Manufacturing Neurosis

by R. Artaud (telos)

You used to amuse yourself, with mechanical gadgetry, making simple machines—levers, fulcrums, inclined planes, using butter knives, bits of wire, bailing wire, chunks of lead, wire coat-hangars. Making friction matches in the old icebox, the latch for the spring door—proving the law of the conservation of energy for yourself, figuring out the difference between heat and light, weight and mass, centrifugal and centripetal forces—rolling marbles on tiny grooved circular tracks you cut from shoebox tops, plastic and paint.

You even learned to wire an electrical circuit, solenoids, relay contacts, zener diodes and varicap capacitors—easy enough to figure out how they worked, a little more complex to wire together a few, to get an effect. The model house, a garage full of gadgets to hook up. Plungers and blinds, relays and switches—snap-acting points of discontinuity—finding the right sequence to get from the key in the front door lock to a pre-set pattern of illumination—carefully switching zeners and resistors in series, transistors in parallel, so that certain areas stay dark—overhead lighting, say, on the model of an old English manor house—faint stars shining on the beams of the great plank ceiling, projecting accurate scale shadows of all the furniture on the handwoven wool carpet—but the music room unlit, except for an apple-green valence illuminating a trombonist—unless, say, the front-door key was a T.W.O. (Take William Osborne), in which case you might find a dancehall lamp burning in the music room—say you enter hesitatingly—not just to peer at the lamplight on the dancing couples but to touch it, to believe in its warmth by reaching through—what do you expect to feel?

Wires sizzle and sing—chemicals go through an explosive change, blue vapor rushing in waves out the sides of the soldering gun.

For months afterward, every time you closed your eyes, you’d see it burning on the edge of your vision—just outside focus—not the soldering gun but something it brought into focus—something whose chemical complexity transcended your powers to handle—and by attempting to handle it anyway you fucked it up, it became some horrible distortion of what it was, the crucial difference—like closing your eyes and throwing a handfull of ball-bearings in the air, expecting each one to fall in a neat parabola but each one being shot forward a yard by a rifle bullet and throwing a confusing extra shape into your image of gravity and inertia, something impossible to brush off with a blow to the eye or the brain—something hard and obdurate.

Every object shines by reflecting something, all right. But an individual object isn’t much different from other individual objects, not by its reflecting something or its reflecting nothing, unless you add them all together—and when you do—what remains on the edge of vision?

And what happens when you can’t add them up fast enough? When a chain of chemical transformations works faster than your body—what do you see on the edge of vision then?

Do you ever look out a window at night?—not just to see what’s out there, but to see how you are seeing it? The architecture of the field of vision is like that of an obsolete city—antique walls, sooty or stone-cobbled streets, deep unbroken shadows, evolving slowly into the sedimented structures of an organic growth-pattern whose crippling failure you know even in advance. To penetrate these enclosed spaces and shadowy mazes your brain is hardwired in a particular way that nothing changes very much. Shapes don’t move very often, neither do colors. Above you stretches a ceiling, under you a floor. At least that’s the way it works. It’s a blind assumption you make, of cause and effect. It doesn’t even disturb you much that, physically speaking, you’re only catching glimpses of things: most of your world is shadow or suggestion, extrapolated or projected, immeasurably attenuated from reality by distance. In some cases the halo of speculation is hardly a handwidth wide.

It’s hardly a comfort, but—at least there are certain basic assumptions of common experience you can still accept as valid. It’s hard for you even to imagine how different that must have been for a creature who hadn’t learned the shadow, who lived before geometry made its breakthrough into matter and organized space and time according to an all-pervading set of directions: not just a whole way of dealing with stimuli, but an inescapable tyranny. For us, to see the stars at night is to know beyond doubt there’s a way outside our cramped rooms. The continuity of what we know as space and time connects us to points so remote in space and time that communication could take no form we know of—no mechanical contrivance could carry a signal faster than light—infinity may have taken place long before matter, and could have occurred for reasons incomprehensible to matter, unchanged in the brief blip of a history—where matter has been around perhaps only for the duration of one summer, out of the hundredth or the trillionth of a second (a mindboggling extrapolation of stellar evolution, from the leisurely birth and death of a star the size of our sun, to the split-second bursts and disappearances of gigantic hypernova stars—monstrosities with masses almost a billion times our own sun, whose life cycles might be measured in centuries at the most)—as if the stars and nebulae were long-decayed civilizations left by ghosts. Time reaches backward almost as far as space—how does it look backward, past the reflections in space we have no hope of intercepting?

