In the morning, even before I woke up, my chains were freedom. I was paralyzed in a casserole of unconsciousness. My coffee turned to grounds, my face was bloated and angry, everyone around me was mean, and I wanted to go to work. All day the rain was building, growing in the sky like rye on a steppe. When it was harvest time I wished for Noah, I wanted water entering my back door, an unfamiliar panic as runlets seeped into my kitchen. A puddle grew, stretching, but not close enough. For consolation, I smelled the rain. I wanted to strip naked but knew I would only have to dress again. I ate a too-ripe peach and thought of what I’d wished for, considered beginning a number of new books, trying four pages from each and amassing a pile on my bed, leaning against a husband pillow, listening to music like a boy, congratulating myself on what I could do. A void opened inside me; I sought a constraint. I thought of the man I’d met earlier, his nicotine-stained teeth, baggy eyes like raisins, selling a painting that was not his own on the cafe’s corner. He invited me to a party and I considered attending, not to have fun, but to see how badly I fit in amongst people who ate weekly dinners together and shared a bathroom with more than three others. Live music, cheap beer that’s given to me, granular titties, I eschewed all of it. Better to wonder about Bosons and philosophical maths. Better to have only myself as my restriction.
About an hour south of Naples are the ruins of a twenty five hundred year old city called Paestum. Humans have inhabited this region for more than 250,000 years, living in caves along the seashore until the discovery of agriculture and iron brought warriors and traders to the region. From these cliffs the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey sung their song. By the 7th century BC the Greeks had colonized a city known as Poseidonia.
When Pyrrhus invaded Italy in 280 B.C. Poseidonia, Rome was beginning to establish itself as an expanding empire, thanks to its powerful army. Instead of calling for Greek aide, the Roman army defended the Italian peninsula by itself. Unfortunately for Poseidonia, their ally was the loser Pyrrhus. The Roman victory showed that Greece was no longer the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Soon thereafter, Latin tribes from the north conquered this small city, renaming it Paestum.
Building continued under Roman rule as the Italian religion blended the imperial cult of the north with aspects of the traditional Greek pantheon. But by the second century BC, the city had stopped expanding and its status was reduced to provincial outpost as northern cities such as Neapolis and Kyme grew along the highways of the new Roman empire. After Christ the formerly Greek temples took on a Christian purpose, and by Rome’s fall this sleepy seaside town was largely forgotten, its remoteness contributing to its relative obscurity.
Since 1998, Paestum has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as a relic of the ancient communication network between the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic seas. As gift shop prints depict, the moss-covered temples here were re-discovered by eighteenth century English travelers, around the same time as Pompeii and Herculaneum. These noblemen marveled at the dilapidated temples ignored by peasants who lived among the toppled columns and ancient houses.
Its three extant temples are dedicated to Hera, Ceres and Poseidon, the city’s patron gods. While the friezes and metopes fell long ago, the columns still stand erect, having withstood seismic activity, volcanic eruptions and centuries of bad weather. Today they are some of the best preserved Greek temples in the world.
The archeological museum onsite holds some of the treasures found here during the mid-20th century excavation, and aside from the three temples, points of interest include the remains of an agora, a once-open-air market now an empty field bordered by colonnades; ancient homes whose mosaic floors and marble cisterns indicate the riches of an extinct empire; and a small amphitheater, once the site of votes pertaining to the ancient city’s fate. This amphitheater was partially destroyed by the architect who built the nearby road; in 1936, he was convicted for his crime and jailed for eight years. On the western periphery of the site, uneven Greek flagstones lead to smaller floor plans spaced closer together, a reminder of the eternal disparity between rich and poor.
After working up an appetite surveying the grounds, lunch at a nearby restaurant. Pizza is never a bad idea in Southern Italy, but for more diverse local fare, order a caprese salad with the buffalo mozzarella that this part of Campania has made world famous. Being so close to the Mediterranean is ideal for seafood-lovers: linguine con vongole is made with clams caught offshore and mixed in a sauce of olive oil and white wine. Spada, or swordfish, is also a local favorite, often cooked with cloves, lemon and more olive oil. Pair it with a lacrima christi, made from grapes grown in the rich soil of Vesuvius, and for dessert, add a macchiato and biscotto.
If it’s warm, stop at the nearby beaches, renowned throughout Southern Italy for their sprawling, clean sands. And if you have time, head north to appreciate the medieval beauty of towns like Ravello, Amalfi and Positano.
Paestum and environs have been inhabited for almost as long as human civilization has existed, but treading the ground that two and a half thousand years ago was a bustling city is more than toppled marble and a history lesson. For any visitor to these once-holy ruins, a belief in ghosts isn’t necessary to feel the reverence of the living and the dead.
Based on the facts, today was a great day. I woke up late, got to work on time, got taken out for a $20 meal, wasn’t bothered by anyone, left when I had completed my seven hours, had an appointment cancelled, thereby freeing up an hour of my time, and sat down to write.
In my brain, however, I wanted to scream, turn up my desk, and walk out the door. Where did this feeling come from? This incredible dissatisfaction that stirred within me, why was it there? Especially when everyone else can simply go through their lives and feel happy?
I told my father my qualms and asked him the same question. He said, “Because you have other interests,” and proceeded to tell me that I should save up for the next year at my well-paying job and ask for full-time work in order to live abroad. But what if, as I read once in a mysticism store, I treated my father as if he were dead? Then what would I do?
I wonder if something is wrong with me, if I can’t simply turn my thought radio to the happiness dial, if I don’t meditate enough. Was I happier in the past? Am I fated to always have this horror of complacence?
I came across a document today as I was cleaning out my Google Drive, entitled, “internet journal.” I opened it up, trying to find an answer, to diagnose my past self, and found this:
There is something we need to feel happy and that is freedom. We need to feel that we have a place, and respect, that if we are working on something hard, we get what we deserve. We are made to feel like we earn our keep, and as Bob Dylan says, you gotta serve somebody. But if you gotta, you gotta feel good about doing it.
