Bear Man is a mountain of a person who stands about six and a half feet tall and often weighs upwards of 300 pounds, and there is nothing particularly civilized about his appearance or his behavior. He combines a generous nature with the physical and spiritual appetites of a Tolstoyan nobleman poised to inherit a large estate seven versts north of Spasskoye-Lutovinovo. Just imagine a mountain, like in a Van Gogh painting, with starry eyes and a curly red beard. He is smiling at you, at the same time as he maybe wants to tear off your limbs or eat you. That’s Bear Man.
Anyway, Bear Man and I were sitting together at the Russian bath in Brooklyn where we meet once a week to praise our wives, who by the time the weekend rolls around are generally glad to get us out of the house. Bear Man was grumbling as usual about how we should buy us some shotguns (me a Beretta bird gun, and him a Remington 870 12-gauge) plus a compound with its own generator and a year’s supply of oil and grains. In our compound, no one would be allowed to cut their hair or beards, and we would dose ourselves with mescaline and acid and home-school our children. … His wife is a saint for putting up with this crazy talk. I imagine living with this gigantic good-humored craziness-generator is like living next door to an amusement park where the roller coaster never shuts down.
In Bear Man’s mind, he owed me a favor. A few months earlier, in order to give his wife a break, I had invited Bear Man to a Rolling Stones concert, because he had never seen the Rolling Stones play live. We had spent a pleasant evening together in the muggy Meadowlands watching Charlie Watts lay down crisp, perfectly timed drum strokes with the air of a man ordering his dinner—I’ll have the roast chicken, please, with the asparagus well done, and the béarnaise on the side. There was Mick Jagger, the humble, hard-working billionaire CEO, who made his bones by fucking black chicks who taught him to dance, and who now gets shot up with goat glands; Ronnie Wood, a craftsman who enjoys practicing and demonstrating his craft; Keith Richards, a French pirate with a chateau on the Riviera, who lazes about all day long and then ends the night’s carousing with a shot from his blunderbuss.
The Rolling Stones are the ultimate survivors, which is why I am a fan. What bound them together for life, and made them superstars, was their lack of self-pity. Only rich people can afford the privilege of self-pity, I suggest, further elaborating my theory of the Rolling Stones (I have a theory like this for every iconic rock band). Bear Man nodded.
“Self-pity eats your brain,” he opined. “It’s really the worst emotion imaginable.” He then placed one large paw on the shoulder of my waffle-knit gold-and-purple robe—which is not an item I would buy for myself. It was a gift from the banya owner, who gave me the robe on the same occasion that he bestowed upon the Bear the Napoleonic tricornered felt hat he is wearing with a pair of purple bathing trunks, because there aren’t any robes large enough to fit the Bear Man except maybe in Samoa. So there we sat, on a late morning in December, with frosted glasses of Baltika #7 beer along with the pickled vegetable plate, a delicacy that is permitted by the kosher diet that Bear Man adopted about a year ago because God told him to.
“It might do you some good to get out of this shithole,” Bear Man opined. A few days in Switzerland sounded like a great idea, I agreed, this being back in the days before the coronavirus, when I could fly through the air wherever and whenever I wanted like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince on an economy class ticket along with 189 other similarly adventurous souls. Bear could do his banking, while I drowned my sorrows in a tub of fondue.
The banya owner is a Soviet immigrant to Brooklyn. He loves Donald Trump, and proudly wears the MAGA hat, which the Bear Man bought for him in return for the gift of Napoleonic headwear, and the pleasure of our time at the banya. The banya owner loves to butt in on our conversations. What he sees on television these days hurts his feelings in a particular way that only makes sense to Russians who found the strength to endure deprivation by imagining that freedom existed elsewhere.
Why do Americans hate freedom so much? he wonders. We longed for freedom in the Soviet Union even more than we yearned for bread. Who wants a thousand little Hitlers telling you what you can say, where you can step, who you can talk to, what books you can read, what movies you are allowed to watch? What people on Earth would choose to live that way voluntarily? It was Stalin who turned us into a nation of snitches and frightened little mice. America was different. What was so wrong, so evil about an America in which Jews who did well building houses or selling shirts took Christmas vacations in Miami, where their children drank fresh-squeezed orange juice by the pool?
I do my best to answer him. None of us is entirely innocent, I explain. No institution is entirely immune.
“You sound like those stupid morons on television,” he says, grumpily.
It’s the fault of the women, I assure him. The night Trump won, the husband of every professional-class, Hillary-worshipping female achiever in America knew the score: They would sing from the hymn book, louder, and then loudest, or else the entire structure of their high-pressure, 36-hours-in-a-day, two-career existence, which had become ever more of an emotional and financial high-wire act with the advent of iPhones, which turned every home into a two-career virtual office, would collapse. Decades of simmering resentment would go nuclear—and if I catch you texting with that young junior associate again, Mister, I’ll #MeToo your ass myself.
Sure, the anti-Trump was the construct of a set of political operatives who stumbled their way into more or less staging a coup against a duly elected president who, for his part, and for the good of the planet, would have been better off ruining a nice Scottish golf course. But the fuel for the machine they built came from the retributive fantasy world of a nation of women whose nerve endings had been rubbed raw by the demands that they be CEOs and sex goddesses and stay-at-home moms at once, well into their 50s, while competing in the workplace with both men and younger women and finding their places on the slippery totem pole of victimhood usurped by every kind of newcomer. That ocean of bad female juju wasn’t going anyplace.
And who could blame the women? Just look at the man in the White House, look at how vulgar, crude, disgusting, and mean, and openly incompetent, not to mention horrifyingly racist and sexist, he is. The world is coming to an end. We’re the good guys. Just put us back in power, ladies, and you can go powder your noses, and everything will go back to the way it was, when life was, uh ...
Bear shrugs in agreement. “You’re coming with me to Switzerland, yes?”
According to the most reliable and up-to-date rankings, Switzerland is in fact the happiest nation on Earth, and since I have zero desire to pick a fight with either the science of statistical measurements or with the Swiss, let’s stipulate here and for the rest of my journey that Switzerland is indeed happier than any other country, despite the often dour facial expressions of the Swiss, and the infrequency of outward public shows of happiness like spontaneous singing or dancing. I think we can all agree that happiness is less a matter of dramatic outward show than a steady burning state of satisfaction that radiates outwards from some internal redoubt of calm, peace, and safety.
It is even possible to posit that a surfeit of happiness may be the reason why, aside from a single 20th-century painter of surpassing genius, Paul Klee, there are few Swiss artists or writers of any note, and no one watches Swiss superhero movies or relaxes with mellow Swiss jazz. (I would argue that Paul Klee was in fact a great German artist, in the same way that Rousseau, the architect of the modern idea of happiness, who himself grew up in Geneva, was a great French philosopher—though recent scholarship on that point is interestingly split.) The Swiss national genius expresses itself in mathematics, a field in which happiness is not known to be the rule; in making great watches; and in the person of Roger Federer, who plays tennis like a Swiss watch tells time.
And so it was decided. Our trip would begin in Geneva, where Rousseau invented happiness and Lenin plotted the Bolshevik Revolution; we would end in Basel, where Herzl outlined his solution to the historical exile and suffering of the Jewish people in Der Judenstaadt, thus proving that the Enlightenment was just another chapter of an age-old story that began with the Greeks and whose larger moral is that humans are not strictly rational animals. My answer, dear reader, was yes.
“The swans in Lake Léman shit everywhere,” Bear confided with glee halfway through our journey by airplane from New York City to Geneva. Having unbuckled his seatbelt somewhere in the middle of our flight, he had begun roaming around the airplane cabin, in which we were more or less the only passengers—a comfort to which Bear appeared to be insensible.
Bear’s general lack of interest in his surroundings, which I have noticed before, is in part the product of his weird upbringing, which oscillated between extremes of wealth and deprivation. It also a privilege that he enjoys thanks to his oversize physique, which is capable of plowing through large obstacles without any visible damage, but which experiences human-size artifacts like beds or chairs as a form of mild torture. Navigating the world, physical and emotional, is different for Bear than for other people, which is why I like accompanying him on his journeys.
It is worth it, if you have never done so, to take an airplane to Geneva simply to see the rivers of white clouds flowing through the Alps. From a height of 30,000 feet, it’s a view that Alexander the Great or Hannibal or Lord Byron or any painter of the 19th century would have killed for, the white clouds flowing in and out of high mountain passes with peaceful Alpine villages and dark forests poking through to provide the viewer with a train-set miniature sense of scale. From a height of 25,000 feet, you feel like God. A moment later, the model world below disappears into a cloud bank that is packed so thick as to give the impression of solid ground along which the plane’s shadow skims like an image cast by a light box. Then the clouds return again like fluffy white bunnies in springtime.
There are few natural sights that are so uplifting as a clear, sunlit morning flight over the Alps, but the Alps alone are not enough to guarantee happiness. Rather, it is the ability to harmonize spectacular natural beauty with apocalyptic forebodings, as cultivated and practiced over five centuries of highly civilized existence, that has allowed Switzerland to maintain its position as an island of peace and tranquility in a continent that spent most of the past century choking on its own blood. The Swiss do not take their responsibility toward their national inheritance of happiness lightly. All Swiss men between the ages of 18 and 34 who are deemed “fit for service” are given a gun and trained in its use.
