Hazlitt Magazine

The Year in Time

This year, every day I spent in isolation was in preparation for the days when I could join others in something bigger than ourselves.

The Year Inside and Out

There is something exciting about anticipating a space before it is inevitably interfered with by a human—what might also be called living.

The Year in the Wilderness

Despair too is contagious. We share it as we shed a spore.

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The Business of a Marriage

After my wedding, I began looking for a language for the partnership, both metaphorical and actual, I seemed to have contracted.

Married people are supposed to share their money.  I found this out a few days after my wedding. My husband and I were eating the misshapen remains of a cheese tray in bed, after the tempest of uncles and hailstorm of aunts had swirled away. The last of the Greek cousins were gone. My mother-in-law, having conjured ice cream for a hundred people out of a freezerless kitchen, and my mother, her finger-joints swollen from pulling apart the maddening layers of ninety-six fuchsia tissue-paper flowers, had escaped back to their own lives. But our guests had left something behind: the yellow-striped card box, teetering on top of a bin of dirty forks. At the hall, while I was busy identifying the dead body smell as an actual dead body (a mouse, found expired under the snacks table and borne away in a festive napkin), my sister had dressed the box in wrapping paper, taped a purple pom-pom on top, and cut a slit through which our guests could drop their best wishes as well as cheques, gift certificates, and cash. The generosity of our friends and relatives, now tumbling out onto our bedspread, was humbling. Humbling, too, to take these gifts to the bank and be told we couldn’t deposit them unless we opened a joint account. “Neither of you can cash a cheque made out to both of you,” the teller informed us. “We get this all the time after weddings.” It never occurred to me that I would share money with another person. I moved in with my partner not long before we got married, and for the preceding ten years, aside from a brief, sad stint at a previous boyfriend’s, I had lived alone. I loved living by myself. In the life I knew, I was dictator and sole citizen of my personal republic. Our national drink was instant Nescafé; our national dish was spaghetti. Our flora was a single valiant cyclamen. Our anthem was silence. Our finances were a ball of earwax tied together with skipping ropes: a mix of magazine and newspaper journalism, arts grants, editorial services, and grant-writing contracts. But now our friends and relatives had invested in us—literally—as a joint endeavour. It was hard for me to grasp. My family is not much good at marriage, but we are spectacular at divorce. Both sets of my grandparents were divorced, back when such a thing was still scandalous. My parents divorced when I was seven, and they both got remarried and then got divorced again. Our home life reached equilibrium after the demise of my mother’s third marriage, and from what I could observe, the most stable household configuration was a lady, an armchair, and a newspaper. Other elements might come and go, but these three formed a perfect union. I tried to explain this to my husband early in our dating life, when he broached the subject of a future together. It’s not exactly that I don’t want to, I said. There’s just nothing in my experience to suggest that it works. For our honeymoon, we spent five days camping by the beach, and my wallet was stuffed with receipts: who paid for raspberry ice creams, who bought the hot-dogs, who bought the firewood. Friends inquired, Is this for your divorce lawyers? Meticulous records of the small purchases could hardly address the greater inequities: not only did my husband make twice as much money as I did, I had moved into the house he owned. I paid rent and half the bills, but every time he brought home a block of expensive cheese I had a sinking feeling that I was living a lifestyle I couldn’t afford and didn’t deserve. My husband’s parents have been married for fifty years, and in his eyes, keeping track of whose assets are whose is a purely academic exercise. To me, it seems dangerous to get too comfortable. As we started sending out our thank-you notes, I began reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Economy. I was looking for a language for the partnership, both metaphorical and actual, I seemed to have contracted. Love is a system of exchange, and cohabitation and marriage seemed to literalize its terms. Home economics is a redundant concept: “economics” comes from οἶκος for “house” and νέμω for “manage.” I wondered if the marquee theories of supply and demand offered any insight into how our household should be run. Perhaps, in dividing up the grocery bills, my husband and I should be Marxist: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Or maybe we should spend hedonistically rather than saving for the future. After all, as Keynes famously said: in the long run, we are all dead. Or perhaps the answers were hidden in the love lives of the canonical Western economists: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes. Romance is famously a form of lunacy, irrational to the core. But historically, marriage is a business deal. Building a shared life seems to demand a sophisticated form of double-entry bookkeeping, in which a column counting cash and a column counting feelings are somehow reconciled.  *  Adam Smith is famous for two ideas that came to form the basis of free market thinking: that an “invisible hand” hovers over the exchange of goods and services, ensuring their fairness and rendering intervention superfluous; and that if everyone pursues their own self-interest, all will prosper. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” he wrote in 1776. “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” A laissez-faire approach to love has appeal: if naked self-interest could really make for a happy household, perhaps the difficulties of marriage have been oversold. The trick, presumably, is to pretend to be asleep when it’s my turn to make the coffee, and to pocket the cash my husband leaves lying on the dresser. His ornery cat hisses at me and pees in my shoes, and her ill-temper represents for me what economists call an opportunity cost—because of my husband’s pre-existing mean cat, I can’t get a dog. If I ran on self-interest alone, some accident could easily befall her. In terms of romance, it would be advantageous to me to have more trading partners, but not if my husband can also trade with whomever he wants—a clandestine affair is to be preferred over an open relationship. Ultimately, I would want to work myself into the position with the greatest bargaining power by being the one who needs the relationship less. Smith could have designed the modern dating app. It is possible to dispense with Adam Smith’s romantic entanglements fairly briefly, because as far as we know, there were none. He never married and declared that anyone in love inevitably seemed ridiculous—a sucker. To an outside observer, the feeling is “entirely disproportioned to the value of the object,” he remarked. John Maynard Keynes is a different story. The thirty-five-year period of prosperity after the Second World War, an outlier that has nonetheless fundamentally shaped our expectations in the Western world, was dominated by Keynesian economics. Before the 1930s, most theorists believed that Smith’s invisible hand regulated employment, and that the market would naturally provide jobs for everyone who needed or wanted them. When the calamity of the Great Depression put millions of people out of work, Keynes proposed a revised role for governments. Unemployment, he argued, happens when people aren’t spending enough money on goods and services sold by their neighbours. The way to get consumers to spend more is for governments to put more money into their pockets. Any government stimulus package that seeks to spend its way out of a recession borrows from the playbook Keynes wrote, the 1936 treatise The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  But I’m here to talk about his love life. The twentieth century’s most influential economist had the face of a swollen eel, so Virginia Woolf said, and they were quite good friends. She also wrote that he looked like a gorged seal with a double chin and a ledge of red lip, “sensual, brutal, unimaginative.” Keynes’s own opinion of his looks was no better. At twenty-three, he wrote to a male lover: “My dear, I have always suffered and I suppose always will from a most unalterable obsession that I am so physically repulsive that I’ve no business to hurl my body on anyone else’s.”  He got over it. And with a statistician’s zeal for spreadsheets, he created an itemized list of the many men he slept with. It reads like a series of detective novels: The Bootmaker of Bordeaux; The Sculptor of Florence; The French Conscript; The Stable Boy of Park Lane. Keynes’s circle, the Bloomsbury group, was tolerant of gay sex, but British law was not. Oscar Wilde went to prison for sodomy when Keynes was twelve. His Cambridge friends distinguished between “Lower Sodomy,” which involved actual sex, and “Higher Sodomy,” when men loved each other’s minds. Keynes himself appeared in a celebrated list: a database of ten thousand case studies compiled by Magnus Hirschfeld, a doctor from Berlin campaigning for the decriminalization of homosexuality. He sought patterns in the physiological and psychological attributes reported by the gay men he interviewed. Can you easily separate your big toe from the others? Hirschfeld’s survey inquired. Are you talkative? Are you logical? What was logical, at the time, was to marry a woman. In 1921, Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet company mounted a production of The Sleeping Beauty at London’s Alhambra theatre. A Russian ballerina named Lydia Lopokova danced the role of the Lilac Fairy. Her style was unusually robust, even cheeky—she once lost her underwear onstage. She was Georgian London’s manic pixie dream girl, and the public went wild for dolls with her face. Keynes watched her from the audience night after night, and then went around to her dressing-room door and introduced himself. “Don’t marry her,” Vanessa Bell warned him. “However charming she is, she’d be an expensive wife and would give up dancing and is altogether to be preferred as a mistress.” Lopokova’s finances were indeed in disarray. As a child, she was upwardly mobile: from a lower-middle-class background, she had managed to get free tuition as well as room and board at a dance school by the age of nine, and by the early stages of her career made twice as much money as her father. But by the time she met Keynes, she had weathered twenty years of the vicissitudes of professional dance: ballet politics, endless travel, vaudeville roles alongside bicycle-riding dogs. At thirty, she had been married and divorced from the Diaghilev company’s shady business manager (he turned out to be a bigamist), and the company itself was teetering. She knew she couldn’t keep dancing forever. Many of the letters Keynes and Lopokova exchanged (hers endearingly misspelled) during their courtship are about money. “Oh! One of the important happenings! Our engagement is extended for eight weeks,” Lopokova wrote of a theatre contract in 1923. “I am quite rich. I will write with tenderness all the expences in the book.” Keynes had given her a special notebook for her bookkeeping. Not long after they met, it turned out Diaghilev hadn’t paid the Alhambra’s rental fee; the theatre kicked them out and impounded all the props and costumes. Loppy, as Keynes called her, went into business for herself, booking gigs in various productions, and mounting some shows of her own. “Tomorrow I shall have my salary, is it not a pleasant thought? I am such a calculatrice nowadays.” Keynes began negotiating her fees with producers, sometimes writing business letters that he signed in her name.  The two married in 1925. For the first half of his career, Keynes had subscribed to the classical economic theory that a laissez-faire market would, when working properly, employ everyone. Keynes now wrote that the market, left to itself, would naturally come to rest in a condition of high unemployment. In the biography Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes, Richard Davenport-Hines compares the revolution in Keynes’ approach to economics with the about-face in his sexual life. Keynes seems to have abandoned male partners altogether. The couple’s letters glitter with pornographic coinages: “I taste your buttons,” she wrote; “I want to be foxed and gobbled abundantly,” he replied. Despite all his friends’ predictions (Woolf considered Loppy an ignorant pleb), Keynes and Lopokova’s marriage was long and happy. The major disappointment was the stubborn non-arrival of children, even though Keynes tracked Loppy’s cycle as meticulously as he had once recorded his lovers. He became an advocate of government oversight to enforce fair pay standards for women in the workforce. She nursed him in his final decade, and then embarked on the kind of free-and-easy widowhood that comes with not giving a tinker’s toot: sunbathing naked in her garden; walking down the street with a shopping basket upside-down on her head; speaking Russian when she got bored of speaking English, whether her interlocutors understood her or not. What strikes me most now in Keynesian thought is its optimism. Reporting on a meeting with a potential booker, Loppy wrote to Keynes: “I did repeat what you said, noble failure is preferable to cheap success, that financial ruin was not so desperately important.” How fine and freeing to think so. As a unit, Lopokova the artist and Keynes the economist were seen, both by their friends and by historians, as complementary, a surprising fit that made for a stable home life with a bright seam of recklessness. If I am not behaving lovingly enough, the answer in a Keynesian marriage would be to give me more affection. The love I receive, so the bet goes, will overflow my coffers—I will be spurred to spend it back liberally into the home market. My husband objects that this is implausible and makes Keynes sound like a sop. “If I shower you with more love, won’t you just value my attentions less?” If my husband were married to Keynes, he might retort that currency devaluation isn’t as monolithic as it looks, and besides, the point is to reach full employment. A marriage in which no labour potential is wasted—no opportunity for making each other happy missed—seems a worthy goal.  *  On October 20th, 1918, Fanny Jacobs and Harry Rosenberg, near strangers, were married in a cemetery in Philadelphia. A crowd of over a thousand people, all Jewish immigrants from Russia, cheered from among the gravestones. It was a shvartze khasene, a black wedding, which folk tradition held would protect the community from pestilence. The Spanish flu had then killed over half a million people in Philadelphia alone. Holding a wedding in their resting place would please the dead, elders from the Old World said, and the dead could intercede with God to beg for mercy for the living. I started this essay in what now feels like the old world. Our emergency savings are in the joint account we opened with our wedding money. The teller who helped us was named Neena, and it was her first joint account too—first week on the job, she confided. A younger woman hovered over Neena, occasionally pointing out where to click on the screen. When our provincial government declared a state of emergency on March 17th, we spent some of our wedding money on a sack of rice, a gallon of olive oil, and a deep freeze. I’m still confused about the deep freeze—a couple of months ago we were vegetarians, and now we are talking about spending hundreds of dollars on an eighth of a cow in case global food supplies give out. But the deep freeze seems to make my husband feel safer, and in our household’s current economy, even an illusory sense of safety has a value higher than gold. In the past several years, a spate of studies by North American banks have found that more and more couples are choosing not to combine their finances—a Bank of Montreal survey found that only a quarter of Canadian couples completely pool their resources. There are regional differences: couples on the prairies are the most likely to share everything, and Quebec couples the least. Millennials are far less likely to use joint bank accounts than their parents. When Neena asked for my SIN, I wrote it down and slid the paper across her desk. But reflexively, I shielded it with my hand so my husband couldn’t see. I’ve always been told to keep my personal information secret—no one said secret until you get married.  Of the many conspiracy theories about the pandemic’s shadowy origins and agenda—5G, biological warfare gone wrong, Zuckerberg finally eliminating real-world interaction altogether—it feels to me like a dystopian victory for a particularly narrow vision of nuclear family. No sex unless you live together. Limited contact with friends and extended family. Historically, marriage was an outward-facing arrangement that wove otherwise unrelated groups into mutual-aid networks. Peasants used to sing songs and recite folktales that made fun of married love, as a way of reminding couples who were too wrapped up in each other not to forget their obligations to the wider community. Theologians used to caution married people not to love each other too much—it might distract them from the image of Christ in each other’s faces. But over time, western European and North American culture has idealized an ever smaller, more private, and more self-sufficient unit. At time of writing, my city’s by-laws impose a fine of a thousand dollars for being caught within six feet of anyone from outside my household. When I look out my window, the pods trooping past are like ads for conservative family values—mom, dad, two kids. The model for a virtuous life under current conditions matches most closely with the kind of marriage I was brought up to avoid—insular, isolationist, fearful of outsiders. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, my sense of myself as a person with an independent existence from my husband suddenly seemed like a fantasy—I couldn’t believe I had ever taken it seriously. It seemed clear that whatever happened to one of us happened to both of us, and any decision one of us made—to touch anything, to go anywhere—was being made for the other. The idea of reckoning up whose money had bought more of the cabbages or lemon concentrate in our emergency box was a dark joke. What future would we be keeping track for? The wider economy was running on the same calculation. Suddenly, it turned out, the imperative to earn a living had been a myth all along—none of that mattered. What mattered was not to die, and the government ordered everyone to stop working and go home. They would simply print money to keep us alive. As an economist commented on Australian national radio, “We are all Keynesians now.”  And yet—these dynamics have a way of reasserting themselves. As people locked down across the globe, the labour exchanges within households have come under heightened scrutiny. The economic impact of the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on women, especially women of colour, as jobs in the service sector have disappeared or become more dangerous. For some couples with children struggling to work from home, the imperative for someone to provide childcare in periods of school closure has pushed the lower earner out of the workforce. And in families in which one or both are still going out to work, all previous cost-benefit analyses that led to career choices have utterly changed—while pay may have remained the same.  * Shoshana Grossbard contends that you can, in fact, buy love. [[{"fid":"6707821","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] In this equation, which Grossbard published in 2018, the U stands for “utility,” which is the term economists use for what the rest of us call happiness. The individual’s happiness will depend on an equilibrium between the loving care moving from one partner to the other (i-j) and back (j-i). Loving care might take the form of home-cooked meals and folded linen on one hand, cash and approval on the other. Happiness in a marriage is a function of both love and self-respect, the latter of which is produced under several conditions: recognition of one’s labour competence; the ability to achieve a desired standard of living; a choice about what kind of work and leisure to engage in and when; and an inherent belief in one’s own worth. Love in lockdown is a paradox in which the value we ascribe to each other’s lives is high, and therefore we seek to minimize each other’s happiness by limiting each other’s freedom. I’ve never wanted to be one of those couples who exercise together, but to avoid going out we set up an exercise circuit that had us running back and forth between the weights in the living room and the skipping rope in the yard. After one of our biweekly grocery expeditions, my husband started coughing. We found a small neighbourhood grocery doing delivery, wrote all our emergency numbers on a sheet by the door, and prepared ourselves for the worst. Our ability to isolate efficiently is, of course, strongly associated with class. We have the kind of white-collar jobs that can be done from home, and we can afford (for now) the higher prices for local delivery. An apartment building abuts our lot, and I guiltily avoid looking up at its windows as I, the yarderati, get my safe exercise. We wouldn’t be in our current situation without a lifetime of help from our upper-middle-class families, and it is very plain to both of us how little we have earned our good fortune. My husband is still coughing, but over the past month no other symptoms have developed—our immediate fears have subsided. Instead of helping my husband get organized for the months to come, I’ve been distracted, lying awake planning out what I would have done if I were still alone in my old apartment. Being loved means I am no longer solely responsible for taking care of myself, but being cared for makes me feel less competent—I respect myself less.  Even though Grossbard goes by @econoflove on Twitter, she doesn’t tend to use the word “love.” The equation itself is derived from the work of another economist, Charlotte Phelps.  Grossbard argues that what Phelps calls love looks an awful lot like what she prefers to call work-in-household (represented here as H): [[{"fid":"6707831","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Here happiness is a function of the exchange of work between partners, combined with L for waged labour, X for consumer goods, and S for leisure time. Phelps, writing in 1972, argued that although a woman who becomes a housewife receives payment for her loving care through her husband’s provision of material goods, this exchange stops short of making love a market commodity. “No currency, money or approval, can buy love,” Phelps wrote. Why not go all the way, Grossbard asks, and say that the rewards for loving care (work-in-household) should be monetized? “Providing more legal support to exchanges of loving care for money is a key to more fruitful negotiations among partners and potential partners,” Grossbard writes. In Richard Thaler’s 2015 book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics, he talks about his affection for honour boxes. You see them at highway farm stands or unattended campsites, nailed to a wall or a post: you can drop coins or bills in, but you can’t take them out. For Thaler, it’s a nutshell explanation of human nature. Enough people will voluntarily put money in the box, even if no one is watching, to make it worth the farmer or the parks service’s while. But if the box were easy to open or steal, it wouldn’t be long before someone did.  Before the crisis, my husband and I had set up rules to govern who paid for what proportion of which things in our household. There are plenty of apps designed to help couples keep track but our method is old school—a blackboard in the kitchen, on which each of us is supposed to chalk up our expenditures. The beauty of this honour system was that it allowed us to cheat on each other’s behalf. When I decided to buy a fancy jam that wasn’t on the list or pay more than my share for gas on a trip to visit friends, I could fudge the numbers.  Now we don’t seem to have any system. My husband set up the grocery delivery on his credit card, and depending on which news he’s been reading, the box arrives full of pie and ice cream (it is hopeless, everyone we love will die) or cabbage and canned sardines (we will all live long enough to lose our jobs in six months). We’re still figuring out what proportion of these emotional purchases I should be responsible for. One of the major contributions of behavioural economics is the distinction it draws between Econs and Humans. Econs are the purely rational agents found in economics textbooks: they buy, sell, change jobs, start businesses, and plan for the future in the most beautifully ordered way, always choosing perfectly between available options to maximize their own utility. Humans are the dazed, impulsive, occasionally altruistic characters you meet standing in a panic before supermarket displays of six kinds of apples. In decisions that involve any kind of self-control, a Human is actually two selves trying to act as one. There’s one self-trained on the future and one who sees nothing but the present. Human marriage is four selves trying to act as one; it’s like doing the dishes from inside a horse costume. One of the dominant metaphors for marriage in economic literature is the firm. Or The Firm, as I started to think of it, for the 1993 Tom Cruise movie. Whoever is behind on their share of cooking and vacuuming is letting The Firm down. McDeere was also supposed to stick with The Firm until death did them part. The idea is that marriage vows are in fact an employment contract, albeit with fuzzy terms. As always, exploitation is a strong possibility. In the 1950s male breadwinner model of the household, wives are the workers and husbands the cigar-waggling industrialists. Much Marxist-feminist ink has been spilled on the inequality of this relationship, and even though the proportion of contemporary partnerships that fit the male breadwinner model is low—in 2015, Statistics Canada reported that both partners reported income in 96 per cent of couples—the gender wage gap means that inequality follows most women home.  Intra-household bargaining matters to the politicians and bureaucrats running the economy. In part, for its role in driving buying patterns. Some theorists argue that the home is no longer comparable to a firm, because these days it’s not a site of production, but primarily a site of consumption. Although there is one essential product, an adequate supply of which is considered necessary for the smooth running of a country, that is manufactured at the discretion of the home firm. Families are the factories where children—i.e., future workers—are produced. When I lived alone, I had no one else’s income with which to compare my own, and success was defined as paying my rent and bills every month. Now, I am keenly aware that my husband makes more money than I do. Neither of us wants this fact to be meaningful. There’s lots to explain why we aren’t bringing home the same amount of bacon, since we do different jobs in different sectors. But it’s tricky to maintain an equal relationship when it’s so easy to quantify how unequally the outside world perceives your value.   * “You know that I have sacrificed my whole fortune to the revolutionary struggle. I do not regret it. Quite the contrary. If I had to begin my life over again, I would do the same,” Karl Marx wrote in 1865. He was corresponding with Paul Lafargue, a protégé who wanted to marry one of Marx’s daughters. “I would not marry, however. As far as it lies within my power, I wish to save my daughter from the reefs on which her mother’s life was wrecked.” Jenny Marx, née von Westphalen, was born into the Prussian aristocracy. She died in London after a lifetime of dodging bill collectors, begging from friends and relatives, pawning her belongings, and seeing four of her seven children die of poverty-related diseases. Karl and Jenny were childhood friends; he had studied with her father, who was himself a proto-socialist. Her family was nonplussed by the match, however, mostly because Marx was terrible with money. His happy-go-lucky spending habits at university (he was president of a drinking club and chose the most luxurious lodgings in town) drained his own middle-class family’s resources, and Karl and Jenny’s engagement was a negotiation that lasted seven years. Eventually, Marx agreed to sign a contract waiving Jenny’s liability for any debts he had incurred before their marriage. There would be plenty more debt to come. They married in 1843, when he was twenty-five and she was twenty-nine, and moved to Paris, where Marx wrote radical articles under a pseudonym. Within a year, a police commissioner knocked on the door, and Karl was expelled on the charge of atheism (actually for rousing sentiment against the Prussian royal family), with twenty-four hours to leave the city. He left, and Jenny stayed behind with the baby to sell the furniture to cover outstanding rent and bills. This pattern was repeated with dreadful monotony over the next forty years. Every time a wealthy relative bailed him out, Karl promptly rented living quarters fancier than he could afford, spent whatever was left on furniture, and was quickly broke again. The family was in rags and lived close to starvation. When Karl tried to pawn what remained of Jenny’s family silver, he was nearly arrested—how could such a vagabond have gotten hold of silver with the Argyll crest?  The Marxes serve as a chilling example to anyone contemplating marriage to a writer. Early on, Karl got an advance for the book he was writing on “political economy.” Jenny rejoiced that the book would soon make her husband’s reputation, usher in a socialist paradise, and yield enough royalties for the family to live on. Instead, Karl pretended to be two weeks away from finishing the manuscript for sixteen years. For most of this time, he hadn’t even started. The publishers demanded their money back as Karl spiralled off into more and more research, endlessly broadening the scope. There was so much more he needed to read and think about, sitting at his desk in the British Museum while Jenny fended off creditors.  All this paints Marx as a terrible husband. Yet, as the Prussian spy assigned to peep through the Marxes’ windows attested to his superiors, Karl was quite a cozy person to have around the house. He played stagecoach with the children, letting them tie him to a row of chairs and whip him; when he and Jenny went out, he was a good dancer. A friend remarked that he had seldom seen so happy a marriage, “in which joy and suffering were shared and all sorrow overcome in the consciousness of full mutual dependency.” Like Keynes, Marx was described by friends and strangers as hideous—short and squat, his rampant beard reeking of cigar smoke, his coat buttoned wrong. Jenny, like Lopokova, was considered beautiful and elegant, though eventually her face was scarred with smallpox, the doctor’s bill for which Marx described as “hair-raising.” It is also not the case that Jenny was Karl’s victim. She was an ardent socialist who considered her own health and safety secondary to the propagation of her ideals. “Where could we feel more at ease than under the rising sun of the new revolution?” she asked in her memoirs.  Even the Marxes, however, could not live on ideals alone. In 1850, pregnant and desperate once again, Jenny sailed to Holland to plead with Karl’s wealthy uncle for more money, to no avail. “I believe, dear Karl, I will return home to you with no results, fully deceived, mauled, tortured in mortal fear. If you knew how I yearn for you.” Meanwhile, Karl was impregnating their housekeeper, Lenchen. The baby was given up for adoption, and Karl’s friend and patron, Friedrich Engels, claimed to be the father. Jenny left no evidence of her private thoughts on Lenchen’s condition (the maid had come to Jenny from her own family back in Germany and was more like a sister than a servant), but historians speculate that it was nearly impossible for Jenny to have been entirely oblivious—the entire family lived in two squalid rooms.  We do know that by the end of her life, her husband’s book still unfinished, Jenny Marx was so depressed she could barely get out of bed. Her mother died, and with Jenny’s inheritance the family managed to rent adequate housing (again, it wasn’t long before the money was gone and they were out on the street). In her memoirs, Jenny wrote of this period, “We were sailing with all sails set into bourgeois life. And yet there were still the same petty pressures, the same struggles, the same old misery, the same intimate relationship with the three balls of the pawnshop—what was gone was the humour.” Poverty wasn’t funny anymore. Engels, the hero of any Marx biography, had gone to work for his father at the hated family mill so that he could support the Marx family while Karl completed his important work; now Engels cleared their debts and put them on a yearly allowance. Jenny did not live to see the success of the book for which she had sacrificed her health and peace of mind. Not because she died before it was published—Das Kapital came out in 1867 and Jenny lived until 1881—but because the book was a flop. It was not until later that the book found its unrivalled place in the history of economic thought. The Marxes, in short, did not manage a Marxist marriage. In emotional terms, neither of them seems to have got everything they needed, and in financial terms they certainly did not. There’s an authoritarian streak in me that whispers the appeal of rigid planning to enforce fairness—left to my own devices, I am well aware of how often I fail to consider the needs of others. For a household to be run in such a way that everyone feels in control of their own labour, and yet the mutually desired amounts of clean laundry, cooking, and sympathetic listening are produced, a manifesto may well need to be drawn up. Whether the Marxes each gave according to their ability is harder to assess. Who can be certain how much love they really have to give?  * Adam Smith was born at the tail end of the last outbreak of bubonic plague in western Europe; between 1720 and 1723, half the population of Marseilles died. In Smith’s lifetime, smallpox also devastated the Indigenous populations of the Americas, in part due to its deliberate use as a biological weapon. While Karl Marx was living in Soho, the neighbourhood was the locus of an eruption of cholera; 23,000 died of the disease in England that year. John Maynard Keynes lived through the Spanish flu. Marital norms also fluctuated during these economists’ lifetimes. The eighteenth century saw the rise of the love match in western Europe, a trajectory that mirrored the rise of the market economy and increased independence from the family network. While Marx sat in the reading room of the British library, the British upper classes were sentimentalizing the role of married women as the moral and emotional core of the household—the thin edge of the wedge we would now call affective labour. Keynes, who died in 1946, lived long enough to see sex take up a central place in the popular conception of a good marriage.  Among the many unknowns of how the coronavirus pandemic will reshape our societies is how the psychological and material effects of lockdown will affect people’s desire for partnership. As a lifestyle choice, marriage is objectively in decline: a United Nations report from 2019 found that, worldwide, people are marrying later or never, and divorcing more often. In the U.S., data from the past few years project that a quarter of today’s young adults will stay single for life. Some studies suggest that, contrary to popular belief, married women are sadder, sicker, and shorter-lived than their single counterparts. Marriage has always been a risky business, containing, as it does, scope for exploitation, violence, and the general misery of spending time with someone who makes you unhappy. In an age when companionship, for those able to exercise some control over their exposure to others, is more scarce, the calculations about what kind of household formation to seek become more complicated. The utility of a good marriage is even higher, while a bad marriage poses a greater threat than before. Quarantine conditions intensify all the dangers of a bad relationship, and advocates are calling the rise in domestic violence a pandemic-within-a-pandemic. The limited social contact outside the home means reporting avenues are blocked, and ongoing confinement makes it easier than ever for abusive partners or parents to monitor and control the communications, movements, and finances of victimized members of the household. Medically speaking, solitude is the ideal state. Early on, experts suggested that even people who shared a home should limit how much they touched each other. And solo living can allow for greater agency in choosing a desired level of risk tolerance. For those choosing to date during the pandemic, romantic dealbreakers can be incompatibilities of hand hygiene, or of willingness to roll the dice on attending a birthday party. Financially speaking, too, our society tends to place a high value on financial independence. But the economic imperatives that have driven partnership for millennia could set many searching for traditional forms of cooperation as we enter an era of global financial hardship. During the Great Depression, the divorce rate fell—people couldn’t afford to separate. Now, as then, the social forms our emotional lives take carry the imprint of more widespread crises not of our making, created by systems most of us only dimly understand.
The Year in Time

