Thursday 29 February 2024

On T.S. Eliot's Telling Essay, "Hamlet and His Problems"

Some Casual Thoughts on Why Eliot Was So Critical of Shakespeare's Famous Play 

"He is a ghost, a shadow now, the wind by Elsinore's rocks or what you will, the sea's voice, a voice heard only in the heart of him who is the substance of his shadow, the son consubstantial with the father." - James Joyce: Ulysses (the "Scylla and Caribdes" section)

by James Albert Barr

In 1919, T.S. Eliot wrote a short, but controversial, essay on Shakespeare's most celebrated play, Hamlet. Eliot titled it, "Hamlet and HIs Problems". Now, perhaps he was just being cheekily ironic or unconsciously evasive, but it's interesting that Eliot's title focuses directly on the titular character himself, and "his problems", as opposed to the play in general, because it was, after all, the play, in general, that Eliot took rather bold issue with, as he pretty much cut right to the chase in the essay's opening sentence: "Few critics have ever admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary." 

Eliot went "so far" as to, subsequently, write: "So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure." Eliot attributes the play's alleged "failure" to the "intractable material of the old play." The "old play" Eliot alludes to is Thomas Kyd's, The Spanish Tragedy, which was an initial version, written a couple of decades prior to Hamlet, of the basic events culled loosely from an actual historical incident. In the play, a Knight Marshal of Spain, Hieronymo, cunningly seeks revenge for the murder of his son, Horatio. And there's a German version called Ur-Hamlet too, with an uncertain authorship attached to it. Indeed, they are all based on a well-known Scandanavian story, from the early 13th century, about Amleth (Shakespeare simply moved the 'h" to the front of the name to form Hamlet), which means "mad" or "not sane" in Old Norse, who seeks to avenge his murdered father over the course of many years. Robert Eggers made an exceptional film version of this Norse legend called The Northman in 2022, starring Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke and Anya Taylor-Joy.  

In The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronymo's revenge is engaged more swiftly, whereas Hamlet's is far more complicated and messily executed through clumsiness and happenstance, due to his deeply perturbed state of mind. The reasons behind Hamlet's delays for revenge are far more personally profound and philosophically tangled, provoking Eliot to conclude that Shakespeare lacked an "objective correlative", and thus comes off unconvincingly and ultimately exceeded Shakespeare's ability to wholly successfully express and present in his play.

Eliot employs the word "exceeds" or "exceeded" and "excess" several times in his haunted essay, appropriately enough. Just as Hamlet's father haunts him, so I suspect, also, Eliot's father, and his own restless, malcontented spirit, was haunting Tom around the time he wrote his essay on Hamlet. The timing is interesting and, well, timely. Eliot's father died in January of 1919, nine months before Eliot's essay was published in The Athenaeum on Sept. 26, 1919, which, fittingly, happened to be on Eliot's 31st birthday.

Henry Ware Eliot died with the belief that his son, Thomas, had squandered his considerable education, and, consequently, his very life in the process. Besides the immense sense of grief Eliot must have felt over his father's death, it must have been doubly difficult to realize and accept the unreconciled conditions of his relationship with his somewhat estranged father who, according to Peter Ackroyd's description in his 1984 biography on Eliot, "...represented the American aspiration towards success, thrift and practicality which exerted so powerful an influence throughtout Eliot's life." - a "tenuous influence", it would appear.

Unfortunately, the senior Eliot died thinking his son utterly failed to attain any of the kind of success envisioned, and expected, from his father, by "wasting his time" and efforts on poetry and literature, which Henry Eliot apparently had little interest in or respect for.

It's very interesting, and suspicious, that Eliot would not make any direct reference to Hamlet's murdered father and night-wandering ghost/spirit in his short, relatively brief essay. Why? He makes several references, all with a negative connotation, I might add, towards Hamlet's mother, Gertrude - a "fallen woman" in the eyes and heart of her grieving and discombobulated son. Eliot harshly quips, " is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing." I sense a definitive "intractability" in Gertrude's "character" that, perhaps, was not only difficult for Hamlet to deal with, but for Eliot as well, symbolically via a psychological inversion from mother to father/father to mother, given Eliot's own unconscious state of mind, as a grieving son, at the time of writing his essay. Perhaps an "emotional stratification" of sorts at play here.

Indeed, Eliot charged previous critics of Hamlet with a glaring oversight in regards to their collective interpretations in their "ignoring what ought to be very obvious: that Hamlet is a stratification, that it represents the efforts of a series of men, each making what he could out of the work of his predecesssors." To "stratify" is to "arrange things", or, as in the case of this poly-written play, we're talking, or rather Eliot specifically was implying the different arrangements that were artistically dealt with by Kyd, Shakespeare and so on; of effectively layering the "intractable material", which is to say, more clearly, the tough, stubborn, even perhaps obstinate and incompliant, apparent nature of the source material. 

What exactly, according to Eliot's claim, made this play's material so "intractable"? Well, in evident conjunction with J.M. Robertson's analysis of the disparate plays deriving from the same source material, Shakespeare's Hamlet, in Eliot's opinion, failed to successfully determine a motive of revenge for Hamlet out of the effect of his mother's guilt upon him.. Eliot felt, in the end, that it was ultimately unconvincing, that Hamlet's "madness", which was not wholly feigned, and his character alteration being not complete enough to work structurally successful, because Shakespeare could not ultimately find and utilize an effective enough "objective correlative", the literary concept Eliot famously introduces in his essay; a concept, in fact, that had precedence in the 19th century, namely in Walter Pater's well-renowned 1873 collection of essays, The Renaissance, where, according to Louis Menand, in his 1987 study of Eliot (Discovering Modernism: T.S. Eliot and His Context), Pater, at least, intimates the concept 46 years before Eliot's essay. And just a few years before "Hamlet and His Problems", Richard Aldington writes: "We convey an emotion by presenting the object and circumstance of that emotion without comment.... We make the scene convey the emotion." This description appeared in The Egoist in 1914, And, apparently, John Gould Fletcher also made a preceding allusion to the objective correlative in The Little Review in 1916.

In fairness to Eliot though, I don't think he necessarily made the official claim publicly that the concept was of his making outright. It's just that because his authoritative literary power and considerable influence was so wide-spreading and firm, that it naturally became customary to directly attribute the concept of the "objective correlative" to him. It was perhaps likely because he gave it an "official name".