A bird’s-eye view of the geography of northern and central Europe confirms the extent to which the Swiss are truly a people apart, protected by some of the highest mountains on the planet, which they have spent decades fortifying and mining against the possibility of a land incursion by their German, French, and Italian neighbors—the Swiss themselves being a mixture of all three peoples, who formed a covenant among their 26 cantons that will doubtlessly survive the European Union and possibly even the United States. The durable Swiss covenant came about in response to one of the history’s most destructive double-whammies. The first of these was the Black Death, which killed approximately a third of Europe’s 70 million people. The second was the subsequent continentwide religious conflagration colloquially known as the Thirty Years’ War, which remains the most deadly and destructive largescale bloodletting that Europe ever inflicted on itself, including WWI and WWII. In the German-speaking principalities to Switzerland’s east, up to 50% and 60% of the population were killed by roving armies, starvation, and disease, which helps explain why the Swiss are inclined toward cleanliness, which keeps away diseases, and also toward heavily armed neutrality, which keeps away armies. These habits have allowed the Swiss to spend the successive eras of revolutions, wars, and pandemics doing things like making fine watches, socking untold quantities of gold away in vaults, and otherwise fortifying themselves against nuclear, chemical, and biological apocalypse.
An important part of the Swiss strategy for fending off the apocalypse is building bunkers. In 2006, there were 5,100 large public fallout shelters in Switzerland containing places for 1.1 million people, in addition to 300,000-plus shelters located in private Swiss dwellings, institutions, and hospitals that provide an additional 7.5 million places. These shelters are built in accordance with Articles 45 and 46 of the Swiss Federal Law on Civil Protection, which decrees that “[e]very inhabitant must have a protected place that can be reached quickly from his place of residence” and that “apartment block owners are required to construct and fit out shelters in all new dwellings.” Altogether, the Swiss shelter network provides protection against a nuclear strike, aerosolized plague, or other annihilating events for 8.6 million people, which is 114% of the actual Swiss population. No other nation on Earth even approaches 100% shelter coverage.
Every once in a while, though, the vigilance of even the Swiss can flag. On March 9, 2011, for example, gripped by a fit of optimistic giddiness accompanied by predictable blather about the end of history and the repeal of all laws that had formerly governed the conduct of human beings on this planet, the Swiss Parliament repealed the country’s “shelters for all” law. Two days later, on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake accompanied by a large tsunami hit Fukushima, Japan, leading to the partial meltdowns of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and the release of 18 quadrillion becquerels of radioactive cesium-137 into the Pacific Ocean—and the Swiss Parliament’s swift reversal of its hasty and unwise decision.
There must be a spiritual factor at work among the Swiss too, Bear suggests. There must be. “Without some idea of God, or an equivalent for God—meaning God—life is both utterly meaningless and also infinitely depressing,” he meditates out loud, as the plane takes a steep plunge through a bank of gray clouds, jogging my memory of the Swiss airline pilot who drove a plane full of passengers straight into the side of one of these mountains. “Otherwise, it’s just all chocolate bars and porn.”
Bear can be a hard person to figure out, starting with exactly what he does for a living, and extending to the large overseas fortune he may or may not someday inherit. He is a polymath, possessed of a towering Germanic work ethic and the ability to engineer utterly mediocre schemes for paying clients, which he uses to fund his untiring generosity to friends and also to strangers. His foolishness and his holiness are of a piece, like a Russian prince or an 18th-century Hasidic master, which together summon up a pretty good visual of my friend.
A few seconds later, we had touched down in Geneva, where a disheveled Bear wandered off to find his Hermes luggage set and plunder a newsstand. He popped up again by my side at the rent-a-car counter, waving his credit card like the rich kid in school who buys candy bars for everyone because he is lonely. “There’s a great fondue place near the cathedral where I used to go with my father,” he pleads. “Can we have lunch there?” Of course we can. I am also tired, and in need of a nap.
After a short drive, we arrive at our hotel in the center of Geneva, across from Rousseau’s island, where the great philosopher of happiness sits alone in the center of the river. The hotel is pretty much the only thing about Geneva I remember from my last visit to this city more than 25 years ago, during the Bosnian war. The lobby is currently being demolished by jackhammers. We drink beer in the café and wait for our rooms, which in compensation for the jackhammers, are exceptionally large and clean, of a class that I would have otherwise been unable to afford.
Bear unpacks his belongings, grumbles a bit, and goes off to attend to some personal business at a Swiss banking establishment whose name sounds suspiciously like “Bear.” I take the opportunity to lie down on the impeccably laundered bed in my room. If you’ve ever worked in a hotel (I’ve helped to open two of them), you know how disgusting hotel beds are, vomit being arguably the least objectionable of the bodily fluids that one is likely to find there; I always laugh when I hear people talking about wanting a bed “just like in a hotel.” Anyway, almost immediately, I fall into a long, dreamless sleep from which I awake to find a copy of an oil portrait of John Calvin staring back at me from the wall, but with no more concrete sense of why I accepted Bear’s invitation to come here. I would say that I was getting away from getting away from it all, except I wasn’t really, and certainly not here.
Swans are vulgar, menacing creatures, and the swans on Lake Geneva are no exception to that rule. Their long, freakishly muscled necks curl back and forth under the direction of their brains, which are seamlessly integrated with their neck muscles. Darting back and forth and twisting to the side and then around, in patterns that suggest a highly cultivated malevolence toward all non-swanlike lifeforms, their dinosaurlike skulls make one grateful for the mercies of evolution and miniaturization. It’s better to let one of them eat half your sandwich than to lose an eye.
On the other side of the Rhone is a little amusement park with a fairgrounds and park benches where readers of higher-end European spy novels might expect to find an older Russian man resting with his head to the side, and with what might appear on closer inspection to be a puncture wound in his neck. The plaza immediately to the left is overseen by a noble bronze bust of Gustave Ador, president of the International Committee of Red Cross between 1910 and 1928, which means that Ernest Hemingway rode in one of his ambulances.
The question I am left with, after all my reporting in Europe, I tell Bear, has to do with the ubiquity of electric towel warmers. Go into even the most ordinary apartment in Geneva, or Lyon, and you will find a heated bar that keeps your bath towel warm. Thirty years ago, I found them in every hotel in the Balkans in the middle of a bloody civil war, along with black-and-white television sets bolted to the corner of the ceiling, so you could lie in bed and watch the news.
“Baths,” Bear says. In the days before indoor plumbing, he explains, a bath was a major production; private baths were the province of the urban middle and upper classes. Warm towels were the unimaginably thick and luxurious icing on the cake.
As we chat, Bear Man answers me in French, then in German, then switches to Hebrew with no discernible change in accent or facial expression. His ability to speak six or seven languages without any noticeable accent is the product of a peripatetic childhood looked after off-and-on by people who, whatever their faults, were better equipped than his parents. I have bits and pieces of languages from Japanese to Serbo-Croatian from reporting on the Balkan wars and some memorably indecent love affairs.
The paradise of running water, warm towels, and good chocolate, Bear Man informs me, has no room for a convenience that is personally important to him: kosher meat. Under the Swiss constitution of 1848, it was declared impossible to be both Swiss and a Jew. To continue this premise of irreconcilability between Judaism and the Swiss, kosher slaughter is still legally banned in Switzerland. Observant Jews must either become vegans or else figure out ways to bring in meat from other countries, which means that the Bear’s diet here will be limited to cheese and fish.
Luckily, Bear continues, the general Swiss aversion to Jews, Judaism, and all things Jewish has never applied to Jewish money. During WWII, he says, the Swiss gladly took tens of thousands of deposits from desperate Jews seeking to protect any fraction of their life’s savings from Nazi seizure. These deposits were so precious to the Swiss that, in the wake of the Holocaust, they devised an incredibly intricate set of practices, which became known as the Swiss Code of Obligations—which is a truly wonderful name, exemplifying what I take to be the uniquely Swiss sense of humor. Under the Code of Obligations, the Swiss government permitted Swiss banks to stonewall inquiries from concentration camp survivors for 10 years, at which point the banks were legally permitted to destroy all correspondence related to these accounts. Because the accounts were therefore officially dormant, the banks were obligated to sell the assets in their care in order to pay the sky-high fees they assessed to maintain a class of accounts they had systematically and legally orphaned. The most outstanding watchmaker in Geneva could not have designed better clockwork for a system of stealing money from people who had already lost everything.
Yet miraculously, despite the genius of this almost-clinical system for reducing Jewish accounts in Switzerland to zero, the value of abandoned Jewish accounts somehow continued to rise each time they were audited, Bear continued, with a mischievous air. When I asked him how this was possible, he smiled. “It’s because the Swiss have a magic touch when it comes to money,” he answered.
I found plenty of numbers to support Bear’s assertion. The first audit of abandoned Swiss bank accounts possibly belonging to dead Jews after the war found only a few hundred unclaimed accounts with a total value of 862,000 Swiss francs. In 1962, the Swiss parliament passed a very narrowly circumscribed law under which another 739 accounts with an additional 6.2 million francs in assets were discovered. In 1995, a self-audit by Swiss banks showed an additional 775 accounts with 28.7 million francs—more than four times the prior total. A mere two years later, in the wake of the appointment by the Swiss government of a commission of “eminent persons” led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, a second self-audit found 5,570 accounts containing 74.5 million francs. The Volcker commission then found an additional 53,886 accounts, whose value, in 1945 Swiss francs, was put at roughly 700 million. In constant dollars, the Swiss had therefore achieved an increase in capital held by dead Jews of over 10,000% in a mere 50 years—a result that any banker would envy.
“That’s why I do my banking in Switzerland,” Bear Man concludes, looking quite pleased with himself after a delicious prix fixe lunch. Next we will visit St. Pierre Cathedral, the largest cathedral in Geneva, built on the model of St. Peter’s in Rome, he promises. We will sit there quietly, and all my questions about the need for this trip on either of our parts will be suitably answered. As we get up from the table, he gladly accepts my offering of tangerine-flavored THC gummies I brought through customs and pops an entire handful into his mouth.
Bear Man and I are very different people. One of us was born rich, namely him, and the other—me—was born poor. One of us is a creature of gargantuan size and appetites, and the other—me again—is a person of slightly below-average height with ascetic tendencies, except in cases where I want something very badly, like an Alex Katz drawing. Still, we have plenty in common, like our shared love for the rapper Biggie Smalls and for baseball, and the fact that we both dabbled in the unsettling religious literature of the Reformation in graduate school. Bear, because he was a big reader of Heidegger, and me as a budding student of America whose best friend in graduate school was a heroin addict who loved reading crazy Cromwellian pamphlets when he was high.
