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On Sam Haselby, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (2015)

Here are the remarks I delivered at the Columbia Theory of Literature Seminar on Wednesday night.  Slightly edited and embellished.


To be an American is to argue about what it means to be an American. That is simply true because “we” have nothing in common—no national origin, no linguistic affinity, no racial stock, no religious establishment. All “we” have are stories about where we came from, how we fit into the founding (or not), and these narratives imply proper destinations; indeed the desired ending typically determines the choice of a beginning.

Sam Haselby, following Joel Barlow and Timothy Dwight, two of the Connecticut Wits who imagined America before it existed except as Europe’s frontier, calls these stories of founding the “songs of a nation.” During the revolutionary war against Britain, Dwight liked to tell his fellow soldiers: “’Let me write the songs of a nation, and you may make its laws.’” (p. 75) Every ambitious writer since then, canonical or not—from Brown, Cooper, and Whitman to Bellow, Roth, and Ellison—and every effective politician we honor or revile, from Jackson and Lincoln to Wilson and Trump, has understood the ideological force or literary possibilities unleashed by a nation without a people, a church without a liturgy, an empire without a stable seat of sovereignty.

As Abraham Lincoln put it in a note to himself: “Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. “ And in debate with Stephen A. Douglas: “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. . . . Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

The Connecticut Wits understood, or anticipated, this fact—that a nation conceived in liberty and composed as a poem couldn’t ever be fully realized, but would always be a Protestant mission, something waiting on the other side of the present, as the faithful conviction of things unseen. It would always be a restless Empire that resisted every attempt to map it, never a unitary nation-state as per the European, Westphalian design of the 17th century. For, as Dwight and Trumbull sensed, the new residence of sovereignty was out of doors, with the people, not the state, the government, the cabinet, the generals, the leaders. They assumed the supremacy of society over the state avant la lettre, before it was inscribed as a principle in the Declaration and the Constitution.

Haselby’s quirky task, which is also a brilliant insight, is then to inquire into the deviant literary origins of a nation so conceived, as a future conjured by epic poetry and its attendant, eschatological bombast—or vice versa, to demonstrate the deviance of that so-called nation, which was always already an Empire, something that could never be imagined as a community.   One question I’d like him to address is why this narrative form, the epic poem, failed so spectacularly here, in America, from Dwight to Melville (for the latter, I’m thinking of Clarel [1876]). Is it because the epic form is too rhetorical, too declamatory—not individuated enough in terms of style, or, what is the same thing, assuming that the audience is a homogenous, educated elite rather than a variegated mass (here I’m channeling Roland Barthes and his American equivalent, Kenneth Burke)? You could ask the same question another way: is Whitman’s Leaves of Grass a parody of Dwight’s Greenfield Hill?

Here are some others. What made Protestantism in its late Puritan rendition, among these Wits, so modern, so secular, so compatible with the mission of Empire and its corollaries, the death of God and the eclipse of His providence? Put that question another way: Why did these men of faith write the deadly poetry of political economy? (see p. 92) In short: was their nationalism religious? Or had Locke already supplanted Habakkuk, as per Marx’s formula in The 18th Brumaire—is modern nationalism even conceivable as a religious project, or does modern religion always appear as an imperial mission?

Friedrich Schlegel, the court poet of German Idealism, explained these correlations, or rather answered these questions, as follows: “The revolutionary desire to realize the kingdom of God on earth is the elastic point of progressive civilization and the beginning of modern history.”

But listen now to John White, a preacher from Dorchester, the friend of John Winthrop and the ideologue of the Great Migration that transferred 20,000 Puritan souls to New England in the 1630s.   This long passage is from “A Planter’s Plea,” a pamphlet published in 1630, wherein White argued that the colonization of “empty lands” would renew the broken promise of English life.

“It cannot be denyed but the life of man is every way made more comfortable, and offered a more plentiful supply in a larger scope of ground . . . a large place best assures sufficiency: as we see, by nature, trees flourish faire, and prosper well, and waxe fruitful in a large Orchard, which would otherwise wither and decay, if they were penned up in a little nursery; either all, or at best, a few that are stronger plants and better rooted, would increase and over-top, and at last starve the weaker: which falls out in our civill State; where a few men flourish that are best grounded in their estates, or best furnished with abilities, or best fitted with opportunities, and the rest waxe weak and languish, as wanting room and meanes to nourish them.

