a fellow of infinite jest—david foster wallace dead at 46


When I found out David Foster Wallace had killed himself, my reaction was—I imagine—typical of so many who had read him, even just a little (and had of course never met him): a kind of immediate mind freeze for a couple of seconds, followed by hours of stunned disbelief. This summer has proven to be a very bad season for literature: The U.S. poet and critic Reginald Sheppard died from cancer just days ago, and novelist and poet Thomas Disch killed himself only several weeks before. When you further consider the deaths of Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron and Norman Mailer over the last few years, it’s hard not to conclude that the vitality of several generations of American writers has now all but disappeared from the literary world.     


Transcription of Kenyon Commencement Address, May 21, 2005

Delivered By David Foster Wallace


(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I’d advise you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to. In fact I’m gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How’s the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried thatI plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education — least in my own case — is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible — sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.


From: http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html


el hombre invisible waxing prophetic on the coming anarchy

William S. Burroughs’ fiction repeatedly posits a world of global anarchy, or even outright warfare . A recurrent motif is a pitiless guerrilla gang of savage wild boys fighting the agencies of police states (and even armies from other planets!). One has only to dip into a book like Robert S. Kagan’s The Coming Anarchy to see just how terrifyingly plausible some of Burroughs’ mordant imaginings are. Here are the opening sections of Burroughs’ The Wild Boys:



William S. Burroughs
The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead
(Grove Press, New York, 1971)
Tío Mate Smiles
The Chief Smiles
Old Sarge Smiles
And Bury the Bread Deep in a Sty
The Penny Arcade
Peep Show
Le Gran Luxe
The Penny Arcade Peep Show
The Miracle of the Rose
A Silver Smile
The Frisco Kid
The Penny Arcade Peep Show
The Dead Child
"Just Call Me Joe"
"Mother and I Would Like to Know"
The Wild Boys
The Penny Arcade Peep Show
The Penny Arcade Peep Show
The Wild Boys Smile
The camera is the eye of a cruising vulture flying over an area of scrub, rubble and unfinished buildings on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Five-story building no walls no stairs … squatters have set up makeshift houses . . . floors are connected by ladders . . . dogs bark, chickens cackle, a boy on the roof makes a jack-off gesture as the camera sails past.
Close to the ground we see the shadow of our wings, dry cellars choked with thistles, rusty iron rods sprouting like metal plants from cracked concrete, a broken bottle in the sun, shit-stained color comics, an Indian boy against a wall with his knees up eating an orange sprinkled with red pepper.
The camera zooms up past a red-brick tenement studded with balconies where bright pimp shirts flutter purple, yellow, pink, like the banners of a medieval fortress. On these balconies we glimpse flowers, dogs, cats, chickens, a tethered goat, a monkey, an iguana. The vecinos lean over the balconies to exchange gossip, cooking oil, kerosene and sugar. It is an old folklore set played out year after year by substitute extras.
Camera sweeps to the top of the building where two balconies are outlined against the sky. The balconies are not exactly one over the other since the top balcony recedes a little. Here the camera stops . . . ON SET. It is a bright windy morning China-blue half-moon in the sky. Joselito, the maricón son of Tia Dolores, has propped up a minor by the rain barrel and is shaving the long silky black hairs from his chest in the morning wind while he sings
It is an intolerable sound that sets spoons tinkling in saucers and windowpanes vibrating. The vecinos mutter sullenly.
"Es el puto que canta." ("It is the queer who sings.")
"The son of Dolores."
She crosses herself.
A young man rolls off his wife despondently.
"No puedo con eso puto cantando."
("I can’t do it with that queer singing.")
"The son of Dolores. She has the evil eye."
In each room the face of Joselito singing "NO PEGAN A MIO" is projected onto the wall.
Shot shows an old paralyzed man and Joselito’s face inches from his screaming "NO PEGAN A MIO."
"Remember that he is the son of Dolores."
"And one of Lola’s `Little Kittens.’ "
Tía Dolores is an old woman who runs a newspaper- and-tobacco kiosk. Clearly Joselito is her professional son.
On the top balcony is Esperanza just down from the mountains since her husband and all her brothers are in prison for growing opium poppies. She is a massive woman with arms like a wrestler and a permanent bucktoothed snarl. She leans over the balcony wall.