This year, every day I spent in isolation was in preparation for the days when I could join others in something bigger than ourselves.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. Before 2020, I measured my time in movement, and my work as a Black Jewish writer and filmmaker focusing on international human rights issues required it constantly. Six months in Israel and Palestine documenting the community organizing of African asylum seekers, three weeks in Japan and Korea filming with a US human rights delegation, four or five trips zigzagging across the United States for conferences and screenings. Humming Wyclef’s “Gone Till November” to myself went from cliché to ritual as I rolled luggage and film equipment through each new airport, and time away from home was a unit to measure life by. I arrived in Boston the first week of March 2020, just as COVID-19 began systematically shutting down the United States. I was there for a three-month arts and activism fellowship through Harvard’s Religion Conflict and Peace Initiative, an exciting and legitimizing opportunity in a career forged in conflict zones and stateless communities far away from the mainstream. I was determined to make the most of the kind of institutional access and resources that had always been out of my reach, and fought hard to keep up the facade of my plans. But every day my world got smaller and smaller. I remember surreally moving in reverse of the tide of abruptly dismissed undergrads scrambling for flights home on my way to pick up a key card for an office that I was only able to use once. I had exactly one night out at bars with my co-fellows who could only talk about finding somewhere else to ride this all out, and then a small going-away party for a colleague who left by the end of the week. Soon my Boston housemates packed up and left for nearby family homes, and I was alone under lockdown in an apartment and city I’d barely gotten the chance to meet. I contemplated packing up my life once more and going to stay with my parents until this was all over, but an urgent inner voice told me I had things to do right where I was. After an entire young adult life marked by travel, I had to learn to stay still, and do so entirely alone. The hardest part was finding new ways to keep time. I no longer had big plans to set the rhythms of my life to, and had to rely on the kind of rote daily routine I had always avoided to keep myself sane. I not only embraced routine, I became it: reading and writing in the morning, working out and editing video in the afternoon, Zoom calls with friends and sleeplessly waiting for the next day each evening. But ticking off each day on the calendar until my fellowship ran out wasn’t enough—I needed to account for the passage of time in a way that meant something. My grandfather had died just weeks before I left for Boston, and his funeral was a reminder of why my secular Reform Jewish family has kept our traditions and identity alive in the face of decades of assimilation. Judaism outlines clear lifecycle obligations, including what to do when someone passes, and fulfilling them held us together as we moved through grief to give my grandfather the send-off he deserved. Most meaningful to me was the mitzvah of accompanying your loved one to the grave and covering it with a bit of earth to lay them to rest, and doing so for my grandfather was an act of love and service that also called up the Black Muslim mourning rituals I learned from an Aunt who would also pass this year. All this brought new appreciation of obligation to my weeks alone, observing rituals like Shabbat helped me not only feel close to him, but separated one week from the next. I measured out my time in the Target tea candles I lit each Friday, going to the liquor store to buy wine for Kiddush, and surprising my Orthodox Jewish neighbors with a “Gut Shabbes!” greeting when we passed in the street. But once you can measure time, how do you make it meaningful? Most of the meaning in my life comes from work in service to others, and throughout the pandemic it seemed like the best thing I could do for anyone was to avoid others and not spread the virus. The principle of the preservation of life superseding all other duties, what Jews refer to as pikuach nefesh, for a time relieved me of my restless belief that my own worth was wrapped up in my ability to move and create. But that relief only lasted so long. In spring, the Black uprisings fueled by the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd hit Boston and brought with them a sense of urgency that forced me into the street, in the name of this very same principle of preserving life. After spending months alone in my apartment, I found myself and my remaining co-fellows marching from the historically Black Roxbury neighborhood to the Massachusetts statehouse, calling out the names of those lost to police violence. It was a shock to the system to move from a state of total isolation to suddenly being surrounded by tens of thousands of people, all wearing masks, and moving as one. In an instant I went from individually counting out my time in rituals and routines to breaking free of all of that to follow the demands of a singular collective moment. It’s that contrast, and connection, between personal and collective time that has come to define this year for me. COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the November election—all have marked this year and brought with them the need for personal and collective responsibility for how we respond to the times we live in, and what we do with the time we are given. This year, every day I spent in isolation was in preparation for the days when I could join others in something bigger than ourselves. In truth, every individual sacrifice of this pandemic is part of a collective goal of fighting for a time when we can be together again. I left Boston in June, but live a similar life in San Francisco, this time with housemates to keep me company. I still count my time in routines and rituals, yearning for the day when movement returns to my life, but for now it is enough to know that even this is time well spent.
The Year Inside and Out

