Spring 2011, #17



     by Michael Brodsky

The ballroom resembled the ampitheatre they'd left far behind (and as far as Steve was concerned, not a minute too soon) on Greenwich Avenue. But wait!!!, no self-respecting ballroom could go, just like that, taking it into its head to do such a thing (or so some Master Voiceover out of a with-documentary-pretensions 40s film noir suddenly seemed to be insisting). No, before this brute fact of resemblance was allowed to take its place among all the other brute facts with which that landfill life was riddled, it should first have to assume the guise of a Sign, i.e., should first have to seem to be resembling whatever it was it resembled--but to seem so, it would have to seem so to somebody and if this was the case (as he knew it was) Steve didn't mind in the least being that somebody even if he felt he was (for any number of reasons, too tedious to elaborate, most of all to himself) the least plausible somebody anybody could imagine. But it was precisely the fact that he was the least plausible interpretant of the Sign in question (the same portentous Voiceover was at it again) that might very well make his particular interpretation, qua Sign, the most exhilaratingly fertile for some new interpretant. Hadn't somebody really famous (not just famous for being famous) said Plausibility was Death--and on his Black Forest deathbed no less? All right, but still... It wasn't as if he was afraid of sticking his neck out (all of his colleagues back home, even the ones who hated his gay guts, could vouch for that). It just seemed that such an observation, butterfly-like in its delicacy, was much better off (but better off for whom? Voiceover, getting more emboldened by the second, demanded to know) getting itself caught on the wing by somebody delicate like Rosetta or Natalie——or even Post. But of course if there were no volunteers in the house he'd been happy enough to incarnate the needed POV for he understood (no need, Voiceover, to go on insisting! you've made your point!) that without a POV, however implausible, there'd be no seeming and with no seeming there'd be no real-life context and with no context there'd be no ballroom to speak of, only the brute imposition (let x be the ballroom) of a Geometer's will.

As Rosetta moved toward the roped-off podium, unnerved as much by the absence of any familiar faces (the members of the group started to file in not long after) as by the impression her olive-green dress was already making (however modest its decollete by today's standards), the first thing that struck her (while she struggled to get a grip on herself) was the extent to which the room resembled the auditorium where they'd all spent so many hours listening to Straynge and his minions drone on and on (in hindsight, oh so irrelevantly) about how penetrating the analyses of their disease by the likes of, among others, Girard and Veblen and Nietzsche and Schoeck and Freud still remained. (Why, the way those luminaries were lauded to the skies you'd think they were themselves the holy-grail biomarkers Envy researchers all over the world had been seeking for decades.) Only the already assembled speakers--no women, no blacks, no asians, and each with his very own bottle of designer water--were different. (At this very moment Steve felt in his bones that, just when he was beginning to enjoy stretching out on the rug of his implausibility as a POV, the thing was being pulled out right from under him by somebody who knew how to play the plausibility card for all it was worth and he was powerless to stop that somebody from setting up shop in his eminent.

The obvious leader of the pack, a tall balding man (and a vast improvement over Straynge, Diana had to admit), who might be anywhere from forty to seventy--out of time, that's where he seemed to have hung his hat--sighed deeply as soon as the microphone looked efficient enough (thanks to the showy tinkering of a technician in a tight T-shirt and tighter bathing suit) to broadcast its--the sigh's--resistance to being broadcast. Fremlin, suffocating but always on the lookout for a fresh face (preferably pretty), was waiting for an ocean breeze to do more than toy with the curtains. Why, what do you know, there was that Narrliner character necking with his moll in the most ill-lit corner they could find. Just after she'd given him the distinct—all right, maybe the indistinct—impression that she had eyes and lips only for him. And maybe she still had and was only trying to throw her obtuse lover off the scent. Oddly enough, Rosetta was a bit disappointed to discover the bald one was neither Straynge nor Post nor Cook nor Liepnits. She felt it was somehow her fault—sign of a lack of austerity, a refusal to play the literary hand dealt her when the occasion called for nothing but. It certainly didn't redound to her credit that she must be forever inventing new worthies for every new situation or every time a new speech had to be delivered. Or maybe it was new speeches she was always inventing--speeches that were impossible to allocate to any member of the cast currently available to her. She was as much at fault as she'd been during the whole Building 18 debacle. But as Ella might have crooned at this juncture: What to do, what to do, what to do.