So, as I was saying, regarding Shakespeare's alleged failure to find an effective, suitable and convincing objective correlative, I would counter-argue (and others already have with their own impressive analyses) that: a) an "irrefragable" objective correlative can indeed be extracted from the play to convey and justify Hamlet's emotions, and perhaps more importantly, his actions, or lack of action, aptly enough, and b) that an objective correlative is in fact besides the point; that the ultimate point of the play is ineluctably and necessarily that which "exceeds" an objective correlative, by virtue of the likelihood that the play's baroque-style tone and Benjamin-cited "Trauerspiel" nature of mournfulness, hence "mourning play", expresses an epochal sense of a late 16th/early 17th century zeitgiest mired in an actual historical crisis reflected within the diegetic confines of Elsinore, and set-off by what Frank Kermode alluded to in his 1957 book, Romantic Image, and Keith Alldritt, in his 1968 book, The Making of George Orwell, more explicitly described as a "bifurcation of human consciousness", brought about, I feel in tenable fashion, by the Protestant Reformation and the cataclysmic fall-out, and many-faceted apogee, that followed over the course of about 130 years, culminating with the English Civil War of 1642-1649, which, in turn, triggered what Eliot called the "dissociation of sensibility" of the latter half of the 17th century and beyond, though he was unaware of the initial "bifurcation of consciousness" in the previous century. This is ultimately, and most pertinently, what I feel Hamlet really meant (even if he didn't know it or understand it wholly consciously, including Shakespeare himself, outside the diegetic events of his play, nor even Eliot, ironically enough) when he declared: "The time is out of joint."

But getting back to the missed "objective correlative", or at least the uncredited one, apparently Eliot was attempting to cite a "particular emotion" in Hamlet that justified and explained his actions and reactions during the course of the play, and the show of disgust and degradation towards Gertrude, his "incestuous" mother, was not ample enough to evoke, or provoke, the kind of neurasthenic and emotionally unhinged behaviour fiercely displayed by the tortured, divided Dane prince.

As Eliot articulated in his famous, if controversial, essay, defining the concept of the "objective correlative", which he insisted is, "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art"  - a rather tellingly revealing declaration when one considers the rigidly reserved, repressed, and socially proper disposition Eliot painstakingly cultivated - he precisely describes it as being, "...a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of the particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked."    

So, the problem Eliot had with Shakespeare's apparent failure to evoke that "particular emotion" he was anticipating, was that the "external facts" throughout the course of the play that were given, via the absorbing, subtle act of "termination in sensory experience", proved incongruous with Hamlet's strange behaviour - the final analysis and judgement proclaimed it an "artistic failure". I think Eliot focused too much attention on the mother and not enough (in fact it was a plumb zero!) on the murdered father, and the theme of fatherhood, in general, infused within the play, significantly enough, given what must have been a personally difficult time for Eliot, having written his essay fairly soon after the death of his own father, whom he, again, had not reconciled with prior to "shuffling off this mortal coil".

Moreover, Eliot seemed to have missed the obversely parallel significance of the Polonius chartacter, whose scenes with his son, Laertes, and his manservant, Reynaldo, Eliot accuses of being completely insignificant and extraneous to the play; in fact he called them "unexplained scenes... for which there is little excuse." I find it very surprising not to notice the incredible irony and consequential hypocrisy found in Polonius' characteristically high-falutin and ostentatious speech to Laertes upon the latter's departure for France.

In the speech, Polonius, with fatally ironic foreshadowing, imparts upon Laertes to, "Give thy thoughts no tongue/ Nor any unproportioned thought his act." The first part of this sentence is amusing to us, because we soon learn that Polonius is quite unable to shut-up and refrain from subjecting others, particularly regarding Claudius and Gertrude, to his irrepressible opinions and inaccurate perceptions. And the second part of Polonius' phony advice to his unwitting son foretells of his own clumsy demise behind the Queen's arras from the undelayed blade of Hamlet's sword in Act 3, Scene 4.

Which brings me directly to my next citation in Polonius' ill-begotten speech, where he then warns Laertes, with almost comical irony, given the hasty, fatal beginning to the aforementioned act and scene: "Beware/ of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in,/ Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee./ Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;/ Take each man's censure. but reserve thy judgement." No doubt, Polonius did not "beware" of his deceptive "entrance to a quarrel" between Hamlet and the Queen, nor was he discerning enough when giving "few thy voice". In the end, Polonius' all too judgemental character got himself killed when he ignorantly meddled in Hamlet's volatile, personal affairs. He was a walking (and incessantly talking) contradiction in ironic reference to his own self-professed maxim: "To thine own self be true" - Pity, in the "pointy" end, that that should be Polonius' "rub".

Furthermore, I think it rather significant that Polonius was, in paternal, and tragic, fact, a father (to both Laertes and Ophelia), who was also killed, which exacerbated an already critical series of circumstances leading to the unabatingly tragic, bloody, and "no exit" style ending. As stated earlier, one of the play's major themes is that of "the father", and its symbolic significance of representing "grace" as opposed to the Queen who represents "nature". Eliot clearly had "father issues", as did Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Ulysses, who puts forth a very trenchant argument for an author's personal biography influencing his work and unconscious workings.

It's this very aspect of Hamlet that Eliot seems to have not understood, perhaps deliberately unconsciously, I suspect, thus provoking his negative opinion and concluding his essay with a rather telling, and ironic, insight: "We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluable puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know. We need a great many facts in his biography; and we should like to know whether, and when, and after or at the same time as what personal experience, he read Montaigne, II. xii, 'Apologie de Raimond Sebond'. We should have, finally, to know something which is by hypothesis unknowable, for we assume it to be an experience which, in the manner indicated, exceeded the facts. We should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself." 

Eliot once said, allusively, that "'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know." Again, precisely, Shakespeare, and subsequently, the German playwrights that Walter Benjamin analysed, in his Origin of German Tragic Drama, felt something they could not articulate at the time of the historical disjointment in its proper "modern terms", and 300 years later neither could Eliot, ironically enough, but we - the "royal We", the present editorial - know more than Eliot now, because he is that which we know within a privileged historical context.  


Sunday 22 October 2023

Mallarme's A Throw of the Dice, the Text as a Blackhole, and the Attainment of Nothingness and Everything

by James Albert Barr

Stephane Mallarme's awe-inspiring and very radical masterpiece of modern, or even proto-postmodern, poetry from 1897, "Un Coup De Des", or, in english, "A Throw of the Dice", begins its primary motif in english, as translated by Henry Weinfield, on the first of a total of what Weinfield refers to as 11 folios, combining both the verso and recto pages as one page, and placing Mallarme's original french text on the opposite page directly over the gap or border or gorge or fold (a Mallarmean obsession, in fact), or perhaps, aptly enough, abyss, where all the book's near 300 pages converge like two crests of a wave colliding head-on, and then taking on the characteristics of quicksand in a white-sanded desert, or even a blackhole swallowing up all matter[s] as it, paradoxically, houses/contains all anti-matter, that is, all that doesn't actually exist, diegetically, in our immediate world. 

Is it not the case, actually, that all books, in general, act as "blackholes", swallowing all content in a book unto totally silent darkness when it is closed/shut? But then, like the light from a dead star, the book's content is once again illuminated for us when we open it - possibilities, contingency, and chance can then engender, incite, generate, kindle, and give rise to themselves among the readers.