"Puto grosero, tus chingoa de pelos nos soplan en la cocina."

("Vulgar queer, your fucking hairs are blowing into our food.")

Shot shows hairs sprinkling soup and dusting an omelet like fine herbs.

The epithet "grosero" is too much for Joselito. He whirls cutting his chest. He clutches the wound with an expression of pathic dismay like a dying saint in an El Greco painting. He gasps "MAMACITA" and folds to the red tiles of the balcony dripping blood.

This brings Tía Dolores from her lair under the stairs, a rat’s nest of old newspapers and magazines. Her evil eyes rotate in a complex calendar, and these calculations occupy her for many hours each night settled in her nest she puffs and chirps and twitters and writes in notebooks that are stacked around her bed with magazines on astrology . . . "Tomorrow my noon eye will be at its full." . . . This table of her power is so precise that she has to know the day hour minute and second to be sure of an ascendant eye and to this end she carries about with her an assortment of clocks, watches and sundials on thongs and chains. She can make her two eyes do different things, one spinning clockwise the other counterclockwise or she can pop one eye out onto her cheek laced with angry red veins while the other sinks back into an enigmatic grey slit. Latterly she has set up a schedule of "ojos dulces" ("sweet eyes") and gained some renown as a healer though Tío Mate says he would rather have ten of her evils than one of her sweets. But he is a bitter old man who lives in the past.

Dolores is a formidable war machine rather like a gun turret, dependent on split-second timing and the reflector disk of her kiosk, she is not well designed for surprise encounters. Enter the American tourist. He thinks of himself as a good guy but when he looks in the mirror to shave this good guy he has to admit that "well, other people are different from me and I don’t really like them." This makes him feel guilty toward other people. Tía Dolores hunches her cloak of malice closer and regards him with stony disapproval.
"Buenas días señorita."
"Desea algo?"
"Sí . . . Tribune . . Tribune Americano . . ."
Silently pursing her lips she folds the Herald Tribune and hands it to him. Trying not to watch what the woman is doing with her eyes, he fumbles for change. Suddenly his hand jumps out of the pocket scattering coins on the pavement. He stoops to pick them up.
A child hands him a coin.
"Gracias . . . Gracias."
The child looks at him with cold hatred. He stands there with the coins in his hand.
"Es cuanto?"
"Setenta centavos."
He hands her a peso. She drops it into a drawer and pushes the change at him.
"Gracias . . . Gracias . . ."
She stares at him icily. He stumbles away. Halfway down the block he screams out
He begins to shadowbox and point pistols. People stop and stare.
Children scream after him.
"Son bitch Merican crazy man."
A policeman aproaches jerkily.
"Señor oiga. . ."

He lashes out wildly in a red haze blood cold on his shirt.

Enter a pregnant woman. She orders the Spanish edition of Life. Looking straight at the woman’s stomach, Dolores’ eyes glaze over and roll back in her head. "Nacido muerto" ("Born dead") whispers Tío
Pepe who has sidled up beside the woman.

On "sweet eye" days she changes her kiosk to a flower stall and sits there beaming the sweetest old flower lady of them all.

Enter the American tourist his face bandaged his arm in a sling.

"Ah! the American caballero wishes the Tribune. Today I sell flowers but this paper I have kept for you."

Her eyes crease in a smile that suffuses her face with gentle light.

"Aquí señor, muchas gracias."

The paper smells faintly of roses. The coins leap into his hand.

Giving him the change she presses a coin into his palm and folds his fingers over it.

"This will bring you luck señor."

He walks down the street smiling at children who smile back . . . "I guess that’s what we come here for . . . these children . . . that old flower lady back there . . ."

Enter the woman whose male child was born dead. She has come to buy a flower for his grave. Tía Dolores shakes her head sadly.

("Poor little one.")

The woman proffers a coin.

Tía Dolores holds up her hands.

"No señora . . . Es de mío . . ."

However, her timing schedule necessitates a constant shift of props and character . . . "My sweet eye wanes with the moon" . . . That day the tourist reached his hotel in a state of collapse for a terrible street boy followed him from the kiosk screaming

"Son bitch puto queer, I catching one clap from fucky you asshole."

