The SPAD who can’t be, and other intolerable paradoxes
A guttural wail. A monogramed BJ hanky heavy with mucous. A sobbing confession that he’s out of his depth. Live on TV. These are the only things that can save Boris Johnson now. We could all do with a cry. If Boris Johnson exposed the fallibility and pain that makes him human, the catharsis may redeem all of us.
This weekend the story of Dominic Cummings breaking the lockdown rules broke. It wasn’t the crime of the century, but the way it is being dealt with picks at the fraying edges of objective truth, accountability and legitimacy of the government. The longer it goes on, the worse the fall out. The layers of paradox are so unwieldy, that they’re not only threatening the sanity of the individuals involved, but potentially even the fragile logical conceit of a nation. It’s got ministers changing the past by ‘paraphrasing’ guidelines in interviews, making up policy in press conferences, it’s checkmated itself.
It goes beyond anything the government realise they’re attempting to cover up, right to the centre of every single one of us: the intolerable paradox of consciousness.
Let me explain. Comparing situations to fiction allows you to adopt some objectivity. The genre we’re closest to right now (and maybe always) is horror.
Thomas Ligotti, known for supernatural horror stories, is a good place to start. His examination of anti-natal, pessimistic philosophy via cosmic horror, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, asks if the paradox of consciousness is tolerable? Is consciousness a malign infection? If so, is the best course of action for the human race to wind itself down?
He sets us up with this passage from the book of Buddha’s saying, The Dhammapada:
“Look at your body –
A painted puppet, a poor toy
Of jointed parts ready to collapse,
A diseased and suffering thing
With a head full of false imaginings”
The root of all supernatural horror is paradox. Frankenstein’s monster, a plant that hates you, Michael Gove, things that should not or can not exist but do undermine the foundations of reality. We can’t bare them, the implications are too terrible. This is why the thought of a living puppet is so unsettling. They are in Thomas’ words, “inanimate things guilty of infractions against their nature.”
While the lad obviously needs to cheer up, or try SSRI’s, a degree of pessimism could make us less misanthropic, and develop a degree of understanding, dare I say, compassion, for ourselves and those that oppress us. Let’s take a look at Boris.
His favourite insult is “protoplasmic invertebrate jelly.” But what is he? A vertebrate jelly? Yes. A slab of decay hanging off a scaffolding of creaking bones. A haunted marionette. Ten miles of entrails and a syphilitic liver in a saggy bag on stilts. A hideous accident of mutating evolution and inbreeding. He is, like all of us, a conscious nothing, only more corpulent. A sentient butcher’s bin. The true horror is that he’s awake, cursed with existence and knows it.
We are all what Swamp Thing calls screaming meat.
Were you ever eight-years-old? Did you go to the loo in the middle of the night at your grandmother’s house? Was there an antique doll? Did its eye just move? It was almost imperceptible, but it glanced at you, you’re sure. You become vaguely aware of its menacing intent.
Cognitive dissonance causes panic and threatens your sanity. That’s why ghosts and discorporate entities are inherently frightening, regardless of their intent. They don’t exist, so what does it mean if they do? Rationality no longer applies.
Does the puppet know it’s a puppet? If it is conscious, how could it? In order to retain any grip on sanity, it must tell itself it isn’t, that it has free will, it’s human even while it is attached to strings.
A door creaks, shadows shift. You run upstairs to hide under the cover. Like all eight year olds, you are a philosopher. You wonder: if the puppet is living what are you? You didn’t decide to be, so what part of you is actually ‘you’? A terrifying roaring silence opens up in the infinity between your bed and the wall. You pull the duvet closer.
You don’t realise at the time, but your own consciousness is the cruellest horror, a paradox that you will spend your entire life avoiding. You are the monster under your bed.
There’s an episode of Donald Duck where he sits down with his kids to eat a roast chicken. It’s a joke, but it exposes dark truths about his universe. An extraordinarily cruel one of death camp abattoirs full of close cousins, who presumably have hopes, dreams, fears and families of their own, but are considered second class citizens, sub-duck, whose perceived racial inferiority means they are herded and killed for food. What kind of society do the ducks have that would be compel them to commit these atrocities? What kind of monster is Donald Duck?
The resemblance to ourselves is uncanny. Like our own minds, it’s easier not to think about it.
The Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe argued all human existence is tragedy. I might not go that far, but this is good, from his essay The Last Messiah, consciousness is
"...a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had over shot its target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily…
Its weapon was like a sword without hilt or plate, a two edged blade cleaving everything; but he who is to wield it must grasp the blade and turn one edge toward himself.
…He comes to nature as an unbidden guest, in vain extending his arms to beg conciliation with his maker: nature answers no more; it performed a miracle with man, but later did not know him. He has lost his right of residence in the universe, has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and been expelled from Paradise.”