That’s orange and green. The blues and reds are more along the lines of comforts and friends. When it comes to those, you gotta feel like you’re living the way you want. What makes you happy? Can you get it? What makes you sad? Can you avoid it? And if you can answer yes to those “Can” questions, then you’re doing pretty well. And if you know the answers to those odd questions then you’re doing even better. Because then you probably will have friends, or at least love.
Thing about love is, it’s often treated too little like freedom. True love is true freedom, we all know that. Give and you get, that bag. But when we shackle what we love it weakens it and makes it harder to pin down. It’s like how do you get an elephant to come? You don’t grab it by the trunk. You tickle the little hairs on the top of its head. Coax it.
Like a beautiful woman. Women like seduction, which is what you do to the elephant, pretty much. And when you seduce you are ready to drop it at any second– because you’re entirely free and you don’t get weighed down to no action.
You are hands off on keeping things. You know ephemera. Zeno’s paradoxes, Heraclitus’ river. You’ve seen some Vishnu the Destroyer shit in the eyes of a beggar woman and beheld her whole life from the extinction of the dinosaurs in the glint of an eye. So you know when to hold on and when to let go. And letting go is what it really means to be free. Whether that’s your words, or your actions, or your faith. Because if it comes back to you it’s that much stronger.
So I guess I have some questions to answer. Thank you, younger Daniel.
The man woke the boy early, while the mother was still in bed. “Where are we going?” the boy asked, his voice unfamiliar from sleep. “We have a meeting, said the father. “Get dressed and come downstairs.” The boy groaned and rolled over. The father left the room.
The boy lay there for another few minutes before something inside him made him throw back his covers and swing his legs onto the floor. His bones ached. He was growing. He stretched his arms over his head and yawned, smacking his mouth. Then he picked up the rumpled pants he left at the foot of his bed the night before. He put yesterday’s t-shirt on one arm at a time and walked downstairs, floorboards groaning.
The father stood over the stove. Two eggs spat, a bowl of oatmeal steamed on the table. The father spatulaed an egg from the pan, slid it onto a plate and brought it to the boy. He moved the spoon from his oatmeal and punctured the yolk, letting it run. “We have a long day,” said the father. “Where are we going?” asked the boy. “You’ll see,” said the father.
Once finished the boy followed his father into the car. The morning sky was still purple. In his light coat the boy shivered as he sat in the car’s ringing silence. The father buckled his seatbelt, blew on his hands, and put the key into the ignition. The father put the car into reverse, and with a hand behind the headrest of the passenger’s seat, looked over his right shoulder into the rear windshield, backing out the drive and onto the road. Down the hill, he made a right at the first stop sign, a left at McGuiness Street, and a right at the school, down Kramer Boulevard. He stopped at the light before the entrance ramp. The boy reached forward to turn on the radio. “No music,” said the father. “It’s too early.” The light turned green, the car lunged forward and did not stop accelerating until the sound of the road was passing underneath the wheels at seventy miles an hour. The boy closed his eyes.
The father drove on and on, away from the city to the west. The trees became fewer. The sun rose in the sky. By the time the boy woke again, the outline of mountains could be seen on the horizon, large shrubs had replaced the forest, and the father’s window was cracked, the wind whipping. “We’re going to the desert?” the boy asked.
The father shifted his grip on the steering wheel. He held on with both hands, one at eleven o’clock, the other at two. “No.” The father kept looking straight ahead. The boy stared at his father, his mouth ajar. Then he closed his mouth and looked out his window. Two birds circled above, off the road, to the north.
The father drove until they reached the mountains and then they began to ascend. When the boy looked out his window he could see the desert beneath them, and in the distance, the green from whence they came. The car moved along the switchbacks, ascending. Soon they saw snow. The sky turned gray. Patches of white became fields, and then, almost as suddenly, the snow was gone, and the sun re-emerged in a sky of blue.
The car slowed and crunched gravel as it rolled onto the shoulder. The father turned the keys in the ignition and unclicked his seatbelt. “Come on,” he said, and opened the car door. The boy unclicked his seatbelt too, opened the door, and stepped out. He inhaled the mountain air and looked over the roof of the car at his father, who walked forward and around the front of the vehicle. “Go ahead,” the father said. The boy galloped to the top of the bluff and looked down at the backside of the mountain, a landscape of granite and hardy plants that gave way to forest. He recalled an image of a goat, standing this way on a mountain in Europe or farther West. Then he turned. His father was thirty paces away, pointing a handgun at him.
“Trust me,” he said. “I had a dream. God came to me and said, ‘Take your boy into the mountains and sacrifice him to me. And if he believes, if he really believes, then you can point the gun at him and pull the trigger and everything will be as it shall. I will come to your aid and fix everything in the name of Hallelujah. And you won’t have to worry about money or love or anything any more, because I will provide for you and your wife and your son with plenty, so that whatever you want you shall have and your descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky, or grains of sand upon the shore. Don’t cry. Don’t be afraid. Just believe. Believe that everything will be all right. That it will be okay, that if I pull the trigger nothing will happen because God or whoever came to me in my dream will step in and make it all better. Do you know how hard it is for me and your mother right now? We’re being run into the ground in debt. Every month the bills come and we don’t have enough money to pay them. We pay on credit and then the bills on the statement are even higher. It’s not getting better. I’m on my last hope.”
The boy began to cry. He whimpered, “What does that have to do with me?”
“What does it have to do with you?! Everything! How can we keep feeding you? How can we buy you clothes? How can we live? Don’t you see? It has everything to do with you! But if you believe, if you really believe, then it can all be better. Believe that it will get better.”