Are they—

An ugly feeling begins at the pit of the stomach and creeps outward like an epidemic—brain to muscle to skin to hair. Even shadows contain a basic illusion—that something lies between you and what’s beyond—something uniform, measurable, having direction or impetus, like the light-beam from the sun through an atmospheric medium between you and it. We call it a medium only because it averages between sunlight on one side and shadow on the other, and, because the shadows don’t move, it takes an almost identical form from point to point. Really the light doesn’t change either—only our ability to receive it does, according to direction, unevenly distributed throughout our head, or according to other qualities that must somehow exist. The so-called solid structures that loom between us are virtual ones, drawn around what really forms the continuum—not necessarily just air and open space, or vacuums and streams of molecules—not that any of these is really ruled out as the continuum but that it lies elsewhere, outside, behind what’s between. There’s a zero state—and you’re not in it now. But what would you know about it, inside one of these tangible things, able only to communicate with the other end, assuming there even is an other end to what you think is enclosed?

Even an apple is the last stage in an enormous journey through air and earth. Once you know that, how can you eat one and not see death at its core? Once you realize how it feels to become aware that your visual space is being constructed for you out of photons of light that traveled untold distances through nothing but explosions and vacuums, then wandered into the mammalian organism’s history at a quite unrepeatable juncture, after sunlight was already billions of years old and cosmic radiation was already transmitting an inextinguishable sediment of atomic debris. Given that dead apothecary’s shelving you couldn’t ever find a way to locate and encompass again—is there anything that wouldn’t seem equally antromentous, fated, dangerous to eat? Even something as subtle as a sugar molecule: something is inside it, is building upon or up through it, taking advantage of a delicate property or attunement. Why shouldn’t the inside of a molecule be crawling with vampires or devil-worshipers?

During certain hours of the day or night, under specific conditions of intensity, what comes to your skin through your eyes—if it ever came to inhabit your skull, what might it change into? Is it light coming to your skin from the window across the room? Really? Where do the window, the room, even you come into the picture? Or do they only obscure or compromise what’s already there, as an imaginary engraved line compressed out of many strands of action going in all directions, streaking over a wide space, reversible at each junction? Where’d they find a piece of cardboard as big as the earth’s surface, that isn’t flat on either side—what made the surface, why did it take such and such a shape, where’d it come from and where did it go, and what were its movements if they were any different from yours or mine? Or did all those distinctions become useless as you entered into the zone of strongest stimulation, as it washed you away, dissolving even the distinctions of space between you and the cardboard—what became of you then, and where, and what was around you, and could you have kept any of it, could you have even kept track of it as the wave of intensity flowed on past, even the surface of the cardboard scattering to spindles, to confetti, a gold glitter blowing everywhere? Can you ever escape such an impression—that time stopped, not in a swagged curtain or a discrete hole of rest, but on a shimmering or creased surface whose vector might extend vertically away from the moment in any direction? In such a time it becomes more apparent that yours is merely a density, a color, among an enormous number of others in various distributions across the expanse. Here the coordinates are incomprehensible, all the regions you know of are not shown on this map—you even become disoriented concerning which regions lie inside or outside of what you call “you.” What became of your “body image” out in the gold glitter, at the explosive leading edge of what felt like a sonic boom? Can you handle even such mild, colorful experiences? What good are you against anything invisible, if you don’t even want to believe in it?

It may have been dark inside the rooms—candles in lamps providing most of the illumination, shading in black through yellow-brown to smoky pale peach—no flashbulb brilliance in sight—only draughty slats and blinds creaking outside in the early spring night, caught in the trees at the end of the courtyard—onionskins flapping up from cellars.