The pain of being Boris Johnson and knowing it must be unbearable. We are intolerable paradoxes, consciousness that cannot bare to be. Pinocchios who think they’re real boys, when we have as much influence over our lives as goldfish.
The being that is him is so weak, insecure and scared that it has to be Boris Johnson.
Zapffe says we “save (our)selves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.” We have to distract ourselves, by ‘keeping our eye on the ball’, ‘succeeding’, knowing what’s going on in the Big Brother House, what country our government is bombing, careers, invented enemies, making money or becoming Prime Minister.
At this point a lot of these philosophers conclude non-existence is preferable to existence. That maybe when the material conditions improve enough for the human race to know happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, we’ll realise we’d be better off not being at all. We won’t go extinct because of some disaster but will evolve our consciousness until we realise we’d be better off without it, killing ourselves is better than killing time, and cease to exist. That’s usually when they reach for their revolver and I reach for my anti-depressants.
In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher explains the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism. If we can’t imagine anything else, that is what will happen. Already is. William Gibson said, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” That applies to the end of the world too. A lot of people are already living through it, most of us just don’t notice.
Aside from abolishing the human race, what can be done? At the heart of our omni-crisis, I believe, is a spiritual one. This. We cannot cope with being who we are. The fact that we are rotting meat puppets haunted by life threatens our sanity, so we are required to stay distant from ourselves.
As far as I can tell our options are limited.
The 2000AD character Judge Death’s solution, is to eradicate the disease of life. “The crime is life, the sentence is death.” The 21st century solution has been to carry on distracting ourselves like smack heads passed out in burning buildings. A more outlandish idea is attempting to face up to what we are. Distracting ourselves helps for a bit but ends up making things worse. I anaesthetise myself with a boiled McTurd. The McBoss is scared he might end up flipping the McBurgers himself, but thinks his big car might exempt him from death, so he wants another one. He pays the McGuy flipping the burgers as McLittle as possible, in case the McPlace next door pay less, drop their prices and he goes McBust, forcing him to get a job off some other McCunt who pays him as little as possible to flip burgers. Everyone is a victim and the rancid boiling chicken fat fumes slowly poisons the world.
Adding insult to the injury of consciousness, we feel intense spiritual pain because our lives nave no meaning, so we try harder and harder to distract ourselves. The ideas, “Boris Johnson” and “Dominic Cummings” survive by creating elaborate fictions of themselves, that they are important, capable, erudite, intelligent, credible, powerful. When these things are threatened they bend logic and reality rather than face the fact they are chemically indistinguishable from dog shit.
This is why working at ad agencies was so painful. The best thing you could say about it was it was meaningless. At some level everyone in these jobs, especially those sold as ‘creative’ knows this. They do their best to hide the fact behind extra marital affairs, booze, meaningless awards, cocaine, money, some car, noise cancelling headphones, Nike Air Max and expensive meditation retreats. Sadly, the howling void where your soul should be can never be filled with vintage mountaineering gear, Stone Island jackets, or getting a bag in. You’re 47 and you’re going to die. Take that stupid hat off.
Still, that George Clooney espresso machine gives you a twinge in your trousers, maybe some of that himness will rub off on you, it could be the thing that finally makes you happy, or at least let you forget about death for a while. You won’t know till you buy it.
Pre-COVID ‘normal’ manipulated our existential angst to sell iWatches for children, bottled water, Doritos for women, and mindfulness apps, which hassle you to meditate, when you don’t you feel like even more of a failure and take it out on yourself by going to Westfield. Even the damage we are doing as sold back as conscious consumerism and brands with ‘purpose’.
Like cigarette companies, McDonald’s, Pret, drug dealers, Deliveroo, Boris Johnson and Uber don’t give a fuck about you. When it comes to facing the paradox of what they are, morality goes out the window, guilt, hating yourself for what you do and are, is easily preferable.
As a quick aside, let’s hear from H.P. Lovecraft:
“Only a cynic can create horror-for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a driving demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, and longs to pull them to pieces and mock them.”
All brands are fictional succubi and incubi that manipulate us through fear and shame, so all brand mangers, strategists, copywriters and account people are authors of particularly vicious, vulgar low-grade misanthropic horror.
This has to keep going because the majority of value that exists is based on the speculation that it will increase. If it doesn’t, it collapses. So we all need to work harder and harder at shitty jobs that get shittier as corners are cut to divert money to shareholder dividends and buying back their own shares to inflate prices, and hold the illusion of value. Our real work isn’t at the call centre, it’s not what we produce, it’s the meta-product it implies. Why do you think Uber, We Work, Deliveroo etc can keep going even though they are yet to turn a profit?
The pandemic is a break from that. The people it benefits are terrified. Who are those “please believe these days will pass” posters talking to? I can only deduce themselves.