“Now, that the spirits and hearts of men are kept in better temper by spreading wide, and by pouring, as it were, from vessel to vessel . . . will [be] evident to any man, that shall consider, that the husbanding of unmanured grounds, and shifting into empty Lands, enforceth men to frugalitie, and quickeneth invention: and the settling of new States requireth justice and affection to the common good: and the taking in large Countrys presents a natural remedy against covetousnesse, fraud, and violence, when every man may enjoy enough without wrong to his neighbor. Whence it was, that the first ages, by these helpes, were renowned for golden times, wherein men, being newly entered into their possessions, and entertwined into a naked soile, and enforceth thereby to labour, frugality, simplicity, and justice, had neither leisure, nor occasion, to decline to idlenesse, riot, wantonesse, fraud and violence, the fruits of well-peopled Countreys, and of the abundance and superfluities of long settled States.”

This “argument [is] from godlinesse,” White notes in a sidebar. He goes on to explain how the political economy of righteousness works.

“But the greatest advantage must come unto the Natives themselves, whom we shall teach providence and industry. . . . Withall, commerce and example of our course of living cannot but in time breed civility among them, and that by Gods blessing may make way for religion consequently, and for the saving of their soules. . . . wee hardly have found a brutish people wonne before thy had been taught civility. So wee must endeavor and expect to worke that in them first, and Religion afterwards.”

In concluding, White sings of “competence”—by which he and his contemporaries meant not skill, but just enough property to be self-sufficient, self-determining—exactly as Timothy Dwight would a century later in Greenfield Hill, the key work, according to Haseby, in the Wits’ corpus (see p. 97: “Where Competence, in full enjoyment flows/Where man least vice, and highest virtue knows”).

“Objection: But the Country wants meanes of wealth that might invite men to desire it; for there is nothing to bee expected in New England but competency to live on at best, and that must be purchased with hard labour.

“Answer. Now wee knowe nothing sorts better with piety than competency, a truth which Agur hath determined long agoe, Prov. 30.8.”

Translation: Only a man whose will is free can choose to live righteously, and, in this society, this “civill State,” only a man with property has free will. All others are bound by the will of their masters, their employers, their husbands, or their fathers. In this sense, John White might have agreed with Gerrard Winstanley, the millennial, messianic preacher who spoke for the Diggers twenty years later: “A man knowes no more of righteousness than he hath power to act.”

Fast forward to the Great Awakening, roughly a century later, and listen to the radical itinerant preacher Gilbert Tennant, whose sermon of 1742, “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry,” circulated throughout the colonies, as a proto-bestseller along the lines of Paine’s Common Sense. Here too the social philosophy derived from religious belief was framed in and by the language of political economy. Like Dwight and Trumbull, and for that matter like John White of Dorchester, Tennant insisted on inverting the inherited relation between the sacred and the profane, demanding that the care of our souls was neither more nor less significant than the care of our properties.   It was a mundane and material concern.

“To trust the Care of our Souls to those [ministers] who have little or no Care for their own, to those who are both unskillful and unfaithful, is contrary to the common Practice of considerate Mankind, relating to the Affairs of their Bodies and Estates [their property]; and would signify, that we set light by our Souls, and did not care what became of them.”

These men did fear the rich, but they were themselves bourgeois individuals who, as R. H. Tawney pointed out as early as 1926, were accustomed to a modern market society. It was, however, a simple market society, to borrow C. B. Macpherson’s designation, already a money economy where the exchange of goods was an everyday event, but where a market in labor power had not yet developed. Simple commodity circulation, Marx called it, C-M-C: money was not the goal of goods production, so the consumption of goods served as both the purpose of and the limit on economic growth. The acquisition or ownership of property was the means to the end of a self-determining personality—“Now wee knowe nothing sorts better with piety than competency”—rather than an end in itself.

The bourgeois society uniformly imagined by these writers, from White to Tennant to Dwight and Trumbull, on towards the Populists of the late-19th century, was an ideological bulwark against capitalism, an unholy system that turned personalities into proletarians, into the means of acquiring more property, more money, more wealth in the abstract. Yes, capitalism couldn’t have developed absent the groundwork of bourgeois society and its perfection of the commodity form, but since the 17th century, the locus of resistance to the hedonism of capitalism, including its persistent commodification of sexuality, has always come from this bourgeois place, where small holders (and now, I would argue, mere consumers) want a competency, not more land, property, or riches—beginning with the Puritans, continuing with the Connecticut Wits, but not ending there, not even in our own time.

The irony of this opposition is of course that the patriarchal household economies that typify bourgeois societies are, historically speaking, the intellectual epitome of misogyny. No wonder the Wits depicted the encroachments and enticements of wealth or luxury as the Sirens’ call of feminine guile (see pp. 98-102). Their ideas in this respect were unexceptional.