From the road, a crow cawed. The boy backed up.
“I’m going to come closer so that when I pull this trigger that person who came to me in my dream will have no objection. He won’t be able to say that I didn’t believe it could happen. I’m not going to let anyone tell me that I wasn’t doing it the right way. Please, son. Stop. Just trust me. Trust that you’ll be okay. I have to. We have to. It’s the only way things will get better. Think about it. Do you really want to go on living this way? Do you want to grow up and watch your mother and I die only to take on our debt? Do you think that’s an existence worth living? Do you?”
Tears streamed down the boy’s face. “I don’t know,” whispered the boy. “I don’t know,” he repeated, this time louder.
“It’s not.” The father pulled back the hammer. “Make it easier. Get down on your knees and let me put it to your temple. Trust me.” The boy backed away, but behind him was no where to go but down. “Nothing bad will happen if you trust me. I swear.”
The boy looked up into the sky. Wisps of cloud bedecked the blue-white sky. He looked at his father, who was a few paces away, the gun at his side. His eyes were wet. “Please,” whispered the father. “It’s for your own good. It’s for our good.”
The boy gulped. Tears fell down his cheeks and he wiped them with the back of his hand. “Okay,” he said. He took a knee. The stone was sharp through his jeans.
The father sighed. He put the gun on the boy’s right temple and the boy felt the steel cold through his hair. “Now I’m going to count to three. Nothing is going to happen, I need you to believe that. Because if you don’t…”
The boy could not control his tears. His body quivered lightly, like a lamb’s.
“Say it,” said the father. “Say I believe. Say, ‘I believe that nothing is going to happen to me and everything is going to be all right.’ I’ll say it with you—“
“I believe,” said the boy, “nothing is going to happen and everything will be all right.”
“Nothing is going to happen and everything will be all right,” chanted the father and the boy at the same time.
“Nothing is going to happen and everything will be all right,” they said for the third time.
Then the father pulled the trigger and the gun exploded in a ball of light.
The Norwegian novel, My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard is the most famous autobiographical work in recent memory. His honest portraits of reality help us reflect on our own deep secrets and forgotten memories. However, this does not change the fact that Knausgaard’s life is painfully banal. Yet this is the beautiful truth of his story, that modern life is average. This notion is complicated by later volumes not yet translated into English, wherein the author writes about how his life was warped by celebrity. But based on the first few novels in the series, we must consider a pressing issue: this 3,000 page blog post has immersed autobiographical writing in literary fiction; after this, how are we to write?
David Foster Wallace, an oft-too-technical postmodernist but a genius nonetheless, anticipated the reaction that would follow his own literary output, which in his later career he himself began to define. In 1993’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” he wrote:
“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”
The “New Sincerity,” which was inaugurated in literature by A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was easy to conflate with much of the juvenilia that became hip in New York poetry circles after the turn of the century. More refined practitioners created tedious yet modern, “comedies of manners,” which, while well-written, were better suited for TV than the novel.
But the next literary rebels will eschew this sentimental, over-credulous fiction. They will take what has been done and try to make it better, as all artists do; they will refract what has come before through their own consciousness. They will risk overindulgence, grandiosity, absurdity, bizarreness, mannerism, a too-deep descent into the fantastic and “the unreal.” The next “dangerous” literature will elevate the everyday out of banality into a higher realm.
As Knausgaard points out in My Struggle, when life slows down enough for us to really live it, and for it to become totally real, we often say the opposite: that was unreal. Knausgaard defines this sense of unreality in oh-so-real terms. His description of mundane events become mythical in their universality. But his fiction hovers over the bland. Far more interesting it would be to depict reality in terms of the unreal, so that a flash of sun, a fly buzzing against a window pane, or the smile of a loved one launches the reader into the realm of the imaginary and the mythical. Only in the unreal—in the incredible—can the real really exist. Reality, the ordinary bits of life, are in fact unreal; quotidian routines fade into oblivion while that time we fell in love is a slow-motion sequence that seems hours long. Anyone who has spent months or years in front of a computer screen would agree; an entire life lived as such is an essence of seasons and motions, a mere shadow on the wall of life’s cave.
That written in Knausgaard’s style after Knausgaard will be forgotten. It has been done. It is too ordinary. The next literary rebels will hearken to a more modernist notion: that only in the mind does the real exist. This has been forgotten; it is an idea a hundred years old, already revolted against two or three times. It is natural that we return to it, since all art is one circle drawn over another, spiraling upward and outward in a pattern of human consciousness.
The average person may relate to a story about another average person, but great literature entertains and teaches. It is easier to learn from another’s failures, oddities, and derangements when they are so sunk in their own reality as to believe that they are right no matter what. The next literary rebels will define those pivotal moments in which habit shatters and forward movement occurs. These writers will remove us from banality and show us the immortal within ourselves—the heights of achievement, the nadirs of failure. In this, divinity exists, a painting of Picasso or a cantata by Bach is proof enough. This is what those next rebels will seek to recreate. Any less would only be average.
The other morning I was in the first apartment I’d ever shown. Including the open house the day before, it was my fourth time showing it. I was waiting for an Israeli mother who had to okay her husband and son’s decision to put in an offer for the place. She was going straight to her agent’s office from JFK. The agent, Gil, called me after I arrived, apologizing that they would be fifteen more minutes late. So I was alone, and though tempted to break out my computer and write a little, instead I walked over the cherry tone wooden floors and familiarized myself with my surroundings, which indicated the lifestyle and personality of the current tenants.