Sometimes half her booth is a kiosk and the other half a flower stall and she sits in the middle, her sweet eye on one side and her kiosk eye on the other. She can alternate sweet and evil twenty-four times a second her eyes jumping from one socket to the other.

Confident from her past victories, Tía Dolores waddles out onto the balcony like a fat old bird.

. . . She strokes Joselito’s head gathering her powers.

"Tell your maricón son to shave in the house." With a hasty glance at three watches, Dolores turns to face this uncouth peasant woman who dares to challenge her dreaded eye.

"Vieja loca, que haces con tu ojos?"
sneers Esperanza. "Tu te pondrás ciego como eso." ("Old crazy one, what are you doing with your eyes? You will blind yourself doing that."

Dolores gasps out "TÍO PEPE" and sinks to the deck by her stricken son.

And Tío Pepe
pops out tying his pants in front with a soggy length of grey rope. Under a travesty of good nature his soul is swept by raw winds of hate and mischance. He reads the newspapers carefully gloating over accidents, disasters and crime he thinks he is causing by his "sugestiónes." His magic consists in whispering potent phrases from newspapers ". . . there are no survivors … condemned to death … fire of unknown origins … charred bodies …" This he does in crowds where people are distracted or better, much better right into the ear of someone who is sleeping or unconscious from drink. If no one is around and he is sure of his flop he reinforces his "sugestiónes" by thumping him in the testicles, grinding a knuckle into his eye or clapping cupped hands over his ears.

Here is a man asleep on a park bench. Tío Pepe  approaches. He sits down by the man and opens a paper. He leans over reading into the man’s ear, a thick slimy whisper.

"No hay supervivientes."
The man stirs uneasily. "Muerto en el acto." The man shakes his head and opens his eyes. He looks suspiciously at Tío Pepe  who has both hands on the paper. He stands up and taps his pockets. He walks away.

And there is a youth sleeping in a little park. Tío Pepe  drops a coin by the boy’s head. Bending down to pick up the coin he whispers . . . "un joven muerto." ("a dead youth." )