There is something exciting about anticipating a space before it is inevitably interfered with by a human—what might also be called living.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. Like most of us this year, I have developed new tactics for not screaming into the void more than my daily quota allows. Mask on, I force daily sanity walks on myself, darting away from those who get too close, dancing up sodden little hills and down curbs until I’m back at my tiny apartment, covered in stress sweat. Despite my love of deking around barrel-chested men, I’d rather not drain my adrenal stores while buying tampons. I began taking evening walks, free to wander far into the quiet recesses of Toronto’s many neighborhoods, with only the occasional dog to nod at. The benefits of this adjustment, besides the comparably empty streets, include something that I’ve always enjoyed, but have never formally embraced: looking into strangers' windows. Before you dial 911 on your microwave, let me elaborate. When I began making a more conscious viewership of interiors, I determined a set of rules to avoid feeling like the wrong type of perv. By my own authority, I may “glance” “within” someone’s window if a) they've left the curtains open, b) they are not present in the room, c) I do not fully stop to get a better look, and d) I do not leave the perimeter entailed by the sidewalk. Politely canting my head towards the house in question could be construed as a sign of respect, if also a minor intrusion. To me, it’s like window-shopping. Instead of mannequins, I browse floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, hovering bunches of helium-filled balloons, tiers of potted plants, and once, in fact, a serenely armless mannequin. Kitchens are best. Nearly every night, I pass a butter yellow one that faces my local park. I always fall to admiring the wall-mounted wooden dish rack that displays plates front wise, a thing I’ve only ever seen in New England-set dramatic feature films. To me, an empty room represents potential. Back when I used to attend plays, few things made me happier than sitting in the house—a beautiful contextual use of the word—gazing at the bisected interior of a living room or a kitchen or an entire home; a life-sized Polly Pocket. I knew that presently, some door would spring open, a light would turn on, a newspaper would be tossed on a chair. There is something exciting about anticipating a space before it is inevitably interfered with by a human—what might also be called living. Sometimes, though, my mood sours when passing certain favoured houses, feeling the distance between the turreted mansions and my own lightless apartment; the distance between me and the better me, who would live in one of these glowing houses. Try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling that where I live is a reflection of me as a person, and wouldn’t I be just so much better if I lived in this Victorian rowhouse? Architectural Digest surely thinks so. A value so often applied to distance is the realization of the bigger picture—the vista we are only capable of seeing when forced to move a few paces back for one airborne reason or another. In May, I began noticing the tents pitched in many of Toronto’s downtown parks. At first glance they looked like impromptu campgrounds, perky and colourful under trees in full flower. Huh, I thought. That seems new.  With the already overcrowded city shelters unfit for safe use due to COVID-19, and evictions looming, encampments quickly spread beyond the places where you might typically see them, for instance, tucked between trees and under overpasses in the Rosedale Valley—shelters of all shapes and material. Over the years, there has been a redoubling of city-initiated sweeps—intentional clearings of improvised shelters deemed, among other things, as fire hazards. City officials say that this is done in an effort to direct people living in camps to shelters or other, safer, temporary housing options. Many of those evacuated return to the in-between spaces, quickly rebuilding their modest shelters until another inevitable sweep once again clears them out. Nearly two years ago, Nicholas Hune-Brown wrote in Toronto Life that, “As wealth fills every crevice of the downtown core, [people] aren’t just excluded from prosperity—they’re punished by it, left to watch as the city’s affordable housing options are knocked down to clear the runway for Toronto’s rapid, unstoppable ascent.” Hune-Brown wrote about the “gradual accretion” that led to the then—and now current—crisis. At present, there are 8,700-9,000 people in Toronto experiencing homelessness (a number that reflects only those who can be accounted for). This adds more than 2,000 people to the number Hune-Brown cited as growing between 2016-2018. Numbers don’t offer the most sympathetic perspective, but they don’t lie. Whatever is pushing people out of permanent housing and into the window of temporary or chronic homelessness, it is only growing stronger. As of summer 2020, camps were pitched in just about every park I passed on my walks, including the southern spots like Moss Park, Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods, and Cherry Beach. Clusters and lines of tents and tarps and sleeping bags and kitchen chairs and piles of soft belongings and Gatorade bottles; everything that a person with a home has the privilege of keeping tucked in some IKEA storage unit or another. Here it was, placed out in the open. This includes the residents themselves, who might seek shade under a leafy tree, or smoke with friends, or otherwise find ways to fill the hot days that we all sought refuge from. Encampment residents are frequently harassed by police, threatened with eviction, ticketed, and neglected by the underfunded social services meant to help them. Bolstered by a municipal by-law that forbids camping in public parks, tents have been slashed, overturned, and violated. Mayor John Tory lifted the ban on encampment evictions in August, which has made the encampments even more vulnerable to the whims of those who want them gone under the bad faith argument that it’s for the residents’ own good. In June, there were 14 current COVID-19 outbreaks, 528 confirmed cases, and four deaths—in shelters. In the encampments that have been tested for COVID-19, there were none.  All this happened more-or-less coterminously with Toronto’s Black Lives Matter protests, and the calling for a 10 percent defunding of police services. Instead of defunding, two thirds of city councillors voted to keep the $1.2 billion gross operating budget of the police intact. Contesting those who would have the encampments removed is the volunteer-led Encampment Support Network. Since the spring, ESN has mobilized an ad-hoc team of people to be present for the various encampment communities sprawled across the city. That could mean providing them with donated water and energy bars during the hottest days of summer, first aid, outdoor yoga classes, use of phones/tech, and friendship, to name just a few essentials. They have publicized their advocacy for the encampment residents, calling them neighbors and featuring encampment friends on their social media by name. ESN is further dissolving the boundaries between the housed and the unhoused by creating opportunities for supporters to participate however they can, from organizing winter boot drives, to donating ice and food, to spending time with the residents and getting to know them more intimately, Many artists, like Michael DeForge, have created art (that rips) in support of the encampments—colourful and energized graphics that reflect the optimism behind the efforts of the residents, organizers, and volunteers. One of the most surprising accomplishments of ESN is their insistence on making the encampments—and the city’s efforts to break them down—as visible as possible. The public nature of homelessness, in this case, has been the thing that allows us to begin really seeing what has been here all along. More and more, the beautiful houses that I swoon over felt symbolic of something painful in our city. Awareness of inequality manifesting as pleasure in these beautiful and unavailable homes, a way for me to avoid thinking too hard about the more pressing disparities. Instead, I nurtured the reliable gripe I’ve held for years in some form or another: that I don’t have enough. In Toronto’s well-kept parks, the encampment communities have become a palpable reminder of the people whom the city, when not facing a pandemic, does an excellent job of keeping on the fringes of awareness. During a very cold winter, I will worry about the people who curl up in sleeping bags in front of banks or over warm-ish grates, but they are intermittent enough to be forgotten by a self-absorbed person like myself within minutes of passing. But I can’t do that now, not with the constant reminders of the encampments, which flow from public space to public space, even filling a little roadside arena at the corner of Queen Street and Dufferin, tents climbing up the incline. Never have I been so viscerally reminded of shelter poverty and the enduring housing crisis that existed in Toronto long before Trump suggested we might protect ourselves with bleach infusions. Upwards of 1,500 people currently live in Toronto’s encampments, more than twice as many as the number of new shelter spaces the city has created, including an interim respite, installed at Exhibition Place’s Better Living Centre. When the images were released in November, public response was aggrieved, to say the least. The Better Living Centre respite is perhaps one of the bleakest interiors I have ever seen; a squat building converted to a chilling warren of glass walls with cots that look poised to interrogate hostages. As ESN plainly articulated in a statement released on October 23rd, “We visit the same encampments every single morning…People want housing, they want homes where they will be safe and warm. Every day we lend residents our cell phones to call 311 and ‘Central Intake’ who coordinate shelter spaces. We ask for temporary shelter, for hotel rooms, for beds. Every day we are told there is nothing available.” When I started writing this, I intended to discuss my love of interiors. But, as I often find when lingering on something comforting, I also discover its inverse truth. Considering something like beautiful home interiors makes it unconscionable to discount the reality of exteriors. I stand by what I said: empty rooms represent possibility, and as we move into another cold, in many cases fatally cold, Canadian winter, what is it that we as individuals, a city, a province, a collective psyche need to do to join those empty rooms with the people who want and need them, with dignity and aid to make places where they feel safe, dignified, and wanted? How do we apprehend what to me feels obvious: that shelter is a human right and its commodification has made us defensive of what we have, and wary of those who don’t? I love kitchen nooks and big cushion-strewn beds and fabulous windows that let in the morning light. I love original moldings and hand-painted ceramic tiles and shelves built of wood “rescued” from old barns. Rooms, and those permitted to fill them, exist on a continuum. To possess the good room I must avoid the bad room. But I can’t persist in believing myself worthy of the good room when I live in a city, in a country, in a world that thinks and politicizes the belief that so many of us are not. In 2020, we have all been forced to reckon with a suffocating sense of what’s ours, and how we might make each other sick because of it. This year, I have so frequently felt that I am pressed against the window of my own existence, desperate to find my way back to a world where I may feel what others feel, smell their pungent perfume, get my foot stepped on. It was not the briefly glimpsed interiors that made me aware of this, but the encampments. In a different world, the tents would disappear as our neighbours ceased to need them. But until that happens, I hope we never stop seeing them and everything they mean about this place where we all live, despite how it can feel, together.
‘There’s Some Kind of Evil Behind Every Great Work of Art’: An Interview with Alex Ross

Talking to the author of Wagnerism about uncovering counter-narratives, keeping a healthy skepticism of your relationship with art, and totalitarian intolerance of eccentric creativity.