Outside, down in the shadowy little cobbled alley that branched from the street by the Galleria to end at a blind wall (when you were little, it looked just like a railroad trestle in miniature) you moved swiftly with no difficulty—along an uneven line of flickering electric lanterns. At certain places, shadows merged to present figures half-submerged, colossal and shaky, gnarled tree-roots with leaves and vines in tarnished silver: each crosspoint in the web was a darkness whose aura moved as you passed—elderly couples sat under vines at outdoor cafe tables, faces young and old brushing the night outside your windows were washed in the yellow-brown radiance of oil lamps or else—more rare—the gleam of electric lights caught in the misted facets of an air of hangovers and heavy afternoons: cigarette smoke in watering-places where people congregated heavily, grease and fat dripping from piles of charcoal, pastry and bread cooked, above and beyond, wine, expensive and fruity, foaming into your mouth from odd-shaped glasses, rosé wine that came in green bottles, of a curious milky transparency—crumbs sticking to your lips. A sniffle—another, here—then a lone china sink outside on a terrace with water spilling out into the weeds—not more than a door and a half apart: shapeless faces drenched by lamplight—how easily everyone lets it slide to trust that the mind and the air it breathes are more real than this carnival, passing as if along streets that had really changed or in doors that led into what has already happened, which is all behind now and where nobody’s come from either and you need to pass a long time sitting at a table so the heavy ennui won’t catch up to you and drag you back forever…

Ah—an illness—tender spots where a sheet touches your cheek… when you return the flesh never gets quite right again—

To what are you submitting yourself when you light the candle, push back the table to the wall, lay out all the machinery, strip down to your undershirt, turn the lampshade so that it doesn’t reflect on your face, mop up all traces of splattered wax—why are you punishing yourself like this, who gave you the right to do this? Whoever it is you’re aiming to convert, whatever metaphysical beauty you’re trying to hold at the point of your knife, they never consent—this is torture you’re putting them through and if you insist on carrying on in this way they’re going to think twice about coming around here again. It’s humiliating—what are you so frightened of? Weak little hermits—what did we ever do to you to deserve this? You never shut up yammering about justice, what happens when your little conspiracies start to go sour on you? How do you know what these people are going to use their extra hours for—squatting in their shitholes eating live beetles—drinking the blood of virgins—shit, they may turn around and blame everything on you, who do you think you’re dealing with? Who put you up to this? We all have the right to protect our security, ourselves, our posterity, no matter what we believe. If they see your candles in the windows it could go hard for you, and us, there’s too much at stake—they’ll set it up to destroy all of us if we’re not careful. We have to face reality, they know about the war, all we have to do is take one wrong step, not even anything mean, just the appearance of something we did wrong—isn’t there somebody down here they could set up, say that person’s involved in sabotage—in times like these the machinery of repression works faster than anything we can do, do you really want to go head-to-head with it, on its own turf? Who needs that kind of grief? You want the police swarming all over you, confiscating all your stuff—“do you have a job? why were you dealing with an anarchist group?” what an outrage—even the newspapers, our people too, will print the shit they get from the cops these days without even trying to check it—then their power just keeps building as we bleed away. They have machines of their own that blow your brains out at half a mile—why risk it? Can’t you find some other way, sell some more papers, beg, borrow, steal? (Slip him some hashish, kid.) Come on, face reality. One day you’ll thank us. All of us.

Abelard, at home with his beloved Sybil. In those days you didn’t need an apartment to be alone with your girl—even with two masters for board and tuition, what a comfortable, separate life Abelard leads: poring over the proofs for his Logic text in his room by the tower in the north transept. (At night, you imagine, the sound of water flowing gently below through the courtyards echoes among his papers.) He even has time to do a little gambling now and then: Aristotle’s commentators say the great man was occupied chiefly in disputations with opponents at the Lyceum: what, a three-thousand-year-old university, as modern as the new Athens, offering prestigious chairs—the famous Naughty Nigel (Nicholas) of Bagnacavallo—a philosopher turned forger and bandit—one of those fake saints all the universities were crazy about back then: without his crooked lineage none of your high-born philosophers, especially your renegade lot, could claim title to scholarship—without Naughty Nigel they’d have to scrounge round the Low Countries and down the Rhine to Sicily for decent models. Such a calm student life for Abelard! Patiently copying out the passages he wants to alter, trim, and wrest into some form that won’t fall afoul of Church orthodoxy—great leaps of syllogism and language.