So the questions come down to these. Did the Wits grasp the difference between Empire and Nation? If so, how so? Do we? Did they defend bourgeois society as against capitalism? Did this defense animate and regulate their fear of slavery? Why did their choice of epic poetry as a narrative form fail so miserably, at this moment? And finally, what story of origins, of founding, would serve present political purposes? What genre would it require?

These are the questions Sam Haselby lets us ask, and maybe answer, by telling the story of forgotten men. For that, he deserves not just our thanks, but our praise.

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A Well-Ventilated Place

I visited my old friend Mike in Charlotte this weekend. When I met him in 1984 (I was teaching at UNC-Charlotte), he was a scruffy, angry carpenter and an anti-nuclear activist, always scrambling for work or headed to another strategy meeting. He was also a devout Catholic who thought abortion was abominable.

In 1988, his entrepreneurial and organizing skills made him Jesse Jackson’s primary campaign manager in Mecklenburg County: don’t laugh, Jackson won. The next morning, the front page of The Charlotte Observer had a huge photo of Mike, me, and our friend Ray drinking Schaefer Light, apparently celebrating the victory. Mike had called at 3:00 AM and ordered us down to campaign headquarters so he could stage the picture for the paper. We were so giddy we just kept drinking until noon.

Today he’s a successful contractor who owns Southern Door Supply (get it, SDS) with his wife Kathy. They got more work than they know what to do with, so they just bought a huge new shop (7,000 square feet) on West Boulevard that bristles with strange machinery—to make doors, to paint them, to laminate them—and bustles with the guys who’ll install them.

Mike is now a pillar of the Charlotte business community, with season tickets to the opera and the new minor league baseball team. He’s also a fallen Catholic who thinks that a woman’s right to choose an abortion is sacrosanct, because it means she can control her own body and, consequently, can claim equality with any man without calling on her brother or her father or the law to enforce the claim.

We went downtown yesterday morning, where he’s been hanging doors and “upfitting” woodwork for ten years. Law firms decide they need a better look, so they hire General Contractors like Mike to furnish and install it. “Upfitting” the hardware on eight doors will cost them roughly $16,000—no new doors, mind you, the brass hinges and handles get replaced by polished chrome ones, that’s it. The partners don’t care, that cost will be rolled into “overhead” and billable hours.

He brought Ron the fixer with us—the old guy who can make blemishes disappear, no matter how bad the scratch or the stain. When the sun goes down and floods the conference room with orange light, you can see where the subcontractor changed the position of the pulls on the cabinets (vertical to horizontal) but didn’t bother to match the color of the resulting filled-in holes with the mahogany doors. Could Ron fix that? He tried every color in his palate, but no, it turned out that he couldn’t erase the mismatch, so new mahogany cabinet doors are on their way.

Then we went to the shop on West Boulevard, where Mike and Kathy had to interview two guys for jobs on the Southern Door crew. I wandered around while they conducted this serious business.

It feels like an old-fashioned factory. Fans as big as your bathroom blow air filled with sawdust and plastic particulates out three garage-size doors. There’s a Streibig Optisaw 2 that would cover a wall of my apartment, a laminate saw bigger than my kitchen. There are drill presses, jigs and saws, painting stations, belt sanders, and a lot of devices I couldn’t begin to explain. Dozens of doors and hundreds of hardware sets are stacked on shelves, all carefully marked for a specific destination. A Toyota fork lift waits in a dark corner to load the doors and the hardware on the delivery trucks. There’s a real men’s room with a urinal, and a lunch room with a refrigerator. Also, a fancy conference room.

I felt at home, for all the wrong reasons—here I was wandering around a place where real work gets done.

Later we went “boating” on Lake Norman, where Mike keeps his 35-foot cruiser, the one we motored down the Intra-Coastal Waterway in 2009 to Beaufort, SC, across from Parris Island, where Marine Corps recruits take basic training (back then, in 2009, my son had completed his training there, and was already in Iraq). It’s a beautiful old craft, built in 1930, now “upfitted” with a green hybrid engine constructed in London. We roamed around the lake for three hours, dodging the wakes of a thousand jet skis and the over-powered motorboats that gouge the water at a 30 degree angle.

Mike and Ray and I used to sail this lake on a 22-foot boat, just noodling around, looking for a breeze and drinking beer, talking shit. Mike and I sailed this same frail craft from Havana to Key West on December 30th, 2003, across the Florida Straights in six to seven foot seas conjured by a 20 mph wind that, by cancelling the eastward effects of the Gulf Stream, blew us 20 miles off course, until we ran aground at 4:00 AM.