Mallarme's primary motif for "A Throw of the Dice" features the typographical proportions of 30-point, bold capital letters spelling out this line over the course of 9 folios: "A THROW OF THE DICE/ WILL NEVER/ ABOLISH/ CHANCE," The first part, again, appears in folio one, surrounded by stark white space. The second part of the motif appears in the second folio where it is preceded by more blank white space, and followed then by the poem's second, or parenthetical, motif which begins with 12-point capitals: "EVEN WHEN LAUNCHED IN ETERNAL/ CIRCUMSTANCES."

The third part of the primary motif pauses through the third and fourth folios, and then reappears again at the bottom right of the fifth folio. And, finally, the fourth and final part of the poem's primary motif appears in the ninth folio, just over halfway down the page. This particular folio is undoubtedly the poem's busiest, loudest, or rather cacophonous and multifarious page. It simultaneously features six disparate motifs interacting/corresponding, or even crashing together, like the aforementioned waves, suggesting a crescendo that culminates with the finale of the poem's primary motif (or expressed, singular line), while the last two folios act as an outro and coda of sorts, bringing the entire masterful poem (or rather, "symphonic piece") to an overwhelming close with this conclusive line: "All Thought emits a Throw of the Dice."

To my utter astonishment, and belated embarrassment, after a thorough re-reading of "Un Coup De Des" back in 2009, particularly after I read Weinfield's 12-page commentary on the magnum opus, I, at last, realized that I had been misreading Mallarme's masterpiece for over a decade! And, not to mention, right under my oblivious nose, I failed to notice that Mallarme basically came up with the idea for what I whimsically called, in 1999, "Echo verse", but I never followed through with it, where Mallarme actually did, with a far more practical and do-able technique. My approach was, in the end, too damned difficult, or even really possible for that matter.

What I had hitherto been taking as mere sequential emphasis throughout "A Throw of the Dice" was/is in fact (thanks to Weinfield's explication, point by point, literally) a typographical divergence and textual division of specific and separate motifs within the same poem! Vaguely similar to what I had envisioned as ends of words forming other words with a converging of the following words, or letters, to form simultaneous, separate sentences within the same sentence, Mallarme simply bypassed such fanciful syntactical ambition by altering the typographical proportions to form his sentences within a sentence to "echo" or accentuate specific counterpoints of expression, like musical movements in a symphony, conjoining all its separate pieces within the same space and time, and most spectacularly, on the ninth folio that creates a textual crescendo climaxing on the word "chance".

Ostensibly, or on the surface, "A Throw of the Dice" appears to have been composed using "free-verse",  but that's not actually the case, despite what some in the literary community, past and present, believe, when closely observing the formal text of the poem in all its multiple facets, while absorbing its divisional content, and its themes and symbols. 

For instance, the eleventh and final folio displays a textual formation that suggests the constellation, Ursa Major, or "The Big Dipper", giving it an ideogrammatic character, and a crucial point of navigation. This concretized, poetic constellation in folio eleven is reinforced by the direct usage of the very word "constellation" in 12-point capital letters that concludes one of the poem's most important and central motifs, which began nearly halfway down the previous, tenth folio beginning, appropriately enough, with the negative word: "Nothing". It's appropriate for a number of apposite reasons. For instance, the word "Nothing" is preceded by a third of a page of exactly that: nothing, just blank white space.

Secondly, the entire line reads: "Nothing/ will have taken place/ but the place/ except/ perhaps/ a constellation." Actually, the entire line, theme, motif begins in the second folio with "Even when cast [Weinfield actually chooses the word 'launches', but I definitely prefer 'cast' as used by Daisy Alden in her translation of the poem back in the late 50s, because it more fittingly associates itself with 'the dice' being thrown, hence 'cast', where Weinfield seems to be correlating 'launches', ironically and paradoxically, with the 'shipwreck'] in eternal circumstances", and continues thusly, ".../ From the depths of a shipwreck/ Though it be/ The Master/ Were it to exist/ Were it to begin and were it to cease/ Were it to be numbered [or better, 'summed up', in the Alden translation]/ Were it to illumine/ Nothing/ Will have taken place/ But the place/ Except/ Perhaps/ A constellation." 

In one of the lower-case counterpoints in the poem, between "Perhaps" and "A constellation", is the line: "the Septentrion as well as North", which further indicates the seven stars forming The Big Dipper, and point to the North Star. The, admittedly, premature point made regarding the word "Nothing" still applies, effectively enough, despite being preceded by its related accents starting in the second folio. This ideogram (or even hieroglyphic) of the Big Dipper constellation recalls Mallarme's famous and sublime "Sonnet en-yx" line: "For the Master has gone to draw tears from the Styx/ With this sole object that nothingness attains", and its last line, "The scintillations of the one-and-six." Both suggest Ursa Major/The Big Dipper, and most importantly, illuminate the beautifully poetic, and thoroughly ironic, meaning of the "sole object that nothingness attains"...

Everything and nothing emanates from what Jacques Lacan, who was deeply influenced by Mallarme, called, The Symbolic Order; the linguistic realm from which all die are cast unto the eternal chance, or arbitrariness, of signifiers and signifieds, which can create a fantastic voyage, a timid docking, or a disastrous shipwreck. The point is to play, to set sail.         

Saturday 21 October 2023

The Sure Ellipsis (an unfinished novel)

Here's the first two chapters of an unfinished novel I started back in 2012. It's semi-autobiographical in its depiction of the protagonist and the events he experiences, with and without his friends. The James Joyce Irish pub was indeed an actual pub that was located in The Annex on Bloor Street in Toronto, Ontario. It sadly closed its doors around the end of the 2000s. ...Oh, and I am a fan of Bob Balaban.

by James Albert Barr

[warning: there is coarse language used]


“What the fuck did you just say about Bob Balaban?”

That was the belligerent little query that started the bar brawl.

It was a Friday night, and Mark and I were at the James Joyce pub on Bloor St. in the Westside of Toronto. It was early April, 2010. I had just recently quit another go-nowhere baking gig; hadn’t written a new poem in about seven months; couldn’t piece together a logical enough narrative in my head to start a novel, despite a juicy idea; was last inside of a woman when “Arrested Development” was still keeping network execs precariously at bay; and the goddamn Leafs failed to make the playoffs again. Oh, and my world view, in general, was getting ever more disturbing with each new seismic discovery via my, increasingly, solitary studies/life, and occasional but always stimulating discussions with Russell and Phil whenever we got together for “the coffee thing”. Add that all up and you had a desperately horny, emotionally jaded, disenfranchised and artistically starved, early 21st century-something, in truly dire need of tying one on in the most supreme and unadulterated fashion. I also felt an irrepressible impulse to clock an unmitigated twit right square in his goddamn twit-addled face.