Here are two theories that need reconciling. Very delicate operations to get them to match: eliminating various awkward moments—words and structures that refer to God in terms of an ascribe, one that cannot be contained by what he’s always said to be about, without allowing certain notions about being itself, or time, to be drained away. Out at La Flèche they wouldn’t believe it if you said Naughty Nigel ever existed, that in fact the best science in all the universities put together (when done right, the odd bum book here and there excepted) still leaves Church doctrine virtually intact. All the others are bit players at best, not like Aristotle, Plato, Parmenides—Abelard the way he set about trying to deal with time—exegeses so awesome even they reduced God to the status of an ascribe, a name, and so indirect they would hardly seem to make it up to orthodoxy at all—yet how could you endure what that woman makes of him in her Historia calamitatum? To study in Paris back then you took on something closer to a self-made discipline—school was all so changeable—after the generation of Lambert and William of Conches you picked up a book to know what the great mind, as filtered through Naughty Nigel and an eccentric medieval progeny, believed in as best he could understand it, while simultaneously coming up with some fresh, different, atheist theory to contrast with it, because all those older fellows taught you that one without the other could lead only to dogmatic intellectual terrorism and disintegration. People all around you hawking loose essays on God’s relationship to being, to time—from what you know of his works you’d guess William of Auvergne is onto something, while in a half-dozen places in Albert of Bollstadt you encounter tersely reasoned disdain for the very concept of being itself—itself. You could forget any theology learned since birth and get somewhere doing close readings of these people, in comparison—though even as they grapple with time’s stubborn relentlessness there are shadowy slips toward vitalist ecstasies. Like Basil, they leave you staring vacantly at their books in certain spots—avoiding them if they become too ardent. Although you only study such books sporadically—when your new radical work loses coherence for a bit, a brainwave threatens to short you out or go rogue, like static in your screen—it does matter to you how time, especially the sacred sense of it, is handled.

Suddenly it doesn’t make sense.


All you thought you knew of reality’s grammar—nouns, verbs, subjects, objects, the links between them: A does something to B, or C exists within or as part of A, or C causes A to be, and so on—it all collapses, changes color. For a second the syntax of being turns ugly. Some connection was supposed to work here—even between you and her there should be some feel or pull or blood, but no way is this working out right, you have to begin again, differently. You forgot a conjunction. Or a parenthesis. It can happen to the best of us: while translating a passage of Heliocentrism into heresy you inadvertently reversed the subjects and objects—no wonder they’re all walking around looking at each other funny—what was “I saw” now reads “You saw.” I was even about to break up with her: but it isn’t that, is it?

Don’t blame it all on syntax, although the two categories may have more than casual relevance—broken love may indeed be a function of bad grammar. Better break up than continue mistaking objects for subjects or vice versa. Above all avoid that tacit neuter-gender it’s so easy to slip into: when you catch yourself thinking “it,” stop—where might “it” refer? it certainly never means “she” or “he.” “It” may be all right when applied to rocks or table knives, or in a moment of distracted bewilderment (“It went out—that damn lamp, it went out again!”), but a proposition built around “it” is liable to take on an indeterminacy at best or an irritating abstraction at worst: as soon as we lose the distinction between noun and pronoun we float loose from our history. Our histories: in every century before now “he” or “she” were adequate to refer to almost any person the writer happened to be thinking of—and “it” served to pick out rocks and knives, ships and storms, bears and trees—but there have never before been any “its” for people or any “they’s” for inanimate objects, until now.