The engine was swamped at 45 miles out from Havana, so somebody had to raise the jib if we were going to make any headway thereafter (the main was already up). Mike did it without hesitation and without a harness or a line, and meanwhile I was thinking, “I’m a dead man if he goes overboard because I can do a figure 8, but he can’t swim.”

I felt like a dead man, anyway. I was throwing up for the last, oh, seventy miles of the trip, until we were being towed against that headwind into Key West by a guy who was very curious about where we’d come from. “Just sailing around,” I kept saying cheerfully. No Coast Guard, no customs, no nothing, we brought the boat into the harbor, gassed up the engine, hoisted it out of the water, and put it on the trailer without a question from any official. So much for Homeland Security.

When we were out there on Lake Norman, I asked Mike if he’d take this cruiser across those Straights. “Hell yes,” he said, “This boat was made for that trip.” He and I have often discussed retiring to Cuba, opening a dive shop and a bar (I would of course run the latter): these are the raw materials of middle-aged dreams, what will remove you from the pathetic pace of your real life.

In this case, though, we share not a utopian glimpse of the future, but a distinct memory of a dangerous past—a place we could retreat to if we had to, if we wanted to.   You could call it nostalgia for the times to come.  Julian Jaynes, a bona fide lunatic, once defined the uniquely human capacity of and for consciousness as the ability to narrate the future. His exemplar was Odysseus, more a mariner than a warrior, a man who straddled the worlds of Mycenae and Attica, when the times were first out of joint—a man who was always at sea, always trying to get back to where he started, the place we call home.

I said, “Well, let’s do it!”

He said, “You know, all we need is time. Get out of this business . . . But that takes time, too, you gotta square it all away.”

“Fuck that!” I said, which is what I always say when my interlocutor disagrees. It’s a bad habit because it typically happens when that interlocutor has said something reasonable, even wise. Who am I to tell anyone to leave a life or a vocation behind? I might as well be leafleting outside a BMW plant in Greenville, South Carolina, calling for underpaid workers to strike.

But Mike surprised me, he said, “Yeah, you’re right, we don’t have any more time.”

Once again, for all the wrong reasons and in just one day, I felt at home.

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Fuck Work

As the author of a book called “Fuck Work,” soon to be published by UNC Press, I feel the need to reply to Barry Schwartz, whose op-ed in today’s Times is called “Rethinking Work.” Maybe, come Fall, we’ll be competing for air time at NPR. He’s written a book called “Why We Work.”

Let me explain that compulsion to work by quoting from my own forthcoming book, before moving on to the details of Professor Schwartz’s ever-so-earnest argument.


What is the point of “full employment” or a higher minimum wage, then, except to prove that you have a work ethic?

Excuse me, that’s another rhetorical question. There’s no good reason to increase wages by legislative fiat if the labor market is broken. But there’s a good reason to replace that market. So what is to be done, for now, is intellectual work. Our question is, how to imagine a moral universe that isn’t anchored to or limited by socially necessary labor. To hell with full employment. How about full enjoyment? Fuck work.

Love and work—the two things we all want, according to Freud and every other student of human nature—have pretty much the same function in our lives. Like good teachers, they take us out of ourselves, into the world. Here’s how.

Love and work commit us to purposes that we didn’t invent, and so they teach us to devise and evaluate our own. When we’re in love, what we most want is that the person we love can become what he or she wants to be, partly because we know that this urgent desire includes us. When we’re at work, what we most want is to get the assigned task completed, because we know that this is what our co-workers need—we know that this completion will free us from the commands of the past, and so let us experience the present, enter the future.

In love or at work, commitment is a condition, but also a boundary and a limit. It requires certain behaviors, and it precludes others. But commitment in either emotional venue doesn’t necessarily mean a cancellation of your own purposes, although of course it can. The thing about love and work is that you typically feel commitment as both the limitation and the liberation of your own volition—as the realization rather than the negation of your self, of your natural talents, past effort, and learned skills.

Think about it as a musical proposition. You can’t play the blues without mastering the genre, which is pretty simple—without memorizing the chords and the changes and the lyrics. But you can’t improvise, make it new, become yourself as a player or a singer, without that preparation, that commitment. “Piety is not only honorable,” as G. L. S. Shackle put it in explaining the Keynesian Revolution, “it is indispensable. Innovation is helpless without tradition.”

Love forces us to acknowledge antecedents—the physical actuality and the moral capacity of other people. You can have sex with anyone without this doubled acknowledgment, but you can’t love someone without it. Broaden that dictum and you find that poor old Immanuel Kant was right, after all, in rendering the Golden Rule as a philosophical principle. To love your neighbor as yourself, he must appear to you as an end in himself, not a means to your ends, whether they’re sexual, economic, or political.