It was the Puritans, first in England and then in America, I tell Bear, who laid out the passage from subjects to saints to citizens that the rest of the Western world would later follow, citing Michael Walzer’s great book The Revolution of the Saints, which my heroin-loving friend introduced me to in graduate school. Geneva was therefore the birthplace of modernity, and perhaps a good place to look for clues as to the future direction of that unsettled and unsettling project.
The great altar piece of the Cathedral St. Pierre is fortunately preserved in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, where we saw it earlier that same morning, along with the remnants of the fabulous stained-glass windows of St. Pierre’s, which include a perfect grunge rock album cover Magdalene. Luckily for us, and the rest of posterity, the windows and the altar piece were removed before John Calvin and his followers vandalized the cathedral, smashing the remaining windows, beheading statues of the saints and otherwise turning the once-gorgeous Catholic sound-and-light show into a monochromatic monument to anxiety and repression.
What remains of the cathedral’s interior nearly 500 years later is the bare stone, whose effect reminds me of the concrete riot-control architecture of the 1970s that still dominates public spaces, government buildings, and university campuses in cities like Newark or St. Louis. Stripped of color and ornamentation, with the sole exception of Calvin’s own pulpit, the brutalist interior of St. Pierre faithfully reflects the product of the Puritan search for inner perfection, a sterile and inhuman space that denies a wandering eye anyplace to rest. The sole decorations on the walls are a series of brass plaques inscribed with Calvin’s denunciations of the pope as a tyrannical monster.
There’s something chilling about the place, I tell Bear Man. Even after 500 years, the vaunted interior still retains the echo of Calvin’s doom-laden screeches echoing from the pulpit on high.
Bear Man’s eyes go wide, as a weird Alan Parsons Project-type organ riff fills the space of the cathedral. To make things even weirder, a children’s choir pops up beneath Calvin’s spiral pulpit and starts to sing “Let It Be.” When the youth choir is done with the Beatles, they launch into a Swiss Gospel version of “Let My People Go.” They seem like nice kids, and they are trying hard, but it is impossible to fill this space with anything human.
It’s all too perfect, I am telling Bear. It’s the same subject-position, 500 years ago and today. We are here because we are living in the age of techno-Calvinism, which was created by the merger of Puritans and iPhones—with the history of slavery and anti-Black racism in America providing the necessary modern-day substitute for the Calvinist emphasis on original sin.
All the statues of the saints must again be smashed. Mark Twain, for racism; Edward Hopper, for whiteness; John Singer Sargent, for making sexism sexy; Miles Davis, because he was too friendly to Jews; John Coltrane, for not being political; Thomas Pynchon, for being a believer in popes; Stanley Kubrick, for selling indulgences; Jimi Hendrix, for antinomian heresy; Steely Dan, for exploiting Black artists; Eddie Murphy and Hugh Grant, for transphobia; Margaret Atwood, for not believing all women; J.K. Rowling, for saying that women exist; Quentin Tarantino, for allowing his characters to say a word that my editor won’t even let me type though it is a part of history and language that is repeated dozens of times in Tarantino’s movies and many thousands of times a day in rap songs. The America of the seekers and its Catholic aesthetic of wild hybridity is gone. In its place is the New Church of the Techno-Calvinists.
And just as Protestants used the miracle of the Gutenberg press to spread their doctrines, the Techno-Calvinists use monopoly speech platforms designed by Silicon Valley engineers to spread their doctrine of an all-consuming flatness spread out like an open book beneath God’s single, all-seeing eye. Flatness is cheap manufactured goods, Uber rides, bad take-out food. Flatness is Airbnb and Tinder dates. People with professional credentials consume flatness as politics or as jobs in global banking. For “organizers,” flatness means the promise of “social justice.” Flatness means monopolizing the book industry, the diaper industry, the news industry—you name it. It’s all flat.
Flatness is an aesthetic strategy.
Flatness is business strategy.
Flatness is a political strategy.
Flatness is where money and power come from.
Flatness is baked into the systems that run the global economy, in which poor people in distant countries are paid pennies per hour to produce crap at the expense of American workers, and the disintegrating communities they live in.
Flatness animates the work of shitty graphic designers like Shepard Fairey, who thought that Soviet poster art was unironically cool. It was Fairey who created the iconic image of Dear Leader Barack that hung in a thousand dorm rooms next to its black-on-red inspiration, the famous poster image of Che, the greasy, stoned jungle rat. Che was a loser and a failure, and he spent his afterlife as a sullen witness to 10,000 stoner dorm-room conversations that all went nowhere, until Barack Obama came along. Now that was a guy the squares could also like, while he winked at the cool kids and read Philip K. Dick.
Above all, though, flatness is a religion, which in the Calvinist framework means a pattern of surveillance and social control that leaves no part of society untouched. Tech lords lay off the work of organizing social reality to the consistory of organizers, who distribute worthless plastic beads to their tribes. Flatness dialectically creates the world of identity politics, which are subsumed back into flatness, through the belief that words are only signs. Every word is the same as every other word. Flatness. The more flatness you consume, the richer the oligarchs who own the monopoly platforms get.
The incessant gaslighting and dishonesty inherent in this aesthetic is why America is edging toward some form of civil war, just like Europe did in the 17th century. While Europe’s wars were fought by armies with crossbows and muskets, ours will be fought by online cults manipulated by the new hypnotic, centrally directed participatory pornography.
The Puritans who sailed to America may have carried with them copies of John Knox’s Bible, printed in Geneva, but they were not members of Calvin’s Consistory. They were from England, a land from which Jews had been expelled in the 13th century, and therefore might as well have been unicorns. After leaving England, these English Puritans settled in Amsterdam, where the local Protestants tolerated Spinoza. From there, they sailed to America, where they founded a New Jerusalem and lived out their own chapter of the Bible. Unlike John Calvin and his followers, who lived just across the Alps from the Pope, the English Puritans, now Pilgrims, were free to identify with the Israelites, and to teach their children Hebrew, and, in ways that are hardly insignificant, either then or now, to become Israelites themselves.
All Americans are Pilgrims, whether we like it or not, just as Americans Jews are Pilgrims, because we’ve got that Pilgrim DNA. Anyone who denies the urgency of the writings of our Pilgrim forefathers and foremothers, especially now, in these uncertain times, should probably crack open a book or two. Try this sermon on for size, from the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards:
The greater part of those who heretofore have lived under the same means of grace, and are now dead, are undoubtedly gone to hell; and it was not because they were not as wise as those who are now alive: it was not because they did not lay out matters as well for themselves to secure their own escape. If we could speak with them, and inquire of them, one by one, whether they expected, when alive, and when they used to hear about hell, ever to be the subjects of misery: we doubtless, should hear one and another reply, “No, I never intended to come here: I had laid out matters otherwise in my mind; I thought I should contrive well for myself: I thought my scheme good. I intended to take effectual care; but it came upon me unexpected; I did not look for it at that time, and in that manner; it came as a thief: Death outwitted me: God’s wrath was too quick for me. Oh, my cursed foolishness! I was flattering myself, and pleasing myself with vain dreams of what I would do hereafter; and when I was saying, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction came upon me.
Edwards was the James Lee Jamerson of New England sermon-makers; you can feel the earth move when he takes up his instrument. So please stop and read the passage over again, because a more profound or searing description of what it means to be an American has yet to be written:
I never intended to come here.
I had laid out matters otherwise.
Preach it to the cows and the chickens!
It is time for us to get out of here, Bear urges me. The THC gummies are hitting him harder than he expected, which is not my fault. I only ate two, but this place is freaking me out too. It’s time to go outside, and breathe some fresh air.
But outside, Geneva only gets weirder. In the square, groups of women are wearing colonial bonnets and dark robes and selling cider, like extras in The Handmaid’s Tale. Just as I start to point the women out to Bear, the music starts, and a fife-and-drum corps marches into the square playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
“See!” I delightedly exclaim to Bear. History is on the march! The fife-and-drum corps is proving my point about the Techno-Calvinists!
Bear pats my arm indulgently with his large paw. I am hallucinating, and he is also hallucinating, which makes sense given the number of gummies we ate. The music stops and is replaced by the tramp and clank of men in armor approaching from a nearby street, which is neither easier or harder to explain than the women in hooded cloaks and the fife-and-drum corps.
Ranks of armed men carrying ancient muskets and long pointy lances fill the square in front of the cathedral. A woman with long flowing red hair, in a white Elizabethan collar, approaches me on a horse whose insanely golden-colored palominolike mane makes me think of one of the more outlandish members of my daughter’s My Little Pony collection. The combination of the two hairdos is too outrageously emo. I doubt my imagination is capable of this particular vision, but moment by moment, I’m being proved wrong.
The red-haired rider is a terrific horsewoman, keeping her horse’s head pointed away from the blasts of the muskets so that it doesn’t start or bolt. I admire her cool. She’d look better on a poster, with her head tilted bravely toward the future, than Barack Obama. From a side street, perhaps 15 men and women mounted on horseback come riding in. The entire troupe lines up behind the red-haired woman, as the square in front of us fills with shooting and gun smoke.
At this point, I am experiencing too high a degree of sensory overload, and I can’t accurately report on whatever is happening around me. Whatever it is, it feels unpleasant, like an actual battle, minus—I hope—any actual bloodshed. Nor does there appear to be any way out, as both the main street and the side from which the horsemen came are now filled with men in armor, marching in formation. Every five steps or so, they stop, lift muskets to their shoulders, and fire—the source of the smoke. It is impossible for me, an experienced drug-taker who has been high as a kite in the company of more than one world leader and under live fire in actual war zones, which in retrospect was not a terribly intelligent choice, even if it was both functional and necessary, to separate what is going on inside my head from the world outside.