This conspicuous waste, this imposition of a novelty (response to a craving she didn't even know she had) that was even more monotonous than sameness--despicable. Things were getting out of hand: there just wasn't the storyline tightness demanded by the powers that be--not by a long shot. Why should there be a new quack on the scene when all of the mock eloquence of the others back in New York had been by no means squeezed dry? This upstart crowd had taken it upon themselves to usurp the place of the others back home before they'd been anywhere near strutting all their stuff, yet didn't the upstarts realize they'd be replaced in turn? Rosetta and Rosetta alone was to blame: she should have learned by now that every new utterance, however urgent its mouthing, should not be entitled to demand the recruitment of a new character but, rather, should be tailored to the attributes and aptitudes of one among those--no more than three or four, tops--already on the scene. A change of climate was no excuse for such prodigality. What, after all, would be the point of a monologue, a concert aria, a declaration of independence or servitude, if it didn't contribute to the sober in-progress evolution or ever-expanding maturity or meticulously foreshadowed dark descent into madness of an existing character? A monologue had to be contextual, character-specific, transitional. This was CW 101 and the first criterion of the no-funny-business hardline storyliners, who should be her gods even if they had a tendency, especially when summoned to the Court of Saint James or Oprah or Charlie Rose, to come on (although they were incontestably the still-multiplying majority and numbered in the trillions) as the wildly unpopular last bastions of a viciously beleaguered ethic. But her self-indictment was cut short by the mellifluities of Dr. Bob Walser (for that was how he introduced himself). For some reason the name or the way he pronounced it made him suddenly look a tiny bit mad-docterish ("but in a good way", as her mother's Polyanna pals would have simpered).

"You may all think you have the troubles of Job but whenever I think I have troubles I need only remember a Job more Joblike than Job, to wit, that kid I read about the other day in the The New York Times Styles Section (of all places!)--a kid just back from Baghdad who lost his four limbs in the mother of all most useless wars. As well as the mother (recalling the sub-pittance of sacrifice demanded from the folks back home--you know, the good-timer Charlies and Charlenes on Main, Wall and Easy Streets) of all boutique-and-niche wars. I have only think of him to realize not that my troubles are not great (if anything they seem, because clearly infinitely inflatable, more horrific than ever) but that as unbearable as they are there'll be no reparation because there sure as hell won't be any reparation for him—not to mention the guinea pigs who survived Nazi doctoring. I know what nobody else knows or will ever know: that the momentary distraction provided to him and his ever more torturable loved ones by that coyly upbeat piece will wear off (though it's only natural for them to mistake the omnivorous spotlight for an omniscient beacon of hope) and that should Charlie and Charlene have, while en route at high noon to a regional office of, say, Goldman Sachs (which, if Monsignor Blankfein is to be believed, is doing god's work like crazy), the misfortune to bump into his torso--a misfortune far greater than my kid has or still can undergo--then they will simply recoil indignantly as from a tasteless put-on. For in these pursy times, dismemberment like indigence is always the fault of the victim who under no circumstances must be pandered to as one, for that is not the American Way." Rosetta didn't know if she ought to feel relieved, co-opted, lacerated or exalted by what she was tempted to hear as the poignant indictment of a war that had never really interested anybody in the least--not anybody but the woebegone participants and their beloveds. Was he sucking up to her, having been briefed on her history? Or did this digression have absolutely nothing to do with her except insofar as she was a citizen of the Greatst Country in the World. Was it, then, just what it professed to be—a meditation on the fact that any life was just short enough for its limitless suffering to be endurable.