In certain limited circles we’re growing impatient with the traditional grammar that once enacted for us our relations to our fellows and to our things: in this brave new world, they are no more the subservient, shabby things of before, while we are no longer the assertive, noble subjects—all that stuff has to go. Well then. If the only tool you have ever known how to use is a saw, and you need a hammer for your job, what do you do? One tool, used artfully and ingeniously, can substitute for many another, for any practical purpose. But it has to be done artfully, else the replacement shows as false and embarrassing as one of those two-by-four makeup jobs where the new teeth in a closeup just don’t look like any teeth anyone ever had. Substitute objects are the artifacts of sloppy philosophy—hamburgers made from sawdust—why do you think “functionalism” became a dirty word? What if you could perform the very act of making someone a “subject” using only a piece of fruit—peeling it, coring it, scraping its inside with your thumbnail—planting the pit somewhere, all in secret, just the right place so no one will notice it was ever there? Think how smoothly functional the pit would integrate itself with all the surrounding skin—yet there beneath, autonomous and powerful, capable of tricking the best surgeons in the land into forgetting their craft, relinquishing their mastery, subletting their reality to someone else—what if “subjecthood” is something that grows inside us the way a fruit decays?

Five-thirty and getting dark. Left Abelard alone for a few minutes while she put a light bulb in her wall sconce—three, four minutes. What a crushing feeling, as if everything went dead when her hand touched your back to turn you away from the book you were poring over, so completely you forgot her even in the next room until the smell of burnt metal reminded you she was still there, still living (sneakers from Gimbels—who could afford to throw that money away, especially at a time like this?)—which might not matter except that to her you meant to matter. Just this once, anyway: she said that she’d love you forever, but there were times now when it was hard even to think of her. How hard life must be for her, with this painful exquisite passion always bursting at the limits she places on it, driving her to confuse abstractions of her own invention with actual things—knowing perfectly well their difference, choosing to behave as if they were the same, agonizing between those two stools. Yet why does her constancy only deepen your admiration for the cause she is suffering for, and at the same time heighten your despair that no cause could be worth all the sorrow she has taken upon herself, all the surly frustration, even now as you catch a glimpse of her against the autumn twilight coming home from God-knows-where, what were her eyes concealing now, which words did she only find courage to withhold… she was back—

“What are you moping about? Want some coffee?”

Abelard paused, distracted from what he’d been reading to stare across the table at her, her head down pouring steaming brew into the enamelware mug without looking up at him, even though he was pretty sure she could sense he’d noticed her return.

“Well, for God’s sake…” he threw a book onto the seat beside him and rose to join her. “It isn’t as if you can find your solace in music these days either—you might as well come out and watch the night come down while there’s still a bit of light in it.”

They gathered up their wraps and hurried to escape what seemed to be the very instant of rain they had come out in, heading toward the square through a quiet little park that was a time or two older than either of them, grass turning yellow under a carpet of dead leaves. No children at play this year, the summer cottages emptied out ages ago when the international troubles started mounting—anyway she had work to do and couldn’t allow herself too much of an opportunity to forget about it: why didn’t he understand? He understood: why couldn’t he love her as she wanted, the way she loved him, but all this other love they’d taken into their time together seemed not to survive intact. All at once there seemed only to be so little of it, that any friction made them lose it like the souls of French peasants plowed under, never to be found, year after year plowed under and sown to better advantage but gone for good. Sometimes he had thought of taking a weapon to her employer, that old ugly monk with the purplish wormy scar down one cheek. If she could manage to lay hold of that lumpish clod of muscle and nerve, to grip his flapping tonsure between her fingers and shake out the nervous tissue inside until a white strand of pure ectoplasm showed free… whoa. Once he almost laid a hand on her wrist as she pushed him away: never meant to hurt you—I’d thought I had my revenge, figured to celebrate a little, you know? A good day. If I say something’s caused me pain I’m just trying to describe its substance, all right? By now you should know, at least as well as me, why we have to do these things the way we do them—every step taken for its own sake, its own damn self. Isn’t that what you called the liberation of ends from means? And anyway what are means and ends if not devices invented to extend our lives in a world run by something else, so they’d be available to be taken up and used again. A good solid meaning is what’s worth reaching for: but just thinking it exists won’t ever make it real, not in any way that’d really help anyone.