To love someone is to treat him as a person who must be different from you, and who must, by the same token, be your equal. Otherwise you could rightfully decide his purposes for him, which would mean treating his moral capacity as absent or insufficient. Everyone would then appear to you as a slave or a child in need of your tutelage. The obvious limits of this supervisory vantage, by the way, are arguments against the idea that parental love (or God’s love for all his children) is the paradigm of love as such.

To love your neighbor, to be your brother’s keeper, is, then, to care for yourself, and vice versa. That is what we have yet to learn.

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” That’s how Abraham Lincoln put it in an unpublished note to himself. Harry Frankfurt puts it differently, but no less usefully, in a book called The Reasons of Love: “There must be something else that a person loves—something that cannot reasonably, or even intelligibly, be identified as his ‘self’— in order for there to be anything at all to which his self-love is actually devoted. . . . A person cannot love himself except insofar as he loves other things.”

Work seems much different than love in such perspective. TV series like “The Office” and movies like “Office Space” or “Horrible Bosses” exist and succeed precisely because the people in charge quite realistically violate this Kantian principle, the Golden Rule. But that is why the heroes of these fictions say No, I would prefer not to. They’re Bartleby the Scrivener all over again because they don’t stand up to anybody, they don’t even leave the office, no, they subvert the system by hanging around or doing something stupid.

But what these fools—our fools—keep demonstrating is their moral capacity, however bumbling it may seem to their bosses, and to us the audience, at first, anyway. They insist that they must be acknowledged as agents in their own right, as moral personalities who can and should steer this business, and their own lives, as well as anyone in charge. They reject what Hegel, also Nietzsche, called slave morality, the idea that self-mastery is an interior to which no exterior corresponds. (The fascination with manual labor on reality TV, as in “Dirty Jobs” or “Ice Truckers,” has the same political valence, it’s a way of saying that every man, every woman, can decide for himself or herself, without guidance from the well-groomed and the well-educated.)

Finally, love and work similarly remind us that the material artifacts of this world, whether natural or man-made, can be indifferent, even resistant, to our efforts. Here the rules of love begin to look like the laws of science—you can’t make the beloved do what he won’t, or can’t, not anymore than you can bend the earth to your will. And here again that knowledge is a form of self-consciousness, a way of learning the limits of what we can ask of others, of the world. It’s a way of asking ourselves, given this situation, what can I do about it?

Still, what becomes of love when work disappears?


OK, that’s me. Professor Schwartz believes that Adam Smith and Frederick Winslow Taylor—the pioneer of scientific management—are his principal opponents, because they assumed that wage work was mere drudgery, and drained it of any extra-monetary significance. They thought we work for wages, and wages only. We know better—we need meaningful work, and so we turn even shitty jobs into social labor, activity that propels us into the world of others, where we might make a difference.

Fuck that. Why do we have to work to create meanings? Is there no other core of human being than productivity? Why does socially necessary labor now cost so little that you can acquire information—the most basic commodity in a post-industrial society—for free? Why does socially beneficial labor still bear the stigma of women’s work? Why can’t journalists, educators, social and health care workers make a living wage?

Why does everybody have to be employed? Because the job market allocates opportunities and incomes rationally, or at least transparently? Sure, that’s why the fucking gangsters on Wall Street get bonuses. Or because people like Professor Schwartz—the mental laborers among us—believe that work is good for us? Because, like Luther, Hegel, and Marx, they grasp labor as the essence of human nature? (See the master-slave section of The Phenomenology and the preface to The Philosophy of Right for Hegel’s Lutheran references, then see Marx’s exclamation in the 1844 Paris Manuscripts, p. 333 in the International ed. of the Collected Works, vol. 3).

Enough already.




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Almost cut my hair

I started cutting my own hair at approximately the same time I stopped eating dead animals, in February 1981, just before my first ever on-campus interview, at Princeton University, where I didn’t get the job even though I was the only person the department interviewed. These regimes lasted for roughly thirty years, and in both cases they were overthrown by my girlfriend, in 2010.

I told the story of my fall from quasi-vegetarian grace in the Coda to Against Thrift, which some of you still haven’t read. Buy the book.

The story of the haircut is more complicated. In the late 1970s, I sported an Afro concocted by a flamboyant hairdresser in DeKalb, Illinois, who was trying, not very successfully, to fuck me. It was an elaborate construction scaffolded by large quantities of hair spray—and that is a confession that comes harder than anything I’ve ever said, except maybe admitting to my third wife that I’d been fucking the neighbor for five years.