Of course, despite my festering anomie, I didn’t go the pub with Mark with the conscious intention of getting into a fight, but it helped that the integrity of my sense of better judgement had been severely impaired by the nine or nineteen beers I had imbibed prior to giving this guy the ole “how-do-you-do-fist-sandwich”; I mean, I cold-cocked the bastard! I didn’t knock him out, but I did succeed in overtly pissing him off …and his three, equally generic-looking cronies standing around the same chest-level table, who barked, “What the fuck?!” in unison when I came out of nowhere with my fist a-flying in mid-sentence, allegedly defending the name of one Bob Balaban. 

Another - great idea at the time - reason for the audacity, nay, stupidity, I showed going up to this, larger-than-thou, cement-head was that I was with Mark Sewell. Mark and I were friends from way back in our Saint John days some eighteen years ago. He had moved to Toronto about two or three years before I decided to venture this way myself. Anyway, Mark had started taking karate classes in the late-90s, got away from it for a few years during mid-last decade, and then returned to his old dojo. He was a second-degree black-belt now. So in my infinite wisdom (“under the influence”, of course), coupled with a Caesar-like knack for rules of engagement and attack strategies, I felt I definitely had the upper-hand, because “Jean-Claude Van Damme” was on my side! Little did Jean-Claude - I mean Mark - know that “the plan” was incumbent upon his intuitive knowledge and instant, co-operative intervention for us to “win the day” so-to-speak.

As I was visualizing in my inebriated mind the ideal outcome of this imminent confrontation, with live, refreshing Celtic-style music screaming in everyone’s ears (and there were a lot of sets of ears there at the James Joyce) I failed to notice that “my back” had gone off to make a, by now, merely warm-water deposit in the men’s room, about a minute or two before I made my move; assuming he was right there behind me with an eager “You’re going down mother-fucker!” muscle-twitch in his wide, bayonet-eyes all the while.   

So it wasn’t until after I punched this unsuspecting guy, and was then, in turn, roundly besieged by the three other guys, that Mark had returned unawares from the washroom, saw what was happening, but did not intervene until he finally deduced that it was actually me buried under four severely ferocious knuckle-draggers pummeling me with an abandon! Mark then acted instinctively and came to my aid, but was unable to fully utilise his karate skills, because there really wasn’t a whole lot of room as we were in close proximity to the pool-tables and beige-leather couches and tripod hardwood tables (I think one got knocked over with my face), not to mention the amassed crowd taking up more space. 

Also, Mark was, in fact, not Jean-Claude Van Damme, and therefore could not take out several “goons”, a la an action movie sequence, like I foolishly thought in the ridiculous scenario I had built-up in my stupid-drunk mind! He did, however, flip one guy onto a pool-table and may have broken another’s nose before a couple of bouncers broke-up the fight, grabbed us (as we were informed upon as the perpetrators) and threw us out of the joint, much to my after-the-fact embarrassment, of course - for me and for Mark. And Mark didn’t deserve the ignominy. He was only trying to save his friend’s helpless and worthless ass- the same sad ass that rudely met pavement when I landed on it after doing an impromptu impression of a bell-curve in the air – I’m not the heaviest guy in the world, so…    

Mark also didn’t deserve to have his prescription glasses broken either, but alas they were, irreparably. He was not pleased with this outcome to a situation he did not at all understand.

“What the…! Jesus Christ, Steve! What the hell happened in there?”

“I’m sorry, man.”

“Look at my glasses! They’re destroyed! Do you know what these things cost?”

I threw up just then. The blood rapidly dripping from my face mixed in with the vomit. It wasn’t pretty, and I’m sure my face wasn’t either. My torn and dishevelled clothes reeked of Guinness. Some passers-by were understandably grossed-out by my street performance. 

After the heaving stopped from my diaphragm, I said naively: “You have another pair don’t you?”

“Yes! They’re my back-up pair, you moron! Now I’m going to have to get a new pair! And that’s going to cost money, money I don’t have right now!”

Mark’s physical condition was far less damaged compared to mine, which must have looked as bad as it felt. I was definitely not looking forward to beholding my battered, bloodied and bruised reflection in the mirror when I got home. 

Mark’s disposition, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as easy-going and jovial as it usually was, and I was now seeing, no matter how drunk I still was, a very different side to his personality. It was a bit unnerving to witness, I can tell you; and he wasn’t all that drunk besides, as he could handle his booze a lot better than me. I wasn’t anxious to get to the point of what exactly went on inside the James Joyce, but his hitherto good estimation of me was on borrowed time as he spurred me once again: “Well? What the fuck happened, man? Tell me!”

“Some dip-shit frat boy-type provoked me.”

“Provoked you? Within the 90-seconds or so that it took me to go take a piss? I thought we were having a good time. I didn’t notice anything about to go down, man! And did you just say ‘frat boy-type’? Steven, you’re forty fucking years old, dude. You’re still sweatin’ that old, tired stereotype?” 

He was right. I was forty years old, and soon to be turning forty-one come mid-May… fuck’s sake.

Mark continued: “So okay, ‘Delta Beta Mitch’ ruffled your feathers - how?” 

“Well, he kind of did it, um,… indirectly.”

“Indirectly? What the hell does that even mean?”

In my state of mental confusion, physical disrepair and drunkenness, I feebly scrambled for some kind of justifiable answer to Mark’s legitimate question; it didn’t come, the justification, that is: “He provoked me from a societal standpoint, the way he carried himself with his obnoxious and flagrantly ignorant behaviour.” 

Mark was beside himself in disbelief, holding in his blood-red-knuckled hand the twisted and broken remains of his vital prescription glasses: “You mean to tell me that you actually started the fight?” 

“Uh, kind of, yeah.” I replied, sheepishly, struggling to get back on my feet.

“Oh, I don’t believe this! You just got me thrown out of the James Joyce, because you didn’t like the way some regular stiff was acting? Places like this are crawling with those kinds of guys. What is wrong with you?!”

“I – I don’t know, man. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” 

Sighing deeply, Mark then asked: “Alright then, what the hell did you do? How did you, um, how did you start the fight then, you crazy bastard?”

Unable to engage my more advisable internal censors, while shrugging my numbed shoulders, I freely blurted out with a half-laugh: “I asked him what the fuck he said about Bob Balaban.” Even in my drunken and beaten-up stupor, I knew this wasn’t exactly my finest moment on this planet.

Mark was understandably dumbfounded, and he enunciated slowly: “Bob Bal-a-ban? Who the fuck is Bob Balaban?”

“He’s a solid character actor. You know, the guy that played the president of NBC on ‘Seinfeld’.” I said, matter-of-factly.

“I never really watched ‘Seinfeld’, Steve, you know that. But that’s not the goddamn point! ...Christ, I’m fucking out of here, man. This is just unbelievable.” 

Without uttering another word, Mark hailed a cab that was close by and quickly got into it, and it left heading eastbound towards the opposite side of town. I figured it would start raining right about then, but it didn’t. I still felt like shit in all areas of my being though. Slowly and laboriously, I began walking further west towards my bachelor apartment located between Lansdowne and Dundas West. On the way, while still in the Annex part of Bloor St., I received a few choice comments of the standard sophomoric variety from younger, likely, bar-hoppers. 