The papal Antichrist is Donald Trump, opposing the New Christian armies of flatness, which are led by Barack Obama and Jeff Bezos. Or maybe it’s all a collective hallucination, born of an algorithm that lives in the clouds above Silicon Valley surrounded by hedgerows of NDAs. Fuck! Below them, a landscape of shuttered stores, busted-out towns, and disintegrating institutions, which testify to the Zeus-like supremacy of Silicon Valley’s young overlords, who are now middle aged, and whose contempt for lived social existence has shattered the mirror in which Americans once saw themselves and thrown an entire society back into the atavistic nightmare of John Calvin’s Geneva. This whole scene is entirely too real for me to be hallucinating. Turning his broad shoulder to the right three times in succession, Bear Man creates an opening in the human mass. Ahead of us, the crowd thins out just enough for us to squeeze by the horses and escape.
There is a perfectly sane explanation for all of this, of course. We piece it together over the next 20 minutes or so, starting with the souvenir booklets being sold by the embankment in the old part of the city, and then by asking a few questions in French of the ladies in bonnets who explain that Geneva is celebrating the Escalade, an annual civic holiday in which citizens commemorate the city’s salvation in 1603 from the armies of the Duke of Savoy by returning to the beginning of the 17th century. It would be hard to have planned a freakout any better.
We wander down to the lower parts of the city, where Rousseau’s father moved with young Jean-Jacques, passing by the opera house and some cafés. Our goal now is to find John Calvin’s grave.
When he died, Calvin piously admonished his followers that he should be buried without any kind of marker, since he the man was supremely unimportant and should not be venerated; he was but a blank screen upon which the citizens projected their own need for godliness. It was his teachings that should be remembered, not himself. By refusing to be buried in any visible way, the parts of himself that he valued most highly might live on forever, a cynic might say.
As Calvin’s teachings faded, the people of Geneva duly put up a marker in plot 707 of the cemetery reserved for the city’s great civic luminaries and finally laid John Calvin to rest. There, near a stone wall that separates the cemetery from a bordering street, Calvin rest apart from his fellow illustrious Genevans, surrounded by a low iron fence and empty grass. The faded stone marker inside the fence reads simply “JC.”
Calvin’s Geneva was a pedagogical enterprise, which officially began on May 25, 1536, when the citizens of Geneva assembled in a general council to accept the Reformation. John Calvin arrived from Paris three months later, and accepted the invitation of leading citizens to rule the city in God’s name, which he did with a brief hiatus until his death from tuberculosis in 1564. Under Calvin’s dispensation, the city’s magistrates and pastors joined together in a single body, the Consistory, which directed its energies toward the continuous improvement of society, with the goal of transforming the people of Geneva into saints. “The saint was a new political man,” Michael Walzer wrote in Revolution of the Saints. “His activity was systematic and organized; in some fashion he was already obedient to the discipline of the new order he envisioned.”
Yet the transformation of saints into citizens came at a price that is difficult for we moderns and post-moderns to seriously reckon. In addition to being dirty, brutal, ignorant and plague-ridden, the medieval universe was a pluralistic place, filled with spirits and angels linked together in a great and harmonious chain of being that was animated by the spirit of a loving God. By contrast, John Calvin’s world was ruled by arbitrary power, a wasteland of sin in which God’s “fearful shakings and desolation,” as one Puritan writer put it, were the sole rightful inheritance of mankind.
To make the new system work, families would be reconstituted, not on the basis of natural bonds of affection, but according to Puritan doctrine. The family would become the state, writ small. The Puritans brought with them what Walzer aptly describes as “a fierce antagonism to the traditional world and the prevailing pattern of human relations.” Yet even if Calvin’s God required “an obedience so precise and total as to be without precedent in the history of tyranny,” Walzer argues, he freed men from all sorts of other authorities, thus paving the road to the nirvana of secular citizenship—which still carries with it a faint whiff of both sainthood and gunpowder.
Yet it is also possible to see the Puritans not as fanatics whose zeal helped bend the arc of history toward some greater justice but as wicked and destructive, smashing statues and paintings in a Taliban-like orgy of psychotic disenchantment that paved the way for 20th-century totalitarian movements that murdered tens of millions of people—just as the 17th-century religious wars did in Europe. Throughout the Middle Ages, one historian wrote, “even those who commented in the heat of political passion never identified their enemies with Anti-Christ.” The Puritans did. Speaking in 1644 to the soldiers in Cromwell’s Parliament, the relatively sedate Puritan divine Stephen Marshall asked bluntly if they “do now see that the question in England is whether Christ or Anti-Christ should be lord or king.”
What unites Puritans and totalitarians is their drive to eliminate space for human freedom by dividing humanity into two opposing camps: believers and the Antichrist. The Saints were revolutionaries, recognizable as such to us, even though we would seem unimaginably wicked to them. “The saints attempted to fasten upon the necks of all mankind the yoke of a new political discipline—impersonal and ideological,” Walzer writes. In Calvin’s Geneva, law and order were maintained through “mutual surveillance.” Church members (ideally all Genevans were church members) “watched, investigated, and chastised” each other. The Puritans carried this discipline to England, where it took hold in some places, like the Kidderminster parish of the Reverend Richard Baxter who gladly reported that enforcement of the new order was made possible “by the zeal and diligence of the godly people of the place who thirsted after the salvation of their neighbors …”
The role of the Jews in Puritan cosmology is also worth looking at. There were no Jews in Oliver Cromwell’s England during the 17th century, of course; the entire community having been massacred and expelled some 400 years earlier. Nor were there any living Jews in Calvin’s Geneva, the entire Jewish community of the city having been shoved out into the snow to freeze to death during the particularly brutal Swiss winter of 1491, which coincided with the eve of the mass expulsion of Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, the royal couple who united the Iberian peninsula under Catholic rule and then sent Christopher Columbus off to discover the New World.
Still, Calvin, who trained as a lawyer rather than a theologian, did not spare the ghosts of Geneva’s Jews from his invective-rich tirades. Jews were “sheep,” “pigs,” “dogs,” and “brutes,” whose rejection of the truth of Christianity made them “blind,” “stupid,” and “foolish.” As a people, Jews suffered from a species of “madness” or “insanity” which leads them to “stupidly devour all the riches of the Earth with their unrestrained cupidity.” The Jewish biblical commentator Abravanel was “an impostor,” “a dog,” and guilty of “hallucinations.” As for Jewish commentators on the Book of Isaiah, Calvin noted that “Jews mix in here stupid fables and invent miracles which never occurred. This is the result not merely of their ignorance but also their audacity.”
John Calvin’s own translation of the Book of Isaiah was not without flaws, though. He translates “Almah” as “virgin,” which is wrong, and then insists that it is derived from the root “to hide,” which he claims that virgins do—a derivation that is also wrong. He also insists that fathers in the Bible are always assigned the right to name their children, an assertion disproved by the story of Eve, which comes near the very beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. In an essay titled “John Calvin’s Contribution to an Understanding of the Book of Isaiah,” the scholar Simon J. De Vries passes what feels like a fair judgment on Calvin’s distinctive qualities as a reader of sacred texts: “His hubris and urge to control drive him into reproducing how each actor behaves, and why—and then into moral judgement upon each individual’s behavior ... his theology of history, as exhibited in his interpretation of these two chapters, is wooden, driven and utterly doctrinaire.” Missing in Calvin’s reading, De Vries concludes, is any sense that human beings might enjoy pleasure on earth. “Calvin does not seem to realize that this great passage of Scripture is ... designed to make its readers joyful.”
Maybe America is the new Geneva, I suggest to Bear Man.
“Why did that happen?” he wonders.
“Because the American churches are gone now,” I explained. “Churches normalize religion and make it banal. No one really believes anything. Without the churches to restrain and channel their religious manias, Americans have stopped being Pilgrims, and have gone back to being Puritans.”
I am very impressed with my theory of Pilgrims and Puritans, which I made up on the spot. Bear Man doesn’t appear to be listening, though. Instead, he is gesturing with one of his meaty paws at the ornately carved grave marker sitting directly in front of the bench where we’ve been sitting for the past hour and a half without either one of us giving it a second glance.
“Do you see who is buried there?” Bear suddenly asks.
“What?” I ask Bear.
“Jorge Luis Borges,” he replies.
Oh God. He’s right. The grave that we have been conversing before for the past hour and a half belongs to the great Argentine fabulist who, like John Calvin, was a believer in the power of the Word, but otherwise was Calvin’s exact spiritual and literary opposite. Borges’ headstone is nicely carved in what look almost like runes from a Led Zeppelin album cover.
In contrast to Calvin’s lonely, fenced-off plot, Borges’ gravesite is lush and well tended, and it is filled with flowers left by recent admirers. As a child, Borges came to Geneva with his parents on a visit to Europe, which was interrupted by the outbreak of WWI; the Borges family was trapped in neutral Switzerland until its conclusion. In his old age, Borges fell in love with his secretary, who was Genevan, and returned here, thus earning a spot in the city’s most exclusive civic burial ground. The gravesite next to Borges belongs to a woman whose tombstone proclaims her to have been a prostitute.
I’m a Borges fan, but I had no idea that he was buried in the same cemetery as John Calvin. It was here, I tell Bear, that the idiotic Chilean communist writer Eduardo Labarca saw fit to urinate on Borges’ grave, an act he photographed and then put on the cover of one of his programmatic Marxist novels. “Borges was a giant as a writer but I feel complete contempt for him as a citizen,” Labarca explained, only partially blind to the self-serving assumption that political virtue trumps art. “As an old man, almost blind, he came to meet the dictator Pinochet in the days when he was busy killing.”
“I love Borges,” Bear Man answers.
It is easy to see why Jews preferred America to Switzerland, I tell Bear the next morning over a hearty hotel breakfast in the empty hotel lobby delivered by a waiter who returns to our table after half an hour with a gentle warning: In another 15 minutes, we are warned, the jackhammers will start up again, taking more chunks out of the gilded walls. It is time to hit the road.