When I realized the Afro made me look slightly, no, thoroughly ridiculous, I decided to change hairdressers. My last haircut was conducted in Chicago, on Webster Avenue between Sheffield and Halsted, across from the Lincoln Park Grocery, where you could cash checks, down the street from Glasscott’s, where next door you could eat the best fries in the city, in the Athenian Room.

Thereafter I cut my hair with an electric razor for the sides and some scissors for the top. It was always short, I didn’t know any better, so I always looked like a menacing state trooper, but especially when I was bulked up in the late 1990s.

In February 2010, my girlfriend suggested, ever so politely, that my hair was just weird. I was offended, mainly because going bald had been my deepest fear since I was a teenager—I didn’t want to look anything like my father. My little brother, who is now as bald as my father was, used to taunt me by quoting J. Edgar Hoover on Lenin: “At the age of 21, Vladimir Ilych was rapidly losing his hair.” So any talk about hair was almost political.

But she persuaded me to get a real haircut. Why not? I believe in the division of labor, and I really do hate the idea of self-sufficiency. I also don’t like being weird.

So I went to the A & R Studio on 8th Ave in Chelsea, a tiny shop with four chairs, a drying station, and two recliners for the shampoo. Mark cut my hair. I told him I’d been cutting it myself for thirty years, and he said, “Well, not so bad, but you stop now, yes? You let me do this.” English is his third language, after Russian and Hebrew.

Today I went to the A & R Studio for my regular session with Mark. He was just back from Miami, where he’d been circling in the outer rim of his family’s new American orbit.

“Hair is better here,” he said, meaning New York.

“How does hair get better?”

“You know, you got a blow dry here, it looks good. There, not so good, you sweat so much the hair just, I don’t know the word, it’s shiny, it falls down . . .”

“Greasy?” I offer.

“Yes, yes, that is what I mean!”

“But all the ‘product’ you got”—by this I mean the jars of stuff he wants to rub into my follicles when he’s done cutting—“all that shit makes it shiny, no?”

“No, no, Jeem, you don’t understand, I think maybe because you don’t have enough hair.”

“Mark,” I say, “when you’re done I’m going to kill you for saying that.”

He looks in the mirror at me–the great thing about gyms and hair salons is that you’re never face-to-face with anybody–his brow furrows, slightly, after all he’s holding the scissors, then he smiles, he says,

“But I am the one who cuts it.”

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Let’s Dance Instead

My girlfriend and I went dancing last night in Jackie Robinson Park, courtesy of the Harlem Swing Dance Society. As homage, I wore a pink tie over a polka dot shirt, a black sport coat, newly tailored white pants, and Speedo sneakers. She wore a complicated black top and a beautiful billowy skirt that moved belatedly, as if commenting on her graceful movements out there on the dance floor.

We were in my old neighborhood, Sugar Hill, the archipelago of old Harlem whose spine was Edgecombe Avenue, snaking up from 145th toward Coogan’s Bluff at 155th and beyond, always overlooking the river and the Bronx. W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Sonny Rollins lived in the 400 block. Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Lena Horne lived at 555, next door to the Morris-Jumel mansion (oldest residence in Manhattan: see “Hamilton”), which was right next door to my old building at 596, the place I fled to in 2008, hoping to escape everything, including a broken marriage and a stalled career.

Dancing is like street fighting and writing. You do it because you want to, not because you know you’re any good at it. I’ve always wanted to. When asked about the fighting in my distant past, I have said, to my girlfriend among others, “I have no skills, but I have experience.”

I’ve been dancing enthusiastically since 7th grade, when Bobby Krause and I decided it was a good way to get the girls. I’ve been writing since 2nd grade. I could say the same thing about these more benign vocations: “I have no skills, but I have experience.” Now I’m about to change things, I’m going to acquire dancing skills. My girlfriend and I have signed up for swing dance lessons. Next thing you know I’ll be taking a creative writing course.


I’ve been fighting all my life. Everybody has to, just to stay alive. But it is true that I’ve been more pugnacious, shall we say, than most people. I’ll tell you one story, and leave it at that.

One night in a bar in DeKalb, Illinois, home of NIU, when I was differently stalled, on the dissertation, the woman who was then my girlfriend and would later become my second wife was flattened by a biker—the motorcycle kind—who was moving through the crowd as if on a mission. I scooped her up, she was fine, and then went after the asshole.