For most of us the ‘normal’ we lived in was crisis, perpetual mental health issues and exploitation. Apart from the death and hardship, (sincere apologies to anyone effected), the pandemic is a wonderful holiday from capitalist oppression. I have just about enough furlough money to get by, there’s nothing to spend money on anyway. I read, write, apply for jobs. Then we wander down to the river, wine in coffee keep cups, past the lads who’ve improvised a gym in the park with a bench press and weights, then stroll back through the mostly car free streets as the sun sets. We’re eating better, living better. It feels like how life should be. Like the spell is broken. It seems like everyone’s wondering what the fuck have we been doing?
What does ‘back to normal’ mean? I suppose it means hegemony, which according to Antonio Gramsci is “the process by which a ruing class makes its domination appear natural by installing the presuppositions of its own worldview as the common sense of society as a whole.” It’s accepting one crisis after another, each worse than the last. Nancy Fraser coined the term ‘progressive neoliberalism’. Obama, Clinton(s), Blair, Bush, Cameron. Free market capitalism, with a few cosy, but largely symbolic, concessions recognising marginalised groups like LGBTQ+, and women who already have access to the social capital needed to get on. But no economic justice. No justice for BAME people, no true acceptance of people of alternative gender identities, or sex preferences, or different abilities. No equality, rather a spurious ‘meritocracy’, refusing to consider the distribution of wealth, apart from upwards. Both main parties representing the same thing. Boris Johnson and his cousins running everything. If we go back to normal, the poverty and alienation of the disposable underclass this system creates won’t go away, a political void will once again be taken advantage of by reactionary neoliberals. Next time probably much nastier than Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro.
Financialised capitalism is, as evidenced by the S&P 500 unstoppable rise while US unemployment explodes, completely disconnected from reality. Liberated from the social, political, ecological, moral, human, constraints needed to sustain it, it becomes another horrible paradox, a cannibal feasting on itself. The crises we experience one after another, the way covid is so much worse than it needed to be, are expressions of the built in tendency to destabilise itself.
It’s increasingly bizarre contortions of logic to justify itself. It’s Dominic Cummings blatantly lying in the rose garden of №10 Downing Street, and the entire government changing reality to go along with it.
Distracting ourselves just fuels the old normal, which clearly wasn’t working.
I suppose there’s a sub-alternative, we could do what I am doing and attempt to externalise our anxieties. Which I assume is why people write horror stories in the first place, in fact any kind of stories, songs, art, comedy, everything. You attempt to remove yourself from the human condition by commenting on it, trick yourself you’re an observer not a participant.
It’s a bit like when blokes want to take photos of each other, but wouldn’t dream of doing anything so gauche because it threatens the idea of themselves, but they are doing it, so pretend it’s ironic. We are all guilty of this to some extent but the habit seems to be particularly prevalent among ad agency people. It’s like, I’m going to lie on the floor, in this particular pose, which is an exaggerated version of what the lame people who do exactly what I’m doing now do, so while I am doing it, actually I’m not. You wonder if their whole lives are like that.
Neither are sustainable. When I finish writing this, I’ll be as neurotic and scared of myself and the world around me as ever and the world will still be burning.
The other option is to attempt to face ourselves. Admit, if we can’t find meaning, maybe there is none. That yes, I did drive to Barnard Castle, not to test my eyes but because I’m weak, selfish and think I’m more important than you. I am a shit. It’s scary but it’s better than the alternatives. Maybe a bit of pessimism is a good thing.
None of us knows anything, means anything, and maybe don’t even exist in an objective sense, we’re all scared children and it’s exhausting to pretend otherwise.
Existence is tragedy, make the most of it.
Maybe we can stop injecting neurotoxic bacteria into our faces, if we admit we’re inadequate, all of us are failures, and we’re going to die. Maybe we wouldn’t need to hide our pain in SUV’s behind Gucci shades and repulsive plastic surgery or intravenous morphine injections. Maybe we’d have a fucking laugh once in a while.
Look at our government. The more they lie, the worse things get. If they admitted their fuck ups things would be much less terrifying.
Instead, we have the paradoxical spectre of a government that is afraid of itself and is everything it isn’t, reality shifting to accommodate its whims. That we were never aiming for herd immunity, even when we were, we weren’t, it was never the goal, if you look at this particular obscure meaning of the word goal. We should ‘take it on the chin’. We are ending free movement to open up Britain. That war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength.
That’s what the daily press conferences show: A government that cannot bare to govern. That can’t face the fact that end point of its philosophy, to erode the state till it can barely be called one, makes itself obsolete. It’s a paradox. A puppet tangled in its own strings.
Boris Johnson has to fire Dominic Cummings but he can’t. The more he defends him, the more he exposes himself.
How do you think that feels? Maybe like an eight-year-old boy in his grandmother’s toilet, in the middle of the night, bare feet on cold tiles, scared of the shadows cast by an old doll.
The only sensible thing left to do is go on TV and cry.