On the wooden block island, next to the purple hyacinths that provided the place with a welcoming fragrance, was a facedown volume of Bukowski’s, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. I picked it up, and as is often the case in life, the first poem I opened to left me feeling like I had experienced the best one in the whole book. I don’t remember the name, perhaps it was “Train to San Diego,” or something like that, and in it, it’s clear that despite the speaker—who I imagined as Bukowski—despite his feeling like shit—smoking a dime cigar and needing eight teeth pulled and wearing his dead father’s pants after he’d died more than a decade ago, despite all that, here he was hopping on this train to San Diego or wherever and when the conductor asked him how he was doing, he responded, “Great.” I thumbed through some other poems, including one about Beethoven playing football, which was rather funny, but none of them carried the same import to me as that first one, and I soon lost interest in the collection, considering the importance of Bukowski as a novelist and as a poet.
I closed the book and looked at the titles on the dark shelves—big books, sketchbooks and design books became books on esoteric Spanish painting and novels in English, so that down the shelf the books became smaller. The couple who lived here were Colombian, I’d met them the day before as well as on the way up, coming out of the elevator. The man was a tattoo artist; his girlfriend was blue-eyed, very pretty. On the opposite wall was a work table on which lay a pocket-sized book of arcane symbols. Flipping through it and seeing what signified ‘overcoming knowledge’ and ‘the rise of Mercury,’ I wanted briefly to get a tattoo. I imagined having one of these symbols tattooed on my shoulder and emerging from a cool bed in a dark room with a beautiful woman between the sheets, her asking about its significance and me sitting on the bed’s edge while I put on socks and say, (thinking how cool I am for having a tattoo that she’d never seen before and would never see again) ‘That’s a symbol of the final stage of the alchemical process.’
Then I closed the book and put it the way I’d found it. I looked at my phone. Fifteen minutes had passed, the amount of time the agent said it would take for him to arrive. I looked up his name and found that he was coming from Manhattan, mentally estimated how long it would take to cruise down Lexington Avenue and across the Williamsburg bridge and pocketed my phone, figuring I had at least ten minutes more alone.
I studied the death moth, Acherontia atropos, framed on the wall, the umber patterns on its wings, its hideous thorax. I looked at another frame that held four butterflies, wondered briefly about how the transcendent blues on the wings could exist in nature and what purpose they served.
Shifting my attention back to wall with the bookshelf, which stood before another desk, I looked more closely at a small clay figure which I had noticed the day before. It was sculpted into a bent-over position, its hands and feet hooks. More hooks sat in a small dish nearby, on a rectangular piece of white, brick-like stone about an inch thick. What the hell, I wondered. Is this what it is to be a tattoo artist?
I read the two pieces of content on the wall: an Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto, and wondered if the tenant had written it, decided he hadn’t and looked up who did to find the name of an avant-garde Lithuanian film director, dubbed the godfather of experimental American film. I was happy for that, for learning the word ‘triolet’ and the name of this director, not that I had any great urge to watch one of his films. The other piece was about punk and MTV and Fugazi, which I didn’t bother reading, since I’m not a big Fugazi fan, and it seemed less important since it was smaller and placed closer to the dark bookshelf, rather than high above the table like the Manifesto on a piece of 8 1/2 x 11.
At the counter I smelled the hyacinth again, enjoying its rich, gardeny scent. I opened the drawer and saw the box of an herb vaporizer and a long tube which seemed to be an accessory to it. I wondered where he kept his weed and wondered if I could find it. I lifted the towels toward the back of the drawer, noticed the tank cleaning supplies for the maintenance of the beta fish, whose filter bubbled pleasantly near the bedroom. I squeezed a black film case, and remembered my friend who kept his weed in a similar case. To my delight, it was full of light-green buds.
At that moment the door buzzed. I jumped, placed the film case back the way I’d found it and closed the drawer, walking to buzz in the agent and his client, momentarily considering the immorality of taking a small bud for myself, and deciding that I liked the couple and that to do so would be to violate their trust. And when I heard the knock on the door and said, ‘Come in,’ I forgot all about that and prepared to do my job.
Michael’s weekend doesn’t really begin until eight or nine, after thoughts of selling phones recede in his mind and he’s on the bus all the way to the south of the city, about an hour away. When he gets there, walking down the street, greeters grab his arm, spinning him around in a dreamlike haze of faces and male scents, natural and cheap.
He covers his wallet and phone with his hands in his pockets, shakes them off and walks on, eyes high, rising to the familiar names of the discoteques and pootyclubs. Sometimes a guy grabs him before he goes into one, bearing no influence on his decision, and sounds the bell as he walks up the stairs, music getting louder. On the dance floor it is ear-ringingly loud, and in a lot of the more popular clubs, naked or thonged girls bounce on the laps of guys, gyrating or kissing.
The worst ones are stuffy, the air soured by lusty men, sighing alcoholic breaths between sips of cheap beer and the fruity perfume of whores. Those girls not working turn and smile weakly, their lazy eyes perceiving the gold graphic skull on his t-shirt, his dark jeans, sensitive eyes, broad nose, and in better light, the acne-scars on his face. The fat ones light up, wink, hiss and cock their heads toward the back, purring, “Mi amor.” He leaves.
Back on the street, smells of grilled carne and sausage float in the air. Men fan their coal barbecues and ash floats like snow through the smoke of meat and cigarettes.
Michael goes into Guadalajara, Texas, Poseidon, Titanic. Security pats him down and he enters, pink and green lights flashing so it’s hard to see the girls. He walks into the backs of these clubs, doesn’t see anything he likes and leaves. In Becker Lady is in a halter top bouncing on some guy with spiky black hair, her blond curls catching the blue lights and throwing them tauntingly at him. He considers waiting for her to finish this guy’s show and splurging on a bottle of aguardiente to get her drunk, to set something up for tomorrow night. But he doesn’t like waiting.
He decides to watch some girls in Paco’s. He figures if he’s going to get a beer tonight, it might as well be here, where he can relax and watch the girls prance up and down the stage. He watches a nice one with big breasts and a striped bikini that matches the lights. She’s got her cell phone in her undies, rocking her hips forward and back. He can see the stubble around her groin. The next girl is a shorter, smiling, green-eyed morena. After her is a black girl with blue eyes.