I bang him on the shoulder and say “Listen to me you fuck, you just knocked my girlfriend down,” he turns and says “Don’t touch me, I’ll fucking kill you, you stupid fuck,” so I say “No, I’m gonna kill you, you fucking asshole,” and we start fighting, grappling actually, I’m just trying to get him on the floor where I can control the contours of this encounter, and he lands two punches, but I trip him, he’s down, and I ask myself how far I want to go, do I bite him if I have to, do I break his nose from the bottom up?

We’re separated by bouncers—I’m one of them, this is my night off!—and then expelled, by my own colleagues, who are very nice about it. It’s late, no big deal, but before they escort me out I say to the biker, “I’m waiting for you, you stupid motherfucker.”

I know his crew is there, they’re all leathered up, I don’t care, I’m going to beat the shit out of this guy, just him. My girlfriend comes outside, she says, “Please don’t do this, let’s go home,” and I shrug, I say, “Well, I’m committed now, can’t walk away.” She leaves.

The stillness of this moment is enchanting. It’s January, but it’s not cold. I take off my parka, fold it and put it close to the door, I’m standing there in jeans and a T-shirt, it feels like June, it feels like I’ve finally made a decision. I reach over, feel my pulse, like I did before football games, and it’s below 70.

The bar closes, the biker and his crew burst out of the door. I stand there, I don’t say anything, and I realize that the reason my heart isn’t racing is that I don’t care how this turns out. I’m about to be a participant, but I’m mostly an observer. Let’s see.

He steps into the street and says, “All right, asshole, what you got?” He’s hoisting a huge studded belt over his shoulder, he’s waving it, I realize, with some effort. I walk over, step off the curb, now we’re face to face, and I say, “You better know how to use that thing.”

He swings it, it’s too heavy for his strength, it’s almost slow motion, so I block it easily, almost lazily, and hit him with the right hand. I remember that my fist landed on his right cheek and that I could see his teeth move, they looked unmoored for a second, and that all these images were very satisfying.

His crew took over, they beat the shit out of me. I guess they did, I woke up hugging a parking meter, the biker was standing over me with his ridiculous belt, and a female friend of mine was shouting, “Jesus Christ, enough, leave him alone.”  They did. I walked home that night.


Dancing and writing are better for your health than fighting in bars or in the street. It’s been a long time since I tried the latter. Not that fighting is bad for you, or me. Like I said, I’ve been doing it all my life, and “indulging in a fair amount of self-romanticization about it” as well, to quote my girlfriend on the subject. No, it’s that dancing and writing are better because they’re sublimations of fear, of anger, of sexual anxiety, rather than mere repressions and mutilations, which always end in aggression, destruction, desolation.

We all have a death wish. Mine has been transacted more physically and stupidly than most. You might say more directly, as my friend Mike Fennell has recently suggested in explaining to the world that my fascination with excrement is pretty disgusting.

The moral of my story is more ambiguous than you think. Fighting is good for you. But you don’t have to beat the shit out of anybody. Yourself included.

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The Crabman Up My Ass, or, The World Turns to Shit

I talk about shit a lot, I like to think because we live in such an excremental time, when anal erotism—also known as saving or thrift—has become more important than ever to the assholes who run this place called capitalism.

My friends have often remarked, with great disgust, on my capacity to index my metabolism by charting my bowel movements, as if I’m already 80 and in a nursing home. Their disgust is appropriate: the fascination with excrement is the fascination with death—because shit is the dead life of the body and, from the infant’s standpoint, the first detachable part of that body. From either end of your life, beginning or end, the world looks like shit. Nobody wants to be reminded of that.

Long ago my reply to my disgusted friends was, “I’m the return of the repressed! I’m the Yahoo of your dreams.” In more scholarly moods, I’d cite Sandor Ferenczi, an early disciple of psychoanalysis, whose “Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money,” an essay from 1914, is clearly the origin of my book on the Federal Reserve System. These days, my lazy retort is: “South Park.”


I learned this manner, shall we call it, of de-sublimation, from Norman O. Brown, whose Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1958), virtually concludes with Part V, “Studies in Anality,” which contains the most brilliant readings of Luther and Swift ever published. There’s a Part VI, but it’s elegiac, kind of lame. “More eros, less strife,” that’s about it.

But I won’t bore you with an exegesis of Brown, I’ve done that before at this blog. Instead, I’ll quote these exquisite sentences, and then tell the story of how the Crabman got up my ass.

“Hence the assimilation of money with excrement does not render money valueless; on the contrary, it is the path whereby extraneous things acquire significance for the human body, and hence value. If money were not excrement, it would be valueless.