Alex Ross’s new book Wagnerism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) opens with the death of its subject, clutching his heart in a Venetian palazzo. When Wagner’s erstwhile acolyte Friedrich Nietzsche heard the news, he fell to bed ill, overwhelmed. That malady proved incurable for Nietzsche, who still agonized over the idol-turned-rival until his mental breakdown years later, and it lingered down through the century he helped usher in. A longtime music critic at The New Yorker, Ross purposefully ignores Wagner’s own peers, focusing on how his grandly ambivalent ideas blasted through every other medium. “The composer came to represent the cultural-political unconscious of modernity,” he writes, “an aesthetic war zone in which the Western world struggled with its raging contradictions, its longings for creation and destruction, its inclinations toward beauty and violence.” Wagnerism reaches monumental proportions. One gets the impression that Ross read everything ever published by or about Wagner, then wandered through the appendices. There are chapters on literary admirers like Willa Cather and W. E. B. Du Bois, on the ways cinema has absorbed or mimicked his music, and necessarily on Nazi Germany. Hitler adored both the deathless melodies and their creator’s grotesque anti-Semitism. Wagner told his patron Ludwig II that “I consider the Jewish race the born enemy of pure humanity”; his 1850 essay “Jewishness in Music” describes German Jews as the worms feasting on a corpse. Studies of cursed art often amount to glib apologetics, as if the author were hovering cross-legged over a prayer mat, serenely undisturbed by politics. Wagnerism climbs towards a reckoning instead, following the inferno into Valhalla. Chris Randle: I didn't realize this until actually reading the book, but I was amazed that you eschewed any mention of Wagner's musical influence, and I'm wondering if you were always working under that restraint. Was the book in its present form from the beginning? Alex Ross: Yeah, I decided right at the outset I wasn't going to talk about the musical influence, because it's such a huge topic in itself. There's thousands of composers who've been influenced by Wagner in one way or another—it would've added hugely to the scope of what was already a huge book. I actually don't think that the topic of Wagner's influence on music is as interesting, because there's nothing too surprising about it. He was this powerful figure in musical history, and he introduced a new musical language to some extent, especially in Tristan and Isolde, but he's not more influential than a bunch of composers who came before him, or even after him, from Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven to Stravinsky or the Beatles or whoever. Whereas this phenomenon in the other art forms—literature, architecture, dance, film—it is kind of unique. I don't think anything quite like it had happened in cultural history. I didn't know how prolific Wagner was outside of music, often arguably in a bad way—even outside of the anti-Semitic writing. His politics especially, I got this sense that they were never quite coherent, constantly shifting in a way that many distinct people latched onto. There's just a gigantic amount of research involved with going through that material, how did you go about all that and keep track of it? Yeah, he wasn't just a composer, and an important fact about the work is that he also wrote the texts. There are a lot of aspects to his non-musical activity which are...distracting at best, and malignant at worst [laughs], but in terms of the dramas, he was kind of a brilliant dramatist. He wasn't an acclaimed master of the German language in terms of his literary output, and a lot of German people, when they look at the librettos in isolation, it's very difficult, this strange, mangled, pseudo-archaic version of the German language, and it's just not conventionally beautiful. But when that libretto is sung, and the singing is placed in this dramatic situation that he creates, it becomes really compelling. Wagner was actually really good at structuring acts of an opera and building tension, undertaking these ambitious stories filled with so many interesting psychological details while pursuing grand themes—power in the Ring cycle, the lust for gold and the opposite force of love, all the philosophical underpinnings. He was a great psychologist, and all these characters are really rich; like, Wotan is so fascinating because he's this man of power who wants more power and ends up destroying himself in his need to always have more and more. He ends up plunging into this state of psychotic despair and self-pity, which is one of my favorite moments in all of Wagner. So there's a lot there, but there is also thousands of pages of the prose writings, a lot of which is just very difficult to make sense of, and yes, his politics were all over the place. If only he had simply written the music and written the texts and worked as a conductor, as a theatrical director; if only he hadn't felt the need to spew verbiage on every subject under the sun. But that was who he was, a completely irrepressible and verbose and monomaniacal figure who had to have an opinion about everything. The research was pretty huge. I started out by going through all the operas very carefully, the scores and the librettos. I didn't read or reread all of the prose writing, but I went through the main ones. And then I just started absorbing the material needed for each chapter, so many novels, plays, poems, I don't know how many hundreds—including some big-league works of literature, like Proust and Finnegans Wake and The Waste Land and several big novels by Virginia Woolf. None of which was a chore [laughs]. Part of why the book took so long, I think, was that it was so enriching for me to revisit all this literature. Some of it I was reading for the first time, some of it I had read back in college and hadn't understood very well, and it was great to come at these classic works from a fresh angle, looking through this curious lens of how they reacted to Wagner. A lot of the book is about them, it's about this period in art and literature, and not so much about Wagner himself. Wagner is sort of this thread that I follow through one of my favorite historical and cultural periods, the fin-de-siecle, decadent, somewhat insane, endlessly fascinating period from around 1880 to 1914. I've always been maybe unhealthily attracted to it, since I was a teenager. This fantasy-land when art reigned supreme. It just seemed like in Vienna and Berlin and other cities, artists, composers and writers were the superstars, the celebrities, and everyone in the streets was aware of their work. The cab driver would recognize Gustav Mahler on the way to the Court Opera. For me as a kid, who grew up worshipping art in all these forms, it feels like Disneyland [laughs]. But at the same time there were a lot of ominous currents underneath that world, so I'm also very mindful of how anti-Semitism was spreading, how hyper-nationalism was spreading, so it's a tale with an unhappy ending in a lot of ways. My favorite discovery from that era might've been Joséphin Péladan, the Catholic occultist writer. He really comes off like a Ronald Firbank character, this ludicrous— I loved writing about him. It was so much fun, he was just such a madman. You're never sure whether it was just a massive put-on, a way of seeking attention—setting himself up as the magus of this Rosicrucian order that was basically just him and putting on these wild art exhibitions, holding rituals and ceremonies. I think he was a performance artist to some extent, but also a serious, if extremely eccentric, literary figure. He wrote this 21-volume novel cycle, La Decadence latine, of which I absolutely did not read 21 volumes. I made my way through maybe four or five of them, and it's crazy stuff. When I did my audiobook, there was one moment where I just burst out laughing while reading it, about his novel Le Gynander—the androgynous and magical figure whose mission is to convert lesbians to heterosexuality, and generates all these replicas of himself, each of whom seduces and marries a lesbian, and they all worship a giant phallus. And Wagner is playing [laughs]. It's just so crazy. But it's also part of the fabric of the time, this was a period when artists were seen to be social figures, very much in the vanguard. It was thought that art really could help bring about a revolution in society or great spiritual transformation. You also go through a series of counter-readings: Black Wagnerites, Jewish Wagnerites, queer Wagnerites. Was there anything especially revelatory in that for you?  Yeah, at the outset I was aware of some of that material, and I definitely wanted to uncover these counter-narratives. The issue is that so many people equate Wagner completely with anti-Semitism and Hitler and Nazism, and they kind of erase everything else that went along with the phenomenon of Wagnerism. So what I was trying to do, without at all marginalizing that other narrative, that line of succession from Wagner to Hitler, which is extremely important and very real—it becomes more and more central to the book as it goes along. Without concealing that at all, I just wanted to add to the picture, to complicate it, with all these other ways in which Wagner affected people; from the far left to the far right, all these different social groups and minority groups who identified with Wagner and found him inspiring as they looked to ennoble their own traditions. So I was aware of W. E. B. Du Bois and his love for Wagner, and I was aware of the fact that for a lot of early gay-rights activists, as gay culture emerged into the open at the end of the 19th century, Wagner was a sort of icon, seen as an ally figure or even "one of us." Some people thought that he was gay based on the very romantic letters back and forth between him and King Ludwig II, when in fact they were just these flowery letters. And there are wonderful descriptions of Wagner's fashion sense.  Yeah, there was this androgynous side to him, he liked to wrap himself in these soft, silky fabrics, so there was this cultivation of a feminine mode of dress—which he was conscious of, and he talked about androgyny as an ideal in his work. His whole attitude towards gender and sexuality is really complicated. I mean, sometimes he can sound like a total misogynist when he talks about women, but there was something unconventional about his gender identity—it was not just standard masculinity. And that emerged into the public eye in an uncomfortable way for him when these letters to his designer-milliner about his favorite satin fabrics were exposed and published. He was widely mocked. But then somewhat later [the sexologist] Magnus Hirschfeld reviewed that episode and said, no, this is part of why Wagner is so interesting as an artist, because of this gender identity that he possessed ... There was more of that than I realized there would be. I knew about Du Bois, but I discovered this singer Luranah Aldridge who almost sang at Bayreuth in 1896, and who was the daughter of the great Black actor Ira Aldridge. Some of that Hirschfeld stuff, I just found out more about Wagner and Hirschfeld than I realized there would be. Those sections of the book kind of grew in importance, just because I ended up feeling like it wasn't just one or two eccentric cases, this was actually a deeper phenomenon. Even the case of African American intellectuals identifying with Wagner, that was more widespread than I thought at the end of the 19th century, early 20th century. It shows you how a figure like Wagner can be inspiring and useful to audiences and spectators who might otherwise be hostile to him—you would think, by contemporary standards, that they would've rejected him, and of course this goes for the Jewish Wagnerians as well. But in fact they felt the right to take the work and make it their own, and ignore whatever aspects of Wagner were inimical or even directly hostile to them. People in this era worshipped art to an extreme degree, but they also felt free to take it and manipulate it however they wished, and I think today we tend to feel more bound to the original intentions behind a work and the biography of the artist, the context, so some of that freewheeling approach has ebbed away. I found that relationship between spectator and artwork really interesting. I don't know if you saw, but when Florian Schneider [a founding member of Kraftwerk] died earlier this year, people were sending around this amazing clip from 1990 or so, Detroit clubgoers on some local TV dance show just losing it to Kraftwerk's "Numbers." Obviously Kraftwerk don't have the racist baggage of Wagner, but they're easy to caricature as these impossibly white German guys, and yet they were closely intertwined with so much techno music. It is easy to reduce these things in that way. Yeah. The side of the relationship that I've always found so interesting is—I go through a whole series of examples of people being overwhelmed by Wagner, to a degree where they're losing control, they're put under a spell. It has this narcotic effect on them, they feel drugged by the music. There's this almost sexual vocabulary of being penetrated by the music—Baudelaire says that. And yet the spectator doesn't end up being passive and powerless. At the end of the process they emerge, having reinvented Wagner for their own purposes. That's what the Baudelaire relationship is all about. At the end, despite seemingly prostrating himself before the god Wagner, his Wagner is almost unrecognizable next to the original. He's just converted Wagner into this proto-avant-garde French bohemian figure. And that happens again and again. I'm fascinated by the doubleness of that, that you lose control, lose yourself, in the music and the work, but you emerge owning it in this very dramatic way, taking possession of it ... It's this pronounced pattern that you see over and over with a lot of these figures. The music has a strong visceral, sensual effect, but it's also extremely vague in terms of what it's actually conveying, and the spectator ends up projecting themselves into the work rather than receiving some clear message of meaning. I really like that one detail you mention, the Jewish music fan who was a contemporary of Wagner, who had the bust of him crowned with both a laurel and a noose. I love that. It's such a great visual encapsulation of the relationship that a lot of people had with Wagner, which is kind of my own. I meet so many people today who don't worship the man at all—they're fascinated by him and the work, but there's this adversarial, critical aspect to it too. They're constantly fighting with Wagner ... I think it's a healthy relationship to have with a work of art, to always be a little on guard and skeptical and aware, and not naively trusting the work to give you a pure and innocent and positive and uplifting message. I like that dimension of wariness [laughs] listening to Wagner. I always feel very awake and alert listening to Wagner and wondering what exactly is going on while I'm swept up in the music. Until very recently, the prize for the World Fantasy Award was a bust of H. P. Lovecraft, and I've seen multiple essays from people who won it saying, "I turned mine to face the wall," or turned it to face a Samuel Delany book. At another talk I was doing, during the question period, someone drew that connection between Wagner and Lovecraft. I was actually talking about African-American Wagernism, and they pointed out that the new show Lovecraft Country—I've only seen a couple episodes of it, but it feels like it has some of that same dynamic as the older Jewish engagement with Wagnerism had, or African-American Wagnerism. Du Bois was actually pretty much straightforwardly worshipful of Wagner; he objected to the anti-Semitism but he never sensed any kind of anti-Black racist threat from Wagner, so far as I know. Jews were Wagner's fixation. He didn't have very much to say about Black people. I feel like they're similar in that they've both had this vast influence beyond their fields, Lovecraft more than he did within his own medium, but different in the sense that, if you read a random Lovecraft story, the racial paranoia really is inescapable, even when it's transposed to cosmic horror. Whereas Wagner I don't think is reducible in the same way. Yeah, it's not blatant with Wagner. There is this recurring debate over whether there are anti-Semitic stereotypes present in the works, the dwarves in the Ring cycle or Kundry in Parsifal or Beckmesser in Meistersinger. And people have plausibly said that they do match up with anti-Semitic stereotypes. The problem is that Wagner never gave any indication that he intended such a thing, and a lot of people actually didn't pick up on it at first. It's only really in more recent decades that people have concentrated on this strain of Wagner, it wasn't widely noticed at first. It's not blatant in that way. I absolutely feel there's something there, but it's quite hard to pin it down. But it's still the same problem. You can't look away from any of this with Wagner, you can't pretend it's not there, because he was so influential as an anti-Semite with that horrible essay he wrote in 1850, which was widely distributed. It definitely played a role in the expansion and intensification of anti-Semitism in German-speaking countries, because he was such a revered figure, and he put his weight behind anti-Semitism in a very dangerous way. There's a running joke in the book that I love, where you're discussing people like Nietzsche or Thomas Mann who have endlessly tortured relationships with Wagner, but now and then you mention figures like Marx or Brecht who were either indifferent or disdainful towards him. Do you feel like you learned anything from those reactions as well? Yeah, I mean, they're just fun, because there's a lot of over-the-top Wagner worship going on in the book, hopefully not from me. So it's refreshing to have someone come in and say, "This is just total repulsive nonsense." Marx was totally scornful of the whole Bayreuth operation and the commercialism of the festival. Brecht was quite dismissive. Mark Twain had some great put-downs of Wagner. So it breaks the spell a little bit, but those voices were also part of the conversation around Wagner. There was so much mockery and bitter, vicious, but funny criticism thrown his way, like the critic Eduard Hanslick, who said that the prelude to Tristan and Isolde reminded him of "the old Italian painting in which a martyr's intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel." [laughs] There was such a fury around Wagner right from the start, people were deeply, viscerally put off by him, just as there were people who were swept away by him. I think some part of Wagner actually—he got very upset by all this criticism, but he was canny enough to know that it ultimately didn't do him any harm in terms of spreading his fame. There's some part of him that always had to have controversy around him, he always had to be causing a stink somewhere. He just couldn't leave it alone and have a peaceful, slowly expanding career. There always had to be this turmoil, that was just his personality. I wanted to ask you about the way Wagner was treated under Nazi Germany—I was struck by that detail about how performances of his music actually declined during that era. You distinguish between the Nazi high command, which loved him, and his uneasy place in the popular culture of fascism, which was mostly evil kitsch. Or, like, pop songs from America. I read about Nazi culture trying to figure out, well, just how much Wagner really was there saturating the landscape in Nazi Germany? And I came away feeling that there wasn't as much of it as people assumed, and one clear piece of evidence for that is the declining number of Wagner performances. I came to realize that the Nazis, and especially Joseph Goebbels, used a kind of American-style, technologically driven, mass-distributed culture as a way of controlling and distracting the populace. They ultimately found it much more useful to use movies and pop songs and outdoor entertainments to have that adhesive effect, more useful than so-called high culture. There's individual bits of Wagner which are very famous, the "Ride of the Valkyries" and Siegfried's theme, but the operas themselves are huge and complicated and unwieldy, and a lot of people found them very boring, including all of these Nazi underlings who were herded to performances of Meistersinger at the annual Nuremberg party rallies, basically under Hitler's orders. And they would fall asleep, they would sell their tickets to other people, they just wouldn't show up at all, so people would be herded in from a hotel area [laughs], forced to sit through Meistersinger. This was all Hitler's maniacal idea: He loved Wagner and had grown up with Wagner, and he assumed that everyone else could have and should have the same experience, so he sort of forced it on the masses. And there was tension between that attitude of his and Goebbels's more pragmatic approach, that popular culture was much more useful in terms of keeping the populace entertained and distracted. I mean, Hitler also enjoyed Hollywood movies, so he was aware of the strong effect of that. And the other interesting thing about Wagner in Nazi Germany is, there were some Nazis who simply didn't like Wagner, not because they weren't interested in the music or found it boring but actually because they found Wagner kind of suspect. There was just something off about Wagner. He was decadent, he was bohemian, there was something sexually off about him. There was a rumor that Wagner himself was Jewish. These sort of stories spread around, and Hitler Youth groups would be discouraged from going to Bayreuth, because it was deemed unhealthy for robust young German youths [laughs] to be exposed to this dubious, decadent composer. And there was this gay atmosphere at Bayreuth for a long time—it was known to be a gay mecca, where you could express yourself more openly, and that went back to Wagner himself, who was welcoming to gay people in his circle. And then his son Siegfried turned out to be gay, so he always had the entourage around him, and Cosima [Wagner's widow] seemed not to mind having gay people around. So gay men and lesbians would congregate in Bayreuth. That sort of atmosphere was persisting in the 1930s, and it was felt to be problematic in the Nazi period. But I don't want to exaggerate this. Wagner was a big propaganda figure in Nazi Germany, and Hitler did absolutely love his music. I was just trying to introduce some nuance and complexity and just point out the ways in which Wagner—there's a lot of aspects of Wagner that have nothing to do with Nazi ideology, the totalitarian ideology. When you set his anti-Semitism aside, a lot of Wagner's other political ideas are contrary to the all-powerful central state, the huge military. Wagner was always something of an anarchist when it came to political organization. It's interesting to compare him to Richard Strauss, who I imagine was the most revered living German composer—it seems like the Nazis both admired and resented him, maybe because they sensed that he despised them. I'm always chilled by that diary entry where Goebbels wrote: "Unfortunately we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic." I think that sorry tale of Richard Strauss in Nazi Germany may give you an idea of what it would've been like if Wagner himself had confronted such a state—which he couldn't possibly have done, because Wagner was a 19th-century figure and this kind of totalitarian state in its modern form didn't exist, they couldn't have imagined it. But yeah, Strauss also had these anarchistic leanings and unconventional political ideas. Music mattered to him above everything else but he thought the Nazis would be useful for advancing the cause of his own works and classical music in general, in the same way that Wagner thought the Kaiser would be able to take up his cause, and that he would become the official composer of the new German Empire, which did not happen at all. Strauss's disdain for the Nazis—he was somewhat anti-Semitic himself, or had been when he was younger, but he absolutely rejected the idea of Jewish composers being banned and resisted various aspects of Nazi policy, and eventually it became quite uncomfortable for him because his son married a Jewish woman and his grandchildren were considered non-Aryan. Signals were sent to keep him in line, that something bad could happen to his family, so he ended up in this private misery during the later stages of Nazi Germany, emerged intact, and ended up writing his beautiful final pieces. But that gives you an idea of what happens when an independent-minded post-Wagnerian composer collides with totalitarianism, which has no patience for the eccentric, self-willed artist. You did this whole investigation of Wagner in film; obviously there's the endless recursion of "Ride of the Valkyries," but I loved what you suggested about the use of leitmotif in cinema, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. Right from the start of movie history, there was this idea that Wagner could be used as a model for how music goes together with film images. Already in the silent era, Wagner was being held up as a guide for how you identify characters and situations onscreen by tagging them with these brief motifs, and people write, "Do what Wagner did." And Wagner's own music would be part of that library of motifs, that the movie-house pianist would have at their fingertips: Horses, play "Ride of the Valkyries"; a storm, play Flying Dutchman music. So at that basic level, Wagner was integral to the development of film music. Then when sound came in and you have these big professional orchestras recording symphonic scores by composers like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, many of whom were emigres, who came out of this late-Romantic musical tradition, and Wagner was just inescapable in that tradition. Richard Strauss was also a huge influence, especially on Korngold, but there's Wagner all over how those scores are constructed and the orchestration. Film music is Wagnerian from the outset. In that chapter I was actually breaking my rule a little bit, not writing about Wagner's effect on composers, because I do talk about Steiner and Korngold and Bernard Hermann, but then I sort of expand it beyond what's on the soundtrack, what the composed score is doing—I'm also talking about Wagnerian motifs in the stories, versions of these classic mythic situations from Wagner's operas. There's a whole bunch of movie scenes where people are listening to Wagner—with the rise of Nazi Germany there's this instant cliche of identifying Nazis onscreen by playing some Wagner, or they're listening to Wagner. And then more eccentric strains, Luis Bunuel with the surrealist use of Wagner, and later Fellini, Ken Russell—Lisztomania is such an incredible film [laughs], it's such a bonanza for anyone who'd been immersed in all this for years as I was. There's so many careful little inside jokes in that movie. That chapter ends with Apocalypse Now, which is kind of the masterpiece, the most amazing Wagner scene in movies. And also maybe encapsulates the political contradictions. Yeah, that's why it's so great, I think. It's not just incredibly viscerally effective, how it's filmed and the helicopters and the synchronization of the music to the shots, but also there's this huge irony at work where the kind of music that was so often associated with Nazi aggression in movies and newsreels is now being used to portray American military aggression. With this racist edge to it, because Robert Duvall's character has these racist insults that he throws out as the assault is underway. It's basically America beginning to take on the role of global villain, there's this transference or inversion with the Wagner music there, it's tremendously effective. And then it sort of undermines itself, because it's so thrilling that you lose track of the ironic, subversive message, it becomes this glorious macho spectacle with Wagner playing. You have this absurd situation where soldiers are playing the music in real-life combat, just because they've seen the movie or seen the scene on YouTube or whatever, and feel like it's the right thing to do. That was not the message that the movie was supposed to be, I think [laughs], at least from Coppola. John Milius [the screenwriter] had a different political orientation. And that turnaround is also some Wagnerian irony, the scene from the movie being misappropriated and politicized in a new way. I'm curious, why did you choose to do that abruptly memoiristic turn at the end? I thought that was fascinating, it just stands out so much from the rest of the book. That was funny, because I'd been working on this book for 10 years, and I was finishing the draft in January of 2018—of course it had to be edited, that whole process before publication, but that was the moment where I was finally finishing the rough draft. My 50th birthday was coming up, and I told myself that I have to finish at least a semblance of a rough draft before my 50th birthday. Over Christmas I was maniacally working away. Then a couple days before my birthday I was flying back from New York to L.A., and I wrote a rough draft of that epilogue just on the plane, and I was saying, "I'm going to change all this, I'm not actually going to put all this in the book." I was sort of telling myself that I was finished by writing this stuff down, and I could claim at my birthday party, "I finished the book!" And then I left it all in the book [laughs], and never took it out. It is much more—obviously the book isn't personal at all, it's a work of cultural history. But I thought, I don't know, I just sort of used myself as an illustration of the same kind of process that I'd been depicting with all these other figures, where they have these personal experiences with Wagner and these unexpected associations come into play. They find this new relationship between the music and their own world. I realized that that had been happening to me, and I'd been replicating this familiar mechanism of relating to Wagner. Struggling with Wagner too, because I wrote about how I hated Wagner when I first heard him, I saw him as this huge historical problem when I was studying European history and culture in college, and then I developed this deeper appreciation for him. So that was...experimental. I guess usually with a huge book like this, on a topic that's maybe a little bit obscure, the author would usually put that kind of personal introduction at the beginning, to create relatability or something [laughs], and I guess I was being a little perverse by putting it all the way at the end and making people suffer through [laughs]. My own take on all this just didn't matter so much, that's not what the book is about, but I thought it would be—just confess my own personal stake at the end. It was this funny story, or funny in retrospect, of how I got dumped immediately after a performance of Die Walküre at the San Francisco Opera, and then proceeded to sit through the remaining two operas with my now-ex-boyfriend, because I didn't want to seem to be too destroyed by this, even though I was [laughs]. Five or six hours of Wagner operas with this guy, it was a disaster. That kind of personal misery and humiliation, all this dark emotional stuff, I just saw that in the opera. Wagner loved to depict that kind of emotional state in his work, so that was jumping out at me as I was watching the opera, and I realized how amazingly piercing his psychological insights are. Do you have a sense of how the Wagnerian is shifting or mutating in our own time? I don't know, it's so complicated. He's still so controversial—people love him or hate him or can't make up their minds about him. A lot of what I describe in terms of Wagnerism in arts and literature, having these deep relationships with Wagner, a lot of that has ebbed away, but it's still going on, and you still find Wagnerian references in literature and there's still Wagner all over the movies. But there's also this philosophical conversation around Wagner, and I talk about contemporary philosophers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek who've written about Wagner. I feel like there have been these waves with him: After World War II, there was consciousness of his dark political legacy, and some people tried to respond by emphasizing his connection with leftist politics, and other people really wanted to focus on the anti-Semitism and emphasize what had been covered up previously about Wagner's racism. I feel like maybe in the past 10 or 15 years, just in terms of the books that have come out—I talk about this wonderful book by Laurence Dreyfus about Wagner and sexuality, and that's been a revelatory book for a lot of people. People are still talking about the leftist angle of Wagner and trying to find that balance, in terms of figuring out Wagner's politics. And the way Wagner is staged is so wildly diverse as well, especially in Europe. You have no idea what you're ever going to get when you walk into a Wagner production, and that's good. Some of these productions are a little nonsensical at times, but the project is a really serious one, and sometimes those productions are revelatory, because they rip the operas away from the traditional situations and context; it can reveal powerful new layers in the works themselves and make you think very differently about them. I actually resent when people call some random superhero movie "Wagnerian," because I think they're all terrible and I hate them. Like, Jack Kirby is Wagnerian. Those things are not Wagnerian [laughs]. The word Wagnerian just gets thrown around a lot [laughs]. When people say "Wagnerian," they always mean grandiose and bombastic and bulked-up superheroes wielding weapons, and that's only part of what Wagner is about. So often all that grandiosity is a background, and what really matters is the psychology of these intimate interactions. The grandiosity is a foil. And it's why those psychological, intimate moments have such an effect against this huge landscape, to suddenly be so close with the emotional nitty-gritty of people's lives. It's startling when you zoom in on the individual in that way, like a wide shot and a close-up. At the end of the book I give some examples of the gross overuse of the word "Wagnerian" [laughs]. I was getting a Google alert, actually, and every week it'd just be crazier and crazier. I had to shut it off eventually, because it was too much. If nothing else, maybe the book will make people think twice about using the word "Wagnerian." Is there anything else you want to say about the book? I do hope that it makes people rethink whatever assumptions they might have about Wagner—I do think these are tremendous works of art, and they're absolutely worth getting to know despite the huge problems attendant on them. I think you can be aware of all that and still have this very personal relationship with the work. If you're not thinking about the bigger historical questions all the time I think that's okay, you don't always need to be focused on that. You can lose yourself in the work and then step back and regain that larger perspective, with all its troubling aspects. And I think we can do that with any artwork. There's some kind of evil, there's something foul, behind every great work of art in history. Nothing has ever come from some place of innocence and purity. What's that Adorno line...? "Every work of art is an uncommitted crime." Or Walter Benjamin, "Every document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism." And those are sort of typically over-the-top, club-you-over-the-head Frankfurt School proclamations [laughs], but there's also a deep truth there, I think. I feel like sometimes with Wagner they just want to shove him to the side, like, this artist was so awful that we just can't deal with him. But the problematic assumption with that can be, if we just get rid of this figure and a few other bad apples, then everything that's left will be okay, when it's not. Systemically, in terms of racism and misogyny and homophobia, our whole cultural history is scattered with that, so it doesn't do any good to get rid of Wagner, because he's just an extreme representation of these omnipresent wounds, that we have to be aware of and come to terms with.
The Year in the Wilderness