Soon his beer is gone. He deliberates having another, but it would undo his gym work earlier that week. He imagines a near-future as a Miami cop, his biceps bulging from gripping his forty-five as he leans against an apartment door in Little Haiti until he gets the signal and turns to kick down the door, ready to pull the trigger in the dust, scanning for the dealer…
He goes in and out of the clubs just beyond, up stairs, circling the floor, watching the rumbas, dancing couples, little bouncers, the places he knows are good, not wasting time on the casas where girls are missing teeth or pregnant, hoping to see someone new, someone gorgeous.
Outside of Troya he hears English. It’s a gringo his height with short black hair, a long nose and a peeling red forehead talking to a couple of flat-faced Indian-looking girls.
“Hey do you need help translating?” he asks.
The girls look at him, then back at the gringo, who says, “Uh, yeah. How do you say, ‘Indigenous treasure?’
Michael says it and the gringo butchers the pronunciation. Even so, the girls laugh.
“Where are you from?” Michael asks.
He tells the guy how he’s an American too, doubling back quickly over his story in Spanish for the girls’ sake. The gringo’s name is Ben, and he came here to whore. But after taking one, he found these two girls on the street, ordinary Friday-night partygoers. Michael smiles at the girls, who weakly smile back. They can’t be more than nineteen.
“Well,” says Ben, licking his lips and looking back and forth between the two girls. He speaks slowly, pointing first at them and then at himself, “Quieren comer?”
The girls look at each other and nod. They start off down the street.
Ben is duck-footed, talking to the fatter one with bigger breasts. Michael asks the taller of the two, “What kind of food do you want?”
“Chicken sandwich,” she replies.
They walk aimlessly for five minutes before Ben stops and asks the girls where they should go. “McDonald’s,” his girl says. Instead of going the way they came and having to encounter the many club-greeters on the strip, they take the back roads under the half-moon, past puddles and low, dark apartments, the car and tractor tires lying on the sidewalk that serve as makeshift trash cans.
When they arrive, McDonald’s is being mopped, chairs on tables, so they cross the street to a chicken broaster. Ben buys the girls a pechuga de pollo. They douse it in ketchup and honey. Michael isn’t hungry. He asks the other girl, “Do you work?”
She shakes her head.
She shakes her head.
“What do you do?”
She smiles and shakes her head again. Michael holds his cheek and runs his index finger over an emerging pustule. He brings his thumb to it and pinches, looks between his fingers but there’s nothing there.
After she’s eaten the last of the rice, Ben’s girl suggests dancing. They walk, looking for a bar that’s not too loud. A greeter grabs Ben’s arm, pointing up another set of pink-and-green-lit stairs. Ben looks at Michael and shrugs.
He buys the girls beers, asks Michael if he wants one. Michael says no. They sit. Ben shouts over the music to his girl, “Do you know indigenous magic?” he asks.
She shakes her head.
Michael realizes they’re across the street from Punto del Oro and that tonight Daniela is working. “Hey,” he says, “I’m going across the street to check something.” He stands, “I’m leaving my jacket here. Be right back.”
Ben licks his lips, nodding, and shifts his gaze to rest on the high cleavage of his girl. Downstairs Michael runs across the street to the median and waits for the traffic to pass before crossing to the other side. He doesn’t see Daniela, figures she may be in the back with someone. He’s tempted to wait for her to ask if she wants to get a drink afterwards. But he doesn’t know if he wants to be out till five.
He runs back across the street. Ben is standing outside of the bar, Michael’s hoodie in his arms. “They went to bring more girls.” He shrugged. “I don’t think they’re coming back.”
“I know a really hot girl who’s working right now but,” Michael pulled out his phone and showed Ben a picture of her in jean shorts and a halter-top. “I made out with her once, but the last time I hung out with her she and her friend made pot brownies at my apartment and I kicked them out because I thought they had slipped me a ruffie. I thought they wanted to rob me but then I realized it was just the drugs. But I can call her tomorrow and we can all hang out together.”
“When did that happen?”
“Two days ago.”
The street is more crowded in the gay area. A six foot tall tranny stands outside a club, a boy supports his friend who staggers, recovering before he nearly crashes into a wall. Three girls hover over a little bag of white powder, pinky fingers near their noses. One is his height, in a beanie over brown hair that covers perky breasts, a cut tee that exposes a pierced navel. He’s struck, momentarily in love.
“Are they doing blow?” asks Ben. “I’m in Colombia, I figure I should try some.” He approaches the girls and asks if he can buy a bump.
They screw up their faces at him. Michael translates. “We bought it from this guy,” they point at a security guard standing in front of a club doorway.
Michael asks him for some. “It’s two bucks,” Michael tells Ben. “It’s perico.”
Ben shrugs, hands the guard a ten, and seconds later receives eight back with a little baggy of white powder.
The girls ask Ben for a bump and he asks Michael for a key. He digs in his pocket and stares at the lesbian with the beanie. Ben takes two for himself and gives two to the girl with the blue hair.
“You have a great energy,” she says in English. The cops pull up in front of the club and the girl pulls on the arm of her friend with the beanie. “Come on,” she says, “let’s go. Bye guys.”
Ben and Michael walk on. “That girl in the beanie was so hot,” Michael says. “I wish I had stopped her and offered her a hundred bucks to sleep with me. I would’ve given her more, she would’ve done it. She’s a lesbian but if I offered her more than whatever she’s got in her bank account she would’ve done it. I know she would’ve.”
“I feel a shit coming on. No wonder it was so cheap, it was probably cut with baby laxative,” said Ben. “Come on, let’s get a cab.”
