Mnemonic Caloriesby Brandon Edmonds, illustration by Rico / 13.07.2011
Risking douche-itude, I’m here to tell you I was thinking about Dostoevsky in the Spur recently. Particularly Notes from the Underground. It’s an existentialist classic without which must-reads like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Camus’ The Outsider, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man are all unthinkable. The book’s unnamed narrator is not easy to be around. He’s a snob, an intellectual elitist, terminally self-involved, a recluse, poisonously resentful, self-sabotaging, and routinely putting his own ideas and feelings above anyone else’s.
And still, after almost 150 years, he’s uncannily close to us. For one thing, his mind is mediated. He’s our contemporary in that fictions and distractions have replaced lived experience as a resource of self-understanding. “I was so used to imagining everything like a book and seeing everything as I had created it in my dreams… I had grown so unused to real life that I could hardly breathe for the oppression of it.”
Welcome to my head.
Why the Spur, you fat fuck? Go to Kauai. Go home and make a salad. Squeeze juice. Have some respect for yourself. Jog. When’s the last time you jogged? Nobody is ever going to fuck you again. You’re a behemoth. A cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake! What are you, twelve? Why do you treat fast-food like a mother’s tit? Don’t you fucking dare. There is no way you’re going to sit here at a table alone in this fucking ridiculous themed restaurant surrounded by strangers eating a hamburger. The Obama administration called the Osama Bin Laden hit, “Operation Geronimo”. How is the use of native American imagery any different in here? The kind of shit they serve is death too. Just slower. Clogs arteries by degrees until your heart stops. Is that what you want? Dead before fifty? No kids. No triumphs. No transcendence. When did you stop trying Brandon? Do you have any idea how much of a loser you are? You look retarded sitting here. A grown man waiting for mnemonic calories to teleport him, cheaply, spuriously, back to childhood. Proust had biscuits, you’ve got hamburgers. South Africa’s Official Family Restaurant. You don’t have a family. You’re an interloper. People literally think you’re a big fat retarded pedo. They think you’re dangerous and unemployed and creepy. Stand up and walk out right now.
“Oh hi. Yeah I’d like a double cheddar melt and a chocolate milkshake. How long does it take?”
Dostoevsky’s nameless ex-bureaucrat seems, at times, to be my own doppelganger. I have a long, embarrassing history of uploading fast food to blunt the pain of whatever. Ever since I could afford to, I’ve been using convenience food from mega-branded outlets to feel something. Bloated is better than empty. Then, like a teenager, I hate myself for it. Go cold turkey and work out. Then falter and sidle back into McDonalds or KFC, the Steers or the Wimpy. The Fat Fuck circle of life.
Here’s how the underground man puts it: “A hysterical thirst for contradictions and contrasts would appear, and I would embark on dissipations… my debaucheries were solitary, nocturnal, secret, frightened, dirty and full of a shame that did not leave me.” Anyone who’s ever ferried fast food home covertly, feeling judged and desperate, bolting it like a dog standing up in the kitchen, making guttural sounds that would stir the primate cage at the zoo, has rehearsed this emotional sequence.
Awareness of that willed self-abasement, or “vice-lets” as he puts it (not even grave or profound enough to be called vices), the kind of irrational abjection we occasionally indulge, and how perverse we can be with our own bodies and duties to ourselves, this is the real lasting power of the book. And is what keeps it refreshing for new readers. “The pleasure,” as he says, “of being too clearly aware of your own degradation.” This negative-pleasure rules popular culture. Cutting, overeating, torture porn, brutal sex, suicide clubs, stress, reality show confessionals, varieties of nihilistic metal, nihilistic movies, the popularity of zombies, the inverted appeal of the pristine everlastingness of Twilight vampires who are tantalizingly free of breakdown and decay. The underground man anticipates it all.
Written in bleak mid-winter in Moscow, with his wife dying of consumption in the other room, Dostoevsky saw through the lies of idealistic philosophy promising the progressive improvement of humanity and society. He was himself a Utopian socialist exiled to Siberia for his beliefs but recoiled at the emerging sciences of social control – the “arithmetic” of statistics, standardization and the organizational logics that efficiently discount the singular dignity of people in themselves. “Why must our desires,” his nameless narrator says, “be normal and virtuous? Why must we will what is reasonable and profitable?” This is a book brave enough to imagine alternatives to our stultifying social contract and unhinged enough to slow dance with chaos.
Who are these fucking people? There is a Muslim woman in full burqa two tables away. Black burqa. No hint of flesh but eyes amplified by the slit. Turret eyes. She should be the enemy. Could be the enemy. But the enemy of what? Who do I stand for? The fucking West? Please. That sequence in The Battle of Algiers (1966) when the pretty FLN Algerian freedom fighter is waved through the road-block by horny solders with a bomb in her basket. Would a bomb matter in here? We’re regular South Africans. Are any of us really going to contribute anything to the world? Here we are feeding at a fucking “steak ranch”. The manager rounds his waiters up, they’re all in regulation shirts the colour of hacienda roof tiles, and I watch him gesture like let’s bump up the atmosphere in here people, let’s make some noise, and they form a conga line, and they march through the restaurant gratuitously hand-clapping and whooping, energy into the void, artificially pumping “atmosphere” into the place. The conga line and forced bonhomie is what labour is in the service industry. Exhausting, dispiriting shows of upbeat subservience. Cover over the relations of exploitation with glee. The Muslim woman lifts the flap of her headgear to drink cream soda. I don’t give a shit about her beliefs or anyone else’s. I just think she looks stupid. A stand-up comic likened Muslim women in burqa’s to bee-keepers. The philosopher, Alain Badiou, thinks the outrage to Western sensibilities wreaked by the burqa lies in the capitalist injunction to reveal everything about yourself to the market. Facebook vacuums up the data-traces of our online behavior and sells it to advertisers but the covered up Muslim female body halts that kind of circulation of information. It defies the injunction to be available to marketers. It demonstrates faith, a higher power than exchange, by covering up. My burger is overcooked. My plate doesn’t have enough chips. I watch my waitress tell the manager. Our eyes meet. He okays the supplement. More for the fat man. Whatever it takes to turn tables.
The ex-bureaucrat is set aside by an army officer at one point. He is blocking the doorway. The Officer takes him by the shoulders and moves him. A total alpha male gesture. The narrator stalks him for years! Incubates the sleight. Fantasizes about a duel then realizes he can’t afford pistols so imagines biting his hand! He has a terrible dinner with friends from school. Then wakes in a brothel alongside a young prostitute called Liza. What follows is the most extraordinary pillow talk in literature. So bleak. He calls her a slave. They’re naked in bed together. “What is your love worth now? You have been bought, the whole of you.” The terrible things he says. “Don’t rely on your mouth… it will be good luck if you die somewhere in a corner!” Liza sees right through him though. “Somehow you… it sounds just like a book.” That gentle castigation is a lifeline. Read it to see if he takes it. I know I would.
*Illustration © Rico.