While the endpoint of our journey is Basel, we are planning to stop for lunch in Bern, the birthplace of Paul Klee. I have a special fondness for Klee’s quizzical characters, whose bodies look like they are outlined in yarn, and the odd balance of humor and loneliness in his work has spoken to me since I was in college. Klee’s characters, I explain to Bear, are balanced somewhere between philosophical investigations and cartoons, which is a place I feel entirely comfortable.
Perhaps Paul Klee’s most famous fanboy was the great German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin, a writer of essays filled with brilliant insights, any one of which could be a great novel, if Benjamin had been capable of imagining minds other than his own. He was great on architecture, though. From the time that Walter Benjamin was a young man, until the day he died, his most beloved possession was a Paul Klee drawing of a dancing, lionlike figure that the artist called “Angelus Novus.” Benjamin purchased the drawing while living in Munich circa 1921, and he famously described the drawing thus:
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at, his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. This is how the Angel of History must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his fee.
Benjamin’s beloved angel of history traces a revealing set of connections among some of the 20th century’s greatest and most notorious minds. Between 1921 and 1940, Benjamin kept the drawing in his bedroom. Fleeing Paris in 1940, Benjamin left his prized possession in the care of the post-modernist French writer and critic Georges Bataille, who hid it in the pornography section of the French National Library. After the war, the “Angelus Novus” reached Theodor Adorno, who kept it until his death in 1969, whereupon it passed into the hands of Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of the Kabbalah and Benjamin’s lifelong friend and correspondent. Scholem hung the painting in his study in Jerusalem, where it lived until the scholar’s death in 1982. Scholem’s widow then deeded the painting to the Israel Museum.
It was in Jerusalem, one afternoon during the Second Intifada, that I paid my respects to Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus.” My visit followed a particularly gruesome terror-bombing by a Hamas cell at a coffee shop called Café Moment where I had been sipping coffee an hour earlier. It was one of the more upsetting experiences of a frightening month—the most frightening month I had lived through up until that time, which included several years of going back and forth to the Balkans. What made Jerusalem different is that I felt like the killers were targeting me specifically. While I retained sympathy for the Palestinian activists I knew, I understood in that moment that I was not interested in dying for someone else’s cause, which more and more resembled a death cult.
When I arrived at the museum, I was met by the director, a familiar New York art-world type in a pink-hued suit. He was a friend of some wealthy people I knew in New York. We spent a few minutes chatting together in front of the famous painting, before he took a respectful step back, to afford me a measure of privacy as I communed with the work. “I know it’s important to you,” he said.
I looked at the painting, but something felt off. The colors seemed oddly flat. Klee’s line, which I felt like I could draw with my eyes closed, seemed somehow distorted. I felt an absence of any emotional or aesthetic connection to a work that had occupied a special place in my mind for well over a decade, since I was in graduate school at Princeton, when I loved and lost a girlfriend from college, under circumstances that I felt had nothing to do with me, or the strength of our bond, but I could find no way to alter. In the grip of our tragically doomed romance, I spent late nights marking passages in Walter Benjamin essays. It had been a long day. Suddenly, I knew what I was looking at.
“It’s a fake,” I blurted out.
The museum director looked at me quizzically, weighing my choice of words, and his own. “The original is being restored,” he admitted, after a brief pause. His answer was inflected in a sensitive way that acknowledged my palpable shock while denying that the museum had any responsibility for the unpleasantness that I had suffered. Parsing his tone, my emotional state became even more precarious now that I no longer had the Klee to look forward to. On second thought, I could see a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.
“Can I see the real Angel?” I asked him.
He weighed my request for a moment, no doubt thinking of my feelings but also of the potential disapproval of my wealthy friends in New York. “Sure,” he decided. “Follow me.” He led me to a back room, where I sat with the precious drawing for almost an hour while the conservator gave me a lecture on Klee’s early technique as the warm Jerusalem sun shone in through the window of her workroom.
Bear nodded, his eyes fixed on the turnoff to Bern. “That’s a great story,” he told me. “I also have a story about the ‘Angelus Novus.’”
“What?” I asked him.
“Do you know who the angel is?”
“No,” I answered.
“It’s a drawing of Adolf Hitler.”
I was stunned. “What?” I asked.
“Klee was living in Munich in 1921, remember?” Bear reminded me, quite matter-of-factly. “So was Hitler. In fact, he was already quite well known in town. He used to give speeches outside the café where Klee used to go in the morning, so he drew him. In fact, lots of artists went to the same café, and drew Hitler.”
“That’s bullshit,” I answered. But there was something about Bear’s offhand manner that shook me.
“Sadly, not,” Bear answered airily. “It’s in a book in German by a writer named J.K. Eberlein. The case he makes for the story I just told you is entirely convincing. Walter Benjamin was an adolescent fantasist who knew next to nothing about painting. He was what the Japanese would call otaku. He worshipped this angel his whole life, but he had no idea who the angel was and what prophecy it carried. His angel of history was in fact the angel of death.”
Which is a very profound and also quite alarming idea that was entirely lost on Walter Benjamin, who wound up dead on the French-Spanish border. Neither Adorno nor Gershom Scholem recognized the angel in the painting either. Suddenly, I feel sad that Gershom Scholem spent the last years of his life with a drawing of Hitler in his study.
Bear turns to me. “What’s wrong?” he asks.
It’s not that I don’t believe him, I explain. It’s that his story made me feel sick.
“Graduate school is a waste of time,” he assured me. “Don’t sweat it.”
It’s fine for us to skip Bern, I tell Bear. Instead, we decide to stop off in Gruyères, where we can buy some fresh cheese and bread. Correcting course, I have found a two-star Michelin restaurant 15 minutes away overlooking a stunning mountain pass, according to my iPhone. Bear likes the idea. “And there’s the Giger Museum,” he adds happily. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“Who’s Giger?” I asked innocently.
“Hans Giger,” Bear Man explains. “He’s the maniac who created the monsters in Alien.”
The town of Gruyères is a storybook Alpine village at a high elevation with outstanding views of the surrounding mountains and of the rich valley below. There are several excellent fondue places, and souvenir and cheese shops that line a kind of upward-sloping central street that is shaped something like a gravy boat, widening out in the middle into a town square that is shaped like a cello. Midway up the street is a church, which still displays a crèche. A little further up is Giger’s house, which has been turned into a four-story museum.
While not exactly a cripple, Hans Giger had various physical difficulties that prevented him from doing much hiking or skiing in the mountains. Instead, he spent most of his time indoors, looking out at the scenery. The Giger Museum is filled with terrifying visions of alien lifeforms, depicted in posters, drawings, and also in the form of a full dining room set, complete with chairs made out of alien skeletal remains, which looks like something that Amon Goth might have assembled at Plaszow. Interspersed with this array of horrifying artifacts are stunning picture-window views of the Alps.
There are also displays of memorabilia and correspondence, including a letter typewritten in English from Giger to Alien III screenwriter David Giler, dated 17/9/90, enthusing over the possibilities of the new film. I have cleaned it up only slightly:
A sound of a long, overlaid organ chord. All of a sudden, pointed cries of a retained trumpet, this all visible under the translucent skin. Then a sudden wakeup of the ALIEN by a strange sound.
The ALIEN is getting up and sneaking toward the point of disturbance. You can hear the hollow beat of the heart, see an extension of an organ in the heart area, where you can find also the intensive florescent brightness of the whole body. Going with it a whistle, which is getting louder. The brainfingers start to move rhythmically, and are bending more and more backwards, then the rattling of the longing organ and the swelling of the chest ... .
The ALIEN’s long tongue shoots out from a crocodile-like denture.”
The sublime perfection of the Alps was Giger’s subject, only in reverse. He was captivated by the contrast between the snowcapped mountains and the stuff inside, which leads men to acts of hideous, insectlike cruelty. In the acid visions of late-1960s poster art, he found an expressive form that was visceral enough to make his point: Humanity is a predatory monster. No one, not even Walter Benjamin, could ever buy a Giger drawing and have any illusion about what they were looking at.
On our way out, I notice a red-lit room that we missed in our first trip through the building. Inside is Giger’s idea of a bordello. In one canvas a red-hued woman with a grinning, rotted-out face lies with her legs spread, naked except for a pair of chaps that frames her opened, puffy vulva. She is posing with one hand tucked behind her head, a casual touch that makes the drawing even more obscene. With her other hand, she holds two fingers in a V sign.
The appeal of cults is that they make things simple: Heaven is over here, and hell is over there. Reason was abolished in the Year Zero.
The Puritans were a militarized revolutionary class whose power came from their guilt. The New Puritans have created a synthesis of similar destructive power by using race as an avenue to turn their self-loathing outward. Just insert the word “Black” before any Puritan sentence and you’ll see how direct the translation is.
The Puritans were dark-side players tormented by sinful thoughts that they recorded for posterity and sometimes impelled them to burn heretics alive—which was the punishment ordained by John Calvin for Michael Servetus, the great 16th-century polymath who discovered the role of the heart in circulating blood. Yet even in Calvin’s order to drag Servetus to Geneva and burn him in the street for his propagation of anti-Trinitarian heresy, there was an acknowledgement that God is incarnated in the Word, and his Word is Life.
Let me state again here for the record that the Puritans were nuts. I reject their crazy, guilty doctrines, like original sin, which can be passed on over hundreds or thousand years, condemning the innocent to eternal damnation. Puritan theology isn’t very nice. It is a cauldron of repressed desire for the idols that the Puritans destroyed. It is a technology for gaslighting humanity in the service of a comprehensive program of political and moral improvement that turns life on Earth into an anxiety-ridden hell.
What I love about the Puritans, and am eternally grateful for, is not their insanity and their guilt, but their language, which in the case of Americans gave birth to our own. Their sentences are baroquely self-obsessed, intemperate, and soaring, and at the same time wonderfully practical, directed toward weights and measurements in the here and now.