They hailed the first one they saw. Michael gave the driver Ben’s hotel address. Ben held the handle above the window, white-knuckled, grinding his teeth.
“You all right, man?” Michael asked.
“Yeah, except my bladder and bowels are exploding.”
They drove along the highway, past car dealers and supermarkets, one of the only cars, the road loud beneath the tires.
“You want me to call those girls tomorrow?” Michael asked.
“Give me your Facebook and I can message you in the afternoon.”
Ben agreed and told him his last name: ‘Freebowitz’. His profile picture was of him smiling smugly into the camera, arms crossed, wearing the same black t-shirt he was wearing right now.
As the taxi slowed before the well-lit entrance of his hotel, Ben handed Michael twenty-thousand pesos to cover his part of the ride. Michael mentally calculated how much more he’d probably wind up owing, how much more it was than the bus he would’ve taken in a few hours if he had never met Ben. “I’ll message you in the afternoon,” he said.
“All right,” said Ben. “I gotta go.” He licked his lips and got out of the cab, jogging duck-footed to the high glass doors. A little bald man came running from behind the front desk to let him in and without turning around, Ben walked rapidly through the lobby and disappeared.
Fifty blocks farther on, Michael paid ten thousand pesos and slammed the cab door behind him, inhaling the night air. The cab idled while he walked up the steps to his apartment and pulled out his keys, driving them into the lock as the taxi accelerated away, leaving him in silence.
He washes his face, brushes his teeth, and imagines having Daniela and her friend over with Ben tomorrow. He thinks of Daniela naked, Ben with her chubby friend. His hand pulls back the sheet to masturbate and soon he falls asleep, his last conscious thought what time would be best to call the girls.
As I crossed the Dnieper, I wondered if Putin really did have a claim to Ukraine, if, like Crimea, this river and its drainage basin were “part of the Russian fatherland,” and if so, notwithstanding, it deserved a chance to define itself anew.
I decided to find an answer based on the river system that runs through this city. I crossed the Darnyts’kyi Bridge and imagined the Sarmatians who lived here two thousand years ago; the Roman campaigns of Trajan that led his cousin, the future emperor Hadrian, to wage war in this taiga; horsemen being swept downriver around chunks of ice; heads stuck on poles; the barbarian chieftains whose language was a blend of Old Iranian, Sanskrit, and Greek, whose modern descendent is Ossetian, today spoken in the highlands of the Caucasus. Ukraine is a wild land filled with a history of virgin warrior women and koumiss, a drink of fermented mare’s milk, and breastplates made from the horse hooves.
Entering, the Vernadsky National Library I considered its imposing facade, a remnant of the stark Soviet yoke of the USSR. My research was limited to English books only, so the overwhelming number which I otherwise would have encountered was immediately reduced to a small fraction, a stack of books about waist-high.
Ukraine’s Early History
I began my research before the founding of Kiev, in the fourth century, when Constantine killed a hundred thousand Goths in his campaign in Sarmatia. The Sarmatians formed an alliance with the Romans against the Huns, and dispersed after their decisive win against Attila at Chalons, the last major battle of the Western Roman Empire. It was during this era that Kiev is said to have been founded.
Over the next few centuries a mix of Finnic, Norse, Turkic, Baltic, Slavic and Hungarian tribes lived around the Dnieper. They wore furs to defend themselves from the cold. They slept in earthen huts. They had no luxuries and their diet was without excesses. They were a hardy, rugged people, who enjoyed no bodily comforts or delicacies. They were distant subjects of the eastern Kingdom of Khazara. To the west was the Byzantine Empire, to the south the Umayyad Caliphate. From the north came the Vikings, the Varangians, who by the mid-9th century, came to rule much of Europe largely through trade.
The Viking Age began during Charlemagne’s Europe at a time when Christians traded fairly only with their fellows and took advantage of pagans. The Vikings’ culture strongly relied upon trade and principles of honor, and some scholars hypothesize that to experience injustice from Christians for their beliefs was reason enough to raid and pillage neighboring lands in revenge.
So came their ships, nearly a hundred feet long, rowed by scores of strongmen. Of oak, bows sealed with walrus fat, prows of fire-gilded dragon heads, scenes from Njaal’s Saga…Thud and bump, the boat has run aground in shallows. The sails are adjusted for stem to become stern as oarsmen jump into the water and pull the barque to deeper waters, splashing carelessly as they vault themselves back into rowing position…
We have relatively few records of what happened during Viking conquests in Eastern Europe compared to the conquests of France and Germany. This is due to the fact that both Vikings and Slavs were non-literate peoples. Those records we do have come from Muslims such as Ibn Rustah, an Iraqi sent on a delegation to the north in 913:
These men, tall in stature and ruddy in appearance, come ashore with onions, meat, milk and beer, and leave their boats to tie these offerings to a stake planted onshore. Here they prostrate themselves on the muddy banks and say, ‘O Lord, I have come from afar with these offerings, let these foreign peoples value my gifts and buy them without much bartering. For this I shall be grateful.’ Then he goes to market and if he does not find a ready buyer, he will return to the stake and present more gifts and offerings, saying, ‘I have brought all of these gifts in thy name, O Lord, please find me a willing trader so that I can return to my homeland with honor.’ Often trade improved and the Viking returned to his boat in the evening to sacrifice goats or cattle and distribute them as alms. The heads of these animals he staked upon poles dedicated to minor gods and the remaining carcasses he left for dogs and birds. The next morning, when the remains were gone he said, ‘My Lord is pleased with me, for he has devoured my offerings.’
Their women come with them, their fair hair tied in braids over their shoulders. They bear necklaces and rings of gold and silver, and the wealth of their men are indicated by how many rings the women have. Above all Northmen value green clay beads. Who knows why? They wear clothing that is clean and valuable, often lined with fur. They are good to their slaves, but are best to their king. He sits high upon a throne with a harem of forty beneath him and four hundred men below. These men are ready to give their lives for him. When he wants to go riding, his men bring him his horse, and when he is done he rides to his throne and makes love to his women.
