atavisms like opals

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!
-The Shadow

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

-William Butler Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Not long ago I sat down to watch a George Carlin comedy special on streaming video, and it began with Carlin emerging in all black clothes, his face slightly hollow-looking, his expression a little rueful. We all know this face, because it is the face of the guy who has “gotten himself together” and is “doing better these days.” It is a face worn out from apologies, which are heavy labors. After an incredible opening monologue, parodying self-help, Carlin transitioned into talking about modern prisons, which are managed (like everything) with the help of computer systems. One day soon, Carlin promised the audience, these computer systems will fail. The prison doors, entrusted so blindly to other machines, will burst open. Murderers and rapists will stream out into normal society, terrorizing homes, demanding husbands turn over their property and wives.

As he spoke, his face became transformed. A barely contained smile warmed and tensed his cheeks, and his eyes twinkled. As he painstakingly described all of the imminent anarchy, the old Carlin was reborn, bathed in imaginary wickedness. I turned off the program, immensely disappointed, though I don’t blame him for his fantasy. After all, he is hardly thinking outside of the box; every student made to read Lord of the Flies imagines much the same things, and has to come up with an essay that accepts them as true. Within academia, this is known as an “Augustinian” view of human nature, and it is a compliment. Scholars trying to rehabilitate Freud, for example, call him Augustinian. It makes Freud seem less secular, less off his tether. It is the same with thinkers as with sequels to fantasy films: the “darker,” the better.

In her recent collection Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson took a valuable stand against this trend, arguing that there is no scientific or moral basis for believing that human beings are naturally selfish and vicious. I am thinking about the question now because it is election season, and, as usual, many of the contenders are making a point of building their campaigns around fear. This makes it a particularly good time to share another of the priceless moments in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s book Pulphead. In his essay “Feet in Smoke,” Sullivan writes about his brother’s terrible, accidental electrocution, which left him first comatose, then delusional, for over a month. With that, I’ve said more than enough. Allow me to get out of the way…ladies and gentlemen, John Jeremiah Sullivan.


I’ve tried so many times over the years to describe for people the person who woke up from that electrified death, the one who remained with us for about a month before he went back to being the Worth we’d known and know now. It would save me a lot of trouble to be able to say “it was like he was on acid,” but that wouldn’t be quite true. Instead, he seemed to be living one of those imaginary acid trips we used to pretend to be on in junior high—you know, “Hey, man, your nose is like a star or something, man.” He had gone there. It was an über-acid trip, only better, and scarier, and altogether more profound. My father and I kept notes, neither of us aware that the other was doing it, trying to get down all of Worth’s little disclosures before they faded beyond recapture, or became indistinct against the backdrop of their own abundance. As I write this, I have my own list in front of me. There’s no best place to begin, so I’ll just transcribe a few things:

Squeezed my hand late on the night of the 23d. Whispered, “That’s the human experience.”

While eating lunch on the 24th, suddenly became convinced that I was impersonating his brother. Demanded to see my ID. Asked me, “Why would you want to impersonate John?” When I protested, “But, Worth, don’t I look like John?”, replied, “You look exactly like him. No wonder you can get away with it.”

On the day of the 25th, stood up from his lunch, despite my attempts to restrain him, spilling the contents of his tray everywhere. Glanced at my hands, tight around his shoulders, and said, “I am not . . . repulsed . . . by man-to-man love. But I’m not into it.”

Evening of the 25th. Gazing at own toes at end of bed, remarked, “That’d make a nice picture: Feet in Smoke.”

Day of the 26th. Referred to heart monitor as “a solid, congealed bag of nutrients.”

Night of the 26th. Tried to punch me with all his strength while I worked with Dad and Uncle John to restrain him in his bed, swinging and missing me by less than an inch. The IV tubes were tearing loose from his arms. His eyes were terrified, helpless. I think he took us for fascist goons.

Evening of the 27th. Unexpectedly jumped up from his chair, a perplexed expression on his face, and ran to the wall. Rubbed palms along a small area of the wall, like a blind man. Turned. Asked, “Where’s the piñata?” Shuffled into hallway. Noticed a large nurse walking away from us down the hall. Muttered, “If she’s got our piñata, I’m gonna be pissed.”

The whole experience went from tragedy to tragicomedy to outright farce on a sliding continuum, so it’s hard to pinpoint just when one let onto another. He was the most delightful drunk you’d ever met—I had to follow him around the hospital like a sidekick to make sure he didn’t fall, because he couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t concentrate on anything for longer than a second. He was a holy fool. He looked down into his palm, where the fret and sixth string had burned a deep red cross into his skin, and said, “Hey, it’d be a stigmata if there weren’t all those ants crawling in it.” He introduced my mother and father to each other as if they’d never met, saying, “Mom, meet Dad; Dad, meet Dixie Jean.” Asked by the neurosurgeon if he knew how to spell his own name, he said, “Well, doctor, if you were Spenser, you might spell it w-o-r-t-h-E.” For him, everything was one giant, melting metaphor in which the tenor and vehicle had become equally real. He looked at a wall socket and said, “Wow, the Axis armies fighting the Allies!” Rubbing the material of his hospital gown between his fingers, he wanted to know if he’d be “allowed to keep the cool jumpsuit.”

Another of the nurses, when I asked her if he’d ever be normal again, said, “Maybe, but wouldn’t it be wonderful just to have him like this?” And she was right; she humbled me. I cannot imagine anything more hopeful or hilarious than having a seat at the spectacle of my brother’s brain while it reconstructed reality. Like a lot of people, I had always assumed, in a sort of cut-rate Hobbesian way, that the center of the brain, if you could ever find it, would inevitably be a pretty dark place, that whatever was good or beautiful about being human had to be a result of our struggles against everything innate, against physical nature. Worth changed my mind about all that. Here was a consciousness reduced to its matter, to a ball of crackling synpases—words that he knew how to use but couldn’t connect to the right things; strange new objects for which he had to invent names; unfamiliar people who approached and receded like energy fields—and it was a fine place to be, you might even say a poetic place. He had touched death, or death had touched him, but he seemed to find life no less interesting for having done so.


The whole essay is here.