Several times the vecinos shoo him away from a sleeper and he hops away like an old vulture showing his yellow teeth in a desperate grin. Now he has picked up the spoor of drunken vomit and there is the doll sprawled against a wall, his pants streaked with urine. Bending down as if to help the man up, Tío Pepe  whispers in both ears again and again . . . "accidente horrible" . . . He stands up and shrieks in a high falsetto voice . . . "EMASCULADO EMASCULADO EMASCULADO" and kicks the man three times gently in the groin.
He finds an old drunken woman sleeping in a pile of rags and claps a hand over her mouth and nose whispering . . . "vieja borracha asfixiado." ("old drunken woman asphyxiated.
Another drunk is sleeping in dangerous proximity to a brush fire.
Tío Pepe  drops a burning cigarette butt into the man’s outstretched band squatting down on his haunches he whispers slimily . . . "cuerpo carbonizado . . . cuerpo carbonizado . . . cuerpo carbonizado . . ." He throws back his head and sings to the dry brush, the thistles the wind . . . "cuerpo carbonizado . . . cuerpo carbonizado . . . cuerpo carbonizado . . ."
He looks up at Esperanza with a horrible smile.
"Ah! the country cousin rises early." While he croons a little tune.
"Resbalando sobre un pedazo de jabón      Slipping on a piece of soap se precipito de un balcón."    fell over a balcony.
Esperanza swings her great arm in a contemptuous arc and wraps a wet towel around the balcony wall spattering Tío Pepe , Dolores and Joselito with dirty water. Sneering over her shoulder she turns to go inside.
The beaten team on the lower balcony lick their wounds and plot revenge.
"If I can but get her in front of my kiosk at 9:23 next Thursday. . ."
"If I could find her borracho . . ."
"And I will have her gunned down by pistoleros . . ."
This boast of Joselito is predicated on his peculiar relationship with Lola La Chata. Lola La Chata is a solid 300 pounds cut from the same mountain rock as Esperanza . She sells heroin to pimps and thieves and whores and keeps the papers between her massive dugs.
Joselito had a junky boy friend who took him to meet Lola.
Joselito danced flamenco screeching like a peacock. Lola laughed and adopted him as one of her "Little Kittens." In a solemn ceremony he had suckled at her great purple dug bitter with heroin. It was not uncommon for Lola to service customers with two "Little Kittens" sucking at her breasts.
As Esperanza turns to go inside six pimpish young men burst through the door in a reek of brilliantine and lean over the balcony screaming insults at Joselito.
This brings reinforcements to the faltering lower balcony. Tio Mate stalks out followed by his adolescent Ka El Mono.
Tio Mate is an old assassin with twelve deer on his gun. A thin ghostly old man with eyes the color of a fadedgrey flannel shirt. He wears a black suit and a black Stetson. Under the coat a single action Smith & Wesson tip up forty-four with a seven-inch barrel is strapped to his lean flank. Tio Mate wants to put another deer on his gun before he dies.
The expression a "deer" (un "venado") derives from the mountainous districts of northern Mexico where the body is usually brought into the police post draped over a horse like a deer.
A young district attorney just up from the capital. Tío Mate has dropped by to give him a lesson in folklore.
Tío Mate (rolling a cigarette): "I’m going to send you a deer, señor abogado."
The D.A. (he thinks "well now that’s nice of him"): "Well thank you very much, if it isn’t too much trouble . . ."
Tio Mate (lighting the cigarette and blowing out smoke): "No trouble at all señor abogado. It is my pleasure."
Tio Mate blows smoke from the muzzle of his forty-four and smiles.
Man is brought in draped over a saddle. The horse is led by a woodenfaced Indian cop. The D.A. comes out. The cop jerks his head back . . . "un venado."
Tio Mate had been the family pistolero of rich landowners in northern Mexico. The family was ruined by expropriations when they backed the wrong presidential candidate and Tio Mate came to live with relatives in the capital. His room is a bare, white cell, a cot, a trunk, a little wooden case in which he keeps his charts, sextant and compass. Every night he cleans and and oils his forty-four. It is a beautiful custom-made gun given to him by the patrón for killing "my unfortunate brother the General." It is nickel-plated and there are hunting scenes engraved on the cylinder and barrel. The handles are of white porcelain with two blue deer heads. There is nothing for Tio Mate to do except oil his gun and wait. The gun glints in his eyes a remote mineral calm. He sits for hours on the balcony with his charts and instruments spread out on a green felt card table. Only his eyes move as he traces vultures in the sky. Occasionally he draws a line on the chart or writes down numbers in a logbook. Every Independence Day the vecinos assemble to watch Tio Mate blast a vulture from the sky with his forty-four. Tio Mate consults his charts and picks a vulture. His head moves very slightly from side to side eyes on the distant target he draws aims and fires: a vulture trailing black feathers down the sky. So precise are Tio Mate’s calculations that one feather drifts down on to the balcony. This feather is brought to Tio Mate by El Mono his Feather Bearer. Tio Mate puts the feather in his hat band. There are fifteen black years in his band.
El Mono has been Tío Mate’s Feather Bearer for fiveyears. He sits for hours on the balcony until their faces fuse. He has his own little charts and compass. He is learning to shoot a vulture from the sky. A thin agile boy of thirteen he climbs all over the building spying on the vecinos. He wears a little blue skullcap and when he takes it off the vecinos hurry to drop a coin in it. Otherwise he will act out a recent impotence, a difficult bowel movement, a cunt-licking with such precise mimicry that anyone can identify the party involved.

El Mono
picks out a pimp with his eyes. He makes a motion of greasing a candle. The pimp licks his lips speechless with horror his eyes wild. Now El Mono is shoving the candle in and out his ass teeth bare eyes rolling he gasps out: "Sangre de Cristo . . ." The pimp impaled there for all to see. Joselito leaps up and stomps out a triumphant fandango. Awed by Tio Mate and fearful of a recent impotence, a difficult bowel movement , a cunt-licking, the pimps fall back in confusion.

Tío Paco now mans the upper balcony with his comrade in arms Fernández the drug clerk. Tio Paco has been a waiter for forty years. Very poor, very proud, contemptuous of tips, he cares only for the game. He brings the wrong order and blames the client, he flicks the nastiest towel, he shoves a tip back saying "The house pays us." He screams after a client "Le service n’est-ce pas compris." He has studied with Pullman George and learned the art of jiggling arms across the room:

hot coffee in a quiet American crotch.