American English, the language of the Pilgrims, who were the Puritans who broke with Old Europe and settled a new continent, bearing the English-language Bibles printed in Geneva under the supervision of John Calvin by John Knox, is the means by which Puritan guilt and forebodings were merged with Pilgrim optimism and the optimism of the market into the simple, incredibly flexible instrument by which Americans channel the Ahab-like fixations that serve them as a temporary buffer from the onrushing certainty of death. How many kernels of grain are in a bushel of wheat? Such is the minute inspection of our souls by God. Reading Puritan sentences is like riding up and down in a superfast elevator, accelerating to the upper reaches and then plunging downward to granular levels of awareness with dizzying velocity.
American English even has its own unique tense, which I call the future-present, which contains the defining American idea that what is contains what will be—and that the future can therefore be traded upon. Think, for a moment of a peaceful, tree-lined suburb for which only the plans exist, and which so far, to be honest, is actually only a desolate parcel of swamp somewhere off the interstate, which is only a line on a map. Americans can talk about these places if they are features of an already existing landscape, and therefore buy and sell them, and then abandon them half built—and by the time the entire mess sinks back into the swamp, or erupts into a race riot, they have moved on somewhere else. I’m not condemning it or blaming anyone for it. It’s just how Americans are.
To be an American is to inherit the gift of living with one foot in the present and one foot in the future, while the rest of humanity has one foot in the present and one foot in the past. Then, every 20 years or so, we trash whatever tenuous equilibriums we have cobbled together and leap off again into the unknown. So it is, and forever will be, until the oleanders bloom outside my door, and California tumbles into the sea—which might be any day now.
To exist in the everlasting now of becoming is the American birthright, which means that you will inevitably be surprised by the hard inevitability of death, as everything you worked and strived so hard for collapses back into ruin. Yes, it was all so promising, back in the days before the election, or the explosion, or the riots, which were followed by war, and then by depression, then the cattle dying off, and the dissolution of the republic, and the erecting of temples to false gods at the countywide recycling center.
But maybe, just maybe, with the help of the experts, we can cast all this doom and gloom aside. We can put the train of progress back on its tracks, and cash in those free tickets to heaven. Surely, the long lists of our failures and defeats must contain some wormhole of redemptive possibility, which in turn will show that everything that has transpired thus has unfolded exactly according to God’s plan. Because, if not—who are we, and what are we doing here?
Bear is unperturbed. In Basel, he promises, we will stay at the Trois Rois, which is the best hotel in the city, with a great bar. Theodor Herzl drank there. As a top-drawer Viennese journalist, Herzl stayed in all the best hotels.
The Trois Rois is indeed the finest hotel in Basel. The bar is equally excellent. When Bear Man orders a quart of White Russians for us to sip by the fireplace, the bartender barely bats an eye.
Staying at the Trois Rois is an illuminating experience. For example, the famous picture of Herzl standing on the hotel balcony had always led me to assume that the Zionist leader was grandly addressing his followers on the quay below. But the only thing beneath the hotel windows is the Rhine. What was he looking at?
In my reading, I have discovered something truly horrible about Basel, which I reveal to Bear as payback for his story about Paul Klee drawing Hitler. In 1349, I tell him, the entire Jewish community of Basel was burnt alive on an island in the middle of the Rhine. In fact, dozens of Jewish communities were burned alive during that year along the Rhine, including more than 2,000 Jews in Strasbourg in a single day. Did Herzl know what happened to the Jews of Basel when he chose to host the First Zionist Congress in 1897 at the Stadtcasino, around the corner from our hotel?
The world in which the Black Death struck was poor by our standards, but it was a world filled with angels. When the plague hit, the idea of God came crashing down, leaving behind the ruins on which our world was built. It is a commonly accepted premise of historical research that somewhere around 25 million people died of the plague, a figure equal to roughly one-third of Europe’s population. In England, demographic studies indicate that at least 40% of the population died, including two-thirds of the student body of Oxford.
One of Bear’s better qualities, which drew me to him, despite my dislike for the purple-striped Hermes shirts he wears, his fetishization of expensive scotches, and his terrible politics, is that he is a very sensitive person who is alive to any sort of suffering, though he often pretends otherwise. Because he grew up as an only child whose parents were often not present in his life, he has a very well developed imagination, which is capable of blasting him off into outer space. The rarest, and for me most wonderful feature of the Bear’s great brain is that imagining other places and times and alternative ways of feeling and seeing makes him happy. I can see that the thought of the Black Death, and the terrible fear that must have infected the survivors, who might catch the disease from any chance encounter with a stranger or a loved one, makes Bear want to cry.
“The Black Death upsets you,” I venture.
Bear nods. All those dead people probably smelled awful. And then there are the survivors themselves. Trauma can inflict devastating injuries, which can be passed on through families and communities for generations, Bear adds.
“That’s how Jews were created,” he explains. “Because trauma can also breed strength.”
The particular Jew responsible for spreading the Black Death throughout Germany was named Rumboldus. He killed with poisoned drinks, and he poisoned wells with incantations. In Elbing, the Jew Rumboldus, who claimed to have been baptized, was responsible for the deaths of no less than 9,000 people on the 12th of April, 1349. We know of Rumboldus today because a full record of his crimes was preserved in the liber civitatis of Braunsberg. Other towns had other accounts. The Jews who aided Rumboldus confessed that the motives for their crimes included hatred of Christianity, the desire to wipe out all Christians, and the inherent lust of their race for global domination.
Despite these confessions, not everyone in Europe subscribed to notions of Jewish plague-guilt. In England, the Jews were rarely if ever blamed for the plague, because the country had expelled its entire Jewish population a century earlier. Pope Clement VI, born Pierre Roger, the fourth of the Avignon popes, addressed suffering Christendom, large parts of which had become additionally afflicted with the brain-eating conspiracy theory known as anti-Semitism, in a papal bull that proclaimed theories of Jewish plague-guilt to be obviously false. “It cannot be true that the Jews, by such a heinous crime, are the cause or occasion of the plague,” Pierre Roger explained, “because through many parts of the world the same plague, by the hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who have never lived alongside them.”
In a subsequent bull condemning the wave of hideous anti-Jewish violence that followed, and which would become entirely normalized over the next 700 years, such that the most idiotic and transparently false accusations would become a routine and seemingly indispensable part of the common discourse of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and of Weimar Germany and both Czarist and Soviet Russia, of Pan-Arabism and Islamism, of nationalists and communists, of fascists and progressives, of the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter, Pope Clement wrote that those who blamed the Jews for the plague had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil.” Members of the medical college of the Université de Paris agreed with Clement, connecting the spread of plague with the drinking of polluted water, and the Jews of Avignon and Italy who survived the plague did so under Clement’s protection. In Regensburg, the town’s 237 long-standing residents affixed their names to a scroll absolving local Jews of any responsibility for the deaths of their neighbors. Mostly, though, the Jews were burned alive or otherwise massacred, especially in Germany.
What is odd about most textbook accounts of anti-Jewish plague violence is that the perpetrators are portrayed as ignorant peasants, though the violence took place in large cities like Strasbourg and Mainz, where Jews actually lived. Scholars of the period know better. According to the historian Alfred Haverkamp, for example, “the initiative and decisive impulse” for anti-Jewish violence in the Rhine region came from junkers and patricians in the towns, and also sometimes from local princes. In an article titled “The Black Death and the Burning of Jews” in Past and Present, which is the best journal devoted to historical studies on the planet, the great Scottish Jewish historian Samuel Cohn concluded that “[o]f 1,029 towns, villages and regions surveyed in the volumes of Germania Judaica for the Black Death period, citizens and peasants (but even here not the rabble) appear to have carried out Jewish persecutions against the will of ruling elites in only one case—the town of Halle. The source for that claim, however, comes from the archbishop’s own records.”
What the historical record plainly shows is that anti-Semitism is a tool used by elites, who are not motivated by ignorance or even necessarily by greed. If anti-Semitism functions as a conspiracy theory, and is utilized as a tool to gain power, it is experienced as a form of pleasure—an expensive one, Bear points out
“The Germans only burned Jews alive twice over a period of 700 years, and the second time it almost killed them,” Bear says.
“You want to live in Germany?” I query. The perversity of the impulse fits with his character.
“Oh, my family lived in Germany for hundreds of years,” he says airily. “They were very distinguished. I could probably get citizenship there if I wanted to. But God help me if I ever set foot in that country. I’d rather have a Swiss passport.”
Race is a modern invention, a pseudoscience that reared its head in the 19th century. Nearly 2,000 years earlier, Roman legionnaires drawn from the defeated Jewish armies of Judea and Samaria are recorded as guarding the gates of Cologne. The first Jewish community of Basel, which is mentioned as early as 1225, was destroyed during the Black Death. The second Jewish community of Basel, which helped rebuild the city after the devastating earthquake of 1356, were physically expelled from the city around 1400.
While Jews survived for hundreds of years in villages surrounding Basel, they were formally excluded from the city except for the occasional physician or Hebrew printer. The ban on Jewish settlement in Basel proper lasted until Napoleon’s invasion of Switzerland in 1798. The modern Jewish community of Basel was founded shortly thereafter, in 1805. When Herzl arrived in Basel, he received a warm welcome from the city’s Christian elite, which believed the ingathering of the Jews to be a precondition of the Second Coming.
Herzl didn’t bat an eye, because the truth is that Basel wasn’t particularly bad for Jews, by local standards. The Jews of Vienna, Herzl’s hometown, were burned alive en masse in 1420, and the survivors were then expelled. A second expulsion of Jews from Vienna occurred in 1670. Jewish life in Vienna was severely restricted until the 1780s, and the great influx of Jews to Vienna began only after 1848. In historical perspective, what is startling was not either Herzl’s desire for a Jewish state—every nationality in Europe wanted a state—or the Holocaust, which had happened, albeit on a smaller scale, hundreds of times before, but rather the widespread Jewish faith in the promises of modernity.