Despair too is contagious. We share it as we shed a spore.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. - notes from a suicide [abandoned] - When it all began to end, I took to wandering—up and down, to and fro—the grey sink rim of the city’s waterfront. Shuffling past the other occasional pilgrim-patients hunched in masks, all of us ridiculous and shapeless and sad, I kept seeing a strange bird in the harbor that I didn’t know. Setting itself while it worked at a careful but busied distance from the rough affability of the mallards and screeching anxiety of the gulls, it was black, angular, and ugly, riding low in the bobbing water before hook-stitching under and surfacing a few minutes and masts away—a puzzled, furious punctuation-mark of a thing, perplexed and perplexing. I’m not much of a birder (though quarantine has made me more sensitive and invested in their comings and goings—my head divebombed by a furious cheeping redwinged blackbird mother in June, listening for the backyard laserbeams of cardinals in August) and I thought it must be some kind of heron. But then one day near dawn, I saw one of these unlovely beasts on the wood of the dock, in perfect stillness fanning its wings outstretched in the early sun, and I realized what I was looking at.It was a cormorant. - Jesus spent forty days alone wandering the wilderness. Before the pandemic that robbed this year from us, the feat of that used to sound impressive to me. Strictly speaking, quarantine means simply forty—a quarantena of forty days was the length of time, for example, that ships and crew were required to remain in dock in Renaissance Venice’s bustling commercial ports during the worst years of plague. But the word quarantine’s earliest attestations in English in fact refer very specifically to the desert isolation and subsequent temptation that begins Jesus’ ministry in the synoptic Gospels. Oxford scholar William Wey, for example, while making a fastidiously documented pilgrimage to Palestine in the 1470s, described the vista of the vast waste Christ was said to have wandered: “By yonde ys a wyldernys of quarentyne, Wher Cryst wyth fastyng hys body dyd pyne; In that holy place, as we rede, The deuyl wold had of stonys bred.” Similarly in the Stations of Jerusalem, written around 1500 and forming a compendium of tourist diaries analogous to Wey’s, we can see the word “Quarantine” morph into a proper name for this area itself: “And after we..turnyd vp to Quaryntyne, There Jhesu fastyd xl deys.” It has been seven times forty days now, and the “wilderness of quarantine” still yawns before us: skies now ashen and sober, leaves now withered and sere, of a year most immemorial. And this story feels now changed to me.The climax will unspool differently depending on which Gospel you read. Matthew (assiduous, conciliatory, eager to make his Jesus a palatable fulfiller of law rather than breaker of it) makes the temptation to power and wealth—the kingdoms and glory of the earth—his last, because it is their access his Gospel is most mourning, most tempted by, and most must repudiate. But Luke is more desperate and fugitive. Too long alone—too long without a good meal or the company of friends, and recognizing finally that the comforts and compromises of ease and power are never to be his, he is set upon the pinnacle’s height. And the devil said to him: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. And that would be proof, wouldn’t it? That this world of suffering has a purpose, and you a place in it. Surely the angels and archangels and the choirs of heaven will swoop like bats from their perches to break your fall. Surely someone will stop you. And then you will wake in the cooling bath, or your face in the sick, or in the bleached snugness of the hospital, clean and bright and hungry, and know you were spared for a greater purpose: a life worth living. So let it show you. Jump, the devil said. And if it means anything at all to live, you will be saved. And if not, well, what will it have mattered, anyway? - The cormorant is a water-bird that nature, in its cruelty, has not made waterproof. This is why while ducks, with their cheerful greasiness, perch like placid cake decorations on the waves, the cormorant looks always half-sunk, in crisis, always absurdly seeming on the edge of drowning. This is also why they must sun themselves; their soggy feathers otherwise keep them perpetually cold and wet—the evolutionary tradeoff they receive to plunge so low and so deep in pursuit of their wriggling twilight prey. I only know this because, for the poet John Milton (into whose sink I have sunk so much of my life), the poor ill-favoured bird is an icon of the demonic. For Milton, the otherwise ungainly animal’s sunning pose—limbs outstretched, head drooping in solemn silence—is a vicious parody of the crucifixion.In Book 4 of Paradise Lost (1667), when Satan penetrates into our reality and descends upon Eden to pervert Adam and Eve, it is as this bird he perches in disguise to watch the humans and discern how he can seduce them to ruin: Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,The middle Tree and highest there that grew, Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true LifeThereby regaind, but sat devising DeathTo them who liv'd; nor on the vertue thoughtOf that life-giving Plant, but only us'dFor prospect, what well us'd had bin the pledge Of immortality. So little knowsAny, but God alone, to value rightThe good before him, but perverts best thingsTo worst abuse, or to thir meanest use (4.194-204). The image is more evocative than even (so far as I can tell) Milton seems to have realized—the cormorant is now considered a pest, an “invasive species” though it is native to the region, by many Ontario farmers and land developers because its ferocious deforesting of branches as it roosts and its corrosively acidic droppings kill whatever tree it squats in. In nesting in the Tree of Life, then, the Cormorant-Satan foretells its destruction—turning the immortally blossoming tree into the dead wood that, in many medieval legends, would become the planks of Christ’s cross. - Almost every day of quarantine, now in its ninth month, I walk past the spot on the waterfront where, when I was eighteen, I almost killed myself. The disclosure of despair is always fraught, always risking a spillage of the toxic waste it is meant to rinse and flush away. The publication of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was banned in Leipzig in 1775 for the spate of copycat suicides it is alleged to have inspired; high schools still struggle to calculate their responsibility in teaching or staging Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet; and more recently teen drama Thirteen Reasons Why was accused of carelessness in its handling of its radioactive freight. Voices carry; it has real consequences to breathe our sorrows, and a cultural apparatus and habit has arisen to keep these in their own quarantine. Despair too is contagious. We share it as we shed a spore. But this year, with the spokes and axle of our world so manifestly and catastrophically broken, the claim to “being fine” amid all this would, I think, betray even worser pathologies. - Once in the dark, with the DVD menu looping, he whispered my name and kissed a zigzag constellation down the meridian of my face—five marks whose scorch I can still feel to this day, like cinders cast from a splitting log. Like the coal the angel pressed to Isaiah’s mouth. And he became my faith. And for a few months there were comic books and bad movies and waking up tangled in each other. And then, just as suddenly there was a girl, and I realized no promises had ever been made. And I stood exposed—bereft the confidante he had been, out on a ledge among classmates and family and my own soul who now suspected my secret but without the shelter of him to stand with. And I understood, in this sudden solitude, how broken I was. So I set a date, and picked a spot—both calculated to speak of the wound. But both too, probably, meant to be found out—and when I agreed to discreetly meet with a counsellor, I found instead that suddenly my confidences were betrayed, and there were teachers and a careless policeman and handcuffs “for my own protection” and a squad car and a padded room and a gentle doctor explaining that in the womb my genes had been “feminized” and that is why I was so ruined. All very tacky. All very tawdry. All very teen. When I walk past the secluded spot I thought once to make an indecent end, it feels now like staring at last night’s campfire in the cold morning, fine white ash and bottlecaps. Instead of the ember-sting I feel cauterized—like when I was young and prone to nosebleeds and the doctor shoved what felt like a lit match up my nose and burned away, I guess, the offending tissue, and I never learned what else because I didn’t want to be impolite. I know what it means to be suicidal, and feel like apocalypse is descending—a too-muchness, an attempt (feeble and desperate and sad) to wrench meaning into life. But I don’t know what to do with a bleached, bare aftermath. - In the 350 years since Milton jammed the devil down its throat, the cormorant’s reputation has not much improved. On July 31, 2020, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry startled conservationists and scientists alike when it declared that the cormorant, once almost wiped out by the profligate use of insecticide DDT, was now subject to a province-wide open hunting season annually from September 15th to December 31st. With a game license you can officially kill up to 15 a day, if you like—not that the Ford government has required any official disclosure of the slaughter. Birdwatcher and fisherman Bruce Cox has expressed dismay at this casual carelessness: The Ministry of Natural Resources dug deep into their Orwellian thesaurus and announced Ontario’s newest sport hunt as a “fall harvest” of the double-crested cormorant. […] What is the government’s goal? A 10-per-cent reduction in cormorant numbers? Fifty per cent? More or less? The unmanaged hunt of an inedible native bird that was virtually wiped out in Ontario but for a couple of dozen nesting pairs presents an ethical dilemma for conservation-minded hunters and anglers. With no management plan in place, the hunt is at best almost completely devoid of scientific grounding, and at worst, live target practice. The cormorant hunt, seemingly mindless in its perversity, is actually quite coherent as part of Premier Ford’s project to “open up chunks of the Greenbelt” for development. The province’s “Protect, Support, and Recover from COVID-19 Act,” for example, instead of managing the mounting viral threat, contains a suite of provisions to rewrite environmental laws, including a stripping away of conservation experts consultation and regulatory power over wetlands, forests, and flooding. It is “not policy and institutional reform,” remarked the Greenbelt Council’s David Crombie in his resignation letter, so much as “high-level bombing.” With the earth’s principalities and powers at the foot of the tree throwing dice for its raiment, it now seems the crown jewel of Ford’s “COVID recovery” consists mostly of the paving of the provincial wetland to put up a casino parking lot. - #wrap { width:615px; margin:auto; padding: 0 0 6em 0; } #left_col { float:left; width:300px; } #right_col { float:right; width:300px; } Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura ché la diritta via era smarrita In the middle of life’s path I discovered myself in a dark wood and found that I was lost In the seventh circle of Hell, Dante’s pilgrim, who began the journey hinting at his own self-destructive despair, finds himself plunged into the Forest of Suicides. There, the souls of the dead are now trapped immobilized in trees whose limbs and trunks are painfully thrashed, denuded, and befouled by an infestation of harpies. More grisly still, the tormented Pietro della Vigna tells the horrified pilgrim, when the Last Judgment returns their flesh to these spirits, these souls will instead have their inert bodies cast into their boughs like ragdolls, impaled on their branches by God like a shrike. This is supposed to be a far-cast vision of sadistic justice to come—the body that was carelessly thrown away thrown back just as carelessly—but instead it seems to me to figure the particular somatic experience, which the exiled and lonely Dante is like to have known intimately, of what it feels like to be lost to oneself. I have tried many times to anatomize what precisely quarantine has done to me. The first hundred days, all alone in a small apartment, without human touch or voice, I felt parts of my self slough off and fall away. My skin buzzed; tears came from a dull, flat depth, and then just one day altogether stopped; my face felt nailed on and my actions distant, as though all of who I was was suspended in some foul aspic of bone and fat. I became aerosol, a fibre-optic showpig, and the flesh of my body now feels like a piece of outdated hardware, drawered in a tangle of wires, its battery corroding. This virus is supposed to steal people’s sense of smell and taste. It feels like while I hid I engineered it myself, in my bones. There have been the real, measurable losses and indignities as well. My beard is suddenly grizzled, the coarse white hairs startling those who have not seen me in a year. My right ear has failed, my hearing lost to a mass of internal scar tissue. With it went my ability, however meager, to sing. It was never a great voice, but it was a little joy—a bellowing to bad musicals that has doubtless annoyed neighbours for decades. Now there is just a waterbird croak. There were the funerals, shameful in their inadequacy: grief smothered in antiseptic and gauze, maimed rites for kind people who deserved so much better a goodbye. - And now a second wave is cresting. They say it will be more brutal than the first—the pandemic bursting lungs like wineskins, with all the world again closed and everyone far away and under cover, and I feel myself shrink and harden like a fist at another season of these desolations. “God never gives us more than we can handle” has always seemed to me a very obnoxious sentiment from a religion whose founder died a brutal death on a torture post. God gives all of us more than we can handle; that seems to be something rather close to the point. I am, I admit, in despair. I do not believe that is a moral failing. Faith, hope, and love aren’t states we can will ourselves into—grace comes when it will come. Hope is just something I will have to hope for. I imagine I will survive. I have survived till now. On the ledge and on the water. - In the water of the harbor is the mismade cormorant. Unloveable, inedible, no song but a guttered grumble. Wet and cold. Waiting for the sun.
Aaliyah, or View the Infernal Storm

Her thoughts returned to the battlefield.

Way up on Weston Road, in a linoleum-lined kitchen that overlooks a basketball court and a giant park, Fozia’s head was spinning. The children were in school. Her plight wasn’t different from other hoyos in the neighbourhood but she had no way of knowing. One spoke little about these things.   It was Ramadan so any water or pills were taken out of sight of her husband. Fozia wasn’t a puny refugee; she had fought a tyrant most don’t remember. She had a bullet lodged in her side. When her husband wanted to cause her pain, he’d grab her waist tightly. She’d smile and her friends were envious. They wished their husbands were as affectionate.   Here, she’s stuck in a grey high-rise surrounded by bungalows housing Filipino families, aging Italians and Poles. She looked out at the landscape and saw life go on below. She wondered about ending it once and for all. Grind up sleeping pills in the children’s dinners and take her sweet time torturing her husband. She’d throw acid in his face and let him wander. She’d lock the place from the inside and stalk him. Please Fozia, stop! I’ll be a better man. Please, for the love of the Almighty! She’d start stabbing him when the amphetamine kicked in. Sadly, these thoughts remained fantasies. She felt like a failure whenever she’d snap out of it. Do it then. If you’re not a coward, do it! Her thoughts returned to the battlefield and the men she dispatched over the years. She was a lioness at one point but now she was a prisoner in Toronto.   The first time she heard about the war for liberation in the Ogaden, the land between Somalia and Ethiopia, was when her family sat around the radio in Mogadishu. They listened to the stories of the fighters who resisted Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie. In 1974, the Lion of Judah as he was called was struck down and the ancient empire became a socialist republic. She wanted to free her brothers and sisters who still were under the thumb of the habesha. She signed up to fight but didn’t tell anyone she was due to leave for basic training. Her mother cried and her grandmother yelled at her. Naya Fozia! Look at what you’re doing to your hoyo! Have you no shame! What business do you have fighting habeshas? Where did you dream this up! Ya’Allah! Ya’Allah! May You restore her to us safely. They travelled in the back of an army truck. She was joined by fifteen other women. They drove to Beledweyne, near the Ethiopian border, and the wildlife along the Shabelle Valley mesmerized her. Sun-kissed children ran alongside the convoy, clapping and singing for them. When they camped at Feerfeer, on the Somali side of the Provisional Administrative Line, they sang. Maanta, maanta, maanta!   The children were four in total. There were three girls; they were the eldest, and one boy, who had started grade school at Portage Trail Community School, joining his sisters. Our heroine spoke little English and her eldest daughter Samiya translated for her. After a parent-teacher conference, her husband blamed her for the children’s failing grades. He slapped her into tomorrow. When she fell down, he kicked her in the head. Fozia lay there all night, passing in and out of consciousness. This is where her middle daughter Aaliyah found her. Hoyo, are you OK?   The little girl showed signs of a disorder. For one thing, she tormented small animals. The neighbours placed mesh atop the walls dividing the balconies, in case their cats leapt over to the other side and found Aaliyah sitting there, bored and playing with garden shears. Several cats had been found at the bottom of the building. One had been decapitated. At school one day, the teacher told them that salt kills snails. Aaliyah walked along the Humber and gathered as many snails as she could. She set them down on a picnic table and poured salt in a circle. The snails were in the middle and she prodded them with a twig. Foam bubbled out from the shells as they were pushed onto the ring of salt.   The advance into the Ogaden was moving quickly. The Somali army was allied with the Western Somali Liberation Front. The liberation front was formed by Somalis in the Ogaden to resist Ethiopian rule. They saw themselves as inheritors of the famed anti-colonial warrior mystic, Sayid Mohamed. Life on the front was hard. The women of the Liberation Front cracked jokes about Fozia. She screamed at the sight of a snake. She hated the food and began missing her mother’s goat and rice. Sweet yellow mangos. Papaya sprinkled with lemon juice. She was tired of eating dates and the oodkac was giving her heartburn. Do these people not have fruit? She killed her first habeshas in the battle for Jijiga, in the Somali region of Ethiopia. The fighting was fierce. She felt the tremors of the shells. Around the corner of a collapsed building, the squad commander spotted the enemy handing out rounds of ammunition and Kalashnikovs from the back of a truck. They ambushed them and seized the shipment. She stood over their bodies, spat on them and cursed them with the Arabic word for pig. Ganziir!   It was time to break the fast. The children were each allowed one samosa and a couple of dates. They were too young to fast. Their mother told them they can fast when they turn twelve. Aaliyah was two years away. They joined their father to pray while she finished preparing the meal. Fozia loved their enthusiasm for Ramadan. Back home, her grandmother taught her how to fill and fold the samosas. She thought about the times she helped her grandmother cook. At first, it seemed menial. Grab this container, fill this cup. Then it got more hands-on. Chop this onion, slice these peppers. Fozia’s grandmother used to caution her around the kitchen and recount all the accidents she had over the years. The fold between her index finger and thumb was scarred by hot oil. Her forearm had the rounded imprint of a pan. Fozia drifted back to the comfort of yesterday. Habibti, get away from the oil. You’re not ready for that yet. Get me more flour and mix it with water. Do you remember how much water it needs? Fozia nodded. She scooped a cup of flour into the bowl and slowly added water. Here ayeeyo. Is this good? Mashallah! Fozia felt her grandmother’s lips as she bent down to kiss her on the forehead. What would I do without you, habibti! Fozia took another Tylenol when Aaliyah walked in and saw her sipping water. Hoyo, you’re not supposed to do that! That’s haram! She grabbed Aaliyah by the arm and covered her mouth. You will not say another word. You understand? Aaliyah nodded and she let her go. Tell your father the food is ready.   Aaliyah was at school and the teacher asked her where the bruise on her arm came from. She told the teacher that it was her father’s doing. The teacher shot up and reported it to the principal, who in turn alerted the Children’s Aid Society. A social worker came by the next day and told the mother, through a translator, that her husband had to leave the home or the children would be removed. When the visitors left, she started yelling. I know your father doesn’t beat you but now you have these white people in my home threatening to break up my family!? Who said it! Aaliyah stepped forward and bravely answered that it was she. Her mother took a shoe and gave her something to tell her teacher about.   The next day, Aaliyah sat in the classroom when her friend Hakima said her brother was going to pick her up on his moped. She asked Hakima if her brother could take her as well. When they reached a gas station to refill, Aaliyah took out a jar she’d taken from the classroom and pumped gasoline into it. Aaliyah strong-armed Hakima into silence when her brother returned.   That night, when the children of Weston Road were asleep, Aaliyah stood over her parents’ bed. The jar of gasoline in one hand and a lighter in the other. She poured it on her father’s face and chest. Before either one could figure out where it was coming from, the bed was on fire. Her mother crawled to a corner. From there she saw her husband furiously shaking while her daughter marveled at what she had done.   Fozia took her to the police station. She told them her husband beat Aaliyah and the violence disturbed her. Her mother told her to keep quiet and let the attorney speak. Brother, you should have seen the inferno! When the Crown attorney posed questions, she regurgitated the answers her mother fed her. When the decision to find her criminally not responsible came down, the mother allowed the province to care for her daughter at a mental institution.   The days felt long and drawn out. Fozia was ashamed to show her face around the neighbourhood. She called Toronto Housing about a transfer but a subsidized unit big enough for a family was hard to come by.  One day, she had enough. She marched into their offices on Elm Street. She requested a translator. Can you tell this woman I need a transfer. I’ve been waiting for years. My husband died there and it’s giving me nightmares. I can’t stay there any longer. I understand her frustration but the city hasn’t been building enough public housing to keep up with demand. We’ve been relying on developers to give us units in their new buildings. The list is very long. She has to wait. How long I wait!? Waiting, waiting, nothing! I understand ma’am but there’s not much I can do. She took a deep breath and gathered her papers and her purse. When she got to the subway at Queen’s Park, she saw a man who resembled her dead husband. She stared at him until he got on the streetcar. On her way to Lawrence West station, she thought about the journey she took to meet him in Toronto. After the Ogaden War ended in defeat, many people became disillusioned by the empty promises of the regime. Friday’s mandatory neighbourhood cleaning became insulting. She refused to sing Marx, Engels, Lenin iyo Siad. Her mother told her to join the singing. She didn’t want Fozia reported to the neighbourhood committee. In 1979, her mother’s clan had been targeted by the regime. Their wells were poisoned and cattle destroyed. Thousands died from starvation. She slipped into the night and joined the rebels. She became a fighter for the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). SSDF was started after a failed coup against the military regime. They hailed from one of the larger clans in the country and the regime repaid the treachery with interest. Fozia turned against the army she once served. In a raid on an arms depot in the port of Boosaaso, she was injured and captured. The guards refused to let her see a doctor and the other women dressed her wound. None of them wanted to risk her death by pulling the bullet out. She languished in jail for years. After a general amnesty in 1989, she returned home to find that her grandmother had passed away. She cried and cried. She beat her chest and smacked her head. The wailing was heard around the compound. Her mother urged her to eat. She refused food and locked herself in a room at the other end of the house. She refused her mother’s offer of an imam coming to pray over her. In the midst of her mourning, the country devolved into all out civil war. Then, one night, she could hear gunshots outside. She rushed to her mother’s room and found her on the floor. She laid down beside her and stroked her hair. We have to get out of here, hoyo. The fighting is getting worse every day. Habibti, I can’t make the journey. If Allah sees it fit, I’ll die.             I can’t leave you here. Don’t worry about me. These rebels won’t kill an old woman. I’ll invite them in and offer them tea. I’ll be fine. You’re a young woman, you need to get out and live your life. Make sure to visit me when the fighting ends. You’re all I have. She ran away at dawn. Her stomach was in knots. Her siblings were scattered around the world. They were counting on her to get their mother out. She felt lost. The only sounds she heard were bullets. Explosions off in the distance. She joined the movement of people leaving Mogadishu. She made her way to Beledweyne and from there went to the small town on the Ethiopian border where she had launched her dream of freeing Somalis living in the Ogaden. In Feerfeer, she gave a nomad her mother’s wedding jewels to carry her into Ethiopia. She made it to Djibouti and was selected by a charity to head to Toronto. When she got here, she stayed in a refugee centre on Lippincott Street. She found it hard to sleep. She was placed on dish duty and it was there that she met her husband. He was charming at first. He took her out to the movies. They walked down Bathurst Street to the lake and reminisced about their lives back in the Horn. They agreed to move in together but Fozia wanted to get married first. She invited the Salvadoran woman who ran the kitchen to be her witness and he invited the Somali translator who prepared them for interviews with immigration. They rode the 45 Kipling bus from the subway. She wore a purple skirt with a gold shirt. She put on a lavender hijab and she wore jewelry lent to her by a Somali woman at the refugee centre.   Aaliyah found herself in a hospital that in a few years’ time would be shut down due to unexplainable deaths and unusual treatments on the patients. Night watchmen and orderlies raped her repeatedly. She tore out chunks of her skin with her teeth so her therapist recommended she have them removed. Her meals consisted of oatmeal, soup, and mashed potatoes. Aaliyah’s rage was tempered through frequent sedation and she stopped thinking about what day it was. They were allowed walks in the inner courtyard. She attended school. The teachers yelled at her for falling asleep. The staff punished her by keeping her sedated. She soiled herself and the staff dragged her into the shower and let the hot water run over her. She thought about the day her mother would get her. If she knew, she’d come. Aaliyah just knew it. She had saved her mother and soon hoyo would realize what a heroine Aaliyah was. She was sure of it. She dreamt about it. An orderly would assure her that her mother would. She began trusting this man because he seemed to understand her pain. He showed her pictures of his newborn and she asked about his baby whenever he worked. He told her that his mother died when he was young and that Aaliyah shouldn’t hate her mother. One day, she told him about the things that were happening to her. She started crying as they sat on the bench in the hospital’s courtyard. He put his arm around her and told her to have faith.  That night, he came into her room and helped himself to her body. Who could she trust? She retreated into her numbness and the hatred for her mother surged upward. Why didn’t she fight for Aaliyah? She told Aaliyah to say those things and she said she would come back home. Aaliyah did her part but hoyo lied. She plotted her revenge as his curls slashed her across her face. They felt like splinters piercing her torn skin. By the time she was seventeen, she was released through a program the province set up to compensate victims of the scandal. The whole thing was exposed when the therapist who ordered her teeth removed was caught up in a pedophile sting. He took great pleasure in detailing his treatments on the patients. He referred to them as inmates. He wrote about the nightmares Aaliyah had. Her father, still ablaze, chased her around. Come on, give your father a hug. He wrote that her sedation should be around the clock for her wellbeing. Patients' charts entered into the public record, as a part of the inquiry, found that patients were sedated for weeks on end.   The beginning of their marriage was bliss. She felt a sense of hope about this new place. He got a job in a shampoo factory and on the weekends drove his friend’s cab. They got an apartment at Weston and Lawrence and before long, she was pregnant. It was then that the insults began. She couldn’t do anything right. He warned her not to socialize with the other women in the building or the neighbourhood. They will turn you against me. Those vipers. After she had Aaliyah, he started laying hands on her. If I do everything right, he won’t get upset. He told her to drop out of adult school. He spent the weekends away from home. She heard he was seen driving a neighbour of theirs around to do her errands. She felt relief that he wasn’t home.   After her release, Aaliyah was placed in a halfway house downtown. She didn't make friends and the best she could do was small talk. None of the staff were told she was a victim of the scandal. The ministry of health assigned her a social worker and the staff were only privy to her housing needs and the fact that she had been found criminally not responsible. Her social worker arranged for dentures. Aaliyah didn't like wearing them. They made her feel old. While on a supervised community visit, she asked a fellow resident, in Somali, if she could do her a favour. I need a gun. Allah! Sis, I don't get mixed up in that shit anymore. Listen, I have money. This shit is no joke. I just got out. I'll give you 5000 today. I have more but I need it by next week. I'll see what I can do. How are you going to get the money to me? They've been doing a lot of searches lately. I'll figure it out. Money order? That works.   Aaliyah looked up the address of one particular offender and stalked him for weeks. He used to work the night shift at the hospital. He would come into her room whenever he felt like it. She found herself drifting off. If hoyo hadn't let them take Aaliyah, she wouldn’t be here. She wouldn’t be this monster without teeth. She hated looking in the mirror. She bristled whenever a man brushed past her. She didn’t want the world to see her ugliness. She waited for the opportune moment and crept into the orderly’s townhouse. He was playing with his daughter before he noticed her. She shot him in the head. She thought about shooting the little girl too but changed her mind. A neighbour found the daughter an hour later.   Next she went to her mother’s building and waited for her to return from Friday prayers. Please habibti, you don’t have to do this! The superintendent discovered Fozia's body. The day before she'd asked him to replace the batteries in the smoke detector, minutes before she fell victim to the toothless fury of her daughter. Hoyo never came. She never called or wrote to her. Aaliyah rescued her and she let her be torn apart by wolves. Aaliyah took a walk along the Humber Trail. She threw the gun in the river. She bought a mango juice at the gas station a block away from the highway. She bought a pound of sour candy from the bulk store. She got on the 89 Weston bus to Keele station. She watched the landscape drift by as the projects morphed into tree lined streets with a lawn bowling club. She walked past the tweakers at Yonge and Bloor streets. She made her way down Isabella Street and sat on a bench near the halfway house. She took the dentures out of her pocket. She put glue on both sides and popped them in. It was uncomfortable but she took a deep breath and thought about the furniture she’d get for her new apartment. The future seemed bright.    
The Year in Learning French