And woe to a waiter who crosses him:

tray flies into the air. Rich well-dressed clients dodge cups and glasses, bottle of Fundador broken on the floor.
Fernandez hates adolescents, pop stars, beatniks, tourists , queers, criminals, tramps, whores and drug addicts.
Tio Paco hates their type too.

Fernandez likes policemen, priests, army officers, rich people of good repute. Tio Paco likes them too. He serves them quickly and well. But their lives must be above reproach.

A newspaper scandal can mean long waits for service. The client becomes impatient. He makes an angry gesture. A soda siphon crashes to the floor.

What they both love most of all is to inflict humiliation on a member of the hated classes, and to give information to the police.

Fernandez throws a morphine script back across the counter.

"No prestamos servicio a los viciosos."
("We do not serve dope fiends.")

Tio Paco ignores a pop star and his common-law wife until the cold sour message seeps into their souls:
"We don’t want your type in here."

Fernandez holds a prescription in his hand. He is a plump man in his late thirties. Behind dark glasses his eyes are yellow and liverish. His low urgent voice on the phone.

"Receta narcótica falsificado."
("A narcotic prescription forged.")

"Your prescription will be ready in a minute señor." .

Tio Paco stops to wipe a table and whispers . . . "Marijuana in a suitcase . . . table by the door" . . . The cop pats his hand.

Neither Tio Paco nor Fernandez will accept any reward for services rendered to their good friends the police.

When they first came to live on the top floor five years ago Tio Mate saw them once in the hall.

"Copper-loving bastards," he said in his calm final voice.

He did not have occasion to look at them again. Anyone Tio Mate doesn’t like soon learns to stay out of Tio
Mate’s space.

Fernandez steps to the wall and his wife appears at his side. Her eyes are yellow her teeth are gold. Now his daughter appears. She has a mustache and hairy legs. Fernández looks down from a family portrait.

"Criminales. Maricónes. Vagabundos.
I will denounce you to the police."

Tio Paco gathers all the bitter old men in a blast of sour joyless hate. Joselito stops dancing and droops like a wilted flower. Tío Pepe and Dolores are lesser demons. They shrink back furtive and timorous as dawn rats. Tio Mate looks at a distant point beyond the old waiter tracing vultures in the sky. El Mono stands blank and cold. He will not imitate Fernández and Tio Paco.

And now Tia Maria, retired fat lady
from a traveling carnival, comes out onto the lower balcony supporting her vast weight on two canes. Tía Maria eats candy and reads love stories all day and gives card readings the cards sticky and smudged with chocolate. She secretes a heavy sweetness. Sad and implacable it flows out of her like a foam runway. The vecinos fear her sweetness which they regard fatalistically as a natural hazard like earthquakes and volcanoes. "The Sugar of Mary" they call it. It could get loose one day and turn the city into a cake.

She looks up at Fernandez and her sad brown eyes pelt him with chocolates. Tio Paco tries desperately to outflank her but she sprays him with maraschino cherries from her dugs and coats him in pink icing. Tio Paco is the little man on a wedding cake all made out of candy. She will eat him later.

Now Tio Gordo, the blind lottery-ticket seller, rolls his immense bulk out onto the upper balcony, his wheel chair a chariot, his snarling black dog at his side. The dog smells all the money Tio Gordo takes. A torn note brings an ominous growl, a counterfeit and it will break the man’s arm in its powerful jaws, brace its legs and hold him for the police. The dog leaps to the balcony wall and hooks its paws over barking, snarling, bristling, eyes phosphorescent. Tia Maria gasps and the sugar runs out of her. She is terrified of "rage dogs" as she calls them. The dog seems ready to leap down onto the lower balcony. Tia Mate plots the trajectory its body would take.

He will kill it in the air.

Tio Pepe throws back his head and howls:

"Perro attropellado para un camión." ("Dog run over by a truck.")

The dog drags its broken hindquarters in a dusty noon street.

The dog slinks whimpering to Tio Gordo.

González the Agente wakes up muttering "Chingoa" the fumes of Mescal burning in his brain. Buttoning on his police tunic and forty-five he pushes roughly to the wall of the upper balcony.

Gonzalez is a broken dishonored man. All the vecinos know he has much fear of Tio Mate and crosses the street to avoid him. El Mono has acted out both parts.

Gonzalez looks down and there
is Tio Mate waiting. The hairs stand up straight on Gonzalez’s head.


