Michael has moved to a mansion in the suburbs. In true bullshitter style he first told me he was dogsitting, and got a free room as long as he walked the dogs. i speculated darkly on how long it would take for him to kill, maim, sell, or just lose the dogs. Later, he revealed, bashfully, that he’s actually an au pair, looking after a 6-year-old boy in return for free rent. He gets his own apartment within the mansion and the parents fund his expeditions to, e.g. the zoo.
“What? You get to live in a mansion and all you have to do is take a kid to the zoo?”
“It sucks man, I already been to that zoo, I don’t wanna see them polar bear motherfuckaz again. Or Ice Bear as this fuckin kid calls them. I keep sayin, fucking polar bears kid, polar polar, not ice. They ain’t no motherfuckin ice bear.”
He lives quite far out of the city and left his smart phone on the back seat of a cab while drunk, so spends a lot of his time twiddling his thumbs despondently. So i bought him a book, Hunter S Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. i thought it a good choice as it matches his reckless sense of humour and involves drugs and crime and guns. i didn’t really expect him to read it. In 2006 i lent my copy of F & L to Bongo, a pot-bellied temp from Sunderland who was intelligent but totally uneducated. Bongo kept it for 2 months then one night read half of it in one sitting, then put it aside and never looked at it again, and eventually returned it saying he’d enjoyed the first half but didn’t have the time to finish it (he typically spent his free time looking for pornography, eating burgers, and rewatching an extremely limited list of films, including Heat, Donnie Brasco, The Elephant Man).
The next time i came into McLingua i saw Michael on the terrace with his red headphones on, no doubt listening to some godawful techno, and reading the book. i went over and asked how it was going.
“Page 45, motherfucker.”
i was impressed, since he’d only picked it up the evening before.
“This is the shit,” he continued. “Where they in the hotel and all they reptiles be on the walls. Man, that’s my life right there. I was reading this shit while the kid be playing with his toys.”
Another teacher congratulated me “on getting Michael to read anything.” He has, apparently, never read a book in his life. i wondered how he could have a college degree but i suppose it’s possible to avoid reading a book, just to go to lectures and rip essays from the internet. i think the crucial thing is his present isolation, especially sans smartphone. He is vulnerable.
Since it will probably take him a while to buy a new phone, i ordered a second book, Michael Herr’s Dispatches. i am curious to see if he can acquire a habit for reading. i read as a young child but could take it or leave it most of the time. Even with Fantasy books, i read the first volume of The Lord of the Rings when i was 11 and even though i loved it, and the school library had volumes two and three, i felt no interest in continuing. It was only when i was 13 that i read enough to form a habit. i think it is somewhat akin to drug addiction in that, according to William Burroughs, it takes quite a while to get hooked. i doubt Michael will develop a real interest in books but even if he only reads a few books before buying a new smartphone, i think this will be good.
He remarked that he’d never had any interest in reading, and hadn’t thought he even could enjoy a book. i don’t think everyone should read as much as i did in my 20s (between 3 and 8 hours a day) but my present consumpion – about an hour or two a day – is reasonable, and in Munich not uncommon (about half the passengers on my daily commute read, usually crime thrillers).
i believe it will be good for Michael to read. For one thing, his ignorance is brutal – he knows almost nothing about anything he hasn’t directly experienced. But also, in some sense books have changed human consciousness. This sounds fanciful but it is simply the case, that our tools change us, we adapt to them until they define our experience.
Books discipline concentration, the attention focussed both outwards (onto the letters) and inwards (construing meaning). While i’m curious to see how animal consciousness develops – as it seems to be doing now – reading is peculiarly human. It involves a complex pulsing of attention, to take words in from another, through the eyes, and then – without really thinking about it – to form these into a private meaning. This is perhaps why Tolkien despised plays, and would have loathed films, for making things too clear, too definite, with only one possible form. He wrote somewhere that if he says: “there was a hill” the reader immediately forms a mental hill, which will be a composite of every hill he’s ever seen, but if you show something on stage, there it is – just take it or leave it, no room for the imagination.
i don’t agree that theatre (or film) kills imagination, it just uses it differently. But i believe this dual action, simultaneously attending to another’s words, and forming a private interpretation, is powerful and valuable. Perhaps some of the value is in the category of spirit, and will only be apparent after death; but even within life, it deepens and refines the attention.
Michael has enormous imaginative energy – not at all academic or intellectual, just the raw stuff; and he careers through life getting into fights (two separate brawls with bouncers), seducing and discarding women, being fired, losing just about everything he has while drunk.
For people like Michael – people invested with great imaginative power – it is important to have a countering interiority, a centripetal force to balance the centrifugal. That imaginative power is the raw stuff of magic. Magicians tend to be cerebral and capable of intense introversion. Michael uses his imaginative energy in a wild, unconscious way – for example, he casts a “spell” over women. He ascribes his success (he estimates he’s blazed about 150 women and he’s just turned 23) to confidence but it’s really a fascination, in the etymological sense of the word, a glamour. Without some anchoring interiority i think he will die, James Dean style.
And so i’m trying to give him a taste for reading. i normally don’t bother evangelizing but he reads my Facebook posts and said, somewhat perplexedly, that he loves everything i write, that whatever it is it interests him. He was perplexed as he hadn’t previously experienced this reaction to words. It’s not that i’m particularly good with words, just that he has (i think) a latent sensitivity to language, which has never been activated.
One should not underestimate the exact form of a technology. The form of a book enforces notions of privacy (a cover you can close, or you can read so no one else can see the pages), of an inner world. The physical fact of hundreds of separate pages, each individual, all bound together, so the separate parts nonetheless form a coherent whole – this enjoins an apprehension of coherence, of plurality & singularity in one, of an order that can make room for wild difference. Convenient as a Kindle is, the physical book manifests a metaphysical concept:
Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l’universo si squaderna:
sustanze e accidenti e lor costume
quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
che ciò ch’i’ dico è un semplice lume.
In general, i think it’s a waste of time trying to help people, but i was heartened by the sight of Michael sitting totally still on the terrace, reading. He’s usually a kinetic, fidgetting kind of person, i.e. perfectly suited for a smartphone, restlessly checking internet sites, email, porn etc. He has yet to develop interiority. To just sit still and open your mind to a reality that was fixed before you were born (Fear & Loathing was written a good two decades before Michael was born), to focus outwards on the words, and transform them into your own imaginative shapes – that is part of being human.
We finally got into the suite around dusk, and my attorney was immediately on the phone to room service – ordering four club sandwiches, four shrimp cocktails, a quart of rum and nine fresh grapefruits. “Vitamin C,” he explained. “We’ll need all we can get.” I agreed. By this time the drink was beginning to cut the acid and my hallucinations were down to a tolerable level.
The room service waiter had a vaguely reptilian cast to his features, but I was no longer seeing huge pterodactyls lumbering around the corridors in pools of fresh blood. The only problem now was a gigantic neon sign outside the window, blocking our view of the mountains – millions of colored balls running around a very complicated track, strange symbols & filigree, giving off a loud hum.
“Look outside,” I said.
“There’s a big… machine in the sky… some kind of electric snake… coming straight at us.”
“Shoot it,” said my attorney.
“Not yet,” I said. “I want to study its habits.”
(Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)