From this record, a clear picture emerges of the people we know as Vikings, who came to rule over the Slavs. For them, the Dneiper was a primary trade route, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. They crossed the Euxine to arrive in Byzantium with precious amber, gold of the north, to trade in the spice markets of Constantinople.
How big they are! Their red or fair hair differentiates them from the smaller, darker natives. Like the coasts of Normandy and Sicily provided wine, the spice markets held Persian and Chinese delicacies. Also like the way they did in France, the Vikings assimilated readily into this culture, the best becoming Byzantine emperors’ bodyguards. Though they sometimes battled those with whom they traded, it was usually for control of the waters, and for tithing principles.
We don’t know exactly why, but by 880 the tribes in Kiev refused to pay tribute to the Varangian Rus, driving them back across the sea, seeking to govern themselves. Soon thereafter, civil war erupted. The tribes’ internecine rivalries were insurmountable. Soon they sought intercession from their former rulers. It was then that Rurik came to Novgorod, initiating his eponymous dynasty. His successor Oleg moved the Slavic capital to the more strategic position of Kiev to better protect his kingdom from Khazar raids.
The Rise of Vladimir
Alliances between Kievan Rus, Byzantines and Khazars shifted constantly. At this time, the Khazars’ power was waning, despite the tributes they exacted as dominant power in the east. Their culture was very diverse, composed of Turkic nomads, Jews, Christians, Muslims and pagans. For about three hundred years they had control over the area once known as Scythia, between the Caspian and Black Seas, extending north into the Urals. The Khazars must have feared the Rus people for their raids, especially after the Rus pillaged the Muslims of the Volga. That river too was an important artery, leading the Vikings all the way to Baghdad. But when the Khazars prevented the Rus from sailing down the Volga, they effectively declared war.
In the 940s Byzantium was also at war with the Khazars, at the same time seeking an entente with the Rus people of the north. Rurik’s descendent, Sviatoslav I, battered the Khazar Crimean fortresses of Sarkel and Tamatarkha. By 968, he had sacked the Khazar capital, Atil.
Sviatoslav remained faithful to the Slavic pantheon—copper-bearded Perun, whose hammer always returned to him no matter how many evil spirits he threw it at, seemed a stronger divinity than the merciful Christ-figure. What sort of god was that for a warrior?
Sviatoslav headed east to fight the Bulgars next, but was killed. His son Yaropolk inherited the throne. Yaropolk had one natural brother, who he slew immediately after finding out his father’s death, and Vladimir, an illegitimate half-brother through Sviatoslav’s housemaid Malusha. Legend has it that she was a prophetess who was born in a cave and lived to be a hundred. Vladimir knew that if his brother Yaropolk found him, he would have him beheaded, so he fled to Scandinavia, where he stayed with his distant relation, the king of Sweden. In secret he planned a return to Kiev to reclaim the throne from his evil brother.
Years passed. When Vladimir returned, he was accompanied by Varingian mercenaries, who he had ask Yaropolk for a private meeting between himself as Prince of Sweden, and the King of Kievan Rus. Yaropolk flatly refused.
The next day, Vladimir wore his mercenaries’ costume and led them to Yaropolk bearing a message. As soon as his brother unfurled the paper, the mercenaries attacked Yaropolk’s guards and he revealed himself, stabbing his brother.
Christianization of the Rus People
At this time, Anatolia rose up against Emperor Basil II of Constantinople. For help, he turned to the King of Rus, whose territory stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic, and the Vistula to the Volga. Vladimir knew what an alliance with Byzantium would yield, but he knew also that to make a true alliance he would have to convert to the Emperor’s religion.
Vladimir was a devout pagan. He erected statues of thunder-god Perun and kept eight hundred concubines. Most of his people followed his decrees, though Christianity was on the rise. When a mob killed two Christians for disrespecting their idols, Vladimir sent his boyars abroad to survey the religions of the world. When they returned they told him about the Muslim Bulgars and their prohibitions against alcohol, which Vladimir rejected, knowing that he could not prevent his people from giving into one of life’s greatest joys. They told him of the Jews from fallen Khazar and Jerusalem. Vladimir replied that their God must have deserted them if they could not even control their ancient capital. “But the Christians,” one of the boyars said, “have Hagia Sophia, and in it are all the mysteries of the world. I thought I was in heaven on earth when I saw this temple, such that now I have not even the words to describe it.”
Upon hearing this, Vladimir pledged the Byzantines six thousand men and assured the emperor that he would take on his religion on the condition that Basil II offer the hand of his sister. The Byzantines considered all northerners barbarians. It was unheard of for an imperial marriage to one of these tribes. Yet Basil II knew that he needed help and so he begged his sister to go, assuring her that she would be rewarded.
When Anna crossed the Black Sea, Vladimir met her in the Crimea for his baptism and marriage. Upon his return to Kiev, Vladimir exhorted all of his citizens, rich and poor, to bathe in the Dnieper and become Christians. Following this mass baptism, he hacked to pieces the statues of Perun and the other Slavic dieties, which he had erected a decade before, throwing them into the river and formally beginning the Christian era of the Slavic people.
It was another hundred years until the founding of Moscow.
I was distracted by a loudspeaker call that the library was closing. I decided to end my studies here, before I became overburdened with information, unable to digest what I had learned. I decided to return to the library tomorrow, to learn more about the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Mongol yoke, and the territorial gains that led to Peter’s Russian Empire.