Sometimes we never made it to the lesson and simply reflected on the disasters unfolding—not as a way to understand, but to talk about the impossibility of understanding.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. About twice every week, since the summer of last year, I’ve been taking French lessons with a friend of mine who lives and teaches the language at a private institution in New York. She used to teach at the college level but finds children and the pay for teaching the children of rich people more agreeable, and it has more security than what she did before. Before Zoom meetings began to totally dominate the lives of people lucky enough to work from home during the pandemic, the two of us were showing up on Mondays and Thursdays, and then Tuesdays and Thursdays, often exhausted from work, sometimes drinking wine, so that she could go over one or two of the lessons that she did with her elementary students and I would struggle and feel like a complete fool over the simple goal of constructing a sentence such as “il fait chaud.” My drive to learn French began when I went to the Women’s World Cup with some friends that summer. We were mostly in Lyon, but I snuck off to Marseille in the lull between the semifinals and the final. Marseille has pulled on me since I first became aware of it, and that has consistently gotten stronger over the years—strange, maybe, for a city I had only been to once before a few years ago, but thinking of Marseille gives me the same longing I have when I think of the village I came from in Nigeria. It’s not wanting to go there as an outsider, but to return somewhere I belong. Marseille is a beautiful city, as most cities by the sea and with ancient architecture, large churches and cathedrals tend to be (not to mention Le Corbusier’s city within the city). It seems like a place built for pictures, and it’s no surprise that there is an infinite number of pictures of it online from the prescribed tourist vantage points. Being in the city, though, I still felt the urge to document what I saw and add to that ever-growing collection of images depicting the city from an outsider’s perspective. I walked from Saint Charles station to Old Port, across Le Panier, through Cite Radieuse, to the Velodrome stadium, and then to the Notre-Dame de la Garde, taking all the necessary photos along the way. The city is also known for its crime—people who heard I was going there offered advice not just on where to visit, but where to avoid. I walked around for days and looked at all those spectacles and spots engineered for a tourist to be amazed at, but I also went to those places that I was told not to go. It wasn’t so much an act of rebellion or thrill-seeking—Marseille is a city of immigrants, proudly so, and I figured that the people in those shunned places were probably people like me, only separated by luck and the cruelty of Western borders. It felt incorrect to think of a city as beautiful without seeing the people who make it possible, those who are often hidden away from the bubble of tourism. I was right. Walking through those narrow streets in my black tracksuit, I fit the image of many of the people there. The problem was that I couldn’t speak to anyone. So I declared that I would learn French, because I wanted to live there, and I wanted to be with those people, to talk to, learn from, help, and suffer with them. I made the declaration to myself, but also thankfully tweeted it out. That’s when the person who would become my teacher and friend replied that she would teach me, and when we went on to plan the classes privately, and I asked about the payment, she said that she would do it for free. Naturally, I was suspicious, but it has not come up since, and she seems to enjoy teaching the lessons as much as I enjoy learning from them. One of the things that makes our French lessons wonderful to me is that they’re built on friendship and kindness. We have a schedule of days, but we hardly ever stick to it. She works full-time and sometimes is just tired from the job. And the same for me. When that’s the case, one of us sends a message to the other asking if we can reschedule, and we do so whenever it's convenient. Exhaustion isn’t always the reason for missing a lesson. A few times she’s been with friends, or out canoeing; I tend to simply forget the day and time until she texts me about the lesson, a habit that’s only gotten worse with the pandemic. Never has there been any anger or hurt in the changing of schedules. Kindness and friendship also provide a great foundation when learning a new language, as I have come to find out. I’d taken a few other languages when I was younger, but the last I actually learned was English, and that was as a child. The difference in adulthood seems to be that with less time to simply be around and absorb the language, learning a language like French means learning its rules, solving it in a sense, in order to then be able to thrive within it. That also means confronting some of the absurdities of a language, such as the fact that conjugated verbs in French have different spellings depending on the number of subjects, but when spoken, all sound the same. Absurdities like that are one challenge, but learning a language just generally makes me realize how difficult constructing a sentence is; as someone who thinks of himself as intelligent, that difficulty can sometimes be frustrating. And I know it would be more frustrating and maybe an excuse to stop if I didn’t have a teacher who laughed at the absurdities and was patient with my struggles. I imagine that the effort to learn a new language is much tougher in an environment that’s not as forgiving as the one we have. Our friendship deepened after 2019 ended and we began the worst year that many of us have ever lived through. I was in Europe at the turn of the year for my birthday, but came back in early March before travel to other countries was banned. With most of the country going into lockdown soon after, the French lessons suddenly became one of the only times I was able to see and hold a sustained conversation with someone other than my parents. The world got steadily more exhausting and terrible. Time seemed to move simultaneously at breakneck speed and in slow motion. The longest March of all time turned to June in the blink of an eye, and within that period infections from the virus rose to the point that thousands of people were dying each day. Like millions of other people, I lost my job; I also got involved in the protests and movement against police brutality and racism after the murder of George Floyd, which pushed me to the brink of despair. But only to the brink. My friend and teacher lived through the horror of New York being the worst-hit area in those early months, and then saw how inefficient and unprepared schools were in moving away from in-person classes and coming up with a plan for remote learning. She also participated in the protests. Through all of this we kept our lessons going as best as we could. Sometimes we never made it to the French and simply reflected on the disaster of the world that was unfolding—not as a way to understand, but to talk about the impossibility of understanding, the pure chaos of the events, and the truths that were being revealed about the cruelty of the world’s design, and those who shaped and were still shaping it. People were dying, but they were dying because those in power had decided to sacrifice them. The pandemic and the protests deepened things I knew about the world—intellectually, and from lived experience as a Black man and a person who was poor. None of the evil was surprising, though it was shocking. It is one thing to know something, but quite another to see it played out at a grand scale. Though I could no longer believe in so many myths about the country and its people, the evil of the time also showed me how much effort was needed to fight against it. Still, at the brink of despair, I could never fall completely in—there are too many vulnerable people in this world, too much goodness and joy, to completely abandon it. Our societies may be designed in a cruel and inhumane manner, but it doesn’t necessarily have to remain so forever. My friend and teacher, as a white French woman, was as rattled by the pandemic as I and so many were, but related to the protests in different ways than I did. Though she was aware of racism, and had written about and researched the history and violence of colonization, there was again a big difference between having a concept of something and witnessing and experiencing it personally. She was swept up in the movement and felt that as a conscious and caring person, she had to participate. It was a wonder to see her radicalization during our lessons. She went from asking questions about racism and talking in amazement about the stamina of the protests, to joining in with a group of bikers, and then quoting and referencing prison abolitionists. It was a journey that I’m sure she would have made on her own, as an intelligent and accomplished woman, but I also tried to repay her kindness by explaining any concepts and answering questions she had through her transformation. We continued our lessons until around the election. By then I was exhausted. I had taken on a temporary job as well as a few freelance opportunities, which meant I was working until 9 p.m. every day while still trying to sneak in an hour of French. That, plus the frenzy of the election cycle, was making it so that I couldn’t concentrate, so we paused and decided to pick up after the drama died down. Of course, as has become a given with this year and the Trump administration, despite his loss, the drama did not, in fact, die down. While our lessons were on hold, I asked myself why I was still learning French—my progress was going slowly, and besides that, the world was exploding every other day. But I enjoyed the time with my friend, and though the lessons weren’t an end to the troubles of the world around us, they were time away from the chaos. At least for two hours a week. What those hours really provide, though, is the possibility of a future. During our French lessons, I can imagine a different me. I can imagine a me who knows French and can walk through the streets of Marseille talking to the people. I can imagine a world that isn’t this one—not a world before, not a dream to return to the previous state of things, but of salvaging the good for a better tomorrow. This year has been filled with so much violence and death, so much evil and grief as a consequence of it. Some days it was damn near unbearable. But I have changed—I’ve grown stronger in my convictions about the sanctity of life and the need to protect the most vulnerable, and I’ve seen my friend and teacher change in the same direction. I’ve been grateful for the possibility of learning French, for the little spaces of time each week where I can get on camera and fail at basic sentences and rant about the ridiculousness of so many words sounding the same. Because within all of that failure, in a year unlike any other, is the chance of becoming something new.
The Year in Gossip