He snatches out his forty-five and fires twice. The bullets whistle past Tio Mate’s head. Tio Mate smiles. In one smooth movement he draws aims and fires. The heavy slug catches Gonzalez in his open mouth ranging up through the roof blows a large tuft of erect hairs out the back of Gonzalez’s head. Gonzalez folds across the balcony wall. The hairs go limp and hang down from his head. The balcony wall begins to sway like a horse. His forty-five drops to the lower balcony and goes off.

Shot breaks the camera. A frozen still of the two balconies tilted down at a forty-five-degree angle. Gonzalez still draped over the wall sliding
forward, the wheel chair halfway down the upper balcony, the dog slipping down on braced legs, the vecinos trying to climb up and slipping down.
The cameraman shoots wildly . . . pimps scream by teeth bare eyes rolling, Esperanza sneers down at the Mexican earth, the fat lady drops straight down her pink skirts billowing up around her, Tia Dolores sails down her eyes winking sweet and evil like a doll, dog falls across a gleaming empty sky.
The camera dips and whirls and glides tracing vultures higher and higher spiraling up.
Last take: Against the icy blackness of space ghost faces of Tio Mate and El Mono. Dim jerky faraway stars splash the cheek bones with silver ash. Tio Mate smiles.
Marrakech 1976 … Arab house in the Medina charming old pot-smoking Fatima drinking tea with the trade in the kitchen. Here in the middle of a film to find myself one of the actors. The Chief has asked me to his house for dinner.
"Around Eight Rogers."
He received me in his patio mixing a green salad thick steaks laid out by the barbecue pit.
"Help yourself to a drink Rogers." He gestures to the drink wagon.
"There’s kif of course if you want it."
I mixed myself a short drink and declined the kif.
"It gives me a headache."
I’d seen the Chief smoking with his Arab contacts but that didn’t give me a license to smoke. Besides it does give me a headache.
The Chief’s cover story is an eccentric old French comte who is translating the Koran into Provencal and sometimes he will pull cover and bore his guests catatonic. You see, he really knows Provençal and Arabic. You have to study for years on a real undercover job like this. The Chief wasn’t pulling cover tonight. He was expansive and "watch your step, Rogers" I told myself, sipping a weak Scotch.
" `I think you are the man for a highly important and I may add highly dangerous assignment, Rogers.’ You fell for that crap?"
"Well sir he is impressive," I said cautiously.
"He’s a cheap old ham," said the Chief. He sat down and filled his kif pipe with one hand. He smoked and blew the ash out absently caressing a gazelle that nuzzled his knee.
"’Gotta stay ahead of the Commies or everybody’s kids will be learning Chinese.’ What a windbag."
I endeavored to look noncommittal.
"Have you any idea what we’re doing here, Rogers?"
"Well, no sir."
"I thought not. Never tell them what you want until you’ve got them where you want them. I’m going to show you a documentary film."
Two Arab servants carry out a six-foot screen and set it up ten feet in front of our chairs. The Chief gets up turning switches adjusting dials.
A jungle seen through a faceted eye that looks simultaneously in any direction up or down . . . close-up of a green snake with golden eyes . . . telescopic lens picks out a monkey caught by an eagle between two vast trees. The monkey is borne away screaming. I can feel a probing insect intelligence behind the camera, pyramids ahead fields and huts. In the fields workers are planting maize seeds under the direction of an overseer with staff and headdress. Close-up of a worker’s face. Whatever it is that makes a man a man, all feeling and all soul has gone out in that face. Nothing is left but body needs and body pleasures. I have seen faces like that in the back wards of state hospitals for the insane. Faces that live to eat, shit and masturbate. Satisfied with the inspection the camera moves back to observe group patterns of the workers. They are moving through a three-dimensional film of the operation that covers them with a grey sheen. Occasionally the overseer adjusts a slow worker with his eyes.
Next take shows a room in the temple suffused with underwater light. An old priest naked to his pendulous dugs and atrophied testicles sits cross-legged on a toilet seat set in the floor. The seat is cushioned with human skin on which are tattooed pictures of a man turning into a giant centipede. The centipede is eating him from inside legs and claws grow through screaming flesh. Now the centipede is eating his screaming mouth.