You may ask why didn’t I just grab a cab as well, but the answer would be that I was nearly broke (Mark was graciously footing the tab a beer or two prior to my shenanigans). That and I masochistically felt obliged to wear my definite sense of guilt in public, kind of like a scarlet-letter, only I was a male, willingly displaying it, and not a Nathaniel Hawthorne character, …or was I, after the fact? Existing for over forty years in this increasingly awry world, I really wasn’t sure who the hell I was anymore, or what I was supposed to be. How could this have happened? You’d think by the time you reached forty years of age the notion of identity would be several years removed from being an issue. But there I was drifting aimlessly in a kind of nominal nebula, I mean besides retaining the name I was given, unwittingly, at birth, which graced the three pieces of federally-issued identification in my well-worn wallet: birth certificate, SIN card, and Ontario Health card.

What kind of life was this that I was allegedly leading? Was I a man? Contemporary society and the establishment would likely vote “nay” on that proposition, I suspect. Now, I don’t necessarily condone my actions at the James Joyce, they weren’t entirely of the mature persuasion, I admit. And I genuinely felt bad about involving my supposedly good friend, Mark; thankfully the police didn’t get involved though, and no assault charges came my way (besides, I was the unfortunate one that, ultimately, got the snot beat out of him).

But I was apparently in need of some decompressing, of blowing off some steam; and getting drunk and suddenly letting loose my more primordial side seemed like the right prescription at the time, regardless of consequences, and whatever the blatant violation of the expected social norms and laws of behaviour in our so-called civilization. Still, this incident wasn’t like me at all. I hadn’t been in a fight since the Clinton administration, and that was while playing ball hockey back in Saint John. I write poetry for Christ’s sake, and read T.S. Eliot and Stephane Mallarme and Slavoj Zizek! No, this was something deep inside of me that demanded to be let out no matter what level of cultivation and auto-didacticism I had ostensibly acquired. My pent-up sexual frustrations weren’t doing me any favours either. I really needed to get laid.

While chasing the vaporous tail of the internal chimera that was my life, and life in general, as I lumbered ever closer to my place in the wee smashed hours of Saturday morning, I finally asked myself: “Why Bob Balaban?” Why a short, soft-spoken, physically unimposing, bespectacled, and practically anonymous character-actor indeed?

The answer to that unusual question, which was two-fold in nature, however very odd that nature presented itself, materialised after I had suffered the initially waking, physical aches of having been throttled the night before, coupled with the head-pounding pangs of one helleva terrific hang-over. I was also still in my rank and blood-stained street-clothes, shoes and all.  So I really needed to clean myself up and then do as little as possible for about three or four hours. At last, after deeming it digestively safe to eat something (in this particular case, a relatively conservative bowl of chicken noodle soup with crackers), I sat down in front of my old-style, serpentine desk and began to write about what had gone down at the James Joyce pub in a new journal entry. And then I finally elaborated on my weird Bob Balaban reference.

I’m, of course, a big film-buff, and as a film-buff you begin noticing the work of lesser known “character actors” over time such as: J.T. Walsh, Michael Jeter, Ian Holm, Denholm Elliott, Thelma Ritter, Agnes Moorehead, Mercedes Ruehl, and Veronica Cartwright, just to name a choice few. And Bob Balaban definitely fits into that stalwart category. I think my earliest memory of him in a film was when I saw him in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” where he played one of the scientists who was investigating the strange phenomena that was happening around the globe, like a tanker ship suddenly appearing in the Sahara desert and WW II fighter planes reappearing in near immaculate shape as well. It’s one of my favourite movies for sure. Then I recall seeing him in “2010: the Year We Make Contact” as the genius who designed the H.A.L. computer program whose artificial intelligence gained consciousness, not to mention some homicidal tendencies too. I also enjoyed him in “Deconstructing Harry” (one of my favourite Woody Allen films: “You see? The most beautiful words in the English language aren’t ‘I love you’, but ‘It’s benign!’“), and those great, hilarious Christopher Guest films like “Waiting for Guffman”, “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind”. He actually appeared briefly in perhaps my favourite film of all-time, “Midnight Cowboy”, where he played the nerdy gay student who went down on Joe Buck in the movie theatre; and when he couldn’t pay the desperate “stud of New York” for the blow-job, ole Joe tossed him around like a ragdoll in the men’s restroom (“No, please don’t take my watch! It’s not worth anything! I can’t go home without it. My mother would die, she’d just die!”). 

Another personal favourite of mine is the 2001 Terry Zwigoff film, “Ghost World”. Balaban played Thora Birch’s ineffectual, milquetoast father. He was, as usual, patently reserved and unassumingly funny. That movie really affected me, actually. The way it depicted modern life as one all-consuming fast-food chain, or themed restaurant, where there is no real attempt to capture any period authenticity; the nameless town that Birch and Scarlett Johansen had aimlessly wandered around, in such a blasé fog, just seemed so commercially sanitised and lifeless, hence the title of the film (which was actually based on Daniel Clowes’ underground comic book). It’s a beautifully sad and humorously ironic film. And lastly, the aforementioned Season 4 gig Balaban had on “Seinfeld”. I still haven’t gotten a decent enough explanation as to why Mark doesn’t like that classic sitcom. It’s crazy! We like the same kind of intelligent, witty and ironic humour, but he just doesn't like “Seinfeld”! Go bloody figure.

I’m really not sure why I chose Bob Balaban’s name when I rudely introduced myself to that philistine just as the punch (line?) came. Maybe it was the sheer irony of name-dropping a relatively unknown actor whose characters - and likely Balaban himself - represent the direct opposite of the behaviour and disposition I flagrantly put on riotous display at the James Joyce that inexplicable night. And there’s also the probable fact that said philistine wouldn’t have had a jolly clue who Bob Balaban was. Does that make me a cinematic snob, as well as a menace to society?  


It’s just as well, because I have a few typically non-conformist problems with society anyway, regardless of the probable futility of my so-called iconoclasm, even for an adamant and notoriously impractical 40-something like myself, who would be expected, by now, one normally-developed adult would think, to know better. Well, fuck that, I say…    


The next day - Sunday, that is – I tried calling Mark to apologise, soberly, to him for what I put him through late Friday night at the pub. However, it wasn’t Mark who picked up the phone on the other end, but his wife of eight years, Olivia.

“Hello, Mark?” I started.

“No, it’s Olivia, Steven. Hello.” That “hello” had a frost-warning on it.

“Oh, hi, Olivia, say is, um, is Mark there? I’d really like to talk to him.” I was already sensing something like a tactical interception on Mark’s behalf. And then Olivia laid it all out by charging right through the proverbial bush, thorns and all.

