an amazing deal,” I said. “Where are you?”

“Corner of Broadway and Union in Williamsburg. You do know where that is, right?”

“Yeah. It’s just a few blocks from where I’m at now.”

“Fabulous. Do you have a job?”

“No, but I’ve taken out student loans that’ll cover at least the next six months.”

“Okay. If you can commit to at least six months, that’ll work. Now, how much clean time do you have again?”

“Just over a year.”

“That’s fine,” he said.

“Wow, how fortuitous is that?” Luc says to me as I’m recounting this story to him on the balcony at work today since it’s in the forefront of my mind.

“I know. It’s crazy. Stuff like that isn’t supposed to happen in real life.”

“Yeah. How was the place?”

“It was great. My room there was bigger than my entire apartment here in DC, and I paid $250 less a month. Only problem was it was a ‘railroad’ apartment. So I had to walk through somebody’s bedroom to get to mine…”

“At least nobody had to walk through your bedroom to get to theirs.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve lived in those kinds of places, too. Everybody who came through Carl’s loft was pretty cool, though. Except for this one kid, Kyle. I mean, there was nothing really wrong with him. I actually kind of liked the kid. He had this Billy Idol-style bleached hair, and he was, like, 23 at the oldest. When Carl first introduced me to him, Carl said Kyle was a DJ, but when he shook my hand, Kyle said he was, ‘Really more of a New York personality.’ Kyle lived in the room I had to walk through for maybe three months at the most, but he woke me up nearly every night, high on coke, singing Donna Summer. I found out later, he was on disability from the military. And he refused to put the screen up for his bed. So there was nothing to block my view of him and whatever boy he’d brought home with him the night before in bed together on my way to the shower each morning. Kyle ditched out on us midway through April without even paying the rent. Carl was furious, but the man knew how to hustle. He pulled some extra shifts at work, sold some paintings. We made do.”

“I’ve been in those kinds of situations. I had to do the exact same thing. What happened with your PhD application, though? Did you ever wind up meeting with anybody from your department about that?”

“I did. She told me, when my application came up for review, not a single professor in our entire department knew who I was. That pissed me off. So she said I needed to find somebody to support my dissertation proposal. There was really no reason I shouldn’t be able to get back in with that support, she told me. I found a professor to support the proposal. In fact, I’m still reading some of the books he recommended for my research. But I’d already made up my mind. I never reapplied.”

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The Real Chaos of Jurassic Park

That the Tyrannosaurus escapes its paddock and that the Velociraptors begin to freely hunt humans is not the “real” chaos of Jurassic Park. It’s cinematic excitement. That the dinosaurs are actually able to reproduce simply because “life will find a way” as Dr. Ian Malcolm so succinctly puts it is not the “real” chaos of Jurassic Park either. It’s a restatement of contemporary evolutionary theory with an overemphasis on the natural drive to persist. Finally, Dennis Nedry’s intentional shutting down of the electrical grids in his failed attempt to steal the Park’s embryos, although certainly the instigator of quite a chaotic storyline, is also not the “real” chaos of Jurassic Park. It’s market dynamics at work in a high-stakes environment.

These are all examples of chaotic actions. They are not chaos itself.

The “real” chaos of Jurassic Park is always beneath the surface, poking its head above the waters in these attempts to illustrate the various impulses of theoretical systems dynamics. The “real” chaos of Jurassic Park is the molten core of this story itself, the very thing that appeals deeply enough to fans in order to generate a successful franchise of three follow-up sequels in addition to the original film. The “real” chaos of Jurassic Park is what none of us actually understand: the intricacies of the human mind.

Terminating Time: 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. She knows her son will grow into a man named John Connor simply because 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, of course, 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? Perhaps, Sarah even considered this, and perhaps, she came to the conclusion 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. Control the controllable as some people might say.

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 also 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), however, Skynet, as fully aware of an operating system as It may have become, was never aware that the future It lived in was merely a precursor to the past It grew out of. Leaving aside the question as to whether or not 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 in order 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. 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, “pre-scientific” cosmology. Is there a difference, however, between Slaughterhouse-Five’s visions of the Tralfamadorians and The Terminator’s conception of time travel?

“Kyle, what’s it like when you go through time?” Sarah asks her eventual lover once they’re safe from The Terminator’s devastating attack on the Los Angeles police department.

Kyle responds that there’s “white light” and “pain”. He wonders if, “It’s like begin born maybe…”

Like the philosopher’s God Himself, the Tralfamadorians exist in a kind of 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, in a sense, “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 were 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 truly 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?

The Benefits of “Streetwise Religion”

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 believes 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 – disturbing 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 must have 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, someday 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?

Cannibal Corpse as Memento Mori

One day, as I was walking down the street listening to death metal grinding through my ear buds, 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 me or my middle school friends. 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 kids who appeared perfectly normal prior to their middle school experience embrace destruction so heartily at the first sign of this world’s greater suffering? My answer lies in one of the most traditional forms of artistic expression ever to grace the collective unconscious: 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 modern 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 illegal 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 as a loving and compassionate human being? The choice is yours. You don’t know the future. This very well may 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.