"This having been said, I alert you, my friends, to the fact you're now entering the most difficult phase of the trial. And you, Will, and you, Steve, are entering an even more difficult phase (the price you must pay for your consistently outstanding performances up to now)--but more of you two later. I know for all of you it must feel like yet another audition and you're rightly up to your eyeballs in auditions. For Christ's sake, you've had the fMRI audition and the penile plethysmograph audition--at least six to a (male) customer--and the protein accelerator audition and the diffusion spectrum imaging audition and the polygraph audition (yes, even in this day and age) and the electroencephalogram audition and the E.R.P. cap audition and the thermal scanner audition and the eye tracker audition and the pupillometer audition and the transcranial magnetic stimulation audition and the occipital nerve stimulation audition and the positron emission tomography audition and the neuromotor prostheses audition and the fiber-optic cable plus electrode (optrode) audition, not to mention the CT brain perfusion scan, fluorescence recovery after photobleaching (FRAP), fluorescence loss in photobleaching (FLIP), photoactivation, photoconversion, fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS), image correlation spectroscopy (ICS), fluoresence cross-correlation spectroscopy (FCCS), image cross-correlation spectroscopy (ICCS), fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET), fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM) and protein-fragment complementation assay (PCA) auditions. And let's not forgot the single photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT) audition, the support vector machine (SVM) analysis audition and, last but not least, the MRI identification of iron-deposition changes audition, or have I (silly, silly me) already mentioned it? But you haven't had the cingulotomy and capsulotomy auditions, thank heavens. (Even if there was never a question you'd be subjected to these two, there's something so seductive about a universal list that flaunts the fact that it ain't as universal as it's cracked up to be.) By the way, sorry for all the acronyms: I'm going on a diet starting tomorrow morning. Which also means (to quote the immortal Cole) `I'll never stoop to onion soup and pork and beans are taboo'.

"But don't let anybody kid you—I'm going to tell you something most M.C.'s would rather die, or diet (the majority are gluttons), than admit: the obligatory pre-shtick rattling off of a list of the ordeals they feel so terrible about having subjected you too, even if it was in the name of your well-being, has absolutely nothing to do with remorse and everything with creating a sense of... common duration--no mean feat. (As one of the James brothers—I forget which one, maybe overly precocious Jesse—wrote in a letter to the Duchess of Sutherland dated 23 December 1903, `the very most difficult thing... is to give the impression and illusion of the real lapse of time'.) Now that I've finished rattling you must feel you've not only been here forever but were also there (undergoing all those high-tech cutting-edge auditions) forever, and that's how you're supposed to feel--that's how they want you to feel--because the feeling of an interminable shared duration breeds trusting solidarity among slaves and their masters. Moreover, as you might have already guessed (especially those of you with experience in applying the Method), you're on camera--you've always been on camera--which means the collective unfolding of your sad-sack saga is being streamed 24/7 to audiences webwide who, if we expect them to stay tuned, need to feel they, too, are featured in that saga and nothing feeds that phantom feeling of participation better than a sense of shared duration and nothing manufactures that sense of duration better than the rattling off of an interminable list of items. But the rattling must give the impression that it is a reluctant because harrowingly expiatory rattling, so as to camouflage all the cold-blooded calculation that has gone into putting it across. So my rattling has hopefully made you feel you've been in California a lot longer than in fact you have and without our having had to trot out the usual props beloved of traveloguers." Rosetta wondered if by alluding to her literary pretensions he might be trying to win her confidence and thereby ease her into receptivity mode. For he was no doubt convinced (remaining true thereby to the tenets of his accursed race whose members, whatever they seemed to be saying, always meant something along the lines of, Hop to it, Sam--play `As Time Goes By'--because I, your lord and master, have this sudden yen for self-exaltation and you, with not a yen to your name, exist purely to satisfy mine) of how difficult it must be for her (like all the members of her accursed race) to bend to authority, especially when it was for her own good.