Some sources claim a total of 600 Jews were burned alive in Basel. Yet according to Nadia Guth Biasini, a historian and president of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, the Jews of Basel were living in 19 buildings, none of them particularly large, in the year 1290, and had only one synagogue, suggesting a Jewish community of less than 400 people. Another historian I consulted estimates the total size of the Jewish community of Basel in 1348-49 at a maximum of 100-120 people. It is not possible to be precise about any of these numbers since the city records of Basel were mostly destroyed by a fire after the earthquake of 1356—as a Jew, I prefer to think of it as God’s revenge.
According to available historical sources, the Jews of Basel were burned alive on an island in the Rhine. But when I ask the concierge of the Trois Rois about where I might find the island, he professed to have never heard such an unpleasant story, and to have no idea where such an island might be located, if indeed it existed.
Ms. Vogel, an older black-haired woman who I meet at the Jewish Museum, which operates under armed guard, has lived in Basel all her life, and has never heard of the island either. She has an idea of where it might be, though. “It would be in the south,” she says. “In the place where the two rivers meet, there’s a kind of half-island. Murderers and criminals were often hanged there.”
To reach the island where the Jews of Basel were burned alive, she instructs us, we should take the bus down to the “Street of Refuse,” near the docks, and walk from there—it should be easy to find. On the other hand, it is possible that the original island no longer exists, since the banks of the Rhine have shifted repeatedly since the 14th century. Still, it’s worth a shot.
Bear Man and I take the bus, and then exit, and walk along the river, until the city starts to thin out. We cross over a stream that is wide enough to merit a footbridge. To our right is a community garden, with sheds and lean-tos marking individual plots. Hand-drawn banners of the kind you see at a food co-op hang on the walls, one of which reads “Free Palestine.” On the other side of the bridge are gray apartment blocks. The children playing outside are darker-skinned than any Swiss—they appear to be mostly Turks, but some are speaking Arabic. A dog barks.
“Not bad for a ghetto,” Bear remarks.
It is dusk. In front of us is a park, which is mostly a field of grass, with a notable depression in the center. There is something odd about the place. New trees have been planted here and there, but none of them seem particularly eager to grow. I have seen similar depressions in parks, beneath freshly planted grass, with young trees, in places like Babi Yar. Maybe we should say Kaddish here. Bear stands and closes his eyes, and recites the ancient Jewish prayer for the dead.
A moment later, I look up, and I realize that the island isn’t here. It’s over there, in the place where two rivers come together. It’s an actual island, where a large power plant has been sited.
What’s most striking about the island is how empty it is. Not one park bench. Nothing. A guy is showing his girl how to fly a drone.
In the far corner of the park, where the shadows are deepest, someone has parked a caravan. Perhaps 40 yards away, three dark-skinned children are playing soccer without the benefit of a net. From the outside, the caravan looks abandoned. I sit and wait. Ten minutes later, two adults and a child emerge from behind the caravan, and head for the sidewalk.
Discreetly, Bear and I follow them. They are talking in a language that is either Romanian or Gypsy, Bear decides. Both the parents are dark, while the child is dark-skinned, with blond hair. They are all going together to use the public bathroom. They emerge with faces washed, and head back to the caravan.
This is the place, I tell Bear. I can feel it. Why else would you put a power plant here, and have a park without a soccer net, or even a single bench? Where else would Gypsies live, without anyone bothering them? We say Kaddish again. I remember flying into Vienna from the Balkans during the Bosnian war, and picking up a newspaper, and reading, in my now-defunct German, a short item about a family of Gypsies that had been burned alive in a trailer in a park, which probably looked more or less like this one.
On our walk back to the bus, which takes a little less than half an hour, Bear tells me his favorite Herzl story, which has been excised from most official biographies of the Zionist leader. At the age of 10, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Herzl, who was then a boy in Vienna, and spoke words that never left him: “You’re the one we’ve been waiting for.”
America, too, was a deeply religious idea masquerading as a form of secular citizenship. The American idea was big enough for everyone because, in the end, it had some idea of God at its core. Let’s call it the American God, the thing that let Americans mix freely and easily with each other. There were exceptions to that easy mixing, of course. Some, often those with lighter skin, and who spoke English, mixed more easily than those with dark skin, who were forced to ride at the back of the bus, and sometimes lynched. But even then, the particular virtue of Americans was their ability to get along with different types of people, equitably or not, and launch plans and projects. Behind that ease was a common ability to sense and communicate some kind of shared purpose that seemed compelling enough for people to have kids and start new businesses and towns. Irish, Italians, Pakistanis, Koreans, Jews, Africans, Mexicans—however fucked up their histories were, and whatever they suffered, they all believed in the dream long enough to buy houses and cars, and pay taxes that built basketball courts and swimming pools. Without the American religion to save them, Americans regressed back to Calvinist guilt and suspicion of their neighbors. Thinking that they had escaped the gravitational pull of Americanness, they got sucked into a regressive historical vortex containing the most toxic elements of their cultural gestalt.
In the new American nightmare, which we are living in now, Jews have become Europeans, and are therefore repositories for the guilt of the people who expelled and slaughtered them—if you believe in the idea of historical virtue or guilt, which I don’t. If America ceases being American, then Jews are no longer particularly relevant. Without the American religion, Americans are just another quarreling bunch of mutts with fleas. The Spirit of History will have moved on someplace else.
Bear left early the next morning for London, and I flew back to New York. But our conversation, and in fact our entire trip, stayed with me throughout the winter months in New York, during which I kept waiting for it to snow, from before New Year’s until the middle of January, when my oldest friend died of cancer in the hospital. After the surgeons rushed her into surgery for the second time, and drilled a hole in her skull to relieve the pressure on her brain, she didn’t remember the names of any of the Beatles, or who Kurt Cobain was. She couldn’t remember my name, or the other old friend at her bedside, whose first name was the same as mine. The last time I visited her, she squeezed my hand, and then held it for half an hour, before getting back to the work of dying—which is like digging your way out of a jail cell with a bent spoon, except in reverse. It took until mid-February for me to realize that the snow wasn’t coming this year.
I was still stuck on the Puritans, though. Which is how I found myself waiting in the lobby of a modest elevator building on Seventh Avenue with no Wall Street suitors or club DJs or messengers in wraparound sunglasses and bicycle chains in sight. Just a dowdy, old-fashioned New York City apartment building, in the heart of Chelsea, with dated hotel lobby furniture of the kind you could maybe sell to old ladies, which is where Michael Walzer lives when he’s not in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study.
If I were Michael Walzer, I’d buy an apartment in Paris and stay there, only that’s hardly his style, which combines plainspoken Midwestern socialist values with a touch of New England asceticism in a way that has sex appeal only for Jewish intellectuals. His apartment is furnished with simple Crate & Barrel-type furniture.
Michael Walzer is old school, but on his own terms. Modern academics with tenure buy modernist leather desk chairs that cost more than all the crappy furniture in Michael Walzer’s apartment. God bless Michael Walzer—and I mean that quite seriously.
I pepper him with questions about his book, and its connection to America’s present misery. There’s something in the ferocity of the desire to discover and punish ever more minute crimes in order to further elaborate the creed, which must be enforced with more and more minute attention, which reminds me of the Puritans. That’s a religious impulse, I suggest. Walzer is amused by my outpouring, and by my fixation on his graduate thesis.
“I chose the Puritan revolution because I was a young lefty who wanted to write about revolutions, and my French wasn’t very good, and my Russian was nonexistent. And America seemed, ah, well, not revolutionary enough,” he told me. “I read Calvin. I wrote about the English in Geneva and the Genevan regime. And you’re right. England was different because in part, Geneva was a city and the Calvinists took very tight control of the city. England was a country. And once the king was overthrown—and this is something that happened in America later on—the fissiparous character of Protestantism asserted itself. Suddenly, there were not only Presbyterians, who were the true Calvinists, but Congregationalists, and Baptists, and Quakers, and heretics of 17 varieties, and even women preaching.”
It could go one way, or it could go the other way, is what Walzer is saying. Cromwell’s parliament of the saints would have been a repressive regime if it had lasted, even though Cromwell himself was tolerant, within a certain range, of theological disagreement. “I’ve often quoted one of his sentences, ‘Think ye in the bowels of Christ, that ye may be wrong,’” Walzer says, grinning at the phrase like an 84-year-old schoolboy. “I don’t think in the bowels of Christ,” he adds, “but it’s a useful, humbling sentence to some of my friends who need to be told things like that.”
“So, to sum up crudely,” I ask him, “you would say that a set of politico-social-geographical contingencies fractured the hold of this thing in England, that was able to consolidate itself behind the Alps.”
“Right,” he answered. “But I think Weber is right to say that a certain kind of secular economic discipline was produced by the Protestant Reformation and perhaps most clearly in England. And I tried to argue that a similar kind of political creation also happened. That is to say, the beginnings of the transformation of subjects into citizens.”
“Uh, right. Subject, saint, citizen,” I responded. “Now, one thing that’s very interesting about that choice, which you put in the context of you and your lefty friends in the early ’60s, is that you set the model of revolutionary thought and behavior in an overtly religious context. Your choice implies, strongly that there’s an underlying religious grammar to all of these ideas, that may become secularized.”
“OK,” Walzer answers, waving his hands. “I do believe there is an even more underlying grammar, and that is the Exodus story. The Puritans wrote again, and again, and again about the king as Pharaoh and the revolution as a journey to a holy commonwealth. And the long march, which Milan Kundera says is the classic kitsch of every left, that’s where it begins, with the Book of Exodus.
“I’ll tell you a story,” he continues. “During the French Revolution, one of the terrorists, Collot d’Herbois, was asked, how long does this terror have to go on? And he says, 30 to 50 years.”
“Meaning 40 years,” I answer.