“Mark is pretty upset with you, Steven, and so am I. How could you do that to him, you ass-hole?! You’re supposed to be close friends!” Christ, I felt like I was seven years old again, and incurring a right good scolding from my mother (minus the “ass-hole” comment, of course; my mother would never have been so discreet). It was rather embarrassing, quite honestly. I’m still amazed by how the workings of our psyche have a tendency to internalise those negative childhood moments and retain the personal records for future use, by superimposing them as guilt, when we become humbled by a contemporary incident. Freud called it the super-ego. We don’t live in the past, the past lives in us. I knew that I fucked up, royal, with Mark (and then with Olivia too, I guess, by association), but I’m only human after all, or so the cliché goes.

“Look, Olivia, I’m really sorry about what happened the other night, and how Mark got involved and all, because of me; that’s why I’m calling, for God’s sake, to make amends and try to make it up to him somehow”.

“Well, you can start “making it up to him” by getting him a new pair of glasses!” she insisted. 

Oh shit, that’s right too! I almost forgot about Mark’s glasses. What could I do there? I simply didn’t have the money to pay for them, and it would be a great initial gesture towards reconciliation between us too. 

I regretfully responded with: “There’s nothing more I would love to do, Olivia, than to be financially able to buy Mark some new glasses, but I’m almost broke. I simply can’t do it right now. I’m still looking for work.”

“Looking for work?” Olivia said, in confusion, “I thought you had a job baking somewhere?” 

“Oh, um, I-yuh,…”, cleared my throat, “…I did have a job at Bloom’s Bread, but it, uh, it didn’t work out, I guess, and I left a couple of weeks ago.” Good god, I felt like such a loser.

“Oh, Steven, you really need to get yourself together and straighten out your life before it’s too late to do anything with it.” Olivia wasn’t wrong in principle.

With a face-palm tone, I replied: “I know, Olivia, I know. You’re absolutely right.”

Then she closed with: “Listen, I gotta go, and Mark really isn’t up to talking to you yet, okay? So, I guess just take care of yourself and we’ll see what happens later, okay, Steven? Bye.” Her line hung up. *sigh*

I couldn’t blame Olivia for anything that she said to me. She had every right to do so. Mark and I never had a rift like this between us before. It was going to take some serious Fred Astaire-like foot-work to brighten this suddenly darkened room.

After the complete failure that was the phone-call, I figured, at that moment, music was my only recourse, so I put on an appropriately morose-sounding album by the equally and appropriately named Low. The Minnesota-based band is known for their starkly intimate, minimalist, “softcore” sound and amazing harmonies. The title of the album I put on was “Things We Lost in the Fire”, Low’s 2001, darkly gorgeous masterpiece.  My favourite track is “Embrace”. Mimi Parker’s tremolo vocals, performed with aching sincerity, in this devastatingly beautiful song are quite breathtaking; and the lyrics in the second verse resonate especially with me, despite the offbeat, and potentially funny, second line: “Breathing in time, so hard to trace/ Crushing your skull with my warming embrace/ It won’t last – hold on fast/ It won’t last – hold on fast”. It was pretty soothing stuff to listen to right about then, great music to stew in.

I actually discovered Low several years ago while listening to my favourite radio program, Brave New Waves, which was based in Montreal and aired on CBC Radio 2 from 1984-2007. In fact, I discovered many, many great bands and artists listening to that awesome show, such as: Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, The High Llamas, Broadcast, Morphine, The Apples in Stereo, Sleater-Kinney, Mogwai, Flying Saucer Attack, Tortoise, Main, Modest Mouse, The Beta Band, Neutral Milk Hotel, Sparklehorse, Mercury Rev, The Constantines, Jim O’Rourke, Archers of Loaf, Unrest, Quasi, Marine Research, June of ’44, Pell-Mell, DJ Shadow, Kid Koala, Squarepusher, Trans Am, Guided By Voices, Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, etc, etc. When I tuned in between 1996-2003, particularly, Patti Schmidt was the host. She had a great radio voice – quite articulate and rather sexy! I miss that show a lot. Due to considerable budget cuts and CBC Radio’s restructuring of its format and “image”, Brave New Waves was sadly cancelled in 2007. A veritable cultural crime, if you ask me.

I did very little the following two days except mope around my place watching some “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Twin Peaks” and “Dexter” episodes, which I owned on DVD, and reading some Mallarme (particularly “Un Coup De Des”, that is, “A Throw of the Dice”) and “Doom Patrol” comic books (ones written by the brilliant Grant Morrison, specifically). 

On Wednesday evening I decided to give Russell Martin a call to see if he was up for “the coffee thing”. He actually had a day job waiting tables at Baton Rouge down by the Eaton Centre on Yonge Street. Russell was about four years my junior, which made him around 36. He was a confident, good-looking fellow who rarely had trouble getting attention from the ladies. We first met while working at an Asian-themed restaurant called Forkchops up by the Yonge and St. Clair intersection in the late 90s. Their specialty was soups, but they had an array of noodle dishes as well, featuring their popular yakisoba sauce, and a small variety of dim sum appetisers, such as gyoza dumplings (I loved those!). Russell and I worked a lot of shifts together while at Forkchops. I was usually on soup-detail, and he took care of the noodle dish portion. His grill was right beside my humongous soup pot, so we could easily shoot-the-shit while working. 

During evening shifts, when it wasn’t very busy, we would get into some great philosophical conversations. Even our manager would get in on it (so long as that manager was named Scott), and a waitress or two as well, like Sabrina, for instance. She was especially cool because she actually read Rimbaud, Burroughs and Bukowski. It may sound sexist, but I just never met a female that read those guys before back then, nor since to be perfectly honest. I inevitably found her interesting, and attractive, not just for reading those great writers, but for the way she carried herself, with her social confidence and assertive, fiery opinions. Nothing happened between the two of us though. She dated some other guy who worked there.

Russell was a writer too. His preferred forte was screen-writing, for better or for worse. Like many impressionable 20-somethings did when they saw “Pulp Fiction” back in 1994, he wanted to do that. Since I’ve known him, Russell has written about eight screen-plays; none of which have been actually made into films, but he’s persisted in his dream (I actually liked the one titled “Planet Jane”), so I can’t fault him for that, especially when considering that my chosen literary field is poetry, for God’s sake! For all intents and purposes, an art-form all but dead. Russell, however, did write the occasional poem, and even essay. He was fairly well-read, and had many fascinating philosophical insights and opinions on sociological and cultural matters. As for politics, like me (and most other Canadians), Russell held a cynical and distrusting attitude towards our so-called elected representatives. In other words, we were hardly trained political scientists, and thus had only a general understanding (and interest, truth be told) of what the hell went on in Parliament and the House of Commons; which is to say, politics was considerably lower on our respective lists of diurnal and existential priorities.