“But why particularly excrement? Possession, according to psychoanalysis, gratifies bodily Eros concentrated in the anal zone. But the concentration of libido in the anal zone reflects the attachment to the anal zone of the infantile narcissistic project of becoming father of oneself.” (p. 293)


All right then, as you surely know, last week I discovered Mike the Crabman on 125th, first in The Wild Olive grabbing handfuls of habaneros, then on the street selling whole crabs, shrimp, and corn on the cob, all boiled in a pot teeming with celery, onions, and those very hot peppers.

I ate all of the above on the street, it was 90 degrees, then bought ten shrimp, four crabs, and took them home, just another moment in the exploratory expedition that is my new life as a tenant of Harlem. I put the purchased items on the counter, grabbed a Natural Light to soothe my burnt palate, and sat down to write up the experience.

Later, I munched some shrimp. I never ate any of the crab. I put them in the refrigerator about an hour after coming home and composing my tribute to Mike the Crabman.

36 hours later, I couldn’t leave the house for fear of an untoward event (my girlfriend suggested that “shitting myself” was probably too extreme a designation of that impending event). Ever feel like that? Here’s the real thing, hold your nose and cover your eyes—my bowels moved every half hour or so.  Might as well have been Guatemala, 2007, when a spider bite (I found the little fucker in my underwear) plus four beers made me the permanent resident of the shared bathroom in my hostel, much to the chagrin of my roommates.

That was Friday. Today is Tuesday. Yesterday we—my bowels and I—got back together.


“The lower stratum of the body’s topography.” That is the terrain Mikhail Bakhtin explores in Rabelais and His World, the place where the medieval notion of the grotesque provokes and prevails against the humorless assholes who run the world, then as now. And yeah, I’m trying to provoke you, because shit is funny in the age of anality. Much as I hate “South Park,” it may be the only way to bring us back from the dead.

But shit is funny only if you’re talking about the real thing. The sublimated version doesn’t get it. Here’s Brown again.

“Possessions are worthless to the body unless animated by the fantasy that they are excrement which is also aliment. Wealth brings so little happiness, said Freud, because money is not an infantile wish; the infantile wish which sustains the money complex is for a narcissistically self-contained and self-replenishing body. Therefore only if excrement were aliment could the infantile wish sustaining the money complex be gratified.” (p. 293)

And yet property is the “first embodiment of freedom,” isn’t it? That’s Hegel from The Philosophy of Right, par. 45.

When you know the world has turned to shit, you can come clean.


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Lunch Break

This morning I finished a book called Fuck Work. Add you own subtitle!  Mine is Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea.

But like you, I am surrounded by the evidence of work. How did the prior Walter put it? Every token or comfort of civilization is a product of some barbarism inflicted on somebody, somewhere.

The magnificent brownstones (and newer structures) in my neighborhood were built by masons who worked their asses off for a living wage. Now they’re maintained by people who have ten buildings or more to supervise.

My book is not meant to obliterate or obscure or otherwise repress the memory of their labor.

Yesterday I hired Eric Beeker, a local kid, he lives across the street, to scrub the balcony, because, as my girlfriend pointed out, it looked way worse for the winter weather—just plain dirty and funky.

Everybody calls him Junior, but I asked him if that was OK, and he said he preferred J.R., which is what Mel (a super), the mayor of 123rd Street calls him. “All right, then,” I said, “It’s J. R.”

Today I took my lunch out on that pristine balcony, 132 square feet of 6 X 9 inch pavers, imagine a floor made of petrified paperbacks and you’ve got the picture. And what did I see? What did I hear?

To my left was the jury-rigged scaffolding of the bricklayers who are tuck-pointing the twelve-floor apartment building on 124th Street (I face north). The poor bastard on the scaffold was trying to right the thing, hoping, I’m sure, to see better than a 45 degree angle, and hoping, I think, not to die.

To my right was the crane that delivers the corrugated metal and rebar that will undergird the concrete floors of the Whole Foods grocery store that rises on 125th and Lenox.

I know something about these procedures. On June 1, 1970, while working for a mason contractor just off the East-West Tollway in Illinois, I fell 27 feet to my death. I still dream about it as if I’m a dead man, looking and falling from the bottom up. I broke my elbow, bruised my hip—my right leg was purple for two months—and suffered a concussion, and that was the end of my life as a working man.

I died to my old self that day. Soon after I applied for admission to Northern Illinois University, having been expelled from Carthage College. The rest is history.

Right across from me, on the fifth floor of 118 West 124th Street, the music was loud, people were dancing, and somebody was snapping out instructions to the beat of her own clapping hands. The boarded-up building, where abandoned mattresses once filled every balcony, had become a rehearsal space!

I couldn’t see them, but I could hear that she and her students were working their asses off. I ate my lunch with a smile.

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