The brand of simplistic and overzealous moralism that exists online has long been tedious, but the pandemic has made it even more so.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. For most of the pandemic, a friend of mine, Felix, has been keeping me updated with installments of a gossipy saga which has been unfolding in his hometown. He is a few years younger than I am (in his early 20s) and he usually lives in a warehouse with a lot of other people, so when lockdown was first announced in the UK, where we live, he thought it made sense to move back in with his parents. A lot of the people he grew up with had similar ideas, and so they all ended up back in a kind of simulated second adolescence, in which everyone’s social currency had shifted thanks to impressive or disappointing career achievements, and worse or better haircuts or exercise regimes. There was a long summer of drinking and doing drugs outside, and drinking in people’s houses when that was allowed. Sometimes also when it wasn’t. One night, a pair of brothers, let’s call them Frank and Stephen, spent the day with another friend of theirs, let’s call her Beth. Frank is the older brother, less handsome and shorter, but more charming, and he has long held a candle for Beth, as Stephen well knew. That night, he thought, could be his lucky night. As the day wore on Frank got drunker and drunker, as people often will when they want to do something but don’t want to fully own the responsibility for doing it. In his excitement he didn’t pace himself and soon he was so drunk he was slurring his words, telling the first few sentences of the same story over and over again, his face contorted into an ugly leer. Stephen, charitably (you think at first), offered to take him back to their parents’ house and put him to bed. But, once he had done this, Stephen promptly cycled back to Beth’s house, phoned her and said: “Hello, look outside.” And you can guess what happened next. This would, I think, be fine in and of itself. Maybe an underhanded thing to do, but not totally egregious, except Stephen didn’t tell Frank what had happened, and then the very next week, after another day of drinking in the sun, Frank finally did sleep with Beth. Very pleased with himself, and not knowing that his brother had done the same thing the week before, he sat with a group of friends a few days after, boasting that he and Beth were on the road to what he called a “lockdown thing.” One of these friends asked Frank if he knew about Stephen, thereby telling him about Stephen, and Frank was livid. I think it was the embarrassment that really fueled his anger, and having to then engage in the absolutely mortifying rigmarole of pretending he didn’t earnestly mean what he had just been saying about this “lockdown thing,” when he clearly did. He phoned Beth to tell her he was calling the whole thing off; then he fell out with Stephen, too. When me and my friend Felix discussed this chapter of the saga with some other friends, we mostly agreed that Frank was the wronged party, but we thought he had probably overreacted to the revelation about his brother out of shock and humiliation (as people often do), and that Stephen had conducted himself in a slippery manner. I thought the responsibility to tell Frank what had happened probably ultimately lay with Beth, but not everyone agreed. We talked about it for a while, but we never came to a consensus. My point was that Stephen couldn’t have known Frank and Beth would end up sleeping together, but Beth certainly did. Others argued that the boys are brothers, which should count for a lot in the honesty stakes. When we next met and my friend told me the latest installment, it turned out that Frank had now slept with Beth’s best friend, Sarah—a detail which, to me, rendered Frank an altogether more calculating and shrewder character than I had imagined him to be. It also transpired that this had happened the very night after a conversation between Beth and Sarah, in which Beth had told Sarah that she regretted the way things had gone because, really, she quite liked Frank, and now the “lockdown thing” was off the cards. Then a mutual friend of the girls, Stephanie, told Beth about Sarah and Frank, and Beth said something rude about Sarah in response, and Stephanie went right back and told Sarah the thing that Beth had said. Here, my friend thinks Sarah has behaved badly, but I’m not entirely sure. Maybe I wouldn’t do the same thing, but I don’t think it’s such a terrible thing to do. Their situation seemed to have ended, as I see it. Maybe she was bored. My read is that Frank was being cunning, trying to get revenge for having been embarrassed, and someone else got caught up in it. Ultimately, Stephanie is the worst operator here, in my book (but I can admit that this is just in my book), due to my vehement personal distaste for any behaviour that runs close to “snitching.” Felix agreed with me there, but then he also hates snitching as a concept, so he knows he isn’t viewing it objectively either. Anyway, because of this, the girls “went to war,” as Felix put it. The latest I’ve heard is that a beloved ex-girlfriend of Stephen arrived back in the middle of all this and Frank got in touch with this person and they ended up sleeping together. Now things have come full circle and Stephen is the injured and angry party. When my friend told me this I said it was clear to me that, by this point, Frank was binging on revenge, absolutely drunk on it. Felix said he wasn’t sure if it was all about revenge; I said of course it was! We talked about it for a while but never totally saw eye to eye. It’s a messy situation, and even though we’re good friends, and pretty similar in our outlook, we still ultimately have different codes of behaviour. We could probably talk about it for years and never agree. The entire group of home friends became fiercely invested in this story to the point that rival factions had a shouting match over the matter. You can probably tell this already, but I became very invested in it, too. It has been a welcome distraction. * This was the year when everything happened and nothing happened and I quickly got bored of talking about the news (almost always bad) or asking people what they had been up to (almost always nothing). So I got into the habit of asking friends for whatever gossip they had from their circles. I didn’t have to know the people involved; these stories aren’t interesting because of my personal connection to them, and the point of these conversations isn’t condemnation or judgement. Instead, it is about identifying with particular characters, thinking about how you would handle certain situations, and being reminded of all the strange and terrible things we all get up to all the time. Over the course of the year I have discussed many stories like Frank and Stephen’s, although theirs has more layers than most, and more of a soap-opera quality. One friend told me about someone they know who has ended up living in a house-share with his best friend’s ex-girlfriend. During lockdown they ended up developing a flirty relationship and kissed a few times. They decided he should speak to his best friend and check if it would be okay if they started a relationship. Then, after he went and had that hugely uncomfortable conversation, she decided actually she wasn’t sure about the whole thing. Now he doesn’t know if she ever meant it, and since then they have lived together for months without speaking a word to each other. Another friend knows a woman who has found herself getting lots of messages from someone she almost had a relationship with years ago. (I asked if that meant someone she had slept with but never gone on a date with and was told basically, yes.) She ignored the messages at first because this person is from a time in her life she doesn’t like to think about, but then when she looked at his Facebook she discovered he got engaged very recently and had no idea what to make of the whole thing—although she then found herself compelled to reply (out of “curiosity,” she said), and they have now started speaking regularly. (Actually, lots of people have told me characters from their past resurfaced this year, and often to say sorry for something cruel they had done a long time ago—sometimes so long ago that the person on the receiving end of it had forgotten all about it, but the person living with the guilt of doing the cruel thing never had.) Someone else told me about a situation involving rent. Someone they knew moved into a new flat with a friend, and was told rent for the room cost a certain amount, which was the amount the previous tenant had paid, but has since found out that the friend they moved in with has been paying a lower amount for their room. They feel they’ve been cheated (the word “swindled” was used), but I’m not sure I agree with that one. It’s a different room and the amounts were fixed in advance, as I see it. Still, they’ve fallen out over it. Another person has fashioned themselves the protagonist of a detective story. Their tailor took a batch of clothes to alter at the start of lockdown and returned them with a shirt missing. The tailor kept saying she hadn’t lost it and would bring it back, but then would ignore texts and phone calls. Eventually, she said her husband had died and she had too much going on to deal with this shirt business. But, my fake detective friend thought it seemed fishy, and the not-knowing drove her up the walls, so eventually she actually paid money to obtain the recent death records for the area and discovered the tailor’s husband was still alive. She had uncovered a liar! I heard quite a few stories about people who had broken lock-down and other pandemic associated rules. Most of this seems to have been small-scale, but one friend told me about a very rich family they know who hosted an entire secret wedding in a big house in the countryside somewhere, and then came to quickly regret it when several guests contracted Covid within a week of the event. There was one friend who said she had no gossip but could she tell me a story about her family anyway? It was something she wanted to talk to someone about, but she wouldn’t call it gossip. She asked if I remember her dad, who had been in a coma for a while. I said of course, and she asked me if it was terrible that she was tired of waiting for him to die and just wanted it to be over already. Their relationship has always been fractured. Back in his day, he was a swaggering lothario character—lots of fun, but a terrible dad. He had many affairs and left her mum as a young woman with two small children in a country where she didn’t know anyone. He and my friend have had patchy contact over the years, and she has made her peace with most of these things, but still she doesn’t want to have any kind of caretaker role for this man. I said I don’t think it’s terrible at all, it’s an unfair position to be in and she’s been in an unfair position for most of her life. She said she feels like you aren’t allowed to say things like that about your parents, and I think she’s probably right. You’re probably not allowed to. * I don’t know what the moral of any of these stories is. People are all crazy and they drive each other mad? Everyone is selfish, and everyone lies? Most people see their own perspective miles before anything else? People have a lot of sex when they’re bored? I don’t know who the monsters and victims are, either. More or less everyone, to a greater or lesser extent; it is rare that anybody in real life is ever wholly one or the other. But I like talking about these things in an environment in which everyone accepts the ambiguity of people and the things they do. This has been a respite from the world of social media discourse, where none of this complexity exists, and instead everywhere you look there are self-appointed priests, castigating sinners. The brand of simplistic and overzealous moralism that exists online has long been tedious, but the pandemic has made it even more so: people are bad because they go to the park and it's busy; selfish for shopping too much; spoiled if they ever complain; the list goes on and on. Earlier this year, after the first lockdown in the UK ended, there were pictures all over social media of hordes of people at reopened bars in central London. A round of scolding ensued, and I tweeted that I was confused as to why people would want to go to a bar in central London right now, but that I didn’t see the point in the scolding and that I wasn’t sure anyone out at these bars would even see it. Someone promptly commented to tell me off for not scolding. I found it so strange, being told off, not even for something I had done, but for saying that I didn’t see the point in telling others off. But it cemented something I’ve long thought: that so much of this scolding is synthetic, performative and pointless. I often find it hard to shake the feeling, when things are offered up for judgement on the internet, that I am not getting the whole story; that things have been tailored or reframed or certain things have been left out and other things highlighted; and that the judgement I am being asked to come to is simple while the information I am considering is complex and incomplete. I even felt like this about the recent story of the man who accidentally masturbated on the work call (or masturbated on purpose while accidentally on a work call is maybe more accurate). I found myself wondering more about why I knew this man had masturbated on the work call. I’m not sure whoever leaked the story occupies a position of moral righteousness in that situation, although maybe they do; I don’t know exactly what happened. Trying to get someone in trouble is not necessarily the same thing as holding them to account, but it definitely can be. The thing I keep coming back to is that, while I don’t think it was a good thing to do, and I’ve never masturbated at work (as far as I can remember), I have definitely done things I wasn’t supposed to do in a work environment many times. At one job I used to copy all the text out of articles and paste it into fake colour-coded “data collection” spreadsheets so I could read instead of working; I have slept with colleagues when it wasn’t technically against the rules but I probably shouldn’t have; phoned in sick when I wasn’t; got friends to sign me in and out; all kinds of things like that. Once, on a Friday, in a job where I had a horrible angry manager, I said I was going to work on another floor for a change of scenery, and instead left the building to meet an unemployed friend at a gallery and get a drink. I suppose what I’m saying is I feel uncomfortable positioning myself as any kind of moral arbiter in these situations because I know I live in a glass house. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t, although maybe a lot of people who are in denial about the fact that they do. Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but if you live in one too I can promise you I won’t throw any stones in your direction; I have my own glass house to think of, after all.
‘Denial of Liberty is as Much a Part of America’s Founding as Freedom’: An Interview with Jonathan Daniel Wells

Talking to the author of The Kidnapping Club about narrativizing a history many tried to keep quiet and why New York was such a potent pro-slavery city.

The New York Kidnapping Club was a kind of reverse Underground Railroad. The group of loosely associated policemen, judges, lawyers, and slave hunters indiscriminately snatched runaway slaves and free Blacks alike and reintroduced these men, women, and children into the American slave market from the 1830s until the brink of the Civil War. For honoring the Fugitive Slave Clause, which was written into the founding document of this nation—the United States Constitution—slave hunters and other members of the Kidnapping Club collected lucrative rewards from slave owners and, in general, maintained amiable relations with the South. This is but a small fraction of the ways New York City was financially entwined with Southern slavery, as outlined in award-winning historian Jonathan Daniel Wells’ latest book, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War (Bold Type Books). Since the early days of the cotton South, New York financiers have been deeply involved in the production of cotton. Banks gave loans to plantation owners. Insurance agencies doled out policies to insure so-called “masters” of their human “property” and of their crops. Seamen covertly outfitted ships for slavers well after the slave trade was outlawed in 1808. This overlooked history is told through the lens of the impassioned David Ruggles, a tireless Black activist and investigative journalist who waged daily battles with the Kidnapping Club. Seemingly everywhere at once, Ruggles is an excellent entry point to illuminate Wall Street’s relationships with Southern slavery, the political climate around abolition, mounting national tensions around slavery, and a young Gotham maturing into an economic and political powerhouse we know today. I spoke with Wells about the challenge of narrativizing a history many wanted to keep quiet, what brought moderate Northern whites into the abolitionist fold, and why “New York was the most potent proslavery and pro-South city north of the Mason-Dixon Line.” Connor Goodwin: I'll start with the obvious. What was the New York Kidnapping Club? In what ways were the actions of the Kidnapping Club sanctioned by law and what legal developments slowed its actions? Jonathan Daniel Wells: The New York Kidnapping Club was the name given to a loosely organized group of police officers, local judges, sheriff marshals, slave hunters, and lawyers. The one who named this group was David Ruggles, the protagonist of this story. He is kind of the Fredrick Douglass of antebellum New York City—a tireless activist, very committed to racial equality and justice. Ruggles is constantly going up against this group of nefarious actors he calls the Kidnapping Club. For a decade or more, they pretty much terrorize Black women, children, and men in New York City. Some of those people were born free, some of them were self-emancipated. We know thousands of enslaved people did make it to a precarious freedom in places like New York City. The problem, from a legal standpoint, was that the Constitution, the nation’s founding document, had a piece called the “Fugitive Slave Clause” that required Northern communities to return runaway slaves. Police officers, lawyers, judges, banded together not only to make the Fugitive Slave Clause effective, to follow through on their obligation to the Constitution, but they also found they could make quite a bit of money because so-called “masters” in the South were placing runaway slave ads in newspapers and offered rewards. Some of the police officers like Tobias Boudinot, one of the arch-villains of the book, as well as Daniel Nash, both profit off the arresting of Black people in New York City. The problem is the Kidnapping Club didn’t care whether someone was born free or was in fact a runaway slave [because] they stood to make money anyway. Can you outline why Wall Street had a vested interest in upholding slavery and keeping good relations with the South? In the book I actually write: “New York City is the most potent proslavery and pro-South city north of the Mason-Dixon Line”—Wall Street’s wealth, to a great extent, depended upon the continuation of and the prosperity of Southern slavery. All that cotton being grown up in the South benefits the merchants and financiers on Wall Street. The banks are providing credit to Southern slave owners. New York City insurers are insuring not just against the death of slaves, but also crops. The whole financial institution we commonly think of as Wall Street is heavily dependent upon the cotton trade in the South so they have a financial incentive to make sure relationships between New York City and the Southern states remain rock solid. And they have a strong incentive to make sure the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution is adhered to, because white Southerners are requiring their property to be returned according to the Constitution. Whether or not someone was born free or born a slave is beside the point in their minds because the overarching goal is to keep the Union intact because that’s the framework for the prosperity they’re enjoying. When casting around for characters to build this history around, what made you settle on David Ruggles and how did you first encounter him? What interested me about Ruggles was not just his tireless activism and the fact that he seemed to be everywhere at once in Lower Manhattan, but that he was an imperfect hero. Like a lot of agitators, he rubbed people the wrong way. He wasn’t always interested in making nice, [and] that absolutely made him enemies. Not just enemies with people in the Kidnapping Club, particularly policeman Tobias Boudinot and City Recorder Riker, both of whom hated Ruggles and actively tried to arrest him, but he also made enemies among his fellow Black activists. [Also,] people didn’t really know much about Ruggles. Everybody knows Fredrick Douglass, but Ruggles was the Douglass of antebellum New York City. He was just absolutely tireless in his pursuit of these cases. He actually ended up sacrificing his own health quite a bit. He was losing his eyesight, suffering physically from all these battles he was suffering. Can I tell a quick story? Right in the heart of Brooklyn in the 1840s, this Southern family is rumored to hold slave property. Ruggles goes to investigate and finds the rumors are true: the Dodge family from Savannah are actually holding slaves right there in Brooklyn. Ruggles actually records in minute detail the conversations and interactions he has with people—that allowed me to capture a lot of details of the story that would’ve otherwise been lost to history. You do an excellent job of narrativizing history—from scene-setting to a compelling cast of characters. I'm curious if tensions ever arise when trying to grease history with narrative momentum? I'm thinking of gaps in the historical record, contradictory accounts, etc. It isn’t easy, that’s for sure. Everybody had an interest in keeping this quiet. The whole nature of running away is really dangerous so it’s not as if the self-emancipated Black people want to record what they’re doing. And of course the Kidnapping Club, while they’re certainly not chagrined by their activity, they don’t want any trouble either. When the Black community gets word of a kidnapping or attempted arrest of a fugitive slave, the Black community mobilizes: they protest, mob court rooms, gather witnesses. The Kidnapping Club wants to keep this quiet and efficient as much as they can. At the end of the day, sometimes you are left with conundrums, and one of the problems I had with the story I wanted to tell was that Ruggles, who's the hero for the first half of the book, suddenly goes to Massachusetts much to my frustration. He’s suffering so much physically from all these battles and he’s made enemies even among his own friends and colleagues in the Black abolitionist movement that he goes to Northampton in Massachusetts. Ruggles is the hero, but at the same time he’s a bit of an obstacle to a more sophisticated, more organized, more impersonal abolitionist movement in New York City. As great as he is in fighting the Kidnapping Club, he also kind of sucks up all the air in the room. Many white Northerners saw slavery as a Southern problem. What moved the dial to bring moderate whites into the abolitionist fold? We know that, throughout their history, white Southerners are strongly attached to defending slavery. What really shifts is the thinking of white moderate Northerners who have to be convinced there’s something egregiously wrong with [slavery]. The turning point was the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law that’s passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. Now, the issue of slavery is being taken right to the hearts of Northern communities with these fugitive slave captures, the kidnapping, the mobs, the protests. It’s harder to say this is a problem for white Southerners to deal with when, right down the street, a man has been arrested for being a runaway slave and now your city jail is being used to incarcerate the accused and now we have to have a trial to decide if in fact he is a runaway. The Fugitive Slave Clause was a part of the Constitution, but it really didn’t put any teeth in the law. There’s no way to enforce the fugitive slave arrests and renditions, so that’s why the Fugitive Slave Law is passed in 1850, because white Southerners want some mechanism by which their very expensive property can be returned. I think, more than anything, that’s what convinces a lot of white moderate Northerners. Of course, Black Northerners were completely on board already with the idea that there was something wrong with the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Clause and the Fugitive Slave Law were immoral and unjust. What convinced moderate white Northerners in New York, to the extent they were convinced because many remain staunchly opposed to Black civil rights, was the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 and the attempts in Northern communities to enforce that law. This might be a false parallel, but I couldn’t help but think of calls today to abolish the police. Is there any way in which the abolitionist movement you’re writing about might be instructive to today’s activists? There’s a meme that’s been going around that says something to the effect of, “If you ever wonder what you would have been doing during the Holocaust or during American slavery or during the Civil Rights movement, you’re doing it right now.” A lot of so-called white Americans this summer seemed to all of a sudden realize this, in the aftermath of the George Floyd episode, and that’s why we had white folks as well as Black folks in nearly every city in the country throughout most of the spring and summer. It’s sort of a consciousness-raising and unfortunately, in this case, it seems to have taken the death of George Floyd to raise that consciousness and, in the antebellum setting, it took the arrest of people like seven-year-old Henry Scott or 21-year-old Hester Carr to raise people’s consciousness about the injustices of the way the system was constructed. The point is to let people know this is part of America’s DNA from its founding, to reveal the ways in which the denial of liberty is as much a part of America’s founding as freedom itself.
The Year in Cats

