Chamber of Horrors

“How’s Magda!”

Everyone asked after Magda. Even my respectable 73-yeard-old neighbour, the duenna of the neighbourhood, would ask after Magda’s well-being with a mischievous grin. What the hell was going on? Magda had been a fleeting joke, but it had clearly struck a nerve. To explain: I lived for several months at J’s long-neglected summerhouse to work on a novel. There was an old wooden cellar door which led down to an empty basement with an earthen floor (I used it as a pantry during the summer). I once casually joked, as I emerged from the cellar with a sweaty salami, that I had been checking up on Magda, a sex slave I kept down there. For the rest of the summer my (kind, decent, etc.) visitors and neighbours would continually ask about Magda with a gleeful chuckle. It made me wonder what was going on in their limbic basements….

REMINDER: Renew passport (it expires in three months.)

Writing is a lot like shitting. It’s an intensely sensual process over which the author has little real control: sit, wait, hope for the best. Words flow – that is not the problem. The difficulty is in recognising that they are not yours, that they first emerge, ready-made, as codified turds you had no part in forming beyond being receptive to them. Style, tone, content, form; texts are moulded into shape and squeezed out by forces beyond our understanding or cognizance. Few writers have the right to claim authorship of their excreta.

The urge to write begins with an abstract ache, a pressure calling for its release. This ache should be regarded with suspicion: it most likely emanates from a captive feeling chained up in your limbic basement in an attempt to bluff its way to imaginary freedom. Once the pointed nib of the pen hovers over paper (fingertips poised over the keyboard) a slew of charged impulses are released that snake into syntax and morph into words. The wordy matter is then evacuated through well-worn pathways like logs down a flume. Until the discharge of lit-er-a-ture slithers, as it were, onto the page and into existence.

Lit-er-a-ture is generally regarded as the highest form of language. It is a safe space, a place where controlled experiments can be carried out. Anything goes within its (hopefully) tastefully designed confines (although ellipsis and obliqueness is recommended for those who want to win plaudits and awards).

I turn to writing because I am permanently at war with language. A blank page is my perpetually replenishing frontline. I turn to writing to feel human in a world where language has lost so much ground to all-consuming economic forces that it often feels like I am being bludgeoned with propaganda when I talk with people. I turn to writing to make and reshape life, to indulge my hedonistic (and thwarted) desires, to act out my self-destructive inclinations. In short, I turn to writing to live (a flagrantly sad state of affairs).

Plop. It is regrettable that so many people resort to art as a vicarious means of experiencing feelings and behaviours that would ordinarily be scorned and shunned. Splish. Subversiveness is the bread and butter of art; the desperation, longing and confusion that is suppressed in daily life is allowed to come out to play (shockingly, artfully, tastefully). Splosh. People spiral out of control, perversity is wallowed in, strangeness is celebrated. There will be intense but doomed love, there will be gushing but lucrative blood. Normal people run around pretending to be retards. Couples run around on killing sprees. Last tangos get had on weekend getaways. Bonobos go loco, snort cocoa. Women make a cuppa after getting raped. Men punch mirrors and spiral into madness. The forms morph, merge. The stories are emotional emissions, borne of chimney flues, sewers, traffic jams. Art is our culturally sanctioned asylum, our secular confessional. It’s a vent for a power station’s worth of pent-up despair and frustration.

When I first met J she was reluctant to discuss shit with me. Now we discuss it with the same gusto that we talk about the weather and food prices. I enquire after the quality and consistency of her stool. “I am very well,” she replies. “How do you do?” Our stool says it all (the quality of mine, incidentally, is intimately connected to the writing of this text).

Every day humanity squeezes out, according to one estimate, 1,043,000 tonnes of shit. That amounts to 747,838 units of the 2015 Toyota Prius. (Toyota carried out a marketing campaign in which it asked the public to choose the plural of Prius. The options were Prius, Priuses, Prii, Pri and Priem. Prii was the most popular choice by a narrow margin. However, Nick Young, a Latin and classical studies expert at the University of Detroit Mercy, says that the plural of Prius is actually Priora or Priores.) We daily fill 417 Olympic-size pools (one holds 2.5 million litres) with crap. We daily amass 42 Statues of Liberty (it was not specified whether this includes pedestals) of excrement. All that shit gets flushed away, out of sight, out of mind. We thoughtlessly expunge our dirtiest, nastiest secrets (“The global food system, from fertilizer manufacture to food storage and packaging, is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions […]”). You are what you eat but not what you flush away.

When I lived in America I was astonished by the vortical power of their flush toilets (it was before federal standards limited toilets to using no more than 1.6 gallons per flush). There was nothing those whirlpools couldn’t get rid of. Exploitation, pollution, wastefulness, gluttony, it would dramatically suck it up and spit it out who cared where. (J’s toilet, on the other hand, usually requires two or three flushes to get rid of shit. Her toilet demands that you confront the consequences of what you ingest. This can be interesting after a weekend of heavy drinking.)

When I lived in America I hugged the World Trade Center. I was out of my head on acid, wandering around downtown with a good friend. The towers seemed to my naïve young eyes like something out of a mad fairy tale, a beanstalk built of futures and derivatives. I tilted my had back, rested my chin on a steel corner column, and looked along the length of it, a sheer verticality disappearing into the lilac night sky. It was an extremely dizzying sensation seeing it from that intimate angle. I remember feeling sorry for it. I whispered, “Nothing should be that big.” Then I gave it a good hug to make it feel better. My friend and I walked all night. We visited the (closed) New York Public Library. We bought bagels from a deli (today I read a story about a fight that broke out on a train over bagels. The British Transport Police tweeted: “Let’s be clear, no bagel should be treated so cruelly.”). We photocopied the contents of our pockets as a memento of the night. We felt safe in-our-heads-in-the-world.

The destruction of the World Trade Center was the (final) end of the binary world order. The Doomsday Clock now stands at three minutes to midnight (GMT). I try to remain objective, to be wary of nostalgia and the inclination to sensationalize, but it really does feel like the world is careering towards conflict. Maybe in five years, maybe ten, maybe never. Either way, the forces at work are immensely powerful and cannot coexist indefinitely in a world with limited resources and founded on competition. It is almost as if a Clausewitzian war is willing itself into existence as a means of wiping the slate clean and allowing us to start over with a new set of values and priorities (as opposed to the internecine principle of continuous economic growth fuelled by consumption). You can feel the bowels of the earth moving, the rocks shifting through cavernous tunnels, the seismic parting of a metaphysical sphincter.

“How’s Magda!”

Chambers of horrors used to be the speciality of American horror movies and Austria (who can forget Joseph Fritzl, the man who fathered an entire family with his daughter in a basement beneath his family home; she was kept a prisoner there for 25 years). But basement-dwelling sadists and monsters are coming out of their playgrounds into the light. They sense that the time is right, the political climate is rife. Shit is being weaponized (notably in Russia and Venezuela). Truth, reputations and people are being smeared with it. Women are being hounded in cyber chambers in the cruellest possible ways (trolls really ought to read the Marquis de Sade for a lesson in the limits of linguistic cruelty). I feel like I’m being sucked into a whirlpool of shit, a 50s-style Forbidden Planet of rampaging Ids.

I would dearly love to have an inamorata called Magda.

I would “Magda” her all day long.

We would make earthy love in the basement and do cerebral sex in the attic.

We would inspect each other’s faeces (“Not bad but you need more fibre…”).

We would learn how to identify edible berries and plants.

We would write lists.

We would act out the dictionary together.

We would be nervously, cautiously, despondently, violently content.



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