The way we saw it was that given the practical realities of what it takes to run a country, and the world, in general, politics was, apparently, a necessary, time-honoured and unavoidable evil, simply because it’s been around since the dawn of western civilization. And since we allegedly lived in a “democracy”, it was duly important to have a parliamentary opposition to keep close tabs on the party leader (i.e. Prime Minister) and his cabinet ministers. As far as we were concerned it really didn’t matter what party was running the country: the Conservatives, the Liberals, the New Democrats, or even the Bloc Party (which would never happen, of course), and the Green Party (ditto last aside). However, I do get an old-fashioned kick out of the fact that there exists an independent party called Rhinoceros based in Montreal that was partly inspired by the movie “The Matrix” (when referred to as Neorhino), and that they vow, ironically, to not keep their promises! – reductio ad absurdum, indeed!  

So anyway, after I called him, Russell and I met at Future’s Café in the Annex on Bloor. He grabbed a cup of his favourite in-house brand, Continental Roast, and I got my usual can of Coke. I wasn’t much of a coffee drinker, actually, but did indulge once in a while. I would joke with people sometimes, whenever the topic of coffee came up, by claiming to adhere to an 18-cup per year quota (it usually got a laugh, especially from women). In actuality, I might drink 6 or 7 cups of coffee a year, give or take a cup. I certainly didn’t “dislike” coffee; it’s just that I never really acquired the preference for it. I got my caffeine fix through pop consumption, for better or worse. I know that’s hardly the romantic, hip, or even mature, thing to do for a “professed poet” (or even informed adult for that matter), but pop just got a hold of me sometime during the Meech Lake Accord controversy around the end of the 80s (fucking Mulroney), and has since refused to negotiate the confidentiality agreement with my more health-minded side. 

After procuring our respective beverages we sat down at one of the chest-level tables with a small, round-surface, which allowed enough space for just three cups and/or cans to cohabit relatively comfortably. Those popular tables were located closest to the sidewalk just on the other side of the big glass-window. These were our preferred tables, because we were elevated some, thanks to the tall chairs we sat in, giving us a visual-advantage over most other patrons to survey the joint for attractive women and mock-worthy “hipsters”; and we also had the outside view for additional babe-watching with the east/west flowage strolling by.

Of course, having sat down, the first thing out of Russell’s mouth was: “Holy shit, man, what happened to you?”  


I filled him in on the whole “fighting incident” at the James Joyce (which was located, actually, right across the street, and a few buildings east of Future’s). However, I chose to leave out a couple of self-incriminating details (I mean, he wasn’t there, so why admit my stupidity and guilt, if I didn’t have to for the sake of saving face, when I couldn’t do it that night with Mark?). The airtight story I gave Russell painted a much more sympathetic portrait of me as the hapless victim of drunken, pugilistic, sore-loser ass-holes starting shit because Mark and I beat them at pool. 

Russell didn’t buy it for a second. 

Why was I so, apparently, hell-bent on self-sabotaging myself? And not just in this instance either. So, what gave me away so easily? Russell knows that I positively suck at pool. He also knows that Mark isn’t much better, thus clinching the gross improbability of said bogus scenario. Christ, I hadn’t played pool with Russell in ages; I could have improved since then, but the fact of the matter was that I simply did not play pool very often at all, or even went out drinking that much anymore, for that matter;  certainly not like we used to around the directly pre and post-millennium period.

Having been blatantly caught in an ill-conceived lie, I fessed-up and told Russell that it was, in fact, me that started the whole sorry affair at the James Joyce. “No shit. But why?” he asked.

“Because I’m pissed off with my life, and with the world, in general, Russell”, I said bluntly.

Just then, Phil arrived, got our attention, and then proceeded to get himself a coffee and a chair. Russell and I just sat silently looking around as we anticipated Phil joining us. 

“How’s it going, boys?” Phil said in his usual mild-mannered way, as he situated himself on the chair pointing directly towards the window, with me to his diagonal-right and Russell to his diagonal-left. Good times.

Russell replied first, “Not bad, man, what’s going on with your funkadelic self?”

“Hey, Phil” I countered, rubbing my eyes with one hand at Russell’s facetious choice of adjective.  Phil chuckled.

“Not a bad looking evening out there if I may say so myself”, Phil asserted.

“You just did, Mujumbo”, Russell quipped.

“Fuck you, Rusty.”

We all laughed like the patented goof-balls we were, and then reinforced that notion by sipping from our respective beverages in unison. Good times, indeed. Christ, I hope nobody was watching us.

Philip Miller was a tall and relatively heavy-set guy, with brown thinning hair like me; not the brown part - mine is red (what’s left of it) - but the thinning part. He was around my age; about a year younger, actually. He drove truck for a living, like my old man did. Phil didn’t drive long-haul though, but around the city delivering spring water. I met him through Russell, I think seven years ago now. We had all gone to a Broadcast concert at Lee’s Palace in 2003, if memory serves. Phil wasn’t the indie-music fan that Russell and I were, but he dug good music, in general. His musical tastes tended to be more Classic Rock-based, like Zeppelin, The Stones, The Police, Genesis, Pearl Jam, Crowded House, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, The Who, so on and so forth. They were all great bands, of course, especially The Police, who have made a considerable impact on me.  

Despite the red-neck stereotype associated with truck-drivers, Phil was a fairly well-read and cultivated guy. He, particularly, read a lot of psychology: Freud and Jung, of course, but also Fromm, Horney, the behaviourist, B.F. Skinner, and the radical French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. Lacan became his thinking-life’s obsession. Phil singled out Spinoza as his favourite philosopher. Over the years, Phil, Russell and I have discussed Lacan’s work immensely in conjunction with other thinkers, writers and poets. The three of us have all made important contributions to our ongoing “coffee thing” gatherings since we started hanging out with one another. That’s not to say we didn’t talk about less serious things too.  

“Hey, what happened to your face, Steve?”, Phil inevitably asked.

I told him the same lie that Russell saw right through, this time knowing that Phil hadn’t the same knowledge of my poor pool-playing as Russell did, and knowing that Russell wouldn’t inform on me given the implied seriousness of my life’s situation I conveyed prior to Phil’s appearance. Russell, to his great credit, played along with my yarn. Don’t get me wrong, I consider Phil a good friend of mine, but I just didn’t want to get into my sad life’s story between the three of us. We just didn’t “go there” whenever we all got together. We mostly kept our personal lives out of our discussions.  

I then quickly changed the subject: “Hey, have you guys seen “Shutter Island”, yet?”

“Of course I did.” Russell, succinctly, asserted - like the fellow film-nut that he was.

“Yeah, me too, a couple of weeks ago; it was great!”, enthused Phil.

“I really think it’s Scorsese’s best film in years!” I declared confidently.

Phil then challenged that opinion: “I thought ‘The Departed’ was awesome, and it won the Oscar that year for Best Picture, and Scorsese finally won the Best Director Oscar as well, which we all know was ridiculously overdue.”

“Well, you’re definitely right about the ridiculously belated Best Director nod, Phil, but I thought ‘The Departed’, while still decent for sure, was a little over-blown and Nicholson was cartoonishly over-the-top.” I respectfully countered.

“But you loved ‘cartoon Jack’ in ‘The Shining’, didn’t you?” Phil shrewdly retorted.

“Um, good point, Phil - you bastard. But Jack went total bonkers in that one; it made sense that he would be a little over-the-top. Besides, it’s an iconic role for him now, along with the film itself, and I think rightly so.”

Then Russell was suddenly compelled to interject an opinion of his own not directly related to cinema: “Iconic, pfft, everything is fucking ‘iconic’ these days. I’m so sick of that fucking word being bandied about with a clueless abandon!”

“What the fuck, man?“, I spewed, rather stunned at Russell’s audacity.

“Wait, sorry, Steve, I didn’t mean to come down on you like that; you’re actually right about ‘The Shining’ being genuinely, uh, iconic. It’s just that since you mentioned it, the word and therefore concept, I just couldn’t help myself kinda declare my irritation over its blatant overuse in contemporary culture is all.”

“So you single me out as the right time and opportunity to voice your derision over this apparently heated issue?” I replied, with some laughter, as a way of conveying that I wasn’t overly upset with Russell per se, just a tad bit surprised at his apparent lack of tact with a supposedly good friend. Not that we three hadn’t put one another on the spot before during lively discussion, but Russell had never been quite as curt either. I didn’t mind the challenge though, and come to think of it, he was absolutely right, that word has been well overused in the current culture, particularly in pop-culture, ironically enough. I just wasn’t thinking when I used the word just then, or rather I hadn’t fully realised how incessantly it’s been used until Russell irrepressibly mentioned it. I guess I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to spewing at least some tired clichés, catch-phrases, trendy concepts. I should probably know better, ideally, but I’m, after all, a part of this society, even if I’m actually not most of the time.        


Russell continued to explain himself: “It’s just that I’ve been hearing and seeing unworthy movies like ‘American Pie’ getting declared ‘iconic’ by vapid idiots on the internet, and boy-bands like fucking New Kids on the Block now receiving ‘iconic status’, even Backstreet Boys for Christ’s sake, and how about all those T.V. shows from the 90s like ‘Married with Children’ and ‘Home Improvement’ and fucking ‘Friends’ praised and gilded in iconic glory, and on and on! It makes me fucking sick to my stomach! The lurid and moronic state of culture right now is such a goddamn pathetic joke!”

“Don’t sugarcoat it, Russ, tells us what you really think,” Phil uttered drolly, unwittingly using yet another too familiar sardonic and ironic phrase. We all laughed regardless. Who was I kidding anyway? How could one possibly escape the Symbolic Order and its culturally respective clichés and language games, short of becoming a desert hermit or solitary woodsman perhaps?    

“Hell, even fairly new pop-culture is getting the premature ‘iconic treatment’, like, say, ‘American Idol’, or Kanye West, or J.K. Rowling, or Taylor Swift. It seems whatever is massively successful, commercially, regardless of how aesthetically-qualified it may or may not be, as long as it’s super-popular, and currently relevant, it’s automatically iconic!”, I now contributed, having the full realisation of what Russell was driving at snap my brain into awareness and enhance my societal outlook. There’s just so much to take in and process these days it becomes quite overwhelming to attempt a wholesale critical survey of things in the world past and present, and even future projections. I don’t give a shit who they were: Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, da Vinci, Goethe, Hugo, Proust; they didn’t have to contend with the kind of dizzying, postmodern world we were living in now, despite the many convenient amenities at our immediate disposal, of course, not to mention federally-covered health-care, but still.

Anyway, after a few awkward seconds of silence, Phil reiterated: “So, yeah ‘Shutter Island’, good movie.”

“I loved that bit about Kafka in the cave-scene”, said Russell.

“That was definitely a key scene, for sure”, I added, “A scene that suggested a lot more going on than just the situation on that island, I tells ya.” 

“Exactly!”, Russell continued, “The whole goddamn notion, or rather question, about the nature of reality and what the hell is real, who’s insane and who isn’t.”

Phil then asserted, “It sounds like it’s all insanity according to what’s-his-name in the very next scene, the warden who picked up Di Caprio in a jeep. What was it he said to Leo after claiming God loves violence, and that we all commit it in his honour, or something? -  ‘We’ve known each other for centuries’. As if to mean that, despite so-called progress, we haven’t really changed at all. The violence prevails. We’re just better at channelling it through social circuits.”

“Yeah,… I guess so”, I concluded, with a hint of trepidation.

“It was Ted Levine”, Russell suddenly said.

“What?”, Phil asked.

“Ted Levine played the warden who picked up Leo in the jeep”, Russell confirmed to Phil.

“Oh, yeah, that’s right, I guess”, Phil somewhat agreed, who then decided to add with a chortle, “You and your film-geekness!”   

“I must know who I watch, and you must too, mo-fo”, Russell countered facetiously.

After a couple of hours of good, entertaining conversation between the three of us, as per usual, with these two fine fellows, including several cups of coffee and cans of pop, we all decided to venture back to our respective homes. Russell and Phil both grabbed a subway seeing as they had residences north and south of Bloor – Phil north, Russell south – and were closer to the Yonge line.  I, of course, chose to walk home, as was my custom with these get-togethers, rather than spend the three bucks for a subway, because I basically lived in the vicinity, and, especially, because I was now on a really tight budget, given my recent self-imposed unemployment and all. 

On the way back to my place I witnessed an older, derelict-looking couple embroiled in a rather nasty spat outside of a local dive-bar (there were several of them, in fact, on the way home between Christie and Lansdowne). Apparently, the guy was without “balls” now for some reason that I wasn’t at all interested in finding out how and why. Maybe he wouldn’t smack her around like she wanted, I don’t fucking know, but it suddenly made me think about that crazy scene in “Barfly” when Mickey Rourke’s character, Henry, (a composite of famed street-poet, Charles Bukowski) was distracted by loud cries from a neighboring apartment on his floor of the hole he was living in. He then got up – gingerly, of course, because he was usually drunk and rode-off, physically – and went to investigate.

The screams got louder and louder by the time he banged on their door. A grisly old fart with white, bull-horn eye-brows, and a fierce, indelible scowl, answered the door, wondering why he and his woman were being so rudely interrupted from their own personal brand of “good lovin’”.  Henry was only coming to the aid of this seemingly troubled, um, maiden, who looked and sounded like she was being tortured. But when Henry attempted to rescue her, she told him, in no uncertain terms, to “fuck off” and leave them be! She actually liked getting beaten up by her, um, man. This got me thinking about all the insanely co-dependent relationships in society based on mutually-assured violence, both physically and emotionally. It depressed me some, actually. I felt I could use a drink right about then, but I didn’t bother entering any of the dives on the way, and instead grabbed a slice of pizza at Pizza Pizza, brought it home, put on my VHS copy of “Back to the Future” and just blissed-out on 80s nostalgia - one of my favourite anaesthetics for the rankled soul.