As I stepped outside, it was already dark. My seventh day in Ukraine was concluded, and in a sudden change of heart, I decided not to return to the library tomorrow, but to leave Kiev and proceed east. It seemed that the Slavs owed much to the Germanic Vikings who ruled them in the ninth century, and as I crossed that wide river again, this time to return to my hotel for the night, I felt justified in knowing that Putin’s fatherland did not have a historical claim to the Dnieper, that if anything, the Dnieper had a historical claim on Putin.
The sky was mauve and the snow glowed neon, little flurries bouncing through the air toward my window like flies and I, entranced by the scene, alone, was reluctant to sleep. I wanted to catch the purple sky and orange snow. It was like a sunset I didn’t want to miss, but I had to that day we walked along the littoranea on the black sands along the Gulf of Naples. The women were going back to the house because it was cold and as we crossed over the railroad tracks I turned on the overpass to glimpse the sinking sun but a structure blocked my view. Dejected until I remembered we could see it from the roof, I ran up the hill to the villa but it was too late when I arrived, alone; the sun had sunk and all that was left was the descending dusk and I, downcast, returned to the apartment with its cold tile floor in mid-evening of the December gloaming. But that night I came home late, bibulous and young, with work in the morning, I kneeled on my bed, wanting to mentally photograph the view.
Days I stay in without leaving my office, a couch and coffee table, where like a Bond villain in miniature I sit surrounded by screens, my books make me feel like a hermit or a writer. They lie stacked on the coffee table, naked and ruffled, while I, proud and in want of a shower, scratch myself, disgustingly male. I gauge my time and plan it around meals, anticipating my body like a flower in spring. I think of swans and reject myself or give in, standing with juice in my hand on the way to the shower, wondering why I prefer a fake bird to a real girl. It all seems malignant, or at least when it does, I give up. The object of my focus is grander than can be accomplished in a few sittings, and when it is not, it is usually money, which I try to speed to, or distraction, a subconscious peril. The biggest objects in my life are a title Helvetica, big Helvetica letters. Or waterfalls and bus rides, which do not appeal to me less the older I get, though some say they should.
Later, I try not to bad mouth, though I seek solidarity. This is human, I tell myself, and I try to move the conversation into the realm of ideas. This works best under the influence of caffeine. A friend tells me about Arthur Cravan, who once filled a hall by telling people he was going to commit suicide. When the time came he entered the stage in a jockstrap and uncoiled his great manhood and called the audience sick bastards. I wonder if it takes a great manhood to do great things, or if those with excessive dick have excessive pride. Henry Miller had six inches. Perhaps he is overrated, I consider. We move to talk of others and my friend tells me that Gide’s work, not that he’s read it, has not stood the test of time. I wonder if it’s because he turned down Proust. I vow to read The Guermantes soon.
In the same way we define the beginning of the modern era with the work of Shakespeare and Cervantes, in hundreds of years from now future humans will describe the modern era as beginning with the 20th century. This era, defined by a modernist self-consciousness, led to revolutionary artwork and two wars that changed history. It is this self-consciousness that separates humans from the beasts, as anyone knows who has ever watched a dog stand in front of a mirror.
The World’s Greatest Painter?
Antecedent to modernist painting, which can be traced from Picasso and Matisse to Renoir and Cezanne, the greatest painters in the history of the world are Rafael and Velasquez. If there is any portrait greater than Pope Innocent X’s, it is the one that hangs in the Met, of Juan de Pareja. No one managed to capture the reality of a soul like Velasquez, though Rafael perhaps had a greater ability for composition, and Rembrandt for texture. Bacon also recognized this when he made his study for Screaming Popes (above), and the Pope himself knew it too when he was supposed to have said, “E troppo vero!,” upon seeing his portrait for the first time.
Considering architecture, surely one of the greatest feats in the world’s history is the Pantheon. Its long history of holiness and admiration, especially for being built at a time when feats as unprecedented as a nine meter oculus were hitherto unexplored, must place it near the top of the list of architectural masterworks.
Moving from the Galeria Doria Pamphilij we wandered away from the Via del Corso to the Pantheon, and before we arrived, entered into the church of St. Maria supra Minerva. Seeing two of the world’s masterworks in different realms of art in the same day is rarely possible, except in Rome, Florence or Paris. In these cities, it is a matter of which works you want to include in your list, since the Italian capital has an extra thousand years of history than the French or the Tuscan.
Stumbling upon a Michelangelo
In Rome, discovering the great masterworks of human civilization is as common as discovering hidden back alleys in New York or Rio de Janeiro. In some cases, the joys of discovering new works can be almost tiresome, in the same way remaining lost while exploring a new neighborhood can be exhausting. So by finding Michelangelo’s Cristo della Minerva followed by a series of Berninis, before entering the Pantheon, nearly destroyed me. A rush of guilt passed over me for thinking, “Another Bernini?” as I walked down the right aisle of the church past another tomb of marble as smooth as mozzarella.
Losing myself on the Aventine Hill
By mid-afternoon I was eager to lose myself in a simpler plane of joy. We walked up the Via di Santa Sabina and down the backside of the Aventine Hill, trying in vain to find the neighborhood of Monti, which we’d overshot considerably, though I didn’t know that yet since I didn’t have a map. No one else knew it either, since everyone I asked for directions was a tourist. Walking down Via Sant Albergo Magno, not knowing where we’d pop out, yet content for this very reason, feeling the sun beat on my cheeks and hearing the wind in the cypresses, I was satisfied and I didn’t care if I found Monti or not, this was enough.
Discovering the focused intensity of a masterpiece is a more transcendent pleasure than uncovering the beauty of an empty backstreet. Sometimes the traveler craves the equally, more basally gratifying, loss of oneself in the honest simplicity of sunshine and unfamiliar trees, and not knowing where the city will spit you out. Swinging my arms, I crossed the back of the ancient hill and participated in a joy not unknown to many travelers: that of trusting a city like I trust myself, to lead me an unknown destiny.