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, and I do believe in taste, but I also believe in context.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. As we sped to Oak Park, the grayscale features of the Chicagoland suburbs blurring past the window, I didn’t regard my nausea as anything other than an unavoidable side effect of keeping up with Twitter. Only when I closed my eyes and registered the feeling spreading upwards through my arms and down to my toes did I consider I wasn’t just carsick. My health always seems to dip around the holidays, for reasons I’ve never understood; the plane touches down in Chicago, and my body—mostly okay, beyond the encroaching pains and degradations of adulthood—instantly readies for bed rest, now that my mother can nurse me back to the living. And for reasons more explainable—arrogance, the still-youthful belief that nothing can ever hurt me—whenever I sense the creep of illness I barrel ahead, double down, push through to take care of whatever it is I’m trying to do: meeting a friend for drinks, shopping for Christmas presents—or seeing Cats. It didn’t start as a bit. This I promise. Over the last decade the concept of “doing it for the lulz” may have upstreamed from oxygen-deprived 4chan slang into rictus-grinned political messaging, but off the internet, intentionally wasting your time to amuse some unseen audience of dipshits is even more exquisitely pointless. My mother, her partner, and I would not have purchased tickets to the 2:45 p.m. Christmas Eve showing of Cats if we were not genuinely curious to see what was up. Despite opening just four days earlier, already Cats had accrued a reputation as “the worst movie ever,” which meant that at the very least it would be “pretty interesting.” Oscar season meant every other film in theaters was either ponderously joyless or Bombshell, and we’d already seen the new Star Wars, so we loaded into the Prius and made for the suburbs, where the ticket prices are cheaper and the popcorn refills free of charge. Perhaps this would have a boring ending if I’d resigned myself to passing out in the theater and requesting an emergency transfusion of chicken noodle soup upon the credit roll. However, I was also stubbornly insistent about getting stoned, no matter how bad I felt upon exiting the car. The miracle of modern technology allowed for a quick vape or six outside the theater, and I took advantage once my mother and her partner disappeared for a short walk. I will be transparent: The weed did not improve my health. My decision to inhale more of it in spite of this appears, from the present, ill-advised. But sobriety seemed like a deal-breaker given what I knew about Cats, even if I was nervous about the THC concentrate commingling with the flu brewing in my system. Like Twin Peaks or soccer, the Andrew Lloyd Webber play upon which the film is based was another piece of culture first passed to me through osmosis, where for years I understood it was a thing people cared about before ever becoming personally interested. But it really would not have mattered unless I’d come in as a superfan because Cats was defiantly illogical, the CGI graphics lurid and sickening, the script entirely incoherent. Granted, the weed did not improve my cognition, but for the uninitiated: The movie centers around a tribe of cats called “Jellicle cats,” who are about to attend “the Jellicle ball,” where one of the cats will vie for the chance to be reborn in a new, happier life. The movie opens with a song called “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” in which the cats attempt to explain their modus operandi—a perfect opportunity to clarify what exactly a Jellicle cat is, except the lyrics don’t really differentiate between regular cats and this ostensibly special brand. Maybe if you’re a theater kid this kind of straight-ahead logic makes sense—duh, yes, Jellicle cats, obviously—but normal people require plot, characters, motivations. The Rum Tum Tugger (played, miraculously, by Jason Derulo) is a curious cat, you say? Okay, but…………… why? Not to recap Cats, which you can do on Wikipedia, or in many YouTube videos narrated by guys with handles like @TheSarcasticMovieBastard. To sum up all that summing up, it didn’t make sense. But it definitely wasn’t the worst movie ever, just a kaleidoscopic miasma of outrageous costuming and Broadway balladry and Taylor Swift that prompted a solid two-star rating from my mother. We had a good time, truly, because of how silly it was—real humans were paid millions of dollars to spend hundreds of millions of dollars generating this shitty-looking feline fantasia, an indictment of Hollywood and capitalism and perhaps the very concept of creativity itself, if you want to go that far. Afterwards we ventured back to Chinatown for noodle soup and bubble tea, then drove home to catch an hour of a different Star Wars on television before bidding farewell to the night, so that we might wake up well-rested on Christmas. But it did not end there. By this point the flu had incubated in my body for several hours, during which I’d unhelpfully pumped it full of cannabinoid resin, salt, and sugar, and as I fell asleep I crossed over from “might be catching something” to “definitively, positively fucked up.” The night stretched into an abyssal dreamstate, where my body degenerated into sheer exhaustion without ever shutting down altogether, and my mind looped the same feverish thoughts for hours on end. Now the bit, if there ever was one, doubled back on me, because the only thing my clammy brain could lock onto was Cats. Practical cats, dramatical cats, Jellicle cats, all the stars and sweeties of this movie prowling around my subconscious, their lyrical dialogue Moebius stripping into glossolalic lunacy. The Rum Tum Tugger is a curious cat, I thought, over and over, as though I were reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Jellicles can and Jellicles do, I considered the next night, as my illness accelerated on Christmas itself, sending me to the couch right after dinner. Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity, I contemplated the night after that, my fevered brain ardently debating the claim—is there anyone like Macavity?—with itself. And so forth, until the fever burned itself out once I got back to New York just in time for New Year’s Eve, upon which I realized something startling and horrifying and also pretty hilarious, given how this had started out: I could no longer stop thinking about Cats, period, even without this flu-induced biological imperative. I went back to Wikipedia and re-researched what I’d missed in the theater; I looked up the soundtrack, and finding the new EDM-laced renditions underwhelming, went to the original Broadway recording; I even pulled out the 1998 stage performance, ripped to YouTube, and watched the songs individually, memorizing the melodies. Something had happened, though I wasn’t sure what. My girlfriend Jen, a former theater person, suspected I was fucking with her. I was not a theater person, or a musical person, but here I was professing an earnest attachment to the most theater-ass, musical-ass play in the world. She recalled a time in high school when she bore witness to a group of kids performing “Jellicle Songs” and was overwhelmed by how much it sucked, a value judgment that had not repealed itself 18 years later. Fair enough, but consider this, I said, pointing to her hazel tabby cat Helen, whom I’d unofficially adopted as our relationship progressed: You know how in Cats (she did not know how in Cats) there’s a cat named Skimbleshanks, an orange tabby who keeps the trains running in perfect order? How that’s super cute, and oh my God, wouldn’t it be so cute if Helen ran the trains? “Helen is / the railway cat / the cat of the railway trains,” I sang, adopting the lyrics to Skimbleshanks’ theme song. She laughed, somehow finding this cute, before pointing out Helen is too aloof to run the trains. Aha, I thought, sensing an opening. So off we went to see Cats, near the end of January. The atmosphere this time was different. By now the film’s bad reputation had intensified, as the actual actors had begun repudiating it in interviews and the fallow box office returns formally declared it a bomb. In spite of this, or more likely because of this, the theater was semi-full. Our screening took place at one of those fancy theaters equipped with plushy reclining seats where alcohol is sold in the lobby, and from the nervous tittering that greeted the credits, everyone there was adequately sloshed and waiting to see what the fuss was about. One of the pleasures of companionship is seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, and though I had appreciated Cats the first time, the full effect didn’t take until I was seated next to Jen, watching her lose her shit at the sight of Judi Dench, wearing a fur coat and pointy ears, materializing through a foggy alley with a very serious look on her face. Look at this iconic actress, trapped between Idris Elba’s glossy codpiece and Rebel Wilson’s dried-up punchlines and wondering how all those hours logged playing Lady Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company culminated in this but nonetheless giving it her all because she’s a professional and a dame, don’t forget it. Surely I’d registered it in my initial screening, but the impact was magnified as Jen’s joy sluiced into me as though I were receiving the Holy Spirit. Her laughter seemed to unlock the movie for everyone else in the room. Reticent chuckling gave way to festive uproar, a kind of communal psychic understanding that we were all here, together, in Cats. After Dench’s still-uncorrected human hands softened us up, Jen fundamentally could not handle when Ian McKellen, another consummate professional, popped up wearing full whiskers: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO,” she screamed, and I mean really screamed, prompting the entire theater to collapse into delirium. Later, she told me she had no memory of her reaction. The moment, and the movie, was simply too much. (I must clarify that Jen absolutely hated Cats, our good time aside, and I accepted this though I continued to sing “Skimbleshanks” around the apartment until… well, I’m still doing it.) Cats ended up being the last new movie we caught in theaters before quarantine went into effect. Before the pandemic, each new movie we saw served as a marker for the year. We fell for each other at Booksmart, when we realized all those jokes pandering to limpid Daily Show sensibilities aroused mutual disdain; stayed up late for an early screening of Parasite, standing in a line that stretched through the West Village; caught The Irishman opening weekend at one of Manhattan’s oldest theaters, and indulged ourselves afterwards with a steak dinner. We aren’t people who glibly reference “the before times,” but like many we took for granted our ability to just go to the movies, before this yawning period where many aspects of human behavior have been put on pause. Had we known it would be donezos after March, maybe we would’ve gotten our act together to see First Cow. There is some silly luck here, in a movie as objectively terrible—I concede the point, because I’m not a lunatic—as Cats serving as such a stupid final excursion to a movie theater until potentially 2022, pending the status of future lockdowns and the vaccine. It also seems fitting, given my fever-abetted introduction to this singularly bizarre cultural product that actually feels like a bad dream. This year, time has compressed and warped in a way in which few people, myself included, are really equipped to deal with. Often Jen and I bring up a memory we believe to be from a certain month, only to realize it was actually March, or June, or January, or who even knows. Stories abound of people declaring their 2020 birthdays unofficial, as they’re not yet ready to signal their aging during a period when nothing much seems to have progressed. Stasis is not meant to be mandated, regardless of its medical necessity or our collective willingness to do the right thing, and the body itches anticipating how many more months may pass before a real reopening of our horizons. Nonetheless there have been small achievements, victories that humble me to consider, because any reminder of life’s generative potential in these strictured conditions keeps me open to what the future might hold. Jen and I moved in together, about which I can’t say enough good things and so will stop before you think of me as just another happy asshole. I lost my job and discovered it wasn’t the end of the world—something that did not feel true in the moment, when I was dazed by the idea of being without an income during the pandemic. Helen started falling asleep on me, and now I spend hours every week wondering what’s going on in her animal brain, something I hadn’t prepared for when I fell in love with her owner. It seems potentially callous to meditate on the upside of a year that has been unspeakably cruel to so many, but to account only for the negative would do a disservice to everyone else who has, for their own reasons, also chosen to keep going. And while the bit, I suppose, rests in the idea I’m now a Cats superfan, when my enjoyment tops out at “had a good time,” I really do genuinely like it for reasons I’m still sorting through beyond “sometimes you just love stupid bullshit” or some banal fealty to camp. I like the music, for one. I like the idea of this alternate society where all these cats have carved out different roles and relationships, for another. I like the image of a cat running the trains, obviously. And I also like how dumbly whimsical it is, despite the pathos in torch burners like “Memory,” how by design it can’t be taken too seriously because it is, after all, a play/movie about talking cats. Enjoying it feels like an almost empowering rejection of all the many things I’ve been taught to regard as worthwhile, another victory inasmuch as it enables me to better move through the world, capable of greeting new things on their own terms. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, and I do believe in taste, but I also believe in context. Perhaps my interest would’ve eventually faded if Jen and I had never seen it together, but in this world we did, and its nonsense meaning has only been magnified by this nonsense year in which I and millions of others have searched for stability amidst harrowing current events whose literal and existential ramifications compound every day—not just the election, but the psychic death by a thousand breaking push notifications; not just the countless lives lost to the pandemic, but the institutional and social failure to staunch future bleeding, or grapple with what it means to live in a world that will never care enough about the dead. Everything happens so much, and nothing seems to matter, and somewhere in between these never-ending randomly generated phenomena is the ongoing attempt to live a normal, and even good, life, on whatever terms are possible under current circumstances. This is what Cats makes me think of, somehow, because sometimes a shitty-looking feline fantasia is what provides unexpected pleasure when everything else seems to be collapsing. A small lesson, if there is one, is that you can’t entirely control what pulls the levers in your brain—quite literally, since it was a flu that first brought me here. Still, I don’t want to exaggerate too much: I did not become a theater person in the months following, nor did I even watch Cats for the third time when it hit HBO Max, though I joked about it maybe 500 times. But other possibilities were opened up. In the summer, not long before Jen and I moved in together, we cycled through movies we might watch, and settled on Cabaret, another musical I’d always written off. There was nothing particularly special about this evening; it was just another spent inside, trying to do our part by doing nothing, as millions of others had done, and which would happen dozens of times after this, the once-normal potential of a night out once again winnowed to a single room, the two of us together, looking to try something new. Would we have gotten to Cabaret before all this? Maybe, maybe not. On this night we did, and it was, I’m happy to say, completely delightful, and much better than Cats.
The Year in Self-Googling

It’s comforting to know that in the annals of history, my day-to-day personal suffering won’t show up at all. Unfortunately, in the present, the details are apparent, if only to me.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. During the dilated months between March and August, when I was never bored because I was always anxious, I developed an obsessive new habit of googling my name roughly once a week. You might think the pandemic with all its attendant precarities, my cascading worries for the health of my aging parents, my job security, the fabric of society and so on, would supersede other anxieties, but I was surprised to find this new distress was merely additive, and my book anxiety—I had a book coming out in August—was still there. This loathsome activity of searching for evidence that my book had been read was not even strictly necessary, because years ago I signed up for the freemium tier of a brand monitoring software that sends me an email when my full name appears anywhere on the internet. My only excuse is that the service is not one-hundred percent reliable, and sometimes there’s a minor delay. Or maybe my excuse (I feel guilty though this hasn’t harmed anyone, and no one’s making me confess) is that my sudden withdrawal from the world outside my apartment, where friends and strangers could see my whole body, not just my face in a square on a screen, moving around and doing things—right now, I’m imagining that body, my body, from the outside, sitting at a bar alone and looking at my phone—led to self dissolution: My self was less there, and seemed to require repeat confirmation of existence. The pandemic has become what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject: The scale of the horror and devastation is so large we can’t see it anymore. I mean I literally can’t see it—I’m looking out my window; the pandemic isn’t there. I saw an image one time of what Jupiter would look like if it were as close as the moon—it would fill the whole sky, cut off by the horizon like a rainbow, or an iceberg. But Jupiter isn’t like that. My point is, while the pandemic happens, really happens, mostly out of sight, I have plenty of time to sit around still caring about my own life. It’s comforting to know that in the annals of history my day-to-day suffering, my personal suffering, won’t show up at all. History is low-resolution, and I will not matter; I can’t remember all my great-grandparents’ names. (I am not sure why I like to be reminded of my insignificance-in-the-grand-scheme if I dislike being insignificant now.) Unfortunately, in the present, the details are apparent, if only to me. One segment of my useless desire for change—for life to get better, I must specify, not worse!—stayed tethered to my book, an idea that somehow my book was going to save me. These hopes were powerful but vague—I was constantly waiting, but knew not for what. The weeks went by. There was never any Rilkean moment, no flash of light. One Friday this summer, I absent-mindedly opened a tab and started typing my name—it had become the kind of habit that is almost automatic, like adjusting your glasses, which I sometimes try to do when I’ve already taken them off and put in my contacts. It was likely there was nothing to discover, and of course if there was, there was every chance it might ruin my day. I have an exceptionally google-able name. There are not, to my knowledge, any other Elisa Gabberts. Most of my writer friends have to compete with other entities—a poet named Justin Marks, for example, is outranked by a race-car driver. Another poet, Chris Tonelli, has edged out a music theorist of the same name. The most famous Gabbert is Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback. We’re probably distantly related; it’s an uncommon surname, an Ellis Island bastardization of the German Gebhardt. Blaine is the first suggestion if you google just “Gabbert.” On this particular afternoon, an idle curiosity made me pause after typing “Elisa”—I wanted to see who the famous Elisas were. At the time, the first suggestion was Elisa Jonathan, a runner-up for Miss Indonesia in 2019 and an “Instagram star” with over 74,000 followers. (The feed is mostly photos of her, but one recent post is just a gray typeface on a pink background reading “IN THE MOOD TO BE CUTE AND HUSTLE.”) I had never heard of her. The second suggestion was Elisa Gayle Ritter, who I’d never heard of either. The image results revealed someone who looked exactly like Reba McEntire. This was intriguing. Who was she? How could there be two famous people who both looked like Reba McEntire? I found a tweet with two photos that read: “OK, this is legitimately the craziest thing I’ve seen in a long time. Not only is that NOT @reba McEntire, it’s a woman named Elisa Gayle Ritter, and as if that wasn’t crazy enough, they were both married to the same dude!!! I guess he really has ‘a type’!” That “dude” was the television producer Narvel Blackstock, who was married to Reba McEntire from 1989 to 2015; Elisa Gayle Ritter was his first wife, from 1973 to 1988. Had he really married someone who looked so much like Reba McEntire that, after they divorced, he decided to try again with Reba McEntire? No, as it turns out; Elisa Gayle Ritter just isn’t famous for anything except being Reba McEntire’s ex-husband’s first wife, so her name search serves up a bunch of pictures of Blackstock and McEntire—but, notably, not the same pictures you get when you google Reba McEntire. This gave birth to a conspiracy theory that they’re the same person. I thought that was pretty interesting. Going back to the search results, I clicked on the third suggestion, Elisa Lam. I had been seeing this name in the Google suggestions for years, along with “elisa test” (ELISA stands for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay—perhaps the true most famous Elisa, or at least the most famous assay). But I’d never bothered to learn who she was; I think I just assumed she was an actress. She was not. She was a Canadian college student who disappeared mysteriously from a hotel in LA (the Hotel Cecil, which is cursed with a history of suicides and violent deaths) while traveling alone, in 2013. She was missing for weeks before they found her body in a water tank on the hotel’s roof. A surveillance video surfaced of Lam acting strangely—furtive and scared—in the hotel elevator just before her disappearance. The video went viral and conspiracies flourished. I watched a short documentary on YouTube about it. Some people thought she was hiding from a murderer, others a ghost. The autopsy ruled that her death was accidental—she had fallen in the tank and drowned. I stopped my research after that. I felt sickened by this true crime horror film—and sick of myself, by myself, the sickness unto death. That hangover feeling. Too much Elisa. I rarely write “personal essays” because they tend to make me hate my personality, the subject. Upon examination I am boring at best, reprehensible at worst. These bouts of self-loathing always feel somehow childish, indulgent, though it’s one of the most common symptoms of depression, the mind’s grossed out awareness of its own dysfunction. My guilt isn’t Catholic; I don’t expect absolution through confession. I guess this is communal—I want to commiserate with other self-loathers. Or maybe it’s preemptive—I want to hate me before you can.
The Year in Compost

Some find comfort in conspiracy; I’ve found it in asking the same questions about plants and insects and mold my seven-year-old self might.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. I imagined myself blind, toothless, sidling up to a piece of withered radicchio half-buried in a bed of dirt, crushed eggshells, and last month’s news. I was a red wiggler earthworm acclimating to my new home inside a freshly furnished vermicomposter. But, given my pantomiming in the kitchen, my partner probably saw a bad Abe Simpson impression: a disgusted grimace; my lips curled over, as to erase the sight of teeth. Bitter! Day after day, week after week, the radicchio sat unperturbed, long after all of the other scraps of vegetation had visibly begun the process of decomposition. Our Earthworm Abe bit had become recurring. Everything rots at its own pace, but a cursory search yielded a potentially relevant factoid: Turns out that radicchio (and other members of the chicory family) possess volatile oils that are often used to kill parasitic worms in livestock. Hundreds of millions of years separate earthworms and tapeworms from their common ancestor, but I guess we sort of stumbled upon a universal axiom across the animal kingdom: No one loves radicchio on their first try. Such are the revelations of composting, of which there isn’t much of a scale—everything is big, everything is small, everything works in cycle. Over the past year, we’ve observed the process in as many ways as we could: We bought worms and provided them a home; we drilled aeration holes along the sides of bins and filled them with kitchen scraps; we used fermented fruit extracts and bran flakes teeming with microbes to accelerate decomposition; we watched the neighbor’s leaves fall into our backyard, blanketing the ground, losing its luster day by day. We compost to amend our garden’s soil and to rechannel the utility of spent goods, but just as valuable as the ends is the mindset being cultivated. Appreciating the process has meant inhabiting the many different perspectives of decay, and reorienting my place in the home, where I am merely a legion among legions. Take vermicomposting. Millions upon billions of microorganic cell colonies, among them various types of bacteria and fungi, descend upon the damaged remains of last week’s meal prep. They feast, denaturing the organic matter on a chemical level in the process, releasing vital, elemental nutrients. They become food themselves. Eventually, the vegetation softens up to the worms’ liking; each of the hundreds of red wigglers consume the decomposed, nutrient-rich organic matter along with the surrounding soil. It all gets infused together as it goes through a grinding process along the worm’s digestive system. What emerges at the other end: a loose, aerated, life-affirming powder that glows mahogany in the sunlight, not unlike fresh coffee grounds in the morning. It smells like the beginning of something. It is. “Microbes living all around us, even inside us, scent our world with a set of molecules defined in what may have been life’s boiling beginnings,” the food science writer Harold McGee writes in his new book, Nose Dive. I’ve spent a vast majority of my time indoors this year. Many days I don’t venture much farther than the porch stoop if I do step outside. As my physical confines narrowed in scale, I’ve found comfort in digging into other ecologies, other ways of acknowledging and affirming all the networks that make up life as we know it. I’ve been reading about fungi discovered at Chernobyl, which have the ability to metabolize radiation through a sort of radiosynthesis, a fact of our timeline more hardcore, more Marvelesque than any imagined cinematic universe. It’s been a time to find new ways of reorienting oneself with reality: Some find comfort in conspiracy, I’ve found it in asking the same questions about plants and insects and mold my seven-year-old self might. Isolation, lockdown, quarantine—these are words that give me pause. My left shoulder dips as I lean and awkwardly gesticulate, trying to fill the space and meaning that these words, charged with contemporary anxiety, don’t quite move towards. In the early months of [gestures wildly], that anxiety was the prism refracting the ways in which many reimagined the outside world, based in both fact and fiction. The L.A. skyline was visible from unprecedented distances with the sudden decrease in smog; mischievous elephants in Yunnan got plastered off corn hooch; the planet was literally vibrating less, given the decrease in man-made disturbances. Nature is healing, so the meme goes. But the punchline—we are the virus—doesn’t land without shame or nihilistic projection. It doesn’t land without a homocentric placement of reality, a siloing from nature itself. That sense of the world slowly chips away when I notice an asparagus fern stem slowly but surely vining over and around a post in the living room towards our couch, where I spend nearly all of my working hours. That sense of the world melts a bit when I see the golden primordial ooze once again leaking out from the spigot of one of our composting vessels and onto the kitchen floor. The kimchi bubbling on the counter; the bones in the freezer, with marrow yet to be relinquished even after a second round of soup-making. Life, being made and unmade and remade. It’s not a matter of control, it’s accepting a role of stewardship. This year has been different. This year has been more of the same. Like any other year, it’s been a continuous series of learning and unlearning how to be part of a noble rot.