“Right,” Walzer answers. “You know, if you’re counting by 10s, it’s the number between 30 and 50.”
“So, talking about the transition from saints to citizens,” I continue. “If you ask a New England Puritan in 1640, how do you feel about Jews? The answer might be, well, we certainly don’t want any of them living here. But by the time you ask George Washington, who is creating a republic with a formal separation between church and state, do you want Jews here? The answer is, sure. Why not?”
“Yes,” Walzer answers.
“So there’s a strand of Jewish mythology that comes by way of the Puritans and is secularized in the late 18th century, both forms of which are woven into the American DNA,” I summarize. “Americans, unlike the French, but like the Jews, have memories of the Exodus that are key to their national existence. There are inherently Jewish parts of America that allow Jews to attach here the way they can’t in Switzerland, and you find them everywhere. You can have England without Jews, or France without Jews, but you can’t have America without Jews, which is why the expulsion of Jews from the American mythos would be the end of America.”
Walzer looks interested by this last point. “Give me an example?” he asked.
“OK,” I answered. “I happen to be obsessed with Louis Armstrong, who was the creator of modern American jazz music, right? He was a modernist genius, like Picasso, in an idiom that he invented, and in which nearly all of the most outstanding creators were African American, but which is truly an outstanding example of American cultural hybridity, which in turn is the root source of the particular African American genius, which is in turn an American cultural product.” Walzer nods.
Emboldened, I continue. “Louis Armstrong wears a Jewish star around his neck his entire life. What did it mean? Well, as a child, at 9 years old, he was taken in by the Karnofsky family, who were junk dealers in New Orleans. Every Friday he ate Shabbat dinner with them, which is why, when you listen to Louis Armstrong play blues notes on his trumpet on the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, which are modernist masterpieces where Armstrong invents jazz, you can hear some Yiddish inflections there. I’ve heard interviews with Armstrong where he talked about that sound, which sounded like other sounds he heard in his neighborhood, and so he combined the two sounds into his own sound, which was original to him.”
“I won’t say that’s wrong” Walzer answers. “But the left political culture from which Jews are being pushed is in part a Jewish creation also, right?”
“I don’t think that’s important,” I answer. “Because what people call anti-Semitism on the left is a theological demand. We don’t mind Jewish biology, but if you insist on Jewish particularity, you pose an insuperable problem for us and so we need to rid ourselves of you, because salvation comes only from God’s grace. It cannot come from merit and deeds, which is the foundational Jewish belief. And in the most vulgar sense, here’s a people who have been oppressed as often, and worse, than anybody in Europe, culminating in the 20th century’s largest and most brutal episode of mass murder, which aimed at the extermination of an entire people, some of whom are still alive. And yet, Jews refuse to be victims. They show none of the hallmarks of having been oppressed. And so, as long as they exist in any identifiable, corporate form, they pose a problem for all theories of oppression by negating the supposed results of oppression, which is embarrassing. It shows everybody else up, and so, we’d like to get rid of you, and move you over to the oppressor category, which means abolishing history, and also America. And they’re fine with that.”
Truthfully, I’m fine with it, too. I will make my own hejira. I spent my life as a reporter, in the days when reporting was a way of life. It was a way of approaching other people, in order to better understand the intersection of your subjectivity with their subjectivity in a way that might help to illuminate that tenuously shared space that empiricists refer to as reality.
One thing I have noticed in my work, though, is that the people who yell the loudest are usually full of shit. And if the enlightened few get their way, well—there’s no telling what might happen. I’m not being hyperbolic. Anything can happen. Those are the facts. For those of you who weren’t there, it was called the 20th century, and my family lived through it, like most families on the planet—in Russia and China and Germany and Ethiopia and Iraq and Bosnia and dozens of other places on earth, or maybe most places on earth. Guatemala. El Salvador. Rwanda. Burundi. Uganda. What justice means is that your parents’ store will be burned down or smashed up and you and your loved ones will be beaten to death by a mob or lynched or burned alive with napalm or shot in the back by your friends or locked up in a psychiatric hospital or sent off to die in a labor camp.
So happy birthday, America—the golden land of steak and butter, where every man can live like a king and take the kids to the Polar Bear after dinner for soft-serve ice cream, and where people only rarely lose their jobs because of the misdeeds of their relatives.
God bless Americans, in all colors, shapes, and sizes.
God bless George Washington, who defeated the British redcoats who sought to usurp American liberties under the direction of the Mad King.
God bless Thomas Jefferson, who fathered the Bill of Rights and helped bring an end to the international slave trade. God bless Abraham Lincoln, who kept the Union together while abolishing slavery.
God bless Ulysses S. Grant, the swift and terrible sword of the Union, and William Tecumseh Sherman, his partner in crime, who burned down half the South and then annihilated the Western Indians, allowing Americans to span the Rockies with steel rails, and telegraph wires and fiberoptic cables, leading to the rise of the largest-ever planetary concentration of military, technological, and economic power, which Americans have used, overall, for good.
God bless General George C. Patton, the fearsome war-fighter and vicious anti-Semite who liberated the Nazi death camps and cried at what he saw.
God bless America’s national parks system, which was the creation of none other than Teddy Roosevelt, who defeated the Spanish slavers in Cuba and founded the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and guaranteed safe water and medicine and the right of working people to organize. If you take my advice, you’ll get in your car, or borrow someone else’s car, and drive to one of our national parks, and gaze out upon the manifold wonders of God’s creation. You won’t be disappointed, I promise. And if you’re craving some excitement afterwards, you can stop by any roadside strip club and see our nation’s beauty from another angle.
Back that ass up, America! Makes an old man wish for younger days.
My point is that history rarely moves in a straight line. It shudders and starts, and then reverses itself, before going off at weird angles to whatever came before. Which is to say that history moves dialectically, with each movement engendering an opposite if not always equal reaction. When the action and the reaction meet, they combine together in the form of the next new thing, and then the whole process begins all over again. That’s history in a nutshell—and anyone who starts talking about Original Sin is a dangerous Puritan nutcase.
As Americans, we all drink from the same water fountains. I am James Fenimore Cooper and Ralph Ellison. I am Satchmo and Willie Mays. I am Chuck Jones and Mo Ostin and Kool Moe Dee. I am Betty Boop and Donald Duck and Steely Dan. I am Duane Allman and Absalom, Absalom! I am Stonewall Jackson and John Lewis. I am Brian Wilson and Kanye West. They all speak through me, whether I like it or not, or whether you like it or not. As an American, I contain all of these geniuses, and you do too, which means we are lucky.
Wokeness, the scourge of contemporary American souls, is only a pale imitation of the existential dread contained in one of John Updike’s 1970s suburban novels, which themselves contained only the thinnest echo of the heavy existential bass lines that Jonathan Edwards was laying down.
Oh, Americans! The hour is getting late, and you have nothing to recommend you to heaven aside from the mercy of an angry God.
The gift of the virus is that it has made visible the underlying sickness of the digital age that is killing off the Americans. Wear a mask in public. Keep six feet away from other people. Open wide for a robot swab. Obey the experts. Masks don’t protect you. Everyone must wear a mask. Avoid crowds, because they spread disease. There are only two types of people, anti-racists, and racists, just as there are an infinite number of genders. If Americans were told by their new minders to strip naked and all wear ball gags and feather headdresses outdoors, half the country would be posting selfies of themselves tricked out like clubgoers at the Mineshaft while the other half would be using their burner phones to rat out their neighbors to the cops, who will be replaced next week by committees for public virtue.
I know exactly what Hans Giger’s subject would be today. The great God of the present moment and no doubt for many centuries hereafter unveiled herself at noon on a Sunday in June before 15,000 worshippers dressed confusingly from head to toe in white, the color of innocent purity and also of the most vile and systemic racist oppression that has distinguished America since her founding as a slaver nation in 1619, who gathered in front of the great proscenium arch of the Brooklyn Museum in Park Slope, to celebrate Year Zero. Bear Man wasn’t there, having fled the city for a nice patch of forest just south of the Adirondacks where he practiced every morning with his Remington and baked delicious blueberry pies, but he couldn’t get over what he saw on the tiny screen in the palm of his hand. Throngs of earnest Park Slope lawyers and NGO types, rightfully and self-righteously appalled by the killing of George Floyd and eager to make amends, carrying corporate bottled waters and $5 bake-shop muffins and brownies, with cute socially distanced kids in their cute little fair trade face masks, with no Zoom classes or meetings scheduled because it was Sunday, the day of rest, to witness her arrival. After the intoxicating guilt of the original hashtag had worn off, it seemed like a good idea to maybe add another letter, in order to keep the party going. With no school and no work to structure anyone’s days, the failing downward American leisure class had been deregimented, let loose on their last great holiday.
And so HerZe, as I call her, was born, under the hashtag #BTLM, symbolizing the conjunction of these objects of traditional veneration, Ze Dong and Ze Ass, joined in one body before the white-clad worshippers, because America is a white supremacist nation, while gender is a social construction, which means that race is real but there is no such thing as gender—
I can’t. It’s all just such insane rubbish that at some point you have to laugh out loud, or get high, or piss and shit all over this grotesque vision of humanity, like Hans Giger did. Not because there is anything less than human about any person, regardless of race, class, gender or sexual preference, but because the worshippers in the New Church are zombies. Their God is a projection of the stupidity and guilt complexes and psychiatric disorders of a class of people who, let’s face it, are dangerous to their own kids, and to any half-functional society. This is America, folks. Everyone should be free to dress up like a dragon, or live in Park Slope, or believe themselves to be a unicorn warrior for any cause. Except, these people are members of a cult, and this fall, they will be taking over the schools, as well as the entire country, and the alternative is a pyromaniac Rodney Dangerfield with double the meanness and none of the charm—
Someone please make it stop. It all smelled the same in Jonestown after Jim Jones and his followers drank the Flavor Aid. No more happy hour. Bear Man is gone.
David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, published by Seuil.