"Though we're responsible for putting you in the best holiday-goer frame of mind and we take that responsibility very seriously, we simply can't allow you to waste precious time gawking at the jacarandas. But--" There was a portentous paus: he looked around with a vaudevillian's wariness then through cupped hands in a strenuous stage whisper announced that the items served yet another purpose: they were in fact all stand-ins, placeholders, for everything that he and his kind were not allowed to divulge lest they be arraigned as traitors or as whistle-blowers or, worse, as bores. You know what I mean." Fremlin, clearly unintrigued by these intimations, cried out loud and clear, "So, what you're really trying to say is that a fake (sorry, faux) sense of duration is being engineered--bioengineered to give me—and the others--a sense that you're doing much more for us than you really have—in fact, you've done nothing but shoot your mouths off." His sweeping glance made sure to include all the other podiumsters as well in his indictment.

"I'm glad you've spoken as you have, Mr.... Some of my colleagues might say I shouldn't be giving away our deadly secrets, allowing you to see us with our pants down, so to speak—but I don't agree. I know just how you must feel. So many auditions and the jury is still out (a) on who among you have the disease and the symptoms, (b) on who among you have the disease but not the symptoms (in these so-called elite controllers, the viral load may be high but for some reason it does not trigger a tissue-wrecking chronic immune activation), (c) on who among you have the symptoms but not the disease, and (d) on who among you have neither the symptoms nor the disease (Diana could not help but feel, given her mock epiphany in the fog a while back, that this category had been established just now especially for her). And though I hate to add insult to injury, I must admit that same jury is still out on whether symptoms or no symptoms, Envy is a disease. Or maybe Invidicum, like all the other drugs out there, has been tailored to combat Envy, at a stage when it's no longer combatable. But I don't want you to feel you've come all this way for nothing. The buck stops here. Oh, it's not easy, trial leadership, let me tell you. Only to the woefully uninformed does it seem a glamorous vocation."

"So, maybe," said Fremlin, "you should have caught us all earlier on in the game." "Like when we were twelve," Will guffawed, albeit to little acclaim. Walser acted as if he hadn't heard. "I feel for some of you: having waited most of your lives for a definitive diagnosis, what do you discover to your horror but that such a diagnosis has not been a precondition for undergoing the toxic impact of our interventions. I can hear you crying (even if you yourselves cannot), My kingdom for a diagnosis—any diagnosis. Understandably, you dreamed of being free at last to go out and do, by destroying yourself, what you could claim to be its bidding. But even if none of your questions get answered, I want you to know you've reached the point where the auditions stop--or where we muster the humility to say we don't know if we will ever be clear about the difference between an audition and a full-fledged performance. Your trial leaders on both Coasts have been equally responsible for shamelessly fostering a rampant Audition Culture. Down, down, I say, with this reality TV-infected Culture and the envy it wantonly engenders.

"But it is always so irresistibly beautiful--oh, you have no idea how beautiful--to see, in the course of any given trial, each subject come forward expectantly in the bloom of his or her youth--while a subject participates he is in the bloom of his youth--as charter members of a procession of candidates cum supplicants, and to know that the one who, according to strict fairy-tale protocol, has every defect imaginable and comes in late and at the very moment when the judges can't bear to look at one more specimen because they can't imagine one any less mediocre than the millions preceding, will take us by storm and emerge as the incontestable winner of our hearts. So I'm going to tell you another thing most M.C.'s would rather die than own up to: we, frustrated artistes all, are in envying awe of auditioners. My eyes water when I think of each procession of supplicants, all of whom are, like you, so trusting, so hopeful, even if I'm not quite convinced my rapture is compatible with scientific rigor demanded by the FDA. We desire not so much to pick out the one extraordinary creature in the chorus line as to be that creature at the very moment he is picked out--and to thereby suture a wound--the very wound that compelled us to become victimizing trial coordinators in the first place.

"And we imagine ourselves to be not only the winner--indemnified at long last for having borne all the cruelties of his Ugly stepsisters--but also the unsung creator whose work he has chosen to display his talents. For the creator's unawareness that it is his work among so many others that has been singled out for rendition makes him beautiful. His unseeing ennobles him. Here we have the all-too-familiar case of look, Ma, it's me hitchhiking on the back of another underdog. So what if it's as a means not to my but to that other's end? What's important, Ma, is that he's in the process--the throes—of making it and in making it he makes the hitchhiker, a.k.a. me, the underdog whose song the other underdog (just turned overdog) is now belting out (can you hear him?) a la Merman. And by singing the underdog's song the overdog lavishes the highest form of praise—the praise of belated rendition—on the underdog. At last the wonder drug of posthumousness has kicked in for the underdog.

"But getting back to you: our new contestants. I'm familiar with all of your work--your performances have been cammed and skyped and text-messaged and uploaded and downloaded and streamed to me and my boys at every stage. I've lived your torments, even more intensely than you yourselves have. I was there--front row center--when you high-C'd your side effects and 32-fouetted your shocking past histories (a special ovation for Misses Nat and Di). And I was especially moved when some of you, who obviously felt you weren't desperate enough to merit participation, tried too hard to be incurable and in so doing racked up a lot of bad marks for noisily, perversely withholding the kinds of folksy signs and symptoms our judges (all respected family men) really wanted to hear about. But nobody is out of the running, yet. Everybody wins--that's what being in a drug trial means. And I suspect you've already guessed that when I say "drug trial", I'm using the term as a placeholder for any number of entities, not just--in fact, least of all--the sort of process we're currently engaged in. Like Rosetta's Building 18 and Diana's Mr. B. and Steve's berry sundae and Eric's mergers and acquisitions, "drug trial" is my self-generator. What did I tell you?--your lives are an open book.

"And please remember that what I've just revealed of my feelings goes very much against the grain of what most angekoks (an Eskimo word for what we aspire to but rearely become) experience when you're under their care. As candidates cum supplicants in their procession, you would each be made to feel like yet one more uninvited guest among already way too many. You'd be hurried in purely to accelerate the expulsion of your predecessor and hurried out purely to speed up the ingestion of your successor. Most of them see their job as putting you in your place and making you stay there--and there's no place more degraded." At this, a few of his colleagues rose almost simultaneously in protest but he raised his fists and they backed down. "Their whole rotten tactic of reducing you all to the least common denominator--to links in an unending, self-dedifferentiating chain--is referred to in the technical literature as serializing the nincompoops. Its purpose? Simple: to exalt the angekoks' own particular brand of nincompoopery—perhaps the most nincompoopish of them all. The fact is that most honorary members of the breed want you, the supplicants, you, the nincompoops, to hear your own silly confessional chatter with the ears or rather the earplugs of their own highly ostentatious forbearance—to hear it as valueless in itself and as serving only to highlight—to biomark, if you will (even if they won't)--their professional virtuosity in loftily abstaining from a spewing forth of their own troubles. They overconspicuously put their own ills on hold (though they may simultaneously be too perfect to have any: the best of both worlds) and humbly give the stage to more important--i.e., less important (because articulable)--ills. So for the likes of them there's (self-inflationary) gold in them there ills. The subject of your telling then becomes no more and no less than their not telling. So what's easier, I ask you, than than for psychically wobbly, relentlessly self-doubting folks like you" (Steve bristled at the word "folks": much too hetero...folksy!) "to find themselves buying into the non-telling as the signifier of a monumental, because invisible, heroism--while forgetting of course that the non-tellers--schadenfreuderly tourists in the land of the paraphilias (there! I've said it! called a spade a spade! let their cat out of its bag!)--are paid, and in many cases handsomely, not to tell."

"Idiot! you speak of degradation!" Natalie cried out. "Don't you understand that none of us mind degrading ourselves since the most exalted thoughts can only be about degradation. For D-thoughts, as they used to be referred to in astrophysics lab, and probably still are, can be pretty darn peculiar." (She hoped "pretty darn" would irk everybody, not just Walser.) "Once they've dragooned the words needed to get themselves published they don't stop there. Now that those words are in the ring, so to speak, D-thoughts take advantage of their availability to push them into all sorts of barely but unassailably plausible combinations (both unforeseeable and otherwise unachievable) as the basis for thoughts that not only are logically impeccable but, unlike most others, have not--I repeat, have not--required volcanic eruptions (like degradation) out there in the real world to underwrite their production (as man's sole defense against such eruptions). If, for example, those impossible word combos had waited for the next scientific breakthrough to request their services, they'd have found themselves sitting around for centuries. D-jargon, then, is a rogue jargon and as such it is not at the mercy of some venerable academic discipline's superslow evolution." To Fremlin (though he was hardly a disinterested party where Natalie, an ultra-hot little number in spite of herself, was concerned) it sounded as if she was indicting that meatball Ethan rather than this knucklehead Walser. If she felt the desire to jump out of her seat she suppressed it, choosing instead--or so it appeared to Steve, who for the first time could smell the ocean (the Pacific was suddenly acting like the Pacific!)--to channel the energy that would have been required into honing her eloquence: Good girl, he thought. Rosetta thought: Nobody can be that high-falutin' at the drop of a hat, even if degradation a la Fyodor is in the diver's seat. She's just a mouthpiece, a prepared piano, Rosetta kept saying to herself. But whose? Don't be coy, Rosetta girl, you know very well whose. The Master's, of course. She refuses to be a character with recognizable traits and she's managed --at least for the last three minutes--not to be one.

"A point well taken," Walser conceded, though he sounded pretty antagonistic. Or, Steve decided, it may simply be that now, when he should have shown the humility in vivo that he'd just been professing in vitro, such a prospect rubbed him very much the wrong way—maybe he was terrified that Natalie's storming of his battlements would encourage further insurrection. "By the way, before going on to Santa Barbara you'll be meeting in little groups with me and those of my colleagues whom you see before you. They are neither as laid-back nor as rigidly set in their ways as rumor would have it."

"But why must this drug trial be compared to an audition? Why must we live it as an audition. Why are we made out to be either harpists or harpies?" This was Natalie again, refusing to let well enough alone. By her tone, she was making it clear, at least to Post, that she was too old, or too young, to pussyfoot about--that she preferred to put that pussyfoot in her mouth and salvage the little that was left of her maidenly dignity, no matter what Ethan (who was at this very moment pulling at her sleeve, presumably to make her stop before he lost his job), or anybody else, might think. And who should know better than Post what she was making clear, or unclear (after all, he'd conducted more pretrial interviews with her than with any other candidate, though he still wasn't quite sure why). The ensuing silence (she envied it for being able to ensue without backlash) gave Rosetta (ever the career impressionist) a long-awaited opportunity to interrogate the setting sky. No question but that it was a jigsaw puzzle. But the pieces--were they mere chinks of azure or those fire-fringed cetaceous cloudlets going more haywire by the minute. No need, Rosetta had been about to say, to answer immediately: ambiguity is ever so precious to the budding scribbler. The problem seemed to have turned out to be something of an inspiration, from the look of him, to Walser, too.

"You do right to ask why, my dear." Walser breathed deep. Was he suffocating or had he simply sensed, being musical, the need for a pause. "Because quite frankly or quite simply or both, the trial, as already intimated, is not just about the subjects but (perhaps mostly) about the subjectors. Maybe I've been a bit too harsh toward them--us. After all, we have feelings too and if those feelings are not attended to as we are entitled to believe they deserve to be—well, then all hell breaks loose: the subjectors find themselves unable to function and the trial ends with a bang--and a whimper. Guys, I once heard a premature ejaculator whisper to his buddy, during the ninth inning at, of all things, a Yankees game (now don't go letting the makers of that no-better-than-a-placebo Semenarrest fool you: PE is no disease, far from it), that before ejaculating (usually no more than ten seconds after penetration), he (or to use his word, `we'), `always took care of the wife first'. So the moral of the story is that you, the subjects, need to take care of us, the subjectors, first—we're nothing but big babies, after all. But how is that done? Well, if any trial is to succeed, then one of us--who then assumes the role of Prime Subjector--must become inspired to concoct--ejaculate--his very own personal fantasy (though what fantasy isn't personal) about one of you. Otherwise the trial is kaput. And that's why (though they won't admit as much) phase 3C of the trial failed back in New York--no member of the team got to be a Prime Subjector. Since it is almost impossible by and large for us subjectors to allow ourselves the pleasure of putting together a fantasy from scratch (otherwise we wouldn't be subjectors)--in short, we're incurables in the fantasy department but incurability has its privileges--one among you must serve not just as muse but as midwife and demonstrate an especial relish for those thankless roles.

"In this, phase 7J of the trial, it looks like I'm being primed (with all due immodesty) for the juiciest part of Prime Subjector. For I've already gotten my foot in the door and taken a particular shine to one of you—I won't say whom--and that one, or rather his doings, have become the raw material of just the sort of fantasy the trial's off-label protocol demands--and it's turning out to be a rather complicated fantasy, I might add. Thanks to the miracles of skyping and webcamming and telemarketing and teleconferencing and downloading and call waiting and call forwarding, not to mention faxing and scanning and plain old-fashioned laser printing and touch-typing, I'd quickly advanced beyond the first-impressions stage. He was well known to me long before he set foot on California soil and his presence only confirms the aptness of my selection. But only within the last few days have I been able to start articulating the fantasy with, alas, its own peculiar cross-purposed way of getting itself made—which means also dissecting the tendency to live through another as laid bare by the articulating. This marks a particularly big step forward. For a fantasist like me, the fantasy doesn't get itself made just like that—up to now it hasn't even been seen as a fantasy but merely as an obstruction to getting on with the work at hand, i.e., the trial. But what would the work at hand be without the fantasy? Undoable, that's what. But let's get down to cases.

"Consider the hero to be a young man—or woman—viciously persecuted by family members for his... sexuality, say, or his bi-, tri- or even multipolarity. It is the cruelty of their treatment that renders excusable and, more important, plausible the decision to flee, though in adversity or old age they might require his care, and to live from then on in a fissureless solitude. A fantasy, however, always has very precise notions of what--and how much of that what--it can accommodate and this fantasy still doesn't know to what degree the hero is to resemble me. Of course, it wants him to vouchsafe himself as little pleasure as possible so that his ultimate anointment may seem all the more deservedly immense but, typically, it's having a hard time making up its mind about how much heroic self-laceration, -suppression and -effacement it can tolerate. And frankly, I'm still very much undecided about the cause of the persecution. If aberrant sexuality is the ticket, then this of course robs my hero of a certain abstraction and what is more beautiful than to be rejected grossly but abstractly, independent of all contingency? The temptation at this point is to render him completely traitless and to depend on abstraction carried to the breaking point--abstraction on fire, so to speak--to ensure his irresistible poignancy.

"I admit I've been moving in the direction of making him an artist and feel obliged in so doing to disencumber him of all earthly traits. But every time one's about to be subtracted (something fleshly and "life-affirming"), I realize, based on what I remember of my days as an agent, that it is by no means incompatible with success. Pace Hollywood and the Brothers Grimm, most great artists aren't at war with the world and haven't had to surmount abysmal poverty and routine debasement from kith and kin. Far from it. Problem is, I'm still not over Hollywood and Grimm. But why should my hero have to suffer for my own unyielding illusions? Maybe my soft spot for total negation as the scene/sign of ultimate triumph, artistic and otherwise, is tantamount to some rube's hankering for the afterlife and disqualifies me not only for fantasy-making but for ministering to all your needs. But I know we all agree about one thing, namely, that whether or not he turns out to be Cinderella or Jerry's Cinder Fella, he has no recourse, our anti-hero does, but to end up on the West Coast. But what if I supply him with a modest legacy from a beloved barren aunt, as I'm sorely tempted to do: will that ultimately mar his stature? Maybe it's better to have him scramble together on his own just enough cash to enable him to get on the bus (but does he steal it? if so, will stealing diminish his most potent secondary sexual characteristic, namely, enigmaticity?). But there's one thing I'm sure we have no doubts about: the crying need for an overhead shot of him hoisting himself up (a la Welles or a la Hitch) so as to emphasize both his vulnerability and his resilience, as well as for the soon-to-be-famous departure scene to be played against the heartrending strains of... what? I'm taking suggestions... Catalani's "Ebben, ne andro lontana"? Franck's "Prelude, chorale and fugue"? Chopin's "Andante spianato"? Delibes's "Sous le ciel tout etoilé"? Thomas's "Adieu, Mignon"? Nor do we disagree that his final destination should be Los Angeles where, going to work full-time to pay for his education, he proceeds to do what he does best--smother all emotion, pleasurable or otherwise, but in the name of what, precisely? brute survival? ultimate fulfillment? atonement for the hatefulness of others? Can't answer that yet. The only thing I know is that my fantasy, take it or leave it, is modeled, to an extra-large extent, on those Women's Films of the Forties whose heroines, through sheer plod, transform drudgery into exploit.

Frankly, I'm afraid this damn project is so resistant to getting itself achieved that I'll never be able to start phase 8K of your treatment on schedule (it's no different, when you get right down to it, from the kind of pornographic fantasy that makes a bit of headway only when the would-be fantasist is masturbating, opportunities for which in the context of a long work week or heavy academic load are, as I'm sure you all know from bitter experience, few and far between, so that during the preponderating dry spells it ends up, this pornasy does, being refractory to any further elaboration). But as you see I'm soldiering on (even if I've never seen active combat per se--though I did, come to think of it, serve as water boy to equally bloodless George W. at the Battle of Bull and Run) for I know that sooner or later I must get him off his pedestal cum ducking stool and send him out into the world for a little fun and maturational heartbreak: he can't stay behind a desk or a steam table or a tractor forever. So I've decided that somebody in his class or his office or at his factory (we'll put the sex of this stock figure on hold) should invite him to a party (location still to be determined). The inviter is clearly attracted by our hero's deadpan (and why not: he's breathtakingly beautiful and the fact that he's too busy keeping his anguish under wraps to know it or care makes him all the more so). Do I have him buy a bottle of scotch as a gift? Yes, because there's sure to be something a bit touchingl, something a little mysterious, in other words, something very very sexually exciting about his doing with grim professionalism what he knows to be the right thing not from inclination but from duty--about his tearing himself out of the deadly sensibility he is actively cultivating (but still has a long long way to go in mastering) in order to act beneficently no matter how mammoth the grief he harbors in his heart. In short, he's a hugely seductive figure and one the author of Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals would have had no trouble falling madly in love with if he'd been capable of falling in love. In other words, this liquor-buying is less a gesture than a concession to gesture.

"Well, this brief exposure to conviviality manages to get his hormones off their high horse. The next day, a Saturday in July (I almost said `a Saturday in summer' but `July' is so much more effective in a story, that is, any story), still aroused by all the human contact of the night before, he throws caution to the winds and hitchhikes to Venice where he is…pursued by an admirer. Does he succumb? Does he resist? Resistance has pathos going for it, which is not to be sneezed at when you're trying to win over an audience. Thing is, self-suppression and nothing but will only dehumanize him to the point where he might never fulfill his destiny, which is to become a god. For if he is to become a god he must have something earthbound to transcend, transmute, transmogrify—you get the picture, don't you? So, does he end up having a love affair? And if so, does he manage to keep his mystery intact?" Was Steve imagining it or was Walser actively avoiding his gaze? "And is it through or despite his self-occulting that his genius ultimately receives its due? But is it so vital that he turn out to be one? Still, inasmuch as unanimity is always a bit suspect, I must insist that, whatever kind of genius his rabid fans determine him to be, there still be one or two detractors planted among them.

"So there you have my fantasy-in-the-making. To the extent that it binds me to one of you, it binds me to all and therefore qualifies me, as no formal contract ever could, to superintend phase 14Q as it was meant to be superintended (there's no point in hiding the fact that this phase is riddled with landmines), that is, in such a way as to ensure that none of you are mutilated owing to the fanaticism of my colleagues so-called." So concluding, he walked off the podium, staring straight ahead and looking even more pokerfaced than his fantasy man.