"Criminals and captives sentenced to death in centipede are tattooed with those pictures on every inch of their bodies. They are left for three days to fester. Then they are brought out given a powerful aphrodisiac, skinned alive in orgasm and strapped into a segmented copper centipede. The centipede is placed with obscene endearments in a bed of white-hot coals. The priests gather in crab suits and eat the meat out of the shell with gold claws."
The old priest looks like a living part in an exotic computer. From festering sockets in his spine fine copper wires trail in a delicate fan. The camera follows the wires. Here in a little copper cage a scorpion is eating her mate. Here the head of a captive protrudes through the floor. Red ants have made a hill in his head. They crawl in and out of empty eye sockets. They have eaten his lips away from a gag. A muffled scream without a tongue torn through his perforated palate showers the floor with bloody ants. In jade aquariums human rectums and genitals grafted onto other flesh . . . a prostate gland quivers rainbow colors through a pink mollusk . . . two translucent white salamanders squirm in slow sodomy golden eyes glinting enigmatic lust . . . Lesbian electric eels squirm on a mud flat crackling their vaginas together . . . erect nipples sprout from a bulbous plant.
"They know an aphrodisiac so potent that it shatters the body to quivering pieces. The Sweet Death is reserved for comely youths and maidens. This wonderful old people had a rich folklore. Well I happened onto this good thing through a Mexican shoe-shine boy . . . Yoo- hoo Kiki. . . Come out and show Mr. Rogers how pretty you are . . ."
Kiki stands in a doorway smiling like a shy young animal.
"Now that lad . . . he’s a doll isn’t he? . . . is one of the best deep trance mediums I have ever handled. Through him I was able to teleport myself to a Mayan set and bring back the pictures. The whole thing was so frantic I cooled it all the way in my reports. All I said was it looks like a lovely WUP. That’s code for Weapon of Unlimited Potential . . . He’s hotting up now."
The old priest rocks back and forth. The wires stand up on his spine and his eyes light up inside. His lips part and a dry insect music buzzes out.
"It’s known as singing the pictures. The principle is alternating current. That old fuck can alternate pain and pleasure on a subvocal perhaps even a molecular level twenty-four times a second goading the natives around on stock probes in out up down here there into the prearranged molds laid down in the sacred books. A few singers can deliver direct current and they are only called in an emergency. The control system you have just seen broke down. This happened quite suddenly a whole generation was born that felt neither pain nor pleasure. There were no soldiers to bring captives from other tribes since soldiers would have endangered the control machine. They relied entirely on local criminals for the pain and pleasure pictures. As a last resort they called in the Incomparable Yellow Serpent."
The Serpent is carried in on his amber throne blue snake eyes skin like yellow parchment two long serpent fangs grafted into the upper jaw. As the current pulses through him he begins to rock back and forth. He shifts from A.C. to D.C. A thin siren wail breaks from his lips now open to the yellow fangs.
The pictures crash and leap from his eyes blasting worker and priest alike to smoldering fragments.
A thin siren wail rises and falls over empty cities. "This secret of the ancient Mayans which few are competent to practice.
When comes such another singer as the Old Yellow Serpent?"
"Now the Technical Department think we are all as crazy as our way of life is reprehensible.
" `Bring us the ones that work’ they say `facts, figures, personnel.
" `Put that joker DEATH on the line. Take care of Mao and his gang of cutthroats.’
"I was privileged to assist in a manner of speaking at the Yellow Serpent’s last broadcast in Washington D.C."
Room in the Pentagon. Generals, CIA, State Department fidget about with that top secret hottest thing ever look open line to the President Strategic and NATO standing by. The Old Yellow Serpent is carried in by four marine guards. He begins to rock back and forth. He breathes in baby coos and breathes out death rattles. He sucks in wheat fields and spits out dust bowls.
"He’s just warming up," says the CIA man to a five- star general.
The Old Serpent shifts to D.C. blazing like a comet.
The pictures lash and crackle from his eyes.
A wall blows out and spills screaming brass eighteen floors to the street.
And now the Serpent swings his whip in the sky.
Here lived stupid vulgar sons of bitches who thought they could hire DEATH as a company cop . . . empty streets, old newspapers in the wind, a rustle of darkness and wires.
In the night sky over St Louis the Mayan Death God does a Cossack dance shooting stars from